By Thich Nhat Hanh in June 2016
Dear friends, in classical science represented by Newton, things are separate. The seed is outside the plant; the plant is outside the seed. But in quantum physics, we begin to see things differently. Things are no longer outside of each other but are actually in each other.
In Buddhism, we train ourselves to look in this way. Looking into the seed of corn, we can see the corn plant. Looking into the child, we see the dad. The dad and the mom exist in every cell of the child, as do the grandfathers, grandmothers, and all the child’s ancestors. So the child carries her father, her mother, her ancestors in her. There is no separate self. The “me” is made of non-me elements. We are all made of non-us elements. When we look at ourselves, we see our ancestors, including mineral ancestors, vegetal ancestors, animal ancestors, and human ancestors. We are a stream. Looking into ourselves we can see the whole lineage of beings, animate and inanimate.
When we look into a flower, we see that the flower is made of non-flower elements, like clouds, light, and water. If we remove those elements, then the flower will disappear. In Buddhism we know that the flower cannot exist by itself; it has to inter-be with the entire cosmos. So just being is not possible. Interbeing is the only thing possible.
The Buddha expressed this simply: “This is because that is.” This is interbeing. You cannot be by yourself; you have to inter-be with us, and with the light, with the plants, with oxygen, with water, with other species. If there is no above, there is no below. The left cannot exist by itself; it has to co-exist with the right. These two things are not enemies. Each has to lean on the other in order to be. That’s why we use the word inter-be.
If we look at things in this way, discrimination, hatred, and anger can be transformed. It’s very important. This is called Right View, insight. Modern science is trying to discover this nature of interbeing.
Human beings, for example, are not only children of the Earth; we are also children of the stars, because in the Earth there are stars. Looking at the planet Earth, we can see the sun, we can see the stars. We know that there is a very deep connection between the planet Earth and the stars. We are made of stars.
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS: USING SUFFERING TO PRODUCE HAPPINESS
Buddhism began with the Four Noble Truths. We think the Four Noble Truths speak only of suffering, but that’s not true, because in suffering there are many non-suffering elements that have come together—just like the non-flower elements that have come together to produce the flower. So suffering is made of non-suffering elements.
The Buddha said nothing can survive without food. Say that love is born between you and another person. Love is beautiful and precious, but if you do not know how to nourish that love, it will die and become something else, like anger and hatred. Like an organic gardener, if we offer the proper nourishment, we’ll be able to transform the hatred and anger back into love. This is possible because love and hatred both have an organic nature. Love can become hatred. Hatred can also come back to being love. So we should not despair. With the practice, we can use suffering to reproduce happiness. So the Four Noble Truths are not only about pain.
The First Noble Truth is called dukkha, which is translated as ill-being or suffering. Buddhism starts with recognizing the presence of ill-being. We have to accept the fact that ill-being is there, suffering is there. We should not try to run away from the truth. There is suffering in me, there is suffering in you, there is suffering in the world. We have to affirm the truth.
The Second Noble Truth is the causes, the roots, the origins of the ill-being, and the nature of the sources of that ill-being. The Buddha reminds us that nothing can survive without food, including ill-being. It cannot exist if it is not fed. You have to recognize that you have fed your ill-being. If suffering continues to be there, it’s because you continue to feed it.
For example, there’s depression in you, and that depression refuses to leave. Why? Because you continue to feed it through your way of consuming, bringing toxic elements into your body and your mind every day. You are not practicing well the Fifth Mindfulness Training on mindful consumption. You consume not only through your mouth. You also consume through your eyes, your ears, your nose, your body, and most of all, your mind. You have brought in many harmful, toxic elements into yourself, and that has brought the suffering of depression, which continues.
So the Second Noble Truth is looking deeply into ill-being to discover the roots of it and what is feeding it. You need to identify the food that you have used to feed your suffering. There is suffering, and if the suffering continues, it’s because you keep feeding it. That’s the teaching of the Buddha.
Then the Buddha said it is possible to end ill-being, to cure our depression. That is the Third Noble Truth, the cessation of ill-being: healing, transformation. The cessation of ill-being is the beginning of well-being. The cessation of suffering is the beginning of happiness. The transformation of ill-being brings well-being. So the Third Noble Truth is that well-being is possible.
The Four Noble Truths are not only about suffering; they are also about happiness. The Buddha confirms that happiness is possible right in the present moment.
Like the left and the right, suffering and happiness must co-exist. There is a deep connection between the two, as with the lotus and the mud; if there is no mud, there will be no lotus. Without suffering, there is no happiness. The Buddha knows how to use suffering to produce happiness. This is the intention and teaching of the Four Noble Truths. So ill-being is there, and there is a way of living that helps ill-being to continue. But happiness can be there, too. And there has to be a way of living to bring about the cessation of ill-being, which is the presence of well-being.
When ignorance ceases, light is born. Light and darkness cannot exist separately. These two things inter-are. They manifest at the same time, just like the left and the right, the above and the below. We cannot say that the right should be there first for the left to manifest; they have to manifest simultaneously, in the same instant. Good and bad, suffering and happiness, ill-being and well-being—these are not separate entities. Each has to base itself on the other to manifest. That is the teaching of interbeing.
There are Four Noble Truths, but according to the spirit of interbeing, these four truths are not separate from each other either. That is the correct way to study the Four Noble Truths. When you look into one truth, you will see the other three truths. If you have not seen the other three truths in the first truth, then you have not really seen the first truth.
When you have not seen the plant of corn in the corn seed, then you haven’t really seen the corn seed. The one contains the all. So when you look deeply into ill-being, you see not just the causes of that ill-being, but you also see the possibility of well-being. You see that well-being is there in the ill-being, just like the organic gardener sees the vegetables and flowers in the compost, in the garbage. That’s why he keeps the garbage; he doesn’t throw it away.
Suffering has a role to play. And as practitioners, we should know how to make use of our suffering. When we look deeply into our suffering, understanding of our suffering will be born. And when we see into the roots of our suffering, we suffer less right away. We see our mom, our dad, and our ancestors. When we see suffering in the other person, we understand their suffering, and compassion arises. We no longer wish to blame or punish. We want to do something to help the other person to suffer less.
So understanding suffering will generate compassion, and compassion helps you to suffer less right away. Compassion, like understanding, is the basis of happiness. A person who has no compassion and understanding is not a happy person. Even if the person has a lot of power, a lot of money and fame, that person is not happy if they don’t have compassion, understanding, and love.
But how can we get understanding and love? We need suffering. To make the lotus, we have to have mud. So we get in touch with our suffering, we look deeply to understand the nature of our suffering. That gives us understanding, and compassion and love manifest naturally. So happiness is connected to suffering.
When we look deeply into the First Noble Truth, ill-being, what do we see? We see the roots of ill-being. We also see that it is possible to end that ill-being and to establish well-being. And we see the way that leads to the end of ill-being, the way to well-being.
RIGHT VIEW: THE PATH TO WELL-BEING
To help us, the Buddha sought to describe in detail the path that can bring back well-being. That path is called the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha begins with Right View. Right View is the fruit of our meditation. Meditating means having the time to listen, to look deeply with mindfulness and with concentration. With good concentration, we will be able to make a breakthrough into reality, and we will have Right View.
One time a monk came to the Buddha. He asked, “Dear Buddha, you have spoken many times about Right View. What is Right View exactly?”
The Buddha said, “Right View is the view that is free of notions of being and nonbeing. Most people in the world are caught either in the notion of being or in the notion of nonbeing. But the ultimate reality transcends both these notions.”
In Buddhism, being and nonbeing are just notions. The ultimate reality is free of these notions. What is birth? We think, “To be born means from the world of nonexistence, of nonbeing, we pass into being. From no one we become someone. From nothing at all we become something. We have come from the realm of nonbeing into being.”
In our usual way of thinking, to be born is to pass from the realm of nonbeing into the realm of being because before I was born, I didn’t exist! This is how most people in the world think. But according to Buddhism, birth, death, being, and nonbeing—these are nothing but notions. And truth transcends all notions.
When we look at a cloud in the sky, we may think of the birth of the cloud. But did that cloud come into being from nothing? Let’s imagine we are scientists. We may be able to see what meditation practitioners can see. It’s impossible for something to come from nothing. A cloud cannot come from nothing, so before being a cloud, it must have been something else: water in the ocean, heat from the sun, et cetera. So that moment we call birth is not a true beginning; the cloud has not come from nothingness into being. We cannot say that that cloud did not exist before it manifested in the form of a cloud. Before that, the cloud was something. So its nature is the nature of no birth.
Many philosophers talk about being, but they ignore the fact that the notion of being has to be born at the same time with the notion of nonbeing, of nothingness. There are theologians who say, “God is the ground of being.” But if God is the ground of being, then who is the ground of nonbeing? God, the Absolute, has to transcend notions of both being and nonbeing. We cannot describe God in terms of being and nonbeing. We cannot even describe a cloud in terms of being and nonbeing, because a cloud is never born and never dies. A cloud may become rain, snow, or hail, but a cloud cannot become nothing, because its true nature is the nature of no death. There is no birth, no death; there is no beginning, there is no end. These are just ideas, notions. That’s Right View.
Modern science confirms this. The first law of thermodynamics, conservation of energy, says matter cannot be created or destroyed. Matter may transform into energy; energy may transform into matter. But there is no true birth; there is no true death. That’s why the Buddha said, “Insight, Right View, is the view that transcends the ideas of being and nonbeing.”
Let’s suppose we are looking at a wave. A wave has a beginning, an end, a rise, and a fall. Compared to other waves, she may be more or less beautiful, more or less powerful. We can use adjectives to describe the wave, but with these kinds of notions the wave may suffer a lot. The wave may say, “I’m here now, but at some point I’m going to become nonbeing, maybe in a few seconds!” And then the wave gets the fear of nothingness, the fear and anxiety of nonbeing, just like humans do.
But nonbeing and being are only notions, and if you can touch the truth of no birth and no death, no being and no nonbeing, then you are free. And when you touch that truth, you touch nirvana. Nirvana is the extinction, the absence of all these notions, including being and nonbeing.
If you touch the nature of no birth and no death, of no being and no nonbeing, you are free of discrimination. So Right View is a view that is free of all discrimination. Discrimination is the cause of so much pain. Discrimination gives rise to fear, to jealousy, to complexes, whether of superiority, inferiority, or equality. So the path that leads to the cessation of suffering contains Right View. With Right View there is no more discrimination, there’s no more dualism, no more fear and hatred. And then happiness is possible. When we look deeply into things, we can touch the true nature of reality, which is the nature of no birth and no death. And we can remove from our minds these notions of nonbeing and of being.
Right View is the foundation of nondiscrimination, mutual cooperation, and compassion. That’s why in the Second Noble Truth we can already identify the element of wrong view. Wrong view is thinking the father and the son are two totally different entities. The father cannot be anything but the father, and the son can only be the son—that’s discrimination. With meditation we can see the father in the son. We can see the corn plant in the corn seed. That’s Right View. Things are not outside of each other; they are in each other.
The Christian Gospel of John says, “One day you will see that I am in the Father.” You are in me, and I am in you. That is the teaching of interbeing. The father is in the son; the son is in the father. The Father is in the Holy Spirit; the Son is in the Holy Spirit. We inter-are. That is Right View. And with that view there is no discrimination, even between Creator and creation. The Creator and the creation are not outside of each other. Just like the corn seed and the corn plant. That is the insight that you can attain thanks to meditation, and you touch the nature of interbeing. The teaching on interbeing also exists in the Christian Gospel.
RIGHT THINKING AND RIGHT SPEECH: NOURISHING AND HEALING
With this insight called Right View, the thoughts that we produce are right thoughts that carry nondiscrimination, understanding, and compassion. Every time we have this kind of thought, it can nourish and heal ourselves and the world. We need to teach our children Right Thinking—thinking permeated by love, understanding, and nondiscrimination.
A good practitioner can always produce Right Thinking to nourish and heal himself, and to nourish and heal the world. And when the practitioner speaks, what the person says is Right Speech, using words that have no discrimination in them. I see that I am in you and you are in me, so your suffering is my suffering, my happiness is your happiness. We listen and we speak with the mind of nondiscrimination. This kind of listening and speech can restore communication and establish reconciliation. As a practitioner, we can always find something to say to help remove wrong perceptions, to restore communication, and to bring about reconciliation. All of this happens on the foundation of Right View, nondiscrimination. My suffering is your suffering; your happiness is my happiness.
RIGHT ACTION: THREE FORMS OF KARMA
In Buddhism, there is the word karma. That word means action in terms of thoughts, in terms of speech, and in terms of physical acts. Thinking is one kind of action. If you think according to Right View, you’ll be able to heal the world without discrimination. Thinking is already acting. Speaking is already acting. We speak, and with those words we produce many good things, like understanding, trust, love, hope. With physical action, we can bring relief to ourselves and to the world. We can bring about happiness. So thoughts, speech, and physical actions are three forms of karma.
Every thought we produce, every word we produce, every physical act we do never dies. Nothing dies. Those actions continue always. That is your continuation. You think you’re just this physical body—that is not Right View. You are much more than this body. You are your actions. What I think, what I say, what I do, those are my continuation, and they will bring consequences. And whether those consequences are beautiful or not depends entirely on the quality of the actions.
The cloud will not die; it will become snow or rain. If the cloud has a lot of acid, then it will produce acid rain. But if the cloud is pure, the water produced in that rain will be pure water. There is a quality to your thinking, your speech, and your physical actions. Your thinking may produce happiness or pain. That’s your continuation.
After the disintegration of this body, you continue because it’s impossible to really die. You are just like a cloud; you can never die. And if you know how to live, you’ll be able to continue in beauty. How? With your thinking, your speech, and your actions. What you have produced in terms of thinking, speech, and physical acts are still out there. That’s why we want to take care of the present moment and only produce Right Thinking, thoughts of nondiscrimination, of understanding and love. We will continue beautifully when we do that. Right Action based on Right View will bring good, positive consequences. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Man is the sum of his acts.” That’s true.
What happens when I die? It’s very clear. There is the dissolution of this physical body, but I continue in my karma, in what I have produced in terms of thoughts, words, and acts. And that’s why the path leading to happiness is this Eightfold Path starting with Right View.
Translated from French into English by Sister Pine.
Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Barbara Casey.