Sutra on the Middle Way
© Thich Nhat Hanh
This is the fifteenth of March 1998 and we are in the Upper Hamlet in the spring retreat.
Today we are learning about The Sutra on the Middle Way, which we chant on Wednesday evening. This sutra has been translated from Chinese. It’s the Sutra Number 301 in the Samyukta Agama. The Samyukta Agama is Number 29 in the Chinese canon. In translating this sutra, I studied the equivalent sutra in Pali, the Kaccayana gotta, which is in the Samyukta Nikaya [2657 or 2-16-57]. This sutra is about right view, which goes beyond ideas of "exist" and "does not exist." Before, we were studying—we talked about—right view. And we said that our mind and our speech actions practice right view. We practice right view through the four different kinds of food. And here we study right view in the light of the Middle Way, that is, not caught in the idea of "exists" or in the idea of "does not exist." "Exists" is an idea, and "does not exist" is another idea. The Middle Way is the way that does not get caught in either of those. It could mean that "exists" and "doesn’t exist", are both possible. But in fact it doesn’t mean that it goes in the middle of "exists" and "does not exist," it means that "exists" and "does not exist" are both ideas that we need to go beyond. People ask, is the world really existing or is it an illusion? Or they ask the question: does it exist or doesn’t it exist—to be or not to be? Shakespeare the poet said, that is the question: to be or not to be. But in Buddhism we have to go beyond the idea of being and not being. Therefore we say that to be or not to be is not the question.
When we are studying The Sutra on the Middle Way, Number 301 in the Samyukta Agama, we should study two other sutras also in the Samyukta Agama: Sutra 296 is called the Sutra on Interdependent Arising, and Sutra 297 is called the Sutra on Great Emptiness. Both of these sutras are in Chinese and we know that the Samyukta Agama has been translated from Chinese into Vietnamese so we can look at it. The sutra which we are studying now is Number 301 in the Samyukta Agama. It’s the Sutra on the Middle Way, but it talks about causes and conditions. We find out about the Middle Way by learning about causes and conditions and conditioned existence. In the sutra on the Middle Way in Pali, the Kaccayana gotta Sutta, Kaccayana is the name, in Pali, of one of the high monks of the Buddha. We can call him "Great Kaccayana," Maha-Kaccayana.
I heard these words of the Buddha one time when the Lord was staying at the guest house in a forest of the district of Nala. At that time, the Venerable Kaccayana came to visit him and asked, when he had made prostrations and sat down to one side, "The Tathagata has spoken of right view. What is right view? How would the Tathagata describe right view?"
In the Pali sutra it says that the Buddha gave this sutra in Sravasti [Savatthi (P)]. But in the Chinese version, in Nala. Now Sravasti is in the land of Kosala, and the forest of Nala is in Magadha. The question of the Venerable Kaccayana is about "right view." Buddha does not talk about right view as the view of the Four Noble Truths or the Noble Eight-fold Path, he talks of right view as the view of the Middle Way.
The Buddha told the venerable monk, "People in the world tend to believe in one of two views: the view of being and the view of non-being. That is because they are bound to wrong perception. It is because they are bound to wrong perception that they have ideas of being and non-being."
These words of the sutra are very clear. We have wrong views, we have wrong perceptions, and because of those wrong perceptions we think that this world is real, or this world is not real.
"Kaccayana, most people are bound to the internal formations of discrimination and preference, grasping and attachment. Those who are not bound to the internal formations of grasping and attachment no longer imagine and cling to the idea of a self."
Here we have two words: "grasping," which is not letting go, and the other word is "attachment," like we have a crab that catches hold of us and won’t let us go. And the thing that catches us and will not let us go is our ideas, our wrong perceptions. We are caught in our ideas, our perceptions, and therefore we are attached to them. "Those who are not bound to the internal formations of grasping and attachment no longer imagine and cling to the idea of a self," they don’t cling, they don’t imagine, they don’t compare, they don’t calculate that there is a self. "Imagine:" This word in Chinese means "to measure," "to estimate," "to conceive." We have an idea about something and we say that it’s important or it’s not important; it exists, it doesn’t exist. Wrong perceptions—that is something we imagine, things about truth. We load onto truth this idea and that idea. Actually the truth is not like that, but we think it is like that. We think of something that’s not permanent, but we think it’s permanent. Something doesn’t have a self, but we think it has a self. These things are dangerous. We think we are in security with these ideas, but in fact they are dangerous, and this is wrong perception. And the reason for all our grasping, all our imagining, is our ideas, the ideas about self. Our idea about self is the center of all our grasping, of all our imagining, of all our wrong perceptions. The idea of self is the hidden idea that there is something called "self," "me," or "mine." It’s an idea that "I," "me," exist, and that there are things belonging to "me." "Me" and "mine."
"They understand that when suffering comes to be it is because the conditions are favourable, and it fades away when conditions are no longer favourable. They no longer have any doubts, their understanding has not come to them through others; it is their own insight."
The Buddha is talking about suffering. Why is he talking about suffering here? Suffering is a phenomenon, just like a picture, a table. So here talking about suffering is just a talk about a phenomenon, the Buddha is not talking about the Four Noble Truths here. For instance, we have a feeling of suffering, we look deeply, and we see that the suffering comes from different conditions, and that is why it has arisen—just like this flower. This flower, we look deeply at it and we see that there are conditions coming together that make the flower possible. "They understand, for example, that suffering comes to be when conditions are favourable and that it fades away when conditions are no longer favourable." The same is true of a flower, a table, when the conditions for them not being there are not there, then they will not be there. The person no longer has any doubts, because if we look deeply and see clearly like that, how can we have any doubts? We see that everything comes to be because of the coming together of favourable conditions, and when those conditions fall apart, that thing can no longer exist. So why should there be anything we should doubt? "Their understanding has not come to them through others. It is their own insight." It’s not because we hear Buddha say that there is no self, and that this comes to be because of different causes and conditions, that we believe it, but because we have looked deeply and have been able to see. It’s not that we accept this because of the words, the teachings, and the ideas of somebody else.
Here the Buddha says we have to experience these things for ourselves. We have to look deeply and see it for ourselves. We are not repeating like a parrot the things that other people have said. We have suffering—who doesn’t have suffering? We look deeply into the heart of that suffering and when we look into it, we see the causes and conditions near and far which have brought it about. And we see it on our own. Someone else doesn’t say to us, "You are suffering—you have causes and conditions for your suffering." It’s with our own wisdom that we look into our suffering. We see we have suffering, we look into it, we see the elements near and far which have brought it about. Therefore we have no doubts about our insight; we know that that is so. And that insight comes from ourselves, it’s not something we receive from somebody else. "A person knows, for example, that suffering comes to be when conditions are favourable and that it fades away when conditions are no longer favourable." We say, "For example suffering arises when it has conditions..." If we put in the words "for example" it’s clearer, because suffering here is just an example of something, of one of the phenomena.
"This insight is called ‘right view,’ and this is the way the Tathagata would describe right view."
Because the Venerable Kaccayana asked, "What is right view?" and the Buddha is describing right view, that’s why he says that this is how the Tathagata would describe right view.
"Why is this so? When a person who has correct insight observes the coming-to-be of the world, the idea of non-being does not occur to him."
It is clear that the world is in the process of manifesting; it’s clear that the flower is manifesting so we cannot say it doesn’t exist. We see that suffering is manifesting; we can’t say that suffering isn’t there. Therefore we get caught. It’s not right to be caught in the idea of "does not exist."
"When a person who has correct insight observes the coming-to-be of the world, the idea of non-being does not occur to him and when he observes the fading away of the world, the idea of being does not occur."
