Walking in Nirvana

By Thich Nhat Hanh

New Hamlet, Plum Village

January 27, 2013

photo by Paul Davis

Dear Sangha, today is the 27th of January, 2013. We are in the Full Moon Meditation Hall in the New Hamlet of Plum Village during our Winter Retreat.

During this retreat, we have practiced not speaking and not thinking when we walk. While we walk,

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By Thich Nhat Hanh

New Hamlet, Plum Village

January 27, 2013

photo by Paul Davis

Dear Sangha, today is the 27th of January, 2013. We are in the Full Moon Meditation Hall in the New Hamlet of Plum Village during our Winter Retreat.

During this retreat, we have practiced not speaking and not thinking when we walk. While we walk, we don’t speak; we don’t even think. Stop the thinking. Maybe you think it’s difficult to do, but if you know the way, it’s easy. You know that thinking will carry you away to what happened in the past and to what might happen next. So you try to be totally in touch with the contact between your feet and the ground, and in this way you see things around you more deeply. You don’t need to run away and you are not discriminating in your thinking.

Most superficial thinking is wrong thinking, and it makes you more dispersed. Normally you say, “Oh, this rain is okay, it’s nothing interesting.” But if you connect more deeply to the rain when you walk, you will see that the rain is wonderful for little plants, and it replenishes the underground water and nourishes the earth. The more you think deeply about the rain, the less you are carried away by superficial thoughts and judgments. If you want to stop thinking when you walk, you have to pay attention to what’s happening in the present moment, especially to your feelings. If you identify and stay with what you are feeling, you will not be carried away by other thoughts. 

You have many feelings, so you choose the feeling that makes you happier and more at peace. For example, I can be aware that my lungs are healthy today, and my heart is beating normally, and my legs are walking solidly. There are those who cannot walk; maybe they have to sit in a wheelchair, or they have died. So you are in touch with the miracle of your two legs. The presence of your legs helps you to be in touch with this wonderful planet, with life around you: the sunshine, the rain, the people in this room. You have the healthy feeling: “I am in this audience with people who have come to search for something great and beautiful.” You see you are not the only one who searches for beauty, happiness, and a practice to bring you peace, and this brings you happiness already.

If you want to think in a way that brings more happiness, then you have to be skillfully in touch with the present moment, skillfully in touch with what is positive and wonderful. Don’t feel suffocated, suppressed, and miserable. Try to be in touch with what is wonderful inside you, outside you, and around you.

Mother Earth is not only under your feet. You are breathing the Earth’s atmosphere, which is also Mother Earth. You are not outside of Mother Earth; she is in you, and you participate in the no-birth, no-death nature of Mother Earth. Thus, you will never die. I manifest and then disappear, but this is nothing to be fearful of because I am Mother Earth. In this way you transcend the fear of death, of coming and going.


In Plum Village we spend more time in walking meditation than in sitting. So when we walk, we must walk relaxingly, solidly. To walk solidly means not to be carried away by thinking of the past, of what happened yesterday or even a few minutes ago. You’re not sucked into your irritation or your sadness from the past, and you’re not sucked into your planning or preparing for the future. The future does not dominate you. You have no fear, no anxiety, and no worries for the future. That is solidity.

Nobody can pull you into the future or the past. With every step you are unshakable. You have a lot of freedom; you are the master of yourself in the present moment. You are in control of the present moment, but controlled in a relaxed, not a rigid way. Solidity is one of the qualities of your steps. So with every step, there is the quality of being unshakable, of being solid. A bodhisattva, a buddha, must have this characteristic of solidity. 

The second quality is freedom. You are not a victim or a slave of your worries, your anxieties, your fears. You are free from all that. And when you are free and relaxed and happy, you have a lot of space. When your mind is relaxed and filled with happiness and freedom, then you are solid. The more solid you are, the freer you are; the freer you are, the more solid you are. So every step you make in this way is a kind of healing. And every step is a miracle because you see that in the present moment you are walking on this wonderful planet. 

You have walked all your life, and you’re still walking, but walking in forgetfulness. Now you know how to walk like a sovereign, like the king or queen of your situation. Every step is solid, every step is free. You have all the conditions to be happy: you have good lungs, a good heart, good legs, a good body, and you can walk ten steps, twenty steps, or more. When you teach yourself to walk like that, you are advancing in Buddhist meditation, because Buddhist meditation is not only sitting. 

If every step you take has solidity and freedom, then with every step you are stepping in nirvana. Nirvana is not something theoretical or abstract or in another world. If you are solid and free as you walk, you are already in nirvana. Many words are used to describe nirvana. Stillness, peace, calm, tranquility, harmony. A cool purity, where there is no fire of fear, of anger, of craving. All these fires are extinct. Nirvana literally means extinction of all afflictions. 

We can be in touch with nirvana with every step we take, so walking meditation is a profound practice. It is not as superficial as we thought. We may think that sitting meditation is more serious and profound, and that walking is not serious. That is not correct. 


