Dharma Talk: Interbeing and the Nature of Perception

November 3, 1997 

Key West, Florida

Dear friends, we should train ourselves to think and to see things in the light of interbeing. Suppose we think in terms of left and right. We may believe that the left is not the right and the right is not the left. Sometimes we like only the left and we don’t like the right,

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November 3, 1997 

Key West, Florida

Dear friends, we should train ourselves to think and to see things in the light of interbeing. Suppose we think in terms of left and right. We may believe that the left is not the right and the right is not the left. Sometimes we like only the left and we don’t like the right, so we want to remove the right. But looking deeply we can see that the right is made of the left and the left is made of the right. You cannot remove the left from the right or the right from the left.  

Looking deeply we see that the left and the right are not enemies; they contain each other. Every time you have a presidential election, you think in terms of the Democrats and the Republicans, and you take a side. You suffer or you are happy because one party wins or loses. But if we look more deeply we see that the two parties are made of each other and have a lot of things in common. The success of one party is made of the lack of success of the other party.

photo by Paul Davis

The Buddha said that this is because that is; this is not because that is not. These words are very simple but very deep. This is because that is. The right is because the left is. If you remove the left, there will be no right. If you remove the right, there will be no left.  

We are caught in the tendency to think that body and mind are two different things. We should train ourselves to see in a different way, in terms of nonduality, interbeing, and to discover that mind is not mind, body is not body. Body is mind; mind is body. This is fundamental. 

Nuclear scientists tell us that an elementary particle of matter manifests sometimes as a wave and sometimes as a particle. In our thinking, a wave cannot be a particle, and a particle cannot be a wave. How can an electron sometimes manifest as a wave and sometimes as a particle? 

We should learn to look at our body and our consciousness to see that a thing manifests sometimes as body and sometimes as spirit. And looking deeply into the physical, the physiological, you might find out that it’s not only physical, it is also mental. 

Mankind can now duplicate a body through cloning. We can take just one cell from anywhere in our body and make an exact copy of our whole body. In each cell of our body is stored the whole cosmos, including all the talents and shortcomings of our ancestors. If we begin to see deeply like this, we will no longer say that something is only physical or only mental.  


In the Buddhist studies of the mind, we are reminded that the body is first an object of our perception. And as object of our perception, it is perception, because perception is made of the perceiver and the perceived, subject and object. Every perception has these two parts, which have to manifest at the same time. We may think that our perception is like a yardstick that we take out to measure things. We may think the subject of perception is a separate entity we use to perceive the object of perception. But that is not correct. Perception means both subject of perception and object of perception. Perception is always perception of something. Without the object of perception, there cannot be perception. It is like eating. Eating means eating something. You cannot just eat nothing.  

So we train ourselves to look and touch things within ourselves and around us as objects of our perception, touching perception itself. We learn to do that so we don’t get caught in the idea that the object of our perception is something existing independently from our perception.  

When we talk about the present moment, we need to use words, but we can get caught in those words. When we hear that we should try to live only in the present moment, we may think we are not allowed to touch the past or to plan for the future. Thinking this way is based in the view of duality—because it is the present, it is not the past; because it is the past, it cannot be the present. But in the light of interbeing, the present contains the past and the past contains the present. The saying, “The past is gone, the past is no longer there” is true but it is not entirely true, because the present is made only of the past. If we touch the present deeply, we also touch the past. So the past is not truly gone. 


We believe that we cannot go back to the past and fix things, but in fact, when we touch the present moment we can still feel the wounds we created in the past. If we know how to touch the present moment deeply, we find that our ancestors are still alive in us. Say that in the past, I said something unkind to my mother and the wound is still there in me. Establishing myself in the present moment, I touch the present moment and I also touch the wound. I can see that my mother is still alive in me because I am the continuation of my mother. That’s the insight you get when you are able to see and touch deeply. My mother is me; I am the continuation of my mother. If I say, “Mother, I am sorry. I will not say something like that again,” and I can see my mother smiling to me, then the wound will be healed. You can heal the wounds of the past by touching the present moment.  

When your mind is changed, everything will change. Our mind has the capacity of beginning anew and re-creating the cosmos. So everything of the past is still available to us if we know how to touch the present. The same is true of the future. We might think the future is not here yet, but if we touch the present moment we can touch the future because the future is made of only one substance: the present moment. And the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.  

If you touch the present moment deeply, you will have insight about your former lives. In my former lives I was a bird, I was a rock, I was a cloud, I was a mountain, I was a squirrel. This is not a mere belief, because when I touch myself deeply I find that I am still a squirrel, I am still a cloud, I am still a tree, I am still a mountain, I am still a deer. If you take the mountain or the cloud out of me, I can no longer be myself. I am actually all these things. That is the insight of interbeing that I touch when I touch the present moment. When you touch the one, you touch the all.  