When we see that the flower is fading, we cannot say the flower exists. So when we see the manifestation of all phenomena, we should not say that all phenomena exist. And when we see phenomena going out of existence, we should not say they do not exist. The idea of "exist" and "does not exist" comes from our wrong perception. The idea of the Buddha is that we should go beyond the ideas of "exist" and "does not exist." When something no longer manifests we have the tendency to say it doesn’t exist, and when something manifests we say it exists. That is a mistake, a mistake of many of us. For example, in April when we do walking meditation in the Lower Hamlet, we don’t see any sunflowers and we say, "there are no sunflowers, they don’t exist." But in fact the farmers will see things differently as they drive their car along the road. They will see there are sunflowers, because they have planted the seed. And then in May or June there will be sunflowers. If we say to a farmer there are no sunflowers he will say, "yes there are". So we come to the conclusion very quickly that something doesn’t exist, which isn’t true. We say there are no sunflowers, but the farmer knows very well that in two months the field will be full of sunflowers. We who do not know anything about farming will say, "there are no sunflowers," and our view is not in accord with reality.
"Kaccayana, viewing the world as being is an extreme; viewing it as non-being is another extreme (‘is an extreme view’ is another way of saying it). The Tathagata avoids these two extremes and teaches the Dharma dwelling in the Middle Way."
The teachings of the Buddha have to be a middle way. That is a way that goes beyond the idea of "is" and "is not," goes beyond the idea of "is born" and "it dies," of "one" and "many," of "comes" and "goes," as well as ideas of "not-born," "not-died," "not many," "not one." And if we understand the Middle Way—which goes beyond being and non-being, which goes beyond birth and death, which goes beyond one and many, or which goes beyond same and different—it means the Tathagata avoids these two extremes and teaches the Dharma dwelling in the Middle Way.
That means, "the Buddha teaches that this is because that is, this is not because that is not."
These words are so simple but very deep. If we ask, in Buddhism is there a teaching about the cause of the world coming to exist? Or, who created this world, when did it begin and when will it end? We can only do one thing, and that is to cite this: this is because that is, this is born because that is born, this is not because that is not, this ends because that ends. That is the presentation of the teachings of Interdependent Arising, it is so simple. This is because that is, this is born because that is born. This flower is, because the light is, because the seed is, because the Earth is, the flower is. This is because those other things are. That is the teaching of Interdependent Arising, which is presented so simply. That is the highest reply that we can give about the existence of the world.
Last Sunday we learned about "beginningless." Beginningless means there is no beginning, because time is a conditioned phenomenon. It is conditioned by space, by earth, by water. There are eight elements as we said last time, and they all make each other possible. And this is true for a flower, it is true for our suffering, it is true for all phenomena in the world. If you ask, what is the first cause, we will see that this question comes from ignorance. Once we can understand, we can go deep into the teachings of Interdependent Arising. Questions such as who created the world are very naive. Is there such a thing as time or not? When is the zero point of time? Those questions become very naive when we understand the true teachings on the Middle Way of Interdependent Arising. Space, like time, are only there because they are dependent on each other. This manifests because that manifests. This is latent because that is latent. We don’t have to go to some teacher, to some religion, in order to answer these things. We only have to look deeply for ourselves: this is because that is, this is not because that is not, this born because that is born.
"Because there is ignorance, there are impulses; because there are impulses, there is consciousness; because there is consciousness, there is the psyche-soma; because there is the psyche-soma, there are the six senses; because there are the six senses, there is contact; because there is contact, there is feeling; because there is feeling, there is craving; because there is craving, there is grasping; because there is grasping, there is becoming; because there is becoming, there is birth; because there is birth, there are old age, death, grief, and sorrow. This is how the entire mass of suffering arises. But with the fading away of ignorance, impulses cease; with the fading away of impulses, consciousness ceases. And finally birth, old age, grief, death, and sorrow will fade away. This is how this entire mass of suffering ceases." After listening to the Buddha, the Venerable Kaccayana was enlightened and liberated from sorrow. He was able to untie all of his internal formations and attain Arhatship."
In The Sutra on the Middle Way the Buddha talks about the twelve links of interdependent arising. The twelve links of interdependent arising are the highest development of the teaching of interdependent arising. We feel that the Buddha talked about ten or eight causes and each of these teachings is correct. It’s okay to say there are seven links in causes and conditions, eight, or ten— we just add more in order to make the teaching clearer. But seven causes and conditions, nine, ten, or twelve—they are all satisfactory teachings. We could say that it’s enough to talk about "name" and "form." Name and form means the psyche and the soma. Or we can talk about the five skandhas. The five skandhas are the same as the psyche and the soma—it’s saying the same thing. But five is just saying it with more words than two. Or we can talk about the four great elements: earth, water, air, and fire. And then we add another two—we add space and consciousness. And then we add another two—space and time. So we can make it ten elements if we like, instead of eight, because in one element we can see all other elements. So whether we say there are four elements or six elements or eight elements, it doesn’t really matter.
Before we continue we should look at the Chinese version. It’s rather a difficult sutra to translate. The Chinese version is a very ancient one and you have to study these things in order to be able to go into the sutra and read it for yourself.
Thus have I heard: one time when the Lord was staying at the guest house in the forest of Nala... At that time he was staying in a village whose name was Nala, not far from where Sariputta was born. Nala is a village in the forest.
At that time the Venerable Kaccayana came to where the Buddha was, bowed his head and made reverences at the feet of the Buddha; he put his forehead on the ground at the Buddha’s feet, and circled the Buddha three times, and sat to one side. You don’t sit in front of the teacher, you sit to one side of the teacher.
And he respectfully said to the Buddha, "The Tathagata has spoken of right view. What is right view? How would the Tathagata, the Blessed One, describe right view?" The World-Honoured One, the Buddha, told the venerable monk Kaccayana, "People in the world take refuge in two places, are enslaved by two things; either being or not-being..." That means the idea of being or the idea of non-being. "Because they grasp these things and are caught in them." The word here means we are in touch with, we grasp something and it sticks to us.
"Because they are caught in grasping, they either take refuge in the idea of ‘is’ or the idea of ‘is not.’" So if they’re not attached in this way, when the mind and the object of mind are in touch with each other, the subject is the mind and the object of our perception. If we are not attached when the mind and the object of mind are in contact, we do not cling. It means we don’t stay with something—we don’t imagine, estimate, or calculate. We don’t grasp the idea of self and we are not caught in the idea of self. So we don’t stay with or imagine the idea of self. If there is not that kind of grasping when the mind and the object of mind are in contact, we will not cling to a self, we will not be caught in a self, and we will not imagine that there is a self. For example, when suffering arises, it arises, we don’t imagine anything.
"When suffering arises it is because of causes and conditions, and it fades away because of causes and conditions—we see that clearly and we have no doubts. Understanding has not come though others. It is our own insight. This is the way the Tathagata would describe right view." Right view here is a direct experience that we have concerning reality. And it comes from our own deep looking; it does not come from what we have learned from others. This is called right view, and that is what the Tathagata presents as right view.
How is this so? When a person who has correct insight observes the coming-to-be of the world... when the world is being formed, the causes and conditions come together in order to form the world. When the world is being formed, like the flower is being formed, if we know, if we have the knowledge, the right view as to what it really is, what reality really is, then we don’t attach to this idea and that idea, we see it as it is. When we can see, when we can know something as it really is, it means we don’t attach to it, we don’t weigh it down with any other ideas, burden it with any other ideas. So if we are looking correctly into the coming-to-be of the world, the idea of non-being is not true. When the world is formed, when the flower is formed, when the table is formed; it’s not correct to say that this does not exist, that the world is non-existent. When the world is fading away, when it’s coming to an end, not existing, if we have the right view of things as they are, it is not correct to say that it does exist. When something is formed and we say it doesn’t exist, it’s not correct. And when something ceases to be formed, that is, when the form comes to an end, it is not correct to say that it does exist.
