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.
Dear Friends,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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