#61 Autumn 2012

Sangha-that-Sings-to-Birds

By Laura Hunter One of my favorite memories involves the time we were doing walking meditation at Deer Park Monastery soon after I had begun attending Days of Mindfulness there. We came to sit in the Oak Grove, and, looking up, we saw two Great Horned Owlets perched high in the trees. They were prehistoric looking marvels—all fluffy with their white down and patchy feathers, with big eyes open wide. Joy spread through the Sangha as we gazed up at them, and they down at us. Then, as if on cue, several monks and nuns stood up and starting singing to the owls—I am free, I am free, I am free. The owlets tilted their heads in wonder. Sitting there, under the cool oaks, bathed in the dappled forest light, surrounded by such loving people who sing to birds, I fell in love with the community at that moment. I knew I belonged with   this Sangha-that-Sings-to-Birds, and would forevermore be a part of it.

mb61-SanghaSingsLaura Hunter, True Ocean of Teachings, lives in Escondido, California with her husband Ron and Dharma dog Sprout. She sits with the World Beat Sangha, works for environmental justice, and is coordinator of the Deer Park Dharmacast (www.dpcast.net).

 

 

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Breathing and Smiling with Brother Phap Kinh

By J.E. Combelic

On the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, the Plum Village community was shaken by a tragic event. Ordinarily Tet is celebrated over three joyous days, the most festive season in the Vietnamese calendar. This year at Plum Village, it was an occasion for quiet reflection, for smiles through the tears.

mb61-BrPhapKinhBrother Phap Kinh, also known as Brother Christopher, died early in the morning of January 23 by his own hand. He was a middle-aged Western monk who ordained two years ago, was fluent in both French and English, and was responsible for the Upper Hamlet bookshop. Before he ordained he was very active as an OI member in the Paris Sangha. His sudden death sent shock waves through the worldwide Sangha.

Speaking to the assembled community in a special meeting at Plum Village, Thay said, “Brother Phap Kinh is a wonderful brother. He has been taking care of the Sangha in the Upper Hamlet in the best way he could; he behaved like an abbot, welcoming guests and taking good care of them. The news this morning was very shocking for Thay and the Sangha.” Thay went on to explain that “maybe a strong impulse or emotion took over Phap Kinh. While all the brothers were still sleeping, he left the residence and went to the forest, outside the boundaries of Plum Village, and took his own life in a hut used by hunters. That came as a big surprise to me and to the Sangha, because he was such a dedicated practitioner and devoted himself fully to the practice of a monk.”

In attempting to understand, Thay remembered that Phap Kinh’s mother had committed suicide years before, also in mid-winter. “All of us are in a big shock, so we need to practice breathing and walking to calm down. Breathing in, we have to be aware of our own body and the body of the Sangha. Breathing out, we have to calm our own body and help calm the body of the Sangha. Because when Phap Kinh dies, we all die with him somehow.”

Brother Phap Kinh was cremated in Bergerac on January 28, with many of his monastic brothers and sisters in attendance. The energy of the formal ceremony at the mortuary was powerful and full of love.

Many Sanghas around the world paid tribute to Phap Kinh with written messages and special ceremonies. Thousands of people who knew him in the Paris Sangha and at Plum Village reeled from the news and searched their hearts for understanding. Words of gratitude for his life of service and inspiration poured onto blogs and email lists, along with blessings for his continuation.

Friends who were at Plum Village during this difficult time marveled at the love that Thay radiated. He said, “If we know how to walk and breathe mindfully and become aware that Mother Earth is always embracing us with her wonderful and powerful energy, we will get the healing, we will transform our suffering. That is why, when we express homage to the Bodhisattva Mother Earth, we allow the Earth our mother to embrace us and calm and transform the suffering in us. Buddhists and non-Buddhists can practice the same.”