In the Vietnamese version, When someone who has right view sees the arising of the world, it does not occur to him that it does not exist. And when he sees the fading away of the world, it doesn’t occur to him that it does exist. Hearing when the world is ending, if we look deeply and see the real nature of things and say that that world exists, that is not correct. We have to avoid these two extremes. The Tathagata avoids these two extremes and teaches the Dharma dwelling in the Middle Way: this is, because that is; this arises because that arises. If you have a father, you have a child and if you have a child, you must have a father. If you have an elder brother, there must be a younger brother and there is a younger brother because there is an elder brother. There is night because there is day. These things rely on each other in order to exist. Because there is ignorance, there are impulses... They just talk about one thing here; they don’t talk about the whole twelve because we should already know what these twelve are, there is no need to write them. They wanted to translate it quickly so they didn’t bother to put them all in, so when we translate we have to fill in again what’s been left out. "When there is ignorance there are impulses, (and so on), until this great mass of suffering arises. In this chapter of the Samyutta Nikaya, in the Agama, there are many sutras on causes and conditions and therefore the monks who translated didn’t want to keep repeating what the twelve causes and conditions were, so they just wrote them out in a couple of sutras, not in all of the sutras. After listening to the Buddha, the Venerable Kaccayana was enlightened and liberated from sorrow. He no longer gave rise to the asravas, the leaks, so he became an Arhat.
At this point we should take the opportunity to study the two sutras that I introduced before; The Sutra on Interdependent Arising, and The Sutra on Great Emptiness ( Numbers 296 and 297 in the Samyukta Agama). First of all we will read The Sutra on Interdependent Arising—it is called the Causes and Conditions of Arising. I’m going to read through this and stop when I need to stop.
At that time Buddha was in Rajagrha in the Jeta Grove and he said to the monks, "Today I will talk about the teachings of Conditioned Arising. What is ‘causes and conditions’? It is: this is because that is; because of ignorance there are impulses, because of impulses, there is consciousness, and so on, until suffering, old age, and death occur. What are the causes of Conditioned Arising? It is because there is ignorance, there are impulses. And whether this world arises or not, this teaching is still true. So the Buddha understood this, and this is how he became enlightened and was able to teach this to other people. Based on ignorance, there are impulses; based on impulses, there is consciousness; and finally, based on all these things, there is old age. Whether the World-Honoured One comes to be or not in this world, his teaching of interdependence is still true for all the dharma realms.
These teachings on emptiness should be observed deeply in order to be understood. Buddha has talked about twelve links of causation. And he said that the teachings on the twelve links of causation—the essence of this teaching—is the arising of all dharmas. If we can see the interdependent arising nature of all dharmas, of the flower, of our suffering, then we can see the interdependent nature and it is made clearer by talking about twelve different things. Whether the Buddha was in the world or not, this is still a truth about life, and the Buddha has seen that truth and shows it to others. It is not a truth that the Buddha has made up or invented. Sometimes in the Southern tradition this teaching hasn’t been sufficiently developed, so we only have it in the Chinese and the Northern tradition, or Northern transmission.
The teaching that has been spoken about is the teaching on abiding, the teaching on emptiness, the teaching of same and different. To abide here is to abide in the heart of the truth, to abide in the heart of the flower, of the table, this meaning of abiding is reality as it is. It means that the thing abides in its suchness, in its realm of no birth and no death, and it cannot be grasped by our ideas. That is what is meant by the teaching on abiding. We use our brain to grasp phenomena, but phenomena are ungraspable when they abide in their true nature. In The Lotus Sutra there is a sentence that says, ‘that a phenomenon dwells in its position as a phenomena’. We cannot take it away from that place; that place of no birth and death, no self, and no object of self. But we like to grasp it, we have the habit of grasping it and grasping it by our ideas, like catching a butterfly. Our brain is like that; it has a net, like a butterfly net, which wants to catch things, but it cannot catch dharmas, because they abide in their suchness. Here the word "emptiness" means it goes beyond all ideas. You can’t say they don’t exist, you can’t say they do exist, you can’t say it’s born, it dies, you can’t say it’s the same, you can’t say it’s different, everything is unable to be grasped, phenomena lie in their nature of emptiness. These are the terms, such as "emptiness," that were developed by the Mahayana [school] later on; in the earlier times during the multi-school period, people did not give so much attention to words as these. But later on they became wonderful trees in the forest of the teachings.
They are teachings on things as they are. Nutatha means things are like that, but it is not possible to talk about it, you can’t call it by name, you cannot describe it. Here the Chinese word means "suchness" and then the next Chinese word means: it’s just naturally like that, the phenomena are naturally like that, naturally things are like, things never leave their basis of their true nature. These terms are very wonderful and they are to be found in a sutra of Primitive Buddhism; teachings on emptiness, teachings on suchness, teachings on things as they naturally are. You should remember that this is not a Mahayana sutra. Looking deeply, reflecting on the truth, there is no upside-downness, there is no perversion. When it is no-self and we say there is a self, or when something is impermanent and we say it is permanent, that is upside-down. When someone is our father and we say, "I have nothing to do with him, he has nothing to do with me," that is upside-down.
The Buddha says that, "in this way, in accord with interdependent arising, there arises different things." If we look carefully into the twelve links of interdependent causation, we will see the teachings of emptiness, the teachings which do not leave the true nature. Please remember, the Buddha said, whoever sees interdependent arising sees the Buddha, and whoever has seen the Buddha has seen interdependent arising. Looking into this we are not able to see something called "I" or "mine", we cannot see the self and the objects belonging to self. Therefore, those who are able to see with the right view, interdependent arising—do not follow the past and ask questions in the past: "Was there a self or was there not a self? In the past, what was I, what was the self? And in the past, how did I appear?"
This is a very interesting sutra. Someone who has seen interdependent arising, who has seen the teachings of emptiness, that person does not ask questions about the past: "In the past, did I exist or not? If I existed in the past, what was I? Was I fish, was I a bird, or was I a person? Was I a monkey? What form did I take, what was I like? What were my body, my feelings, my perceptions, my mental formations and my consciousness like in the past?" Because only when we are not able to go deeply and penetrate the interdependent nature, are we caught in the idea of self and the objects of self, and we go looking for things like this. We ask questions like this, "Did I exist in the past, and if I was existing in the past, what was I? And how was my body, my mind, my five skandhas, in the past?" That is the question of people who are looking for themselves in the past. Those people also will get involved with questions about the future, asking, "In the future will I exist or will I not exist? And if in the future I do exist, what will I be, what will I do? And what will my body be like, what will my mind be like in the future?"
There are three questions: first, will I exist in the future? Second, if I exist in the future, what will I be? And the third question, what will be my outer form and what will be my content in the future? That is, what will be my body and what will be my mind? If we think about the present we don’t ask questions like, "Who am I, Why am I in this life? Who was I before? and, What will I become in the future? What is my form and my content? In the present moment returning to ourselves we still want to ask, Who am I, What am I doing here, where did I come from, where will I go? These questions are philosophical questions. And the Buddha said these questions are stupid questions, because the reason we ask these questions is that we are caught in the idea of self, we are caught in the idea of mine. If we can see the interdependent arising, then we will not ask these questions anymore.