The Buddha taught that there are three Dharma seals. If you give a talk and these three seals are not revealed within it, this is not Buddhism.  

The first Dharma seal is impermanence. This is a truth you cannot deny. The second truth is that there is no separate self. Every self is a composite of many, many other elements. So there is no eternal soul. Instead there is a mind that is flowing and changing and growing or diminishing. That is no self.

Let’s say that yesterday you saw the Seine River. You think this is the same river that you saw twenty years ago. But it’s not the same; it’s made of billions and billions of drops of water that have already run far away. Nothing has permanent status or a permanent nature. If you look deeply into the Seine River, you see that all the drops of water have changed and all the animal species in the river have changed. So there is a continuum. There is nothing eternal, separate, solid, and immobile.

Your mind is the same. Your mind has one feeling followed by another feeling, and another and another. You have a perception, followed by another and another; you have a mental formation, and another and another. Everything is a flowing stream. If you think there is a mind that is separate, immobile, and certain, then you are caught in wrong thinking. 

If you think that when you die, you will be exactly the same as you are now, that is wrong thinking, called eternalism. On the other side, if you think that when you die nothing remains, that is also wrong thinking, called nihilism. Eternalism and nihilism are both wrong. No self is in the middle. It’s not the same but it’s not different. There is something but it is always changing. When your body dies, many things continue, but they continue to change. If you look into nature, you can observe this yourself. You don’t need to believe in the Buddha. If you can look deeper and deeper, you will discover this truth by yourself.


So the First Dharma Seal is impermanence, and the Second Dharma Seal is no self. The Third Dharma Seal is nirvana. Nirvana is the extinction of all the categories that you try to put everything in. You see the flowing, changing continuum, and you accept life as it is. In the phenomenal world you can see that there is coming and going, but if you look deeper, you see that the nature of everything is no coming and no going. It manifests, it changes, and it continues. Nothing dies.

The three-year-old boy dies, but he gives birth to the four-year-old boy, the five-year-old boy, the twenty-five-year-old boy. He’s still alive. There’s no birth and no death, because birth is defined as: from nothing, you become something. And death is: from something, you disappear. That is wrong thinking. When you look deeper, you can see that birth and death are only a continuum. This one is born, this one dies and gives birth to another one.

In Plum Village, we say that the cloud does not come from nothing. The cloud comes from water vapor plus a little bit of cold air. But the floating cloud cannot die, because when the cloud is no longer there, it becomes snow or water. It enters into a flower; it becomes a rose. When you look at something, you can see the quality of impermanence through the element of change. And the quality of no self is continuation. 

Nirvana extinguishes all notions of birth and death. You taste reality as it is. Reality is like clouds, like rain. Reality is like a creek of water that impregnates the flower and all things. 

Scientific theory states that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. The scientist Lavoisier said that nothing is born, nothing dies. When matter disappears, it becomes energy. Material things die to become another kind of matter or they transform into energy. That energy may seem to die, but instead it transforms into matter. Everything is transforming but nothing dies. We can create more matter or we can create more energy, and we can create more energy from that energy. There is a continuum of change, but matter will never die and energy will never die. You will never die. The cloud will never die. Your mother will never die. No one will ever die. This continuum is visible, but sometimes not visible with the limited window of visibility of the human eye. There is transmigration, with everything continually changing. Nothing is permanent, nothing is separate; there is no isolated self.

The nature of the world is no birth, no death, no coming, no going. So there is no existence and no non-existence. In the discriminative mind we try to distinguish, “Here is existence, here is no existence, here is birth, here is death.” But reality transcends the notion of being born, the notion of dying, of being dead. And nirvana is the extinction of all these notions. You are in touch with what is continuing, of so-called life and so-called death. You are in touch with that continuum in your body, in your feelings, in your perceptions, in your steps.  

One of the sutras enumerates a number of names for nirvana. The first one is “the truth.” The second name of nirvana is “the other shore.” We come from the shore of confusion and fear. When we go to the other shore, we extinguish all worries and anxieties. We are one with reality. We have solidity, we have freedom. On this shore we are worried, we are angry, we are hurt, we feel humiliated. But when we decide to go to the other shore, we are free. We may start out lost and miserable, but when we decide to step onto the other shore, we let go of the past and our worries and expectations about the future. We step onto the shore of freedom, where we are solid, where we are free. To step onto the other shore, we just stop. We let go of our worries and anxieties, our fear and our expectations. We go to the other shore and we decide to be free, to be fresh.

For example, if you are angry with your partner, you may want to hurt him or her. You think of something to say that will make her suffer, and you think that will make you happier. But in fact, when you say something that makes her suffer, then you also suffer. You start on this shore, but if you decide to go to the other shore, if you go back to your in-breath and out-breath, you realize that you are wrong to think that making your partner suffer will make you happy. So you wake up, and you decide to step onto the other shore. You breathe in mindfully. When you have mindfulness, you have concentration. And when you have concentration, you look deeper and deeper, and you have insight, vision. The insight is not difficult; it is not far away. You only need to step onto the other shore, release the anger, release the idea of making him or her suffer. 