Brother Phap Ho, a senior Western monk and acting abbot of Deer Park Monastery, wrote: “The basic practice of mindful breathing and walking, touching the wonders of life, remembering all the reasons why life is beautiful and worth living is my insurance if monsters from the depths would appear.... I feel that this past week I have been more acutely aware in a relaxed way what seeds I water and give attention to. I have not left brother Phap Kinh behind, I still breathe and smile with him.”

For many of us, this tragedy precipitated deep soul-searching. We touch the earth in gratitude to Brother Phap Kinh, and pray that his continuation on this mysterious journey brings him the peace and joy that he brought to those he touched in life.

J.E. Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, lives near Findhorn, Scotland where she practices with Northern Lights Sangha.

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Book Reviews

mb61-BookReviews1Good CitizensCreating Enlightened Society

By Thich Nhat Hanh Parallax Press, 2012 Softcover, 129 pages 

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg and Alex Cline  

At the age of eighty-six, our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh continues to actively teach around the world and to publish several new books each year. His latest offering, Good Citizens, is profound. Deliberately published before the 2012 elections in the United States, this handbook offers guidance to take the practice of mindfulness and the reality of interbeing to a global level. Without being dogmatic or philosophical, Thay clearly explains how individuals can live an ethical way of life that will contribute to personal and societal well-being. This book is targeted to a broad audience and is sure to have very wide appeal.

Thay’s teaching works equally well for non-Buddhists and Buddhists. This book is a wonderful introductory text that clearly explains the practice, the logic, and the relevance of mindfulness in plain English. Thay presents the Buddha’s teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path in a manner that is clear and relevant to our modern lives. He spells out how we can live our lives in order to contribute to an enlightened and peaceful society.

For readers who are familiar with Thay’s teachings, this book presents the essential elements of Buddhist practice in fresh and inspiring ways that are applicable to our daily lives. Thay shares meaningful and thought-provoking reflections on historical events in the context of a new global ethic. He offers insights into President Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009 and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His pithy commentary on the Five Mindfulness Trainings toward the end of the book is breathtaking in its lucidity and relevance.

mb61-BookReviews2Peace is Every Breath A Practice for Our Busy Lives

By Thich Nhat Hanh HarperOne, 2012 Hardcover, 147 pages Softcover, 147 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

Under one cover, in one small primer, are Thich Nhat Hanh’s most poignant teachings, peppered with his charming calligraphy. Out of his great compassion for all beings, our teacher addresses the difficulties and suffering of modern society by offering us clear, concrete practices to transform pain and agitation into joy and serenity. “Allow this book to be your companion,” he writes in the Author’s Note. Designed to encourage us in the development of mindfulness and concentration, “the core energies of spiritual practice,” this handbook for living has the potential to lead to a deepening spiritual practice for all of us.

To introduce the wondrous practices of this book, Thay offers a sketch of his typical reader, describing all of us: “You have lots of work to do, and you like doing it. It’s interesting, and you enjoy being productive. But working too much, taking care of so many things, tires you out. You want to practice meditation, so you can be more relaxed and have more peace, happiness, and joy in your life. But you don’t have the time for daily meditation practice. It’s a dilemma—what can you do? This book is your answer.”

I keep Peace Is Every Breath by my bed. As I need them, I can turn to sections such as “Loving Speech,” “Boundless Love,” and “Contemplating No-Self and Emptiness,” and fall into a calm and quiet sleep. I cannot be reminded often enough to take care of my emotions, and that I need not be caught in pain. I can walk in such a way that each step is a miracle. In this small book are as many ways to wake up as we shall need for a lifetime—to touch enlightenment from moment to moment, even in our very busy and very ordinary lives.