Therefore the Buddha never advises us to study philosophy. We should give our time to looking deeply into reality, and to be able to see the true abiding of all dharmas, the suchness of all dharmas, the emptiness of all dharmas. When we see these, we will no longer be caught in the idea of self, the idea of "is" and the idea of "is not" and then we will not ask philosophical questions like this. And the practitioner will go beyond the internal formations, which are called "worldly views," "worldly knowledge." First of all, when you go to the present you should not ask questions like who am I? You will not ask questions like, "where do I come from, why am I here, and where will I go?" These questions are the questions about the present which someone who understands interdependent arising will not ask. The Buddha taught that when we don’t ask these questions anymore, when we see the nature of interdependent arising, the worldly views, the worldly knowledge will no longer catch us. Worldly views—the way of looking at things according to the world—these worldly views are fetters. And the first of them is called the view of self, that is, to be caught in the idea of self. We are not bound up by this idea of self and what belongs to self. The second is the view of living beings, and we are not caught in the idea of living beings. Then, [third], we are not caught in the idea of life span. Life span means the length of our life.
We are reading the Agamas but we might think we are reading the Vajracchedika Sutra , because the Buddha there also says we shouldn't be caught in the sign of a self, of a living being, and of a lifespan. We can see the seeds of the Vajracchedika Sutra in this sutra, in the Agamas. The last thing is not to be caught in the right and wrong, but to go beyond it. Here we’re talking of going beyond the idea of self, living beings, and life span. And so the Vajracchedika Sutra can be found in the Agamas, we only have to read the Agamas carefully in order to find the Vajracchedika Sutra. When we are caught in ideas of self, it’s because we have not been able to see interdependent arising. And when we are caught in the idea of living beings, it is because we have not understood interdependent arising. When we are caught in the idea of a life span, we think, my life will only last a certain amount of time, that is, it began when I was born and when I die it will end. And then we start asking questions like, "Did I exist in the past, and what was I in the past, and when I die will I still be there, and if I am, what will I be, what kind of animal will I be, what will my form be? These questions only arise when we are caught in the idea of self, the idea of a person, the idea of a living being, the idea of a life span.
When we can meditate on interdependent arising we go beyond all these questions. And the Buddha said, when we go beyond these ideas, we are like a palm tree which has had its head cut off. All our wrong perceptions will not arise anymore. So if you have the palm tree and you cut off the top of the tree, it will no longer be able to grow anymore and ignorance is the same. When we have been able to see the nature of interdependent arising, we will overcome ideas of self, we will leave behind ideas of self and living beings, and ignorance and suffering will no longer touch us. [Translator: Here they talk about the tree as a type of palm tree.] If we can cut off its top, it won’t grow any more. It’s the same with our ignorance, if we can cut off its top—that is the idea about self—it will not grow anymore and we will no longer suffer because of it. This is Sutra Number 296. The last one is not being caught in ideas of "auspicious" or "inauspicious," whether this is a "good" day or a "bad" day (an "auspicious" day or an "inauspicious" day). If we believe in prophesying the future, it means we want to look at yarrow sticks to find out what the future will be, or if we'll be successful or not , we only do this kind of thing when we are ignorant about interdependent arising. When we understand interdependent arising, we are free. We are not caught in having to find out about how the future will be, in divining how the future will be.
(Thay is reading a letter from a student:) "A week ago I was able to see in my sitting meditation. I was sitting very solidly and at ease next to Sr. Annabel. I was looking deeply and I saw that I was a manifestation in life because of the combination of so many phenomena. And because these phenomena are impermanent I thought that if in the future I no longer had this body, would the dharmas come together, the phenomena come together, and make me another dress to wear, give me another outer form? If I was a person, could I be anybody? If I was a bird, or a fish, or a flower, I could be any bird, any fish, any flower? So at first our younger sister was thinking about the future and seeing that if things arise interdependent on each other, then we can become anything.
Suddenly I saw that it’s not something I will be, but it is something I am already. So then quite naturally she’s no longer thinking, what shall I be, but returned to looking about what am I now. Suddenly I saw that these aren’t things I will be, but these are things I am. Before, I didn’t see myself as a nun, that I would be so fortunate. In the past I did not know that I would become a nun. And if now I do not know what I will be in the future, in the past I did not know what good fortune I would have to become a nun. I could be anyone, I could be anything. I saw clearly that I am the poorest person in the world, with all the worries and the thoughts of the poorest person. So she saw herself as somebody very unfortunate with all the worries that go with a person who’s fallen on great misfortune. I saw that I was the most noble person, the most fortunate person, and I saw myself as this person and that person. And I saw myself as my teacher also. So I saw that I am this and I am that. I am able to be in touch with and understand everything and love everything." She had a flash of insight, "That I am everything. It's very strange, after that I felt very light. I saw that I wanted to let go and be everyone in that light way, that I could laugh and smile and cry at the same time. And then we had the sound of the bell, to end the meditation, so the sitting meditation wasn’t quite long enough." We were in touch with this insight and it made us feel very light. And the bell ended the meditation.
"I saw that I myself, was one with my elder sister; I am one with the tree and the pebbles as I do my walking meditation. She did walking meditation with Sister Annabel. When she hangs up my coat and I smile, then she wanted to shout out; 'Don’t you know that your smile is my smile?'" This is not theory, which our younger sister tells us; it is truly her insight. When we have great aspiration to practice when we are young, we have plenty of energy, we want to learn, we don’t need four or six years in order to have insight; we just need to hear a couple of dharma talks and we can see the real nature of things. And we can live that insight. It does not mean we have to practice for years and years.
"Before walking meditation I was waiting for my sister to come out and join me. I saw how some of the trees had fallen down because of the heaviness of the snow. But I also saw how they will become new trees again." This shows that our younger sister is happy because she can look deeply at life during her daily life, which leads to happiness and takes us beyond the idea of self. And we don’t ask questions of philosophers.
I wrote a poem:
[Sr. Annabel: This poem in English is called the "Mendicant of Old"]
"Being mist, being mind, being the mesons travelling among galaxies at the speed of light,
you have come here my beloved one and your blue eyes shine so beautifully, so deep.
You have taken the path raised for you by the non-beginning and the never ending,
you say that on your way here you have gone through millions of births and deaths.
Innumerable times you have been transformed into fire storms in outer space,
you have used your own body to measure the age of mountains and rivers.
You have manifested yourself as trees, grass, butterflies, single celled beings, and as chrysanthemums.
But the eyes with which you look at me this morning tell me that you have never died,
your smile invites me into the game whose beginning no-one knows, the game of hide and seek.
Oh green caterpillar you are solemnly using your body
to measure the length of the rose branch that grew last summer,
everyone says that you my beloved were just born this spring.
Tell me, how long have you been around?
Why wait until this moment to reveal yourself to me
carrying with you that smile which is so silent and so deep.
Oh caterpillar, suns, moons, and stars flow out each time I exhale,
who knows that the infinitely large must be found in your tiny body.
Upon each on your body thousands of Buddha-fields have been established,
and with each stretch of your body you measure time from the non-beginning to the never-ending.
The great mendicant of old is still there on the Vulture Peak contemplating the ever-splendid sunset,
Gautama how strange, who says that the Udambara flower blooms once every three thousand years.
The sound of the rising tide, you can not help hearing it if you have an attentive ear.
This was written in 1968.
Today is the 22nd of March 1998 and we are in the Upper Hamlet in the Spring Retreat. We have just finished our studies of the Sutra on the Middle Way, the Sutra on Interdependent Arising and the Sutra on the Great Emptiness. We know that these sutras have a very profound meaning, a wonderful meaning, and we have to discover how to apply the things we learn in the sutras to our daily lives. Only then can they be truly beneficial. When we talk about the middle way, and we talk about no-self, and we talk about interdependent arising, we may talk very fluently about them, but we should ask how can I apply these teachings in my daily life?
The other day when I was talking about the practice of shining the guiding light, offering guidance, I said that offering guidance means bringing your wisdom, your insight and your love into concrete action, so that you can look into this special case of a person, who could be a brother or sister in the Dharma. Thanks to our insight we can see the things that have made that person happy or suffer. The process of offering guidance is a method of meditation, of looking deeply, and if we don’t put our whole person into it we won’t be successful. So we should sit in a very straight and stable position, as in sitting meditation, and we should give all our mind and body to the work of offering guidance. The method of offering guidance is something that needs to be practiced very seriously in order to be successful.
