Buddhist Ethics / Talk 3: How Can We Know What is Right?

Thay’s 2008-09 Teachings on Ethics – Talk 3 – Rains 2023
Dear friends,

Today's talk in English (7 June 2009) distilled Thay's 2008 Rains Retreat teachings Ethics, in particular, on touching non-fear and freedom with Right View.  

We will continue to share related videos, excerpts, and reflection questions throughout the coming months. 

The value of our life depends on the value of our thinking

Thinking can affect the world. If you think wrongly, the world will be destroyed. The world will suffer and you will suffer. That is why you have to practice Right Thinking. 

When you produce a thought in the line of Right Thinking, a thought that has no discrimination, that goes along with interbeing, understanding, forgiveness, and compassion, that thought will have an effect right away on your mind, on your health, and on the world.

Producing right thinking can heal yourself. We have to learn the art of right thinking.

And if you think in the wrong way, it destroys your body and mind. So it is very important to learn how to produce a thought of compassion, a thought of forgiveness, a thought of understanding, a thought of non-discrimination.

Right speech can heal and liberate

Speaking also can change the world. 

If we are capable of saying something in the line of compassion, understanding, non-discrimination, all-embracing, we feel wonderful in our body, in our mind. When you write a letter full of compassion and forgiveness, you are feeling very well within yourself. So Right Speech also can heal and liberate. 

The third form of action is bodily action. If you are able to do something in the line of saving, supporting, protecting, comforting, rescuing, saving, you feel wonderful within yourself. And you get the effect right away.

We call the actions of body, speech, and mind “karma”. Karma means action

Orange Fruit on Tree

When we observe an orange tree, we see that the orange tree wants to propagate beautiful leaves, beautiful blossoms,
and beautiful oranges.

What we as humans can offer is our thinking, our speech, and our action. That is our continuation, the outcome of our being, and they will not be lost.

The effect of our thinking, speech, and bodily action will continue in the cosmos whether this body is still there or it has disintegrated. Karma, as an energy, continues. 

According to Buddhist wisdom, the view of immortality, permanence, is a wrong view. Because according to our observation, everything is impermanent, everything is changing, nothing can be the same forever.

But to say that when we die there is nothing left is also a wrong view. 

Suppose we speak of the death of a cloud. You look up in the sky and you don’t see your beloved cloud anymore. “Oh my beloved cloud, how can I survive without you?” You think the cloud has passed from being into non-being, but in fact, it is not possible for a cloud to die. It is only possible for her to become rain, snow, fog, water vapor.

And before becoming a cloud, she had been water in the sea. So there is no birth. Being a cloud is a continuation. When the cloud disappears in the sky, it does not pass from being to non-being. It continues always.

So the nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth and no death. The nature of your beloved one is like that.
And you are like that also.

So Right Thinking is a kind of thinking that is based on Right View, and Right Thinking is free from fear, from discrimination.

We know that with the insight of of interbeing, the insight of non-self, the insight of non-duality, the thinking will have the chance to be Right Thinking, the speaking will have the chance to be Right Speech, and the action will have the chance to be Right Action. 

When you practice Right Mindfulness, you bring about good concentration, you can break through and understand reality as it is. You overcome all wrong views, and you get Right View, which is insight.

And it is insight that liberates you from fear, despair, and anger.

Insight is possible only with the energy of mindfulness and concentration. That is why practitioners of Buddhist meditation are those who generate the energy of mindfulness in their daily life, and practice, concentrated on the object of their mind.

Suppose you have the fear of dying. If you touch the nature of no birth and no death, you can remove that fear. And that is why your savior is Right View, is insight. 

Why there is the word Right Mindfulness? It is because there is wrong mindfulness.

Person Holding Film Strip

You have suffered in the past, and the memories of your past suffering continue to be there.

You tend to go back to the past to watch the film of the past and you suffer again every time.

You feel more comfortable going home to the past. While Right Mindfulness wants you to be in the here and the now. There must be ways for you to stick to the present moment, to not slide back into the past and suffer. That is why Right Mindfulness is the practice that helps you to be in the present moment.

Of course, we can study the past. But while well grounded in the present moment, without being sucked in and overwhelmed by the past. The same thing is true with the future. We can bring the future back to the present moment and study the future and make plans for the future. But we don’t have to get lost in the fear, in the uncertainty concerning the future. Because the future has not yet come.

Thay continues the talk with a teaching on original fear, original desire, and the practice to transcend double grasping and arrive at Right View.  

Excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2009 June 7 teaching –
Dharma Nectar Temple, Plum Village France

Home Practices

  • How do you practice to produce right thinking, right speech, and right action?
  • Pay attention to the views you have – write down some of the views you hold. Notice the moments where you are “caught” in a view.
  • Try to become aware of the moments where you go back to the past in your mind or allow yourself to be pulled into the future. Observe how this happens. Which practices help you to come back to the present in those moments?

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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