All those on our Christmas list will receive a copy of this book in 2012, the most thoughtful gift for any loved one. It is our sincere hope that Peace Is Every Breath will be translated into every earthly language. And then we shall send it to the stars.

mb61-BookReviews3Not Quite Nirvana A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness

By Rachel Neumann Parallax Press, 2012 Softcover, 182 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

With great humor and a talent for anecdote, Rachel Neumann has compiled honest and homespun autobiographical essays, with snippets from her unusual childhood, on how she tripped into mindfulness practice by landing the job as full-time editor at Parallax Press.*

Raised on a “rural commune, surrounded by trees, goats, water, and a roving gang of other dirty, half-naked children,” the child of a father named Osha who works with the homeless, Neumann as we meet her is a self-proclaimed “outsider” and a skeptic. With daughters named Luna and Plum, and their father, she navigates the complicated waters of family life. She edits books about the Dharma with a babe in arms, learning to simultaneously nurse her baby and type. She admits that sometimes “the current moment is just in the way.” Yet it is clear that she learns as she goes.

Neumann, prompted by her early years on the commune, makes of her Bay Area home an international community center. She rents out a room to those who show up and gathers her neighbors for nettle tea and meals. One has the sense that her life is one happy accident after another—all of which she makes the most of.

Neumann is everywoman. We can all identify with her foiled attempts at mindfulness and compassion, as well as with her moments of true awareness. She begins one wonderful story like this: “I am walking to my office to work on a book about how interconnected everyone is and how we all need each other, when a man starts yelling at me out his car window.”

Neumann’s credits are amazing. She has worked as an editor with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Sylvia Boorstein, Sulak Sivaraksa, and for the past ten years as primary editor for Thay. She has written for Shambhala Sun, Village Voice, and The Nation. But reading her book, you would never know of her resume; you’d only know the truth of her everyday life with those who happen by. To get a sense of her storytelling abilities, visit Neumann’s blog at www.peaceandsleep.org.

* Parallax Press publishes the majority of Thay’s books in English.

mb61-BookReviews4Murder as a Call to Love A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness

By Judith Toy Cloud Cottage Editions, 2012 Softcover, 263 pages

Reviewed by Beth DeLap, Compassionate Path of the Heart

Judith Toy’s book, Murder as a Call to Love, will leave you forever moved and inspired. Her story is one of grace, courage, and diligence in the face of unspeakable loss. She does not portray herself as a super-human saint who is here to tell us what to do when someone we love has been murdered. She takes us with her. You’ll be amazed when you arrive, with Toy, at an unlikely and seemingly impossible teaching: forgiveness. This is a forgiveness for ourselves and for others. It is not stuck, like anger—it flows, like love.

Woven throughout are the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. Like gems in a tapestry, his words are placed in the story just as the author found them. We hear how she set out to apply them. As her story deepens and unfolds, Thay’s teachings on interbeing deepen and enfold into our hearts, his words taking on the nature of street signs that we notice at first, then begin to internalize. In our walk with Judith we discover the Five Mindfulness Trainings. We turn another page and there are the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings. Rounding a corner we find this reminder: “The Buddha gave us very effective instruments to put out the fire in us.” Thay patiently repeats his message of interbeing until we discover, along with Toy, that there is a powerful path to peace that is available to all.

There are personal letters from abuser to victim, from victim to abuser. An appendix provides resources for those interested in the forgiveness path. I found much that I could relate to, much food for thought, and such an insistence on love that I remain captivated even now, after closing the book.

Toy has unwrapped, examined, suffered, and loved her way through to a personal peace that has the power to heal many. With her lovely word-crafting and talented storytelling, the author pulls us into what may be a lifelong practice of forgiveness. This book will benefit all beings as we continue our collective journey to peace.

mb61-BookReviews5Mindfulness in the Garden Zen Tools for Digging in the Dirt

By Zachiah Murray Parallax Press, 2012 Hardcover, 151 pages

Reviewed by T. Ambrose Desmond

Tending a garden is one of the core images used in teaching the path of mindfulness. We are taught to see our mind as a garden that needs tending, and we are taught how to play the role of gardener. Thay often speaks about his love of growing vegetables and how great a teacher a garden can be.