When you are doing sitting meditation you may be successful or not successful, according to your own self. There are times when you look and you say, that was a successful sitting meditation--I was able to develop my understanding and my love, and look deeply into my mental formations, or things outside. But there are sitting meditations when we tire, we see that we are sleepy, we are hoping that soon it will come to an end. When we practice offering guidance, we practice concentration, we practice wisdom, we practice our compassion, all working together, and we offer guidance to a brother or a sister, and if we are not successful then that brother or sister will not benefit. So we need to be successful, we need to put our whole heart into the work of offering guidance, because one day or another we will need that guidance ourselves, and if the Sangha does not put all their wisdom and all their love into offering guidance, then we won’t benefit. Therefore we should benefit with all our heart from a session of offering guidance.
We should also offer guidance based on what we have learned in the Sutra on the Middle Way, and the Sutra on the Great Emptiness, because we should see that when we look after others, when we are looking deeply into others, we are looking deeply into ourselves at the same time. If we think that the other person is someone other than us, the success and the failure of that other person has nothing to do with us, then we cannot be successful in our looking deeply. Looking deeply for that person is looking deeply into ourselves. The happiness of that person is linked to our own happiness. If we are not happy the other will not be happy, if the other is not happy the Sangha will not be happy. Remembering these things, in the session of offering guidance, we will then put our whole heart into it.
We should also remember the Dharma door called "protecting the second body." We may think that our second body is very difficult to look after, more difficult than other second bodies, but if we put our whole heart into protecting and looking after our second body then we will see that that person is not as difficult as we thought they were. And if we are successful in looking after this second body, then we will be very happy. (The practice of ‘2nd body’, is a practice in Plum Village where each person takes care of one other person in the Sangha, and is in turn taken care of by one other brother or sister.)
The monkey knows that the fruit with a lot of prickles is very sweet inside, and therefore he uses a stone and breaks the skin of that prickly fruit, and when it is broken he sees that inside there is a very tasty fruit. And our brother or sister is the same. We see that person is so difficult to talk to, so difficult to play with. But that is only our first experience. When we can practice understanding and loving and looking after, that person can show us their sweetness, their love, and we will be the first person to be able to enjoy that. In that relationship, whether between brothers and sisters in the Dharma, or between teacher and student, or between father and son, we may see the other person as difficult in the first place. But if we know how to look after them we see how they can manifest their talent and their wonderfulness. We are like the monkey who is able to break the tough prickly skin of the fruit, and we can enjoy the fruit inside.
There are brothers and sisters who we think haven’t any love, haven’t any compassion. But we shouldn’t be sure that we are correct. We see that person as severe, not generous, not able to embrace and accept us. However, there may be a great deal of love and compassion in that person, but it is obscured by habit energies. If we can break that shell of habit energies we will enjoy the sweetness of the love which is inside. That person is obstructed by something, and if we don’t look deeply we cannot see what it is that is obstructing that person, and therefore we cannot help them. Each one of us is caught to a larger or a smaller extent, in our emotions, in our suffering, in our experiences of suffering in the past, and if we are not able to undo that knot, we cannot be successful. We have this habit energy of reacting--whenever circumstances are like that, we always react like that. We have a reaction which is always the same, which is uniform. Next time, we tell ourselves, if that happens we will not react like that, we will react in a different way. We are very determined with ourselves, and we promise our brothers and our sisters that next time, if that thing happens again, we will react in a different way. Although we promise like that, when that thing happens again, we still react in the old way - as we did two hundred years ago.
So why do we keep repeating this way of behaving? Every time we behave like this we make the other suffer and we make ourselves suffer. "Why did I repeat it a thousand times?" Because of habit energy. So when we practice mindfulness we have to recognize our habit energies. Whenever they arise we have to accept them, we have to recognize them, and then they won’t push us to go somewhere. "I will look after you, habit energy, I will discover what your root is." And that energy of mindfulness is the best energy to help us embrace our habit energy, and transform it.
Psychoanalysts believe that in the past we have been traumatized, and at the time we received that trauma we began to react in the way that we are reacting now. Therefore, psychoanalysts want to help us to remember what happened when we were children, especially in the stage when we were traumatized, whether in a physical or a psychological way. And there are psychoanalysts who say that our suffering comes from the time when we had to leave our parents. Before that we were with our parents as one, but there came a certain time when our parents pushed us aside in order to look after our younger siblings, and at that point we felt that we had been abandoned. Before, we were all our parents had to look after, and then they had someone else to look after. They say that is the most difficult stage for a young person and all the despair, all the jealousy, all the afflictions come from that. So that leads to the way we behave in our daily life later on.
There are people who say that the time when we are three to six years old is the stage when the Oedipus complex arises, and we begin to develop sexual energy. When this sexual energy begins to develop, between the ages of three and six years. We suck at the breast of our mother, our hand touches the flesh of our mother, and people say that at that stage our mother is our loved one, and we start to feel jealousy of our father, whom our mother also loves. This all happens in our unconscious, out of our conscious awareness. And a girl has a kind of emotional attachment to her father, and a boy has an emotional attachment to his mother. And the younger brother or the younger sister becomes the object of our jealousy, since it is because of them that our mother cannot give all her attention to us, and we feel that our mother has betrayed us. We are no longer the unique object of our mother’s love. Psychoanalysts say all this happens in the unconscious level of the mind and can produce habit energies in later life.
There are people who have an Oedipus complex. Oedipus was a Greek king. When he was born it was prophesied that he would kill his father and that he would rape his mother. So his father was very afraid, and he abandoned his child on the mountain for the wild animals to eat, because he was afraid that his son, according to the prophecy, would kill him and would sleep with his mother. And when the child was left on the mountains, some goatherds saved him. Oedipus became the adopted child of a king, and then he went in search of his roots, his native land. He met a man on the road, and the two of them got into an argument and Oedipus killed the other. He did not know that the man was his father, because he had no idea who his father and mother were, since he had been abandoned on the mountain. Then he became king of that country and he married the wife of the king, the queen, and they had four children. Then he learned that he had married his mother, and after that he felt terrible shame and he plucked out his eyes. This story was made into a play by Sophocles. Oedipus had committed the crimes of sleeping with his mother and killing his father. According to the Freudian psychoanalysts, everyone of us has the tendency of Oedipus: we’re all jealous and we all love our mother in a sexual way. We have seeds like that, and they bring about conflicts in our mind which we are not able to see consciously. So if we do not go to the root, to re-live these beginning moments of despair, of jealousy, of fear, we will not be able to overcome the power of these energies. We have to reveal these energies for the light of awareness to shine on them, and then we can put an end to the habit energies which arise from them.
There are psychoanalysts who want to go further, who say that the stage when we are born is the most difficult stage. Until birth we were safe inside our mother’s womb. The first three hours of our life we were very afraid. We suffered much from fear, so they say that these moments just after we are born give us internal formations, and we are wounded at these moments. When our mother is giving birth to us, she is full of pain and fear, and because she cannot breathe normally there is not enough oxygen in her brain. We don’t have enough oxygen because our mother cannot breathe normally, and we suffer as the baby being born. So both the mother and the baby being born suffer a lot, and we can suffer from trauma from that time on. So how can we re-live that moment, to be aware that our suffering comes from that moment, and then be healed of it? There is a kind of therapy now called "birth therapy" that tries to re-live that stage of being born with all its fear, with all its suffering, and sometimes birth therapists use violent ways to help the person return to that stage.
Then there are psychoanalysts who say that the causes of our psychological suffering happened when we were in the womb of our mother, because when we are in the womb there are many ups and downs according to the happiness, the suffering and the despair of the mother. Any unkind speech or attitude of the father influences the mother a lot, and the suffering and despair of the mother penetrates the fetus. When the mother breathes, the child breathes. When the mother eats, the child is nourished. When the mother can smile, then the child can receive that. But if the mother does not how to breathe properly, eat properly, live properly, then the fetus is already beginning to suffer before it is born. Therefore our habit energies, our suffering, our reactions, our behavior can begin at the time we were a fetus. We have a habit energy to get angry, to oppress, etc. It is not only after we are born that we have these habit energies, we have them before that. At first we think that living in the mother’s womb everything is safe, we don’t need to worry about eating, drinking, paying the electricity bill, buying petrol, driving the car--mother does everything for us. We don’t have to turn on the light, don’t have to turn on the heating. Everything is done by mother, everything is safe. We may think this is a kind of paradise, where the child is in the palace of the womb. But is it truly like that? Or as the child suffers through the ups and downs, goes through the birth and death that the mother is going through, then couldn’t the fetus also be in hell when the mother is in hell? So we have to go farther in order to see that our suffering may have roots a long way back.
When the Buddha said that ignorance gives rise to impulses, ignorance means that we don’t understand what is happening, we behave in this way, we suffer, we are happy, we are hopeful, and we despair. All these things depend on our samskaras, (energies in us), and those energies follow ignorance. We are not able to see them, we cannot see the truth, and that is why we do what we do. If we were able to see clearly we wouldn’t do this, we wouldn’t say this, we wouldn’t behave like this.
There was a day I was practicing like this, and I hope that you will also try this practice. I was lying on my bed. I was lying as you would lay if you were lying in the womb. That is, you have your body curved, with your arms and your hands up, and I was breathing very lightly, like a baby. I was thinking that when I was in the womb my mother was breathing for me, and now, I was thinking, I am breathing for my mother. I was thinking that if my mother wasn't breathing normally she would lack oxygen, so I was thinking, well, never mind, my mother needn’t worry about not being able to breathe because I can breathe for her. So I was saying, don’t worry mother, you are safe. I can breathe for you. Mother and I are practicing together. If you want to do that you have to know how to breathe, you have to have mastered mindful breathing. Breathing in and out in a very relaxed and enjoyable way, you lay in the position of the fetus, that is with the knees brought up to the chest, and the hands near the face.
We have all gone through this stage, and as a result we may have suffering, and worries. Don’t think that our mother has passed away, that our mother is somewhere else. The umbilical cord which connected us to our mother has been cut, but our mother is still connected to us by another umbilical cord, because our mother is living in us. We are the continuation of our mother, and that umbilical cord has never been cut. Mother isn’t just outside of us, mother is also in us, and we have the duty to continue our mother. If we can smile, our mother can smile, and if we can breathe mindfully, our mother can breathe mindfully. We have to know how to love our mother and then we know how to love ourselves. If we love ourselves, we love our mother. So, sitting or lying in the fetal position, re-living those moments with our practice, we say, "Mother, breathe, I am breathing with you mother, don’t be worried. I will be born without any worry."
You know that in our time they can make a difficult birth become very easy, but you should know that in former times the time of birth was terribly dangerous for a mother and a child. So at the time of birth, mother was very afraid and in a great deal of pain. Your mother might already have given birth to eight children before you, but when she gives birth to the ninth child she still suffers from a lot of fear, because of her experience of the previous births. Our head should emerge from the womb first, but sometimes the head doesn’t emerge first, and this is a true cause of worry. Our mother becomes very anxious, our father is very anxious, and we too, the one being born, are anxious. And if our mother cannot breathe normally, and we in the womb cannot get enough oxygen, all the worry of the mother penetrates us. We have lived through stages like that, and now we can re-live them, using the method that has been transmitted to us by our spiritual teacher, so that we do not fear. "Mother, do not be afraid, I am breathing for you." Therefore we are able to transform the fear in our mother, and we are able to transform the worry, the fear, and the suffering of ourselves. You can put yourself in the position of a fetus about to be born, and you can re-live that time with a smile and conscious breathing. Although they were very difficult moments, every time you breathe like that it transforms the sufferings you and your mother went through in the past. I remember there was a night when I was practicing like that, and I saw myself embrace my mother as I embrace a child.
When we suck at our mother’s breast, we cling to our mother’s breast. That is just to nourish ourselves, but there is some sexual energy in that , so that sometimes the young child bites the breast of the mother, although it doesn’t have teeth. That makes the mother suffer, that the child wants to eat the mother, wants to devour the mother, and also wants the mother to devour the child. In a dream I saw that I was embracing my mother at her waist, and my mother was very young. And at that moment my mindfulness arose and I said, mother, you are my mother, you are not the object of my sexual desire, and at that moment I was liberated by my mindfulness. I overcame the Oedipus complex. "Mother, you are my mother, you are me, I am you, you are not the object of my sexual desire, of my craving." We all have that kind of conflict within us, and we have to shine the light of mindfulness into it. That person is our father, and sometimes we think that person is the object of our sexual desire, our lover. That person is our son, and sometimes we see that person as our lover. And the relationship between us and our children sometimes has an unconscious tendency in it. Sometimes we look at our teacher and see him as our father, and all our anger against our father is directed against our teacher.
All these things in western psychoanalysis have been explored, and if we look into Buddhist psychology we see that the Buddha also gave Dharma talks and shone a great deal of light on our ignorance, which leads to our impulses, to contact. Our craving is a craving based in ignorance.
We think we only have one mother, but that isn’t necessarily true. In the teachings of the Buddha we have many, many mothers, and when we breathe with our mother, we become one with our mother. We say mother, you and I are one. I am breathing for you as you breathe for me, I am smiling for you, and we touch our mother deeply in ourselves. We see that the idea that mother is one thing and child is another disappears. We see that mother and we are one reality. I am the continuation of my mother and my mother is a continuation of me. As far as time is concerned, I am a continuation of my mother, from the past till now.
I am also a mother. Even though I have not had children, I have not had students. My children, or my students, are already in me, and therefore I am a mother. In every fruit there are seeds; even in fruit that are not ripe there are seeds. We are the same. Even when we are still young, we are already mothers. Therefore in each of us there is a mother, and there are children. So ourselves, our mother and our children are one thing. If we can see things like that we no longer have pride of self. That is the teaching of the Sutra on the Middle Way. And if we can see that, we can see that out mother is us, and we are our mother. We are our children and our children are us. We do not ask the question, in the past was I there? If I was in there, what was I, how was I? We wouldn’t ask questions like that, because we know that we are the river of life. We do not ask, "In the future will I be there, and if I am there who will I be, and what will I be like?" And in the present we won’t need to ask, "Who am I and where am I going?" We will see that we are the immense river of life and we will not be caught in the discriminatory and isolated idea of self. We have to study the Sutra like this in order to be able to understand the real meaning of what the Buddha said, and apply it in our life. So when we breathe we have to say things like, "mother, I’m breathing for you; mother, do not be afraid, there’s nothing to worry about, there’s no birth and death, and if we’re not successful now we’ll be successful next time. There’s nothing to be afraid of."
I know that before I was born my mother had given birth to another child who was miscarried, and maybe that child was me, maybe that child didn’t want to be born yet. On the day when the elder sister of Phuc-Nghiem had a baby, but the baby died, I said she should call me. And I said, maybe the baby wasn’t ready to live yet, so don’t worry; it’ll be born at another time. And when she heard that, she was able to smile. Our mother is us, we are our mother, we are our children. All of us, we all have children, our children lie in us, they are there in us. But we will nourish our children with the milk of the Dharma, and they will suffer less than we did, and they will have a greater opportunity than we had.