Another word for nirvana is non-thinking. You don’t need to think. Instead, you taste this, you feel that. Nirvana is total freedom. It’s equal to God with a capital G. In Christianity there is the expression, “resting in God.” This means you release all notions and you totally rest in God. You rest in freedom, in solidity, in the huge heart of compassion, and you release all your suffering.

So resting in God, resting in nirvana, is no fear, no birth, no death, no coming, no going. The water knows that whether she is a big wave or a small wave, she is water. A wave can be born and can die, can be big or small, but the water is the same. If the wave knows she is made of water, she is not afraid of anything. You rest in God, and the wave rests in the water. You can see that these bodies of ours are only waves, and you rest in that being, that big ground of reality, of no birth, no death. Nirvana is beyond thinking and beyond discussing. 


Nirvana is peace, tranquility, and safety. It is an island in a very turbulent ocean. You have that safe island in you. In his old age, the Buddha thought, “One day I will no longer be in this body,” so he went to each center and taught the following teaching: “Please don’t take refuge in me, so-called Gautama Buddha, or anyone else; take refuge in your own island of yourself.” 

Your own island of yourself starts with your in-breath and out-breath. You learn to dissociate yourself from all fears, worries, and anxieties. The more you dwell in that island of yourself, through the in-breath and out-breath, and dissociate yourself from fears, notions, and dispersion, the more that island will grow. Even when life goes up and down with coming, going, gaining, and losing, you dwell in the island of yourself, and you are safe. Don’t believe in me, don’t believe in any god, don’t believe in any big teacher. The greater teacher is you, the island of yourself, the peace in yourself.

There is no way to nirvana, nirvana is the way. The relative, conventional truth says that you are different from me; Europeans are different from Asians. In the relative truth, there is difference and discrimination. But when you enter nirvana, there is the extinction of all these notions. I am you; I am one with my good friend, but I am also one with my bad friend. I am one with the one I love, and I am one with those I don’t love. I try to live in a way that is inclusive, to be one with all. Extinguish all notions of judgment and try to look deeper, to be inclusive. 

If from the phenomenal, conventional truth you reach the ultimate Truth, it is thanks to the practice of mindfulness, dwelling in the present moment. When you have more concentration, you have deep vision. And when you have deep vision, you see that everything is one; you see wholeness.

If you go deep into the wisdom of adaptation [draws “Z” on the board], the top line refers to the relative truth, where you are different from me and I am different from others. But the bottom line is the ultimate dimension, where everything is one and there is no discrimination. The line linking the relative truth to ultimate truth means interbeing, nondiscrimination. The way to touch nirvana is also nirvana. 

You may be angry at your partner, but you want to be in nirvana so you start to be non-discriminating. “I know she is me, and I am her, so there’s nothing to be angry at.” You are training slowly. You are already on the way to nirvana. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are a concrete illustration of the way to go to nirvana. If you use the trainings with mindfulness, with concentration, with insight, every minute will be happiness. Every minute will be liberation. 

Nirvana is the world of bliss, of joy, of peace, and that is the extinction of all notions. You are in nirvana. Nirvana is not something that you die in order to enter. You’re in nirvana right away. You are already in the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha.

You have to taste nirvana for yourself. If someone asks you, “What does a kiwi taste like?” You say, “Uh, uh, uh.” “Like an orange?” “No.” “Is it like a mango?” “No.” But if you put a piece of kiwi in your mouth, you know the nature of kiwi right away. There is no word to describe the kiwi; you just taste it. Nirvana is the same. There is no need to use all this vocabulary to describe nirvana; you have to taste it for yourself.  

You are a practitioner, so you already have nirvana. It’s up to you whether you decide to taste nirvana or not. It is available. If you practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings properly, and with every step you make, you step onto the other shore, the shore of safety, the shore of freedom, the shore of nondiscrimination—you taste nirvana. It’s nothing vague or far away. You don’t need to die in order to enter nirvana. You can taste nirvana here and now if you live deeply in the present moment. 

At first your mind is dispersed, and you think of this and that. You practice bringing your mind back to the present moment. You go deeper into the present moment and you discover many wonderful things. You can taste nirvana. You have safety, you have calmness, you have solidity. Then you can help others. You can help others when you are peaceful, calm, solid, and free.

About thirty years ago, in an airport, a man came up to me and asked, “Who are you? What kind of spiritual tradition are you learning?” I asked him, “Why do you ask like that?” He said, “Because I see that the way you walk is so different from others. The way you walk is so peaceful, so relaxed.” He only asked because of the way he saw me walk—that’s all. I didn’t give a speech or a conference. So with every step you make, you can create understanding and give joy to people.

Translated from Vietnamese by Sister Chan Khong. Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Barbara Casey.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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