In Mindfulness in the Garden, Zachiah Murray invites us to fully experience all of the teachings that our gardens are trying to give us. The book includes a foreword by Thay and is structured around a collection of lovely new gathas that invite us to bring our practice into every aspect of gardening. From entering the garden to working with weeds to the harvest, we are guided to see the realities of impermanence and interbeing shining through our experience in the garden.

One of my favorite gathas in the book is the one for practicing with seeds that do not sprout: Sometimes even with mindfulness, my garden fails to thrive. With breath, mind and hands free, the seed of my equanimity emerges.

In her commentary, Zachiah reminds us that our practice is most strengthened when we are challenged. She calls these challenges “good medicine” and encourages us to see them as opportunities for learning and growth. With a calm and soothing voice, she helps us to let go of our attachments to outcome and arrive in the beautiful present.

Transforming our garden into both a meditation hall and a living sutra, the gathas contained in Mindfulness in the Garden help us to bring a sense of wonder and depth to our relationship with the natural world.

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Using Mindfulness to Rewire the Brain

How the Insights of Neuroscience Can Aid Our Practice

By Paul Tingen

Around twenty-five years ago, neuroscience went through a dramatic change in perspective that had profound implications for mindfulness practitioners, and that can greatly deepen our understanding of our practice and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. To be able to describe neuroscience’s big discovery, first some basic facts: the brain is astoundingly complex, typically containing some 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Each neuron is capable of making thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of connections with other neurons using chemicals called neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals along complex cellular pathways. “Thoughts, memories,  emotions—all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons,” writes Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.1

Until the 1980s, conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the brain developed during childhood until it reached a fixed form that remained the same during adulthood. This belief in the brain’s static cellular circuitry gave rise to a very limited view of human consciousness, a “neurological nihilism,” in which consciousness was seen as no more than the byproduct of these fixed pathways. With the emergence of the computer, the analogy was made that the hardware of the brain determined and limited the software (our feelings and our thoughts).

However, due to pioneering research in the 1980s, most famously by Professor Michael Merzenich,2 this orthodoxy was turned on its head. Since then it has become widely accepted that the brain constantly rewires itself in response to changes in our feelings, thoughts, experiences, and the way we use our body. This phenomenon is referred to as the plasticity of the brain. In computer language, the software and the hardware inter-are: the software can shape the hardware, just as much as the other way around. Neuroscience today is governed by what is known as Hebb’s rule: “Cells that fire together wire together.” The brain gets less plastic as we grow older, but the capacity for rewiring remains.

The idea of neuroplasticity has given new hope to people with physical, emotional, and mental impairments that had hitherto been regarded as unchangeable. Conversely, just as it is possible for the software to change the hardware for the better, it can also change the hardware for the worse. Moreover, in Carr’s words, “plastic does not mean elastic.” Neural pathways become entrenched, and the more entrenched they become, the more they resist the process of rewiring. The older, entrenched pathways are paths of least resistance amongst which neurons like to communicate with each other, propelling us to keep repeating similar feelings, thoughts, and actions. Every time we use a particular pathway, it increases the likelihood that we will do it again.

Says Carr, “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits. In the worst cases, the mind essentially trains itself to be sick.” In short, whenever we’re stuck in habitual suffering, we’re not just wasting our life energy and time, we’re actively entrenching this suffering in our neurological pathways, making it more likely that we’ll suffer in the same way again. Suffering is not a free ride.

Rewiring for Well-being

There are many parallels between these theories of neuroscience and Thay’s teachings. The essence of our Buddhist practice is to use mindfulness to develop singularity of thought (concentration/samadhi), which can help us to get out of habitual thinking and feeling and help us to stop triggering our habitual neural pathways of suffering. Mindfulness, in effect, allows us to consciously rewire our brain for improved well-being.

Mindfulness is intentional and based on our free will. Free will can be applied in many ways. An athlete or musician will construct neural pathways in his or her brain through endless deliberate practice. However, the practice of an athlete or musician will rarely be self-aware, and while it may push pathways of suffering out of sight, it won’t transform them. Mindfulness may be the only state of mind that is wholly deliberate and wholly self-aware, and that is able to embrace other states of mind, transform them, and foster well-being, thereby allowing us to consciously rewire our brain.

