Welcome to episode 26 of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.
In this episode, the presenters, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino, talk about death – from the deep Buddhist teaching of ‘no birth and no death’ and the Five Remembrances, to dealing with death by looking differently at life and practising acceptance.
They also delve into attachment; separation and individualism; inherited fear; life goals for a good death; karma; reincarnation; and how to relax, take it easy, soothe the fear, and celebrate life.
Brother Phap Huu helps us understand essential Buddhist teachings on death and non-existence, and digs deeper into the Five Remembrances; the source of our fear of death; different perceptions of death; living life with the insight of impermanence; death as part of life; practising impermanence; removing the wrong view from our lives; living free from regret; moderation; and the importance of meditating on our own death.
He also offers insights into Thay’s last days before his passing, and reads the teacher’s poem, ‘Contemplation on No-Coming and No-Going’.
Jo muses on the fear of separation; flowing with life and joining the universe in flux; continuation as a way to release our fear around death; legacy; dying well as an aspiration; and why our thoughts matter as much as our physical actions.
And: what do you think it means to have a good death?
The episode ends with a meditation on impermanence and continuation, guided by Brother Phap Huu.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Dharma Talks: ‘The Five Remembrances’
What Happens When We Die?
‘Contemplation on No-Coming and No-Going’
Songs: ‘No Coming, No Going’
‘Dharma Talk: Karma, Continuation, and the Noble Eightfold Path’
Sister Chan Khong
‘51 Mental Formations’
Dharma Talks: ‘Manas Consciousness, Teachings on Buddhist Psychology Retreat, 1997’
Dharma Talks: ‘Store Consciousness, Teachings on Buddhist Psychology Retreat, 1997’
‘Dharma Body, Sangha Body’
Sister Chân Đức
“Death is a contemplation because life is there, death is there also.”
“The teaching of Buddhism is to be free, to be liberated, to transcend our suffering. And suffering needs a name, so here we can say that the fear of death is the name of suffering.”
“The past is gone, the future is not yet there. There is only one moment that you can be alive, and that is the present moment.”
“We are of the nature to grow old. We cannot escape it. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way that I can escape it. I am of the nature to die. There is no way that I can escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.”
“Instead of being afraid of death, be happy about life.”
“We should be celebrating life in every moment; this is the key of mindfulness. Mindfulness gives us this awareness that life is here and we should be here.”
“When we let go and say, ‘I am part of everything, everything’s in flux, I’m in flux’, and we start to settle into that, then we’re flowing with life rather than trying to build a dam against life.”
“Thay once said, ‘If you’re so angry at someone, meditate on that person and see that person in 150 years. He may not be here anymore. She may not be here anymore. So is it worth it to always be angry at that person?’”
“Don’t underestimate an act of kindness. Don’t underestimate an act of mindfulness, because that can be reborn into someone else and they can grow that love. They can grow that kindness. They can grow their generosity.”
“We are part of that river of consciousness and evolution, and what we can offer the world is to be our best self. And as part of that stream, if everyone is their best possible self and is really mindful and aware, and acts, thinks, and feels as positively as they can manage, that creates a more beautiful world.”
“Being honest means not having to remember what you said.”
“The more you give, the more you receive in terms of happiness.”
Dear friends, welcome back to this latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In. I am, Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk, a student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition.
And today, brother, we’re going to be talking about death. Most people are terrified of dying because there’s a belief that death is annihilation, that you’re live one moment and then nothing is left of you. And then also, people are very fearful of losing their loved ones because they feel that once their loved one dies, then they’ll be bereft, there’ll be nothing left to live for. And hopefully, as I say, by the end of this recording, Brother Phap Huu, you will have given us the value of the teachings of the Buddha on this subject that can help us to relax, take it easy and enjoy life.
The way out is in.
Welcome, dear friends. I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And, brother, as I said, we are going to be talking about death today.
Big topic. And, as I said, brother, a lot of people, their biggest fear of living, during their life, is that they’re going to die and that there’s this sense that that once you die you lose everything of value that you’ve ever had. Help us understand what Buddhist teachings on this subject.
Death is a contemplation because life is there, death also is there. And we can look at the original source of the fear of death. And one explanation that I receive from Thay’s Dharma talk that made me… gave me this realization, was when we were born that was a moment that was very difficult for both child and mother. We can hear from our mothers or our friends who give birth, they can share and explain also the wonders of having a child, nourishing, nurturing it, as well as a moment of of birth, and we know how difficult it can be. Even the Buddha himself lost his mother at birth because that moment is a very critical moment. And that moment, as a human being, we are going to take our first breath outside of our mother. There’s that moment when you have to eject the liquid from within you, in your lungs, and you have to take that first breath as a child, as a living being outside of your mother. And so that is a moment of life. That’s a moment of being a part of this world. So there is this miraculous moment, that’s why we always say that to be alive is a miracle because it’s not simple. We, a lot of us who are living now, we think that, yes, our parents came together and boom we’re there. And I think that, um, coming with being a human, there is a lot of attachment. There’s the attachment of love, attachment of tenderness, of care that we had when we were in the womb of our mother. And so maybe that’s why a lot of children are so close to their mother at the beginning, because there’s that deep interconnection between the mother and the child from the moment of manifestation. And so we are also inherited by this longing for warmth, just longing for belonging, this longing for an attachment. And so that attachment now is translated into life, into many things. And as we live our world, we gain more and more attachment. And we can say that a lot of our greed, a lot of our striving for power, striving for existence, striving for love is all to feel connected because we are afraid of non-existent. We are afraid of being nothing, being no-one, because we have already just overcome this moment to be alive. And so we can say that this is a suffering, the suffering in the form of fear, and it translates within our life in grasping for something, in discriminating, in wanting more because we feel that that makes us who we are. So the teaching of Buddhism is to be free, to be liberated, to transcend our suffering. And suffering needs a name, so here we can say the fear of death is the name of suffering. And part of our Plum Village practice, first of all, we have to become aware that we are alife first. A lot of us may be living, but we don’t know that we are living. We are in autopilot all the time. We are running after a position, running after a desire, even maybe running away from fear or running with fear, and is pushing us in so many directions. And we can say that we’re actually maybe not so alive as we think we are. And so the teachings, first of all of Plum Village, is to learn to come home with the mind to the body in the present moment, because, for us, in the present moment, this is the teaching of the Buddha, in the present moment. This is where life is. The past is gone, the future is not yet there. There is only one moment that you can be alive, and that is the present moment. And so if we are allowing ourselves to be more and more alive, we can practice and have time to cultivate the insight of non-fear and to look at death as a reality. Because in the teaching of Buddhism, there are Five Remembrance that Thay has translated into our language. That is: We are of the nature to grow old. We cannot escape growing old. I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way that I can escape ill-health. I am of the nature to die. There is no way that I can escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. Let’s take a pause there, and we’ll come to the fifth remembrance a little bit later. But these teachings, these first four remembrances teaches us of the insight and the teaching of impermanence that everything that is here today, one day is of the subject to change, and change can be of form or change can be of manifestation. And the language we use is that we are not exactly a creation. There’s a lot of belief that, you know, we come from nothing. Suddenly we just, boom, you’re here. But the deep teaching of Buddhism, and the deep looking in meditation is to see the manifestation of life. You are a manifestation. It’s not that suddenly from nