If you have eyes of signlessness, you can recognize your beloved cloud in her new form–the rain.
By Thich Nhat Hanh in October 2021
The following Dharma talk is a continuation of Part One, which appeared in the Summer 2021 issue.
No Birth, No Death
In the Heart Sutra, it says that nothing is born and nothing dies. In order for Right Thinking, Right Speech, and Right Action to be possible, we need Right View. Right View is the foundation and is what you gain by the practice of meditation. If you practice mindfulness and concentration, you’ll get Right View; and then Right Thinking, Right Speech, and Right Action become possible. Right View includes the wisdom of no birth and no death. You find that birth and death are more of a notion than reality. When you touch the nature of no birth and no death, you are free from fear and despair.
So meditate on your own birth and your own death. It’s very important. We may think that to contemplate our own death is not pleasant, so we refrain. We try to delay. We think that life is now, and death will be much later on. We don’t want to think about it. But it is like this sheet of paper where left and right are always together; birth and death are together too. You cannot take birth out of death, and you cannot take death out of birth. The cloud is dying now so that the rain is possible. If the cloud does not die, how is the rain possible?
Look at your body at this very moment: billions of cells are dying—so death is happening here and now. But you are so busy you have no time to organize their funerals. Why do you think death will not be until later? You are dying now. It’s not difficult to die now, and if you don’t die now how can cells be born? In this very moment, thousands and thousands of new cells are being born. Birth and death are happening right here and right now. Birth and death are together; they inter-are. Without one the other cannot be. Without the left the right cannot be.
The cloud has to die for the rain to be possible. Why do we look at death as something negative? It can be very positive. It allows the rain to be born. Suppose the farmers who need the rain are looking up at the sky with despair. If the cloud does not die, how can it rain on their wheat fields? Birth and death are here in the now, and one needs the other to be. If the five-year-old boy does not die, how can a young man be born? We are dying in every moment, and we are born in every moment. That is what the practitioner of meditation sees. We are dying every moment. We are being born every moment, like the cloud.
Our notions of birth and death are rather naïve. We think that now is only birth and life, and death will be later on. But we have learned that where there is birth, there’s death; and where there is death, there’s birth. If there is birth in a moment, there is also death in that moment. You cannot take life out of death and death out of life. They inter-are. That is the teaching of interbeing. If you are a scientist, think about that. We need mindfulness and practices of concentration like signlessness to get the insight of Right View, so that our thinking will be Right Thinking, our speech will be Right Speech, and our action will be Right Action.
If we have Right View, then we know how to practice Right Livelihood, earning our living with a vocation that does not harm humans and nature. There is compassion and understanding in our livelihood. We know how to live so that understanding and love are possible, because without understanding and love, happiness is not possible. Many of us think that happiness comes from money, fame, power, and sex; so many of us run after these objects of craving. But when we look around, we see that there are those who have plenty of these things. But they are utterly lonely and cut off because there is no love and no compassion. A person who has no understanding of himself and of the world cannot relate to the world and other living beings. A person who has no compassion is utterly alone; she cannot relate to another living being. How can such a person be happy?
Practicing Right Diligence
According to this teaching, what makes us truly happy is the amount of understanding and compassion in us. These are elements of happiness. A good practitioner is someone who is capable of generating understanding and compassion every day. Then with Right View, we know how to practice Right Diligence. Right Diligence is the true art of generating happiness. In Buddhism, we describe the mind as having at least two layers: the store layer has the capacity to hold and preserve our experiences, and the upper layer is mind consciousness or our conscious awareness. All information and energies are held in the store consciousness. Mindfulness exists there in the form of a seed, and the opposite of mindfulness—forgetfulness—also exists there as a seed. Concentration exists there as a seed as does its opposite: dispersion.
We have a seed of anger and an opposite seed of loving kindness, a seed of despair and a seed of hope; every kind of seed is in our store. The seed of heaven and the seed of hell are there within us. Heaven and hell are not above or below us; they are in our consciousness. It’s like a television with millions of channels. If you turn on the hell channel, hell is here and now. If you turn on paradise—the Pure Land—you have loving kindness. If you want us to help you turn on the Pure Land, we can do that because you already have all the channels within you. It’s up to you to choose the one you want.
Diligence is the practice of selective watering of these seeds. You know that you have a seed of anger down there. It’s good for that seed to continue to sleep quietly down there. When the seed of anger is sleeping, you are at peace. But that does not mean the seed of anger is not in you. If you hear something or see something that touches the seed of anger in you, that seed comes up as a form of energy called a mental formation. And you lose your peace; you lose your happiness. The mental formation called anger makes the landscape of mind consciousness lose its beauty. Down in store consciousness, it is a seed. Up here in mind consciousness, it is a mental formation.
The first practice of true diligence is to be careful not to water the negative seeds in you and in the other person. Don’t think, don’t speak, and don’t do things that can touch the negative things in you and in the other person. Tell your beloved, “Darling, you know that I have these negative seeds in me, the seed of anger and jealousy, and so on. Every time you water those seeds of anger and jealousy in me, I suffer. And if I suffer, you suffer also. So please refrain from watering the seeds of anger and fear and jealousy in me. If you really love me, practice not watering the negative seeds in me; and I will pledge the same thing. In my daily life I will not touch them by myself, and I vow not to touch these negative seeds in you.” You have to sign a peace treaty—a treaty of happiness with your partner or your co-practitioner. The first thing we commit to is not to water a negative seed in oneself or in the other person.
The second practice of diligence—if it happens that a negative seed has already manifested—is to do something to help it go down again as quickly as possible. You don’t fight it or suppress it; you invite the energy of mindfulness and concentration to come up. When you do that, there are now two zones of energy in mind consciousness: the energy of anger and the energy of mindfulness. Mindfulness is born from your practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking. The energy of mindfulness will recognize anger as an energy and embrace it.
Mindfulness practice is to recognize and embrace. If you are not a practitioner, you won’t know how to do that. You will allow only one energy to manifest at a time, and when it is the energy of anger, you will be a victim of your anger; anger will push you to do things and say things that will be destructive to you and to the other person. When you are a practitioner, you know how to invite the energy of mindfulness to come up and take care of the anger. Breathing in, I know anger is in me; breathing out, I smile to my anger. I embrace my anger peacefully like a mother holding her ailing baby. From this practice, you get relief. That is one of the methods proposed by the Buddha.
Another method is to invite the seed of the opposite nature to come up, like a seed of compassion, because compassion has the power to neutralize anger. You have the seed of compassion in you; you are capable of recognizing and understanding suffering in you and in the other person. If you look into yourself and see the suffering in you and understand it, then when you look at the other person you can easily see that there is suffering in them. When you see the suffering in the other person, compassion arises naturally. You are angry at him because you have not been able to see the suffering in him yet.
The seed of compassion in you is the Buddha in you. Don’t look for the Buddha in a Buddhist temple. Look for the Buddha in yourself, for you have the seeds of understanding and compassion. Take a few seconds to look at that person and see the suffering in them, and compassion will arise. When it arises, the mental formation called anger will go down into store consciousness right away. It’s like changing the CD when the music does not please you. Why allow it to continue? You can push a button to stop it and change the CD to have better music. You do the same when anger comes up. Don’t allow it to stay; change the CD. You have many good seeds down in your storehouse; ask them to come up instead.
The same thing should be practiced with your partner. When your partner is caught in a mental formation that makes her suffer, try to help her change the CD because she has many good CDs in herself. This second step is to change the negative by introducing the positive. Partners should sign a treaty to help each other. “Darling, when you see me dominated by anger or fear, please help me change the CD because you know that I have good CDs in myself. I have seeds of compassion, understanding, and so on. I have my buddha in myself, and you have a buddha in yourself.”
The third aspect of True Diligence is that the practitioner knows how to invite good things to come up. When you come to a retreat, you put yourself in a good environment where everything you hear and see can touch the good things in you. A Dharma talk is a kind of rain that can water the seeds of understanding and compassion in you. The sound of the bell, and the sight of a brother or sister walking mindfully: these things touch the good seeds in us. Allow yourself to be in an environment where the good things in you can be touched and encouraged to manifest on the upper level of your consciousness. Invite wholesome mental formations to manifest, like joy, happiness, tolerance, hope, brotherhood, and sisterhood. You do this practice for yourself and for your beloved ones. As a good practitioner, you know how to generate a feeling of joy with mindfulness; you know how to generate a feeling of happiness by touching the conditions of happiness that you have. We are very lucky, much luckier than many people on Earth. Touch with mindfulness these conditions of happiness. There are enough conditions to be happy right here and right now. Don’t wait until the future to do so.
The art of happiness is to invite positive mental formations to come up and make the atmosphere, the scenery, the landscape of our mind consciousness beautiful. A happy person is a person whose mind consciousness is filled with good mental formations like joy, happiness, love, understanding, and compassion. Let us invite our partner to sign the treaty, so that we also invite the goodness in our partner to come up. Practitioners must have the capacity to be happy. The most important talent is the capacity to be happy in the here and the now, and help the other person be happy through the practice of diligence.
The fourth practice of diligence is to encourage a good mental formation that has manifested in mind consciousness to stay as long as possible. If you keep your compassion alive long enough in the mind, the root in the store consciousness continues to grow. If you keep your anger up for a long time, the roots of your anger continue to grow. So do not give the negative a chance, but give the positive a lot of chances to come up. This is the fourth aspect of the practice of diligence. We call the practice of diligence the practice of happiness, because it can help us deal with suffering and it can help us create happiness.
Transcending the Notion of Being and Non-Being
The Noble Eightfold Path begins with Right View or Right Mindfulness—it’s up to you to choose. You can begin with any element of the path. The Five Mindfulness Trainings represent the path of practice that can generate joy and transform suffering in a concrete way. The practice of mindfulness and concentration bring us Right View. Touching the nature of no birth and no death, and touching the nature of reality—free from the notion of being and non-being—it is easy for us to produce thoughts in line with Right Thinking, produce speech in line with Right Speech, and produce Right Action so we can generate happiness.
Right View is the most important thing we discover with the practice. Once a monk named Katyayana asked the Buddha, “Dear teacher, you speak of Right View. What is Right View?” The Buddha said, “Right View is a kind of view that transcends the notion of being and non-being. Most wrong views are based on the notion of being and non-being. When we remove the notion of being and non-being we remove the notion of birth and death.” [draws a horizontal line on the board] This is the line representing time going from left to right, and this is a point, B, representing birth. In wrong view, birth means from the realm of non-being you come to the realm of being. Before point B, you did not exist. But according to Buddhist insight, that’s wrong thinking, because when you observe a cloud you see that before being a cloud it has been something else: water vapor. A cloud has not come from nothing, so our body-mind also has not come from nothing.
Because we have set up point B, we have to set up a point D. From point D, we die and pass again into the realm of non-being. That is the thinking of many people, and many philosophers are still caught in these two pairs of opposites: being and non-being, birth and death. Some scientists have found out there’s no birth and no death, but still many scientists are caught in the notion of being and non-being, birth and death. We believe that to be born we come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being, and that to die means to pass from the realm of being into the realm of non-being; to us birth and death are real, and being and non-being are real. But if we do meditation, we look into the nature of a cloud and we see that it is a continuation of something before it. This is a moment of continuation. And death is also a moment of continuation. You don’t continue as a cloud, but you continue as the rain. You don’t die. When you remove the pair of birth and death, at the same time you remove the pair of being and non-being, that is Right View. So, “to be or not to be,” that is not the question.
Right View in our thinking, speech, and action—our karma—helps us to bring happiness and transform suffering. Right View helps us remove fear, anger, and discrimination. This is the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the concrete practice of Buddhist ethics. It is the art of transforming suffering and creating happiness. Since suffering is impermanent, we have a chance to transform suffering into happiness. And since happiness is impermanent, it will become suffering again. But we are no longer afraid because we know how to transform suffering into happiness. We know that suffering has some part to play in the making of happiness. It is by observing and understanding suffering that we can create understanding and compassion. Understanding and compassion are the elements of happiness. If there is no suffering, how can we create understanding and happiness? Suffering has a role to play in creating happiness.
That’s why running after happiness and running away from suffering is not a wise way to live. When you embrace your suffering and look deeply into it, you create happiness. The mud helps the birth of the lotus flower. The lotus only grows in the mud; without mud, there’s no lotus. Right View is the freedom from all these kinds of dualistic views: coming and going, one and many, birth and death, being and non-being, subject and object, and so on.