The way we use the mantra, “This is a happy moment,” is a good example. We train the brain to create and deepen a neural pathway of well-being that might not otherwise be there. Conversely, if we focus on the negative, we keep firing and strengthening the neural pathways associated with our suffering. We know that certain ways of expressing our suffering can make us feel lighter and freer, while others appear to deepen it. One main reason for the difference between “rehearsing” suffering and transforming it lies in whether we embrace our suffering with mindfulness or not. Another factor is whether we look at our suffering with Right View; wrong views trigger the very thoughts that cause and entrench our suffering. If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness and with Right View, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering with Right View and mindfulness, and stop the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being. The light of mindfulness cooks the raw potatoes, so they become a joy to eat.

Thay has always disagreed with a widespread view in Western society that we can get rid of unpleasant feelings, particularly anger, simply through expressing them. He often warns against the danger of rehearsing these feelings. Neuroplasticity shows us that repeatedly firing off our neurological pathways indeed risks strengthening those very pathways. And so, again contrary to a lot of Western thinking, Thay has long recommended that people who come to Plum Village don’t immediately start digging into their suffering, but instead begin with watering their seeds of well-being. Once we are stable and our sense of well-being is strong enough, we can look at our suffering again and have a chance to transform it, rather than risk being overwhelmed by it.

Our Sun of Mindfulness

To describe these processes more clearly, I would like to build on Thay’s analogy of our practice as that of a gardener. A gardener transforms compost (the mud) into flowers (the lotus). A skillful gardener knows how to create a pleasant garden with lots of flowers and just enough compost to feed them. Being a skillful gardener of our own inner garden is our spiritual work of self-love. To offer another analogy: neural pathways can be described as a collection of gullies, brooks, canals, and canyons; our feelings and thoughts can be considered the water in them. Mindfulness has often been described as a light, and in this case we could extend the analogy by describing mindfulness as the sun.

And so, it rains and a rivulet forms: the first arrow has hit and we suffer. The Buddha’s teachings tell us this is unavoidable; life will fire us arrows. Suffering is inevitable. But if we don’t handle this arrow correctly, if we add other arrows to it with wrong thinking, the rivulet turns into a stream, a river, and eventually a flood of suffering. The one neural connection has turned into a pathway and is likely to join with other similar pathways, and all of them may be deepened. As these neural pathways are strengthened, so are the corresponding mental formations, and they will be more difficult to transform. And once this gully or canal or canyon has formed, new rain will be drawn to it, deepening these pathways still further.

There is a belief in Western culture that we have to go through our suffering (the dark night of the soul), but from the perspective of neuroplasticity and our practice, we cannot transform our suffering from inside our suffering. We cannot affect the course of a canal while being caught in the stream. We cannot dissolve neural pathways while firing them simultaneously. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way. We have to step out of the stream and shine our sun of mindfulness on it. Only with the healthy parts of ourselves can we heal our afflictions.

When we’re suffering, streams (or storms) of thoughts and feelings run through us; and when we manage to breathe and become mindful, these streams calm down to a gentle trickle. As the water slows down, as the storm abates to a gentle breeze, the neurons stop firing together, and we no longer strengthen our neural pathway of suffering. The suffering, the neural pathway, may still be there, but it is no longer a danger to us. It is like the mother embracing her angry child: she holds him firmly, so he can do no damage, and also lovingly, so he can come back to his true self. At that point, the water can mingle with the earth and turn into mud, or it can evaporate in the light of the sun of our mindfulness and fall down as rain (our tears) somewhere else in our garden. In both cases, the water will help grow flowers rather than deepen the pathway of suffering.

When we consider this analogy, it’s easy to see why Thay so often stresses that we should not judge or suppress our suffering. In seeing our suffering as water flowing through a canal, we realize that we need that water to tend our garden. If handled unskillfully, the water can deepen the groove of our suffering; if we know how to practice, we can use it to grow flowers in our garden. The analogy can be extended yet further. Sometimes our suffering has become frozen, hidden, inaccessible: we may have become bitter or repressed our feelings. One can’t grow flowers with ice, so we have to first melt our frozen feelings.

Mindfulness practice in general, and sitting meditation in particular, are ways of strengthening the power of the sun of our mindfulness, or the power of our concentration (samadhi). But sometimes, if our sun of mindfulness isn’t strong enough to transform our suffering, we need the compassionate and mindful presence of another person. As the water starts to flow, we cry, and we begin to disarm and transform our suffering with our collective mindfulness. This is one of several reasons why practicing in a Sangha is so important. Neuroscience offers an additional reason, emanating from its research of a particular class of neurons called mirror neurons, which are triggered when we observe the actions and/or feelings of others, and which then fire in corresponding ways. Neuroscientists have argued that mirror neurons make empathy possible; and even simply being in the company of other practitioners will trigger mirror neurons that strengthen our own practice.

What Thay calls our store consciousness can be seen as the network of neural pathways in our brain, much of it inherited from our ancestors, with each seed corresponding to a neural pathway. Intense feelings, addictions, and many of the noxious things we consume in our society can strengthen our neural pathways of suffering (hence the importance of the Fifth Mindfulness Training). By contrast, the calming nature of our entire practice makes it easier to rewire our brain. There are no magic formulas or strategies; the crucial point is that we need to be very mindful, at all times, of whether we’re transforming our suffering or merely rehearsing it.

Living lightly offers more freedom and clarity to practitioners and also makes it possible to turn neutral feelings into pleasant ones—in other words, to turn neutral and often forgotten neural pathways into pathways that trigger well-being. It is, so to speak, far easier to cultivate flowers in the gently rolling hills of Plum Village than in the steep crags of the Grand Canyon.

© 2012, Paul Tingen

1) All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (New York: Norton, 2010), which has been credited with giving one of the best descriptions of the concept of neuroplasticity available. The thesis of Carr’s book is that extensive use of the Internet rewires our brains to make it more difficult for us to handle deep thoughts and extended narratives. Some of Carr’s sources on neuroplasticity are:

* Pascual-Leone, A. Amedi, F. Fregni, and L.B. Merabet, “The Plastic Human Brain Cortex,” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28 (2005). * Michael Greenberg, “Just Remember This,” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008. * Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Science (New York: Penguin, 2007). * Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force (Harper-Perrenial, 2002).

2) Carr, pages 24-26.

Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of  a book about the electric music of  Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album titled Metamorphosis. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.

Seven Interbeings

By Tetsunori Koizumi

Interbeing as a Binary Relation

“Interbeing” is a new word invented by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay), which he employs to explain the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. A sheet of paper, for example, is an interbeing as it is connected with a cloud through a chain of relationships. “Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper,” Thay writes in The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Things that appear totally unconnected to most people—a sheet of paper and a cloud, in this example—become connected with each other in a relationship which Thay calls “inter-are.”

Technically speaking, interbeing can be regarded as what mathematicians call a “binary relation,” a relationship established on a set of elements by pair-wise comparison of them, defined in this case on the set of all things in the universe, including our consciousness. It is not difficult to see that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity. First of all, it is obvious that anything inter-is with itself, albeit in a trivial sense of that word. Thus, the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the law of reflexivity, namely, xRx, where the symbol R designates the binary relation of interbeing.

The binary relation of interbeing also satisfies the law of commutativity, namely, xRy implies yRx, for if one thing inter-is with some other thing, then the second thing inter-is with the first. By bringing three things into consideration now and examining the applicability of interbeing among the three pairs of two things that result from them, we can see that the binary relation of interbeing further satisfies the law of transitivity; namely, xRy and yRz imply xRz. In the above example, a cloud inter-is with rain and rain inter-is with trees, implying that a cloud inter-is with trees.

Given that the binary relation of interbeing satisfies the three laws of reflexivity, commutativity, and transitivity, it becomes a matter of logical exercise, aided by a modicum of poetic insight, to establish the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. Thus, roses and garbage inter-are, another favorite example used by Thay to illustrate the concept of interbeing. We can also appeal to P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) who employs poetic insight to express the same binary relation of interbeing in a poem entitled “Music:”

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead, Are heaped for the beloved’s bed.

And that beloved’s bed, as we know, is the soil from which a new rose tree grows with a new set of rose leaves and flowers!

This Is Because That Is

The genius of Thay as a teacher of Buddhist thought becomes quite evident when he skillfully employs the concept of interbeing to explain the idea of sunyata, or emptiness, which is probably the most profound teaching of the Buddha on the nature of reality in the world around us. In terms of the binary relation of interbeing introduced above, the Buddha’s words as recorded in Samyukta Agama—“the Middle Way says that this is, because that is; this is not, because that is not”—can be expressed as follows: that x exists in M, or the manifest world, implies that there exists y, different from x, such that xRy; x does not exist in M if there does not exist y, different from x, such that xRy.

By applying this binary relation of interbeing repeatedly to all the other elements that connect a sheet of paper to a cloud, we derive another of Thay’s favorite expressions: “A sheet of paper is made of non-paper elements.” This can be expressed as: xR(~x), where x stands for a sheet of paper, and (~x) for non-paper elements. A natural conclusion that follows from this logical exercise is that a sheet of paper—indeed any thing, for that matter—does not exist as a separate and independent entity, and is therefore inherently empty.

The term interbeing, although it appears to designate something that lies in between being and nonbeing, is actually a word Thay invented to expound the Buddhist idea of the Middle Way. We must go beyond the concepts of both being and nonbeing if we are to understand the idea of emptiness. As he puts it in Beyond the Self: Teachings on the Middle Way: “The Middle Way goes beyond ideas of being and nonbeing, birth and death, one and many, coming and going, same and different.”

By going beyond our dualistic way of seeing things (either “something exists” or “something does not exist”), we are able to develop the right view to see things, not in the lokadhatu, or the manifest world where things appear to be born and to die and to exist independently of one another, but in the dharmadhatu, or the ultimate realm of things as they are. As we learn to see things as they are, it will become clear to us that there is neither being nor nonbeing, neither birth nor death.

A Child’s Wisdom

Let us now go back in time—as time is conceived in classical physics—to 1798 when Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a delightful poem titled “We Are Seven.” In this poem, Wordsworth writes about his encounter with an eight-year-old cottage girl:

A simple child, That lightly draws its breath, And feels its life in every limb, What should it know of death?

Asked by the poet how many sisters and brothers she has, this little girl answers:

“Seven boys and girls are we; Two of us in the church-yard lie, Beneath the church-yard tree.”

The answer confounds the poet because two of the seven brothers and sisters are already dead and buried in the churchyard. To the poet who reminds her that only five boys and girls are left if two are buried in the churchyard, the little girl answers emphatically, “O Master! We are seven.” As far as this little cottage girl is concerned, two of the seven brothers and sisters who are buried beneath the churchyard tree are not dead, as she daily plays with them in the churchyard.

Can we reject this little cottage girl’s answer as a reflection of her ignorance and concur with Wordsworth that she knows nothing of death? What is more intriguing for us is to speculate how Wordsworth would have responded had she answered, “O Master! We are seven—seven interbeings.” The poet, to be sure, would have been even more confounded by this answer. On the other hand, we can easily imagine how Thay would nod approvingly with a smile on his face. It was this cottage girl with her innocence of a simple child, not the poet with his knowledge of a mature adult, who was able to see things as they are.

Tetsunori Koizumi, a member of Blue Heron Sangha, is Director of the International Institute for Integrative Studies in Columbus, Ohio. This article was inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s Dharma talks during the “Science of the Buddha” retreat in Plum Village in June 2012.

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