In the Buddha Dharma there’s a method of looking deeply called buddhanusmrti samadhi. We are in touch with the Buddha. We practice anusmrti, that is mindfulness of the Buddha. We see our relationship with the Buddha, and we meditate on it. Maybe Buddha Shakyamuni, or Buddha Amitabha. We are able to see the relationship between us and that Buddha, just as when we establish our relationship with our mother. Because we are the children of the Buddha, and when we are in touch with the Buddha we can be in touch with all Buddhas, as numberless as the sands of the Ganges. It is true, when you pick up a leaf, if you look deeply into that leaf, you are in touch with the whole universe in the leaf. There is the sun, there are the clouds, there is snow. And when you can be in touch with the Buddha deeply, you can be in touch with all Buddhas in the world.
I do this, I’m in touch with my mother deeply. And when I’m in touch with my mother deeply, I’m in touch with all my other mothers. Our grandmother is also our mother, she’s still a mother. Great-grandmother is still another mother. And all our mothers have gone through these stages of anxiety and worry like our own mother. They’ve all had to go through that stage of giving birth, that stage of great difficulty, full of fear. When we can be in touch with one mother, we can be in touch with all mothers. When we can be in touch with the difficulties, the fears and the sufferings, of one mother, we can be touch with all mothers and we know that we are one with all mothers. And when we say, "Mother, breathe with me, smile with me, because I know you have suffered", that is no longer our individual mother, that is the universal mother, the numberless mothers.
We have been born so many times already. We have been born as our mother, we have been born as our self, and we are born as our children. We have been through so many births. Modern psychology says we are only born once, but that is a very narrow way of looking. In the teachings of the Buddha we see we have been born millions of times. Sometimes we have been born as an amoeba, and we cannot deny our ancestors called amoebae, or our ancestors; the birds, the monkeys, the fish. Those beings have also gone through suffering, so when I am breathing I am breathing for them all--they are all my ancestors--and former lives. And today it’s the same. When a single-celled being begins to be born, there is something that happens in that cell to make it into two cells. It is not a birth that takes place from the womb, or takes place from the egg. Before we were one cell, and now we have to accept being two. There must be suffering in that for the amoeba, because it thought, "Oh, we were only one, and now we have to be two. We have to go through a separation, a division from the other, from myself, this other me. Why do I have to be separated from what is myself?" Millions of years ago we began to suffer like that, suffer because of separation. And all this suffering comes from the idea of self. Maybe the mind of an amoeba is different, but it still has the idea of self deep in its consciousness.
When our mother put us aside in order to look after our younger brother or sister, we had jealousy, we had suffering, we felt abandoned. And when we were an amoeba our body shook in order to make two bodies, and then we suffered. From beginningless time we have suffered so much because of ignorance, being born and dying without end. That is our history, but we have everything, we have all the insight as well. So when I breathe and I am aware that I have been born and died so many times, that I have so many mothers, I see that all my mothers can smile, and I am able to liberate them all. And also I can do the same for all my fathers, because I am not only the continuation of my mother, I am the mother of numberless future generations. The same is true of my father. You monks and nuns think that you are young, only twenty years old, twenty-five years old, thirty years old, but in fact you are carrying in you all the generations of ancestors, including the birds, the fish, the trees, and the one-celled beings. You are also carrying within you all the future generations. You are a seed full of seeds, and being your father, being your mother, you have to play the role of your father and mother properly. You have to bring the wisdom of the Buddha into yourself, into your person so you can play the role of mother and father deeply. And if you do not have the light of wisdom, of understanding, if you do not have the insight which can open up the love of the mother and father, you will not play the role of father and mother correctly. You’re already a father, you’re already a mother of so many generations, and the suffering, the happiness of all the children in the future depend on this moment in the present. Can you open your heart, can you shine the light of the Buddha onto this situation? Are you able to put an end to the ignorance concerning our separate self? What is our self? Who are we? Are we all our ancestors and all our descendants? When we can see the no-self nature of ourselves in the future, that is something very important.
If we are imprisoned in the idea of self, we are not able to put an end to our fears, our mass of suffering and our despair, and then we will not be able to heal ourselves. When we meditate that we are our mother, that we are our maternal grandmother, that we are our descendants, that we are our ancestors, we are able to break the shell of the separate self, and when we can do that we can heal ourselves, and we can look with eyes of loving-kindness. We are able to embrace our brother, our sister, although that person has ignorantly made us suffer. That is called Buddhist therapy, and it is very deep, because the wisdom of the Buddha is very deep. We do not do as the psychotherapist does, we just return and remember when our life began. We don’t think as the psychotherapist does, that my life began at a particular point. We see that our life does not have a beginning, it is beginningless, and our suffering is the same. When we can look deeply to see our true nature, then we can break through the shell of the idea of a separate self, and only then can real healing happen. Then we won’t have any hatred, we won’t have any despair, we won’t have any anger, because we have seen that that other person is us.
Let’s use this example, this is a cycle of Samsara. There are daughters-in-law who are bullied by their mothers-in-law. They suffer a lot and sometimes they want to kill themselves. Sometimes a daughter-in-law cannot bear it anymore and so she runs away and returns to her own parents. And her parents allow her to stay two or three days, for the suffering to diminish, and then they bring her back to her husband’s home. She has to say she’s sorry. And her parents say, you have already married, you have to stay with your husband. That happened in Vietnam, because when a woman takes a husband that is a commitment between two families: the family of the bride and family of the groom. So a marriage isn’t a matter of two people, but of two families. When there’s a problem, the whole family of the wife has to discover a way to resolve it. The parents know that their daughter is suffering, but they know there’s only one way to overcome it, to practice in order to transform it. So the maximum the parents can do is allow their daughter to come back to them for two or three days, and look after her, and after four days they give her her outside clothes to put on and tell her to go back to her husband. She’s like a sort of refugee, going back to her parents. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it’s not successful, and if it doesn’t work the daughter will jump into the river and kill herself. And when a mother-in-law oppresses a daughter-in-law this can carry on from generation to generation, and if we don’t practice we cannot put an end to this cycle of Samsara. And if we don’t put an end to it our children will continue it. That means that our child will become a difficult mother-in-law herself if we don’t overcome it, and we will treat our daughter-in-law as we have been treated by our mother-in-law. Some children see; sometimes children will make a decision that when they grow up they will be completely different from their parents, but when they grow up and they are parents they behave in exactly the same way to their children as their parents did to them. And so their own children suffer in exactly the same way as they suffered when they were children, and that is called the cycle of rebirth, or Samsara. It is the carrying on of habit energy from one generation to another, and without the light of mindfulness we cannot put an end to this cycle of suffering.
As with the cycle of suffering between mother-in-law and daughter–in-law, we are the victims of suffering. And we say we will never treat our own daughter-in-law as our mother-in-law treated us, but even though we say that, we will in fact deal with our future daughter-in-law in the same way. It’s not because we lack love and sweetness; there are times when we prove that we have sweetness and love. But that sweetness is surrounded by a shell of habit energy, which stops us being able to express our love. We have not been able to break that shell, and therefore our love is still imprisoned within it. So we need the monkey to come with a stone and break that shell. We think it will hurt us, but it will just break the shell, and when the shell is broken all the love will emerge. And if we have a child, a mother, a student, an elder brother, or a younger sister, we should not say that person has no capacity to love and understand. That person has a shell of habit energy, which is imprisoning their love. And we have to help them break that shell of habit energy, and then we will be able to enjoy the sweetness of the fruit inside, just as the monkey does. Dharma talks are not enough to break this hard shell. There are people among us, who thanks to Dharma talks, can break the shell, so the shell falls away. They hear the Dharma, and it breaks their shell. But there are people amongst us who aren’t as lucky as that: the rain of the Dharma falls down but it cannot penetrate, and it’s like it falls on cement, they resist the teachings. We know that this is good for us, but we are very afraid of it. It’s strange. Sometimes our wisdom tells us, you need this medicine, but we feel we cannot take it and we run away. We know that this medicine will help us get better, but we are determined we won’t drink it. Therefore our habit energies can be very harmful. We see in Africa there are many places where it hasn’t rained for a long time, and the earth has become like cement. We know that the earth needs rain so much, yet when the rain falls that earth is too hard to receive it. And an hour later, after the heavy rain has fallen, the earth is still hard like cement, as the earth is not able to absorb the rain. Actually that earth needs a very light rain that continues twenty-four hours a day, and then the earth will begin to receive the rain. If we are afraid of the rain and cannot accept the rain, then we don’t have a chance.
There are people who are afraid of listening to Dharma talks because it touches seeds of suffering in them, so they don’t feel happy sitting in a Dharma talk. They’re sitting in a Dharma festival, but they have a resistance, and therefore the Dharma rain cannot penetrate them. In the Dharma assembly of the Buddha the same thing happened. There were people who were afraid, and they felt that the only way they could survive was by resisting the words of the Buddha that they heard. So we have to find a way to help a person like that, we need a great deal of love. Love here is expressed in terms of patience, because without patience we cannot love. We have to give the other person a chance to transform. There has to be an effort on both sides, the one who needs to transform and the Sangha. And in the future that hard shell will break open and the Sangha will be able to enjoy so much love from that person.
We don't want to deal with the situation in the way we do. We hate our habit energy, which we have inherited from our mother-in-law, and we have to go back to look again at the time when we were suffering, the time when we were wounded or hurt. When we are the daughter-in-law being hurt by the mother-in-law we have to go back and look at all the suffering we got, all the unkind things she has said to us, or said about us. She has made us suffer so much in the past, and we cannot transform this mass of internal formations. So that now, whatever anybody says, we feel that they are saying that to reprimand us and make us suffer, when it fact it isn’t so.
Maybe in a Dharma talk I may tell a story, and this story makes some people very happy, but we may feel that Thay is talking about us, Thay is blaming us. "There is somebody who doesn’t practice, who just goes from festival to festival, in different temples, from memorial service to memorial service. He doesn’t organize ceremonies in his own temple, but when he sees other temples celebrating, he goes to them. And he stays there all day." I tell the story of a monk like that, and I’m just telling the story for fun, but somebody thinks that I am reprimanding him or her by telling that story. I have no intention of directing what I’m saying to that person, but because they have that habit energy they receive the story like an arrow, wounding them. When we suffer we make those around us suffer, and then we think we are the only person who is suffering, but in fact we are making others suffer. In the September retreat last year one of the meditation students wrote to me and said: "I feel very secure in this retreat. I’ve never felt so happy and secure as in this retreat, because nobody’s allowed to talk. So I knew nobody would come and say things which would hurt me, so that is why I felt secure, because I knew nobody would say anything unkind to me or about me." When heard that I thought this person must have suffered a lot in the past. I felt compassion for them; probably people in their family had said things to them that hurt them very badly. ‘Nobody is going to shout at me in this retreat, nobody is going to reprimand me in this retreat." So I felt great compassion. I wanted to weep because I know how much this person must have suffered. So we have to look back at our suffering, and see how, when we don’t practice, we suffer and we make others suffer. And in the present, it may be that because of someone’s clumsiness or lack of mindfulness we suffer, but maybe we do the same to others. Only when the light of mindfulness can be shone on what they’re saying will we be able to see clearly what we are doing, and be able to take steps which are in lightness, at ease, and in freedom. And I want someone else who has suffered to be able to walk with me at that time.
As with my mother, I can breathe normally and I enjoy my breathing, and I can breathe for my mother at the same time. If I am a daughter-in-law suffering from my mother-in-law, I can do the same for my mother-in-law. The most concrete thing is the suffering and the habit energies which have been handed on to us by our mother-in-law, and if we can liberate ourselves in this way then we can embrace our mother-in-law and all others: our mother, our father, or brothers and sisters, our teacher.
What role can our Sangha play in helping us to put an end to this habit energy of suffering? All the things I am saying are very deeply related to the Sutra on the Middle Way. Only when we can get out of the stiff shell of the self can we see that our suffering in the present is the suffering of our descendants and the suffering our ancestors. Because we are already our mother, and our children are already in us, suffering with us. Our children, our students, are like seeds of the fruit that are in us, so we should not waste a moment or a day of our practice. Every day we can practice in the Sangha is a great opportunity for us to practice liberation, liberating our ancestors in us, and liberating our descendants in us, who are imprisoned in their own suffering. We have to go for refuge in the Sangha, we have to receive the Dharma rain, and then we will be successful. We have to re-live the moments of our life that have been full of fear and suffering. Just as I have done by putting myself in the position of the fetus, saying to my mother, "Please breathe with me if you lack oxygen in your brain, I am still breathing for you to have enough oxygen." When I say "you and I", "mother and child", I am talking to countless mothers, because I have been a child countless times, I have been father and mother countless times. So when I am breathing, I’m not breathing for one mother and one child, but for many mothers and many children. Breathing like that for ten minutes can bring liberation if we practice properly, and the insight we use in our practice is the insight of the Sutra on the Middle Way.
Our suffering, our lack of success, which we have borne in the past, is immeasurable. Today our suffering is very small compared with our suffering of the past. Why do we continue to make each other suffer? In the great ocean the big fish are eating the little fish. A fish is swimming along and suddenly a huge fish comes up behind, opens up its mouth, and the baby fish finds itself dead inside the big fish. The little fish was only a few months old, and became the food of the big fish. And we are swimming like a fish, and when we come to the surface of the water a bird flies down and picks us up in its beak and eats us. There are bears that go down to the river when they are hungry and catch the fish in their paws and eat them. "Why aren’t the other fish caught and eaten? Why am I caught and eaten today?" A duckling is following its mother, and while the mother duck is eating worms, one of the baby ducklings is snatched up by a bird. This is the kind of suffering we have been through in the past. We are that duckling; we are that fish. Sometimes the mother hen sees the danger and puts out her wings to protect her baby chicks, so that the large bird doesn’t sweep down and take them away. Sometimes we have wanted to protect our children, but we have not succeeded. And these sufferings take place in life all the time. We have suffered so much as birds, as fish, as trees, and all those sufferings have become a great mass of suffering within us. Only the energies of great insight, great love, and great compassion, can liberate us from these sufferings, and help us to hand on to the future generations enough insight and love to be able to take them through life without suffering like this. In order to do this, we have to practice according to the Sutra on the Middle Way.
We have been transmitted the methods of mindful breathing, of mindful walking, of dwelling happily in the present moment. We should master these methods and practice them. When we are jogging, or doing walking meditation on the small path, we have to dwell in the present moment. We have to say, "Mother, you are with me; father, you are with me; grandmother, you are with me; and children, you are with me," because we all have children. We have to live in happiness in the present moment, and every moment we walk in the present moment, we are living a moment of liberation. If we continue to be imprisoned by the past, we will never liberate ourselves, nor can we liberate the thousands of generations of ancestors and descendants in us. Every step can liberate us. To put an end to the hell realms, we have to live moments of freedom, peace and joy like that, and then we will be liberated. If we know how to breathe when we are lying down, like a fetus or normally, or if we are sitting, we can liberate ourselves by our breathing. At the same time we liberate countless generations of ancestors and descendants, and then we are practicing what the Buddha has taught. Only then can we look at those around us with the eyes of love, because we can look at ourselves with the eyes of love.
End of Dharma Talk
These dharma talk transcriptions are of teachings given by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village or in various retreats around the world. The teachings traverse all areas of concern to practitioners, from dealing with difficult emotions, to realizing the interbeing nature of ourselves and all things, and many more.
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