And this is also true concerning future lives. Because I am in touch with myself deeply in this moment, I can touch the future. I know what I am going to be in the future just by touching the present moment. The practice of looking deeply is a training, and when you are able to look and to touch deeply, you touch the nature of interbeing within yourself and around you.


The Buddha proposed the Sanskrit terms, nama and rupa. Nama means the mind, consciousness, and rupa means the body, form. Namarupa. Sometimes a reality manifests as nama; other times the same reality might manifest as rupa, so the distinction is only to help your practice. We should bear in mind that this is not an attempt to describe reality. All analysis within Buddhist psychology is for the sake of practice, not for the pure sake of understanding or for analysis. 

So, speaking simply, there is the body and there is the mind. There is a meditation called “the contemplation of the body in the body,” and one called “the contemplation of the mind in the mind.” Why this kind of repetition? Because while we do the work of contemplation, of looking deeply, we should not establish ourselves as an observer standing outside. We have to participate in the object of our observation. This is essential in Buddhist practice.  

In the French language we have the word comprendre, which means understanding. It is made of the word prendre, which means pick up in your hand, and the prefix com, which means to be one with. You pick up something and you become one with it in order to understand it. So when you practice looking deeply into something, don’t try to stay a separate observer. You have to be a participant because in the practice of deep looking, the separation between observer and observed vanishes. That is why the Buddha used the expressions, “contemplation of the body in the body, contemplation of the feelings in the feelings, contemplation of the perceptions in the perceptions.” The stress on nondualism, on interbeing, is very important in Buddhist methodology. 

Therefore the simplest distinction is namarupa, mind and form. At this point we only need to remember that reality manifests sometimes as form and sometimes as mind, so we don’t get caught by the idea that form is not mind and that mind is not form.  


The second kind of distinction is the five skandhas. Skandhas is a Sanskrit word which means heaps, elements, or aggregates. Imagine a circle representing a tangerine with five sections. The first section is rupa, our form, our body. The second section of the tangerine represents our feelings, the third our perceptions. The fourth section of the tangerine represents our mental formations, and the fifth represents our consciousness. Again, this distinction is just to help us to practice. 

When we talk about mental formations, we need to understand that “formation” is a technical term. It means everything is made of everything else. For example, a flower is a formation because it is made of the seed, the plant, the sunshine, the rain, the earth, of minerals, of time, of space. A flower is made of non-flower elements. So a flower is a formation. Samskara is the term for formation. So a flower is a rupa samskara, a material formation, while our anger, our sorrow, our hate, our love, our fear are mental formations. In Mahayana Buddhism, we talk about fifty-one categories of mental formations. When I was a novice I had to memorize these fifty-one categories. 

The second section of the tangerine is the mental formation called feelings; the third section is the mental formation called perception. So the fourth section of the tangerine, called mental formations, represents the other forty-nine mental formations. The practices of contemplating the feelings in the feelings and the perceptions in the perceptions are so important, they need their own categories. 

Perception always includes subject of perception and object of perception. Form is the object of perception. We cannot exist independently from perception, and yet we have to separate them and to consider form as one skandha, and perception as another skandha.  This is because that is; that is because this is. We see how each of the five skandhas inter-is with the other four. We should get used to looking, touching, and thinking in such a way that we can see the one in the all and the all in the one, in the light of interbeing.


If we look deeply into the nature of being, we will discover the nature of interbeing because it is impossible for something to be by itself alone. A flower is made of non-flower elements, including the cloud, the sunshine, the seed, and the earth, so it has to inter-be with everything else. To be means to inter-be, and the words “to inter-be” reveal more reality than the words “to be.”  

Nothing has a separate self and that is why the notion of no self can be found in the expression “interbeing.” Touching deeply a flower, we can touch everything in the cosmos. A flower is only empty of one thing: a separate self, a separate existence. That is why the expression “emptiness” is very helpful. To be empty means to be empty of a separate existence, of a separate self. You and I are empty of a separate self because our true nature is the nature of interbeing. This is because that is. 

This is a wonderful way to look at things. When we look at form, we have to look in such a way that we can touch the nature of interbeing of form. Form is made of non-form elements. Body is made of non-body elements. Perception is made of non-perception elements. And in that way we will never get caught in duality and the idea of a self.

So we can begin with the contemplation of the body in the body, how to handle our body, how to touch it deeply, how to understand it, how to bring peace and solidity into our body. And while contemplating this we see the connection between body and feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. If you know how to practice deeply the contemplation of the body in the body, you have already practiced with all the aggregates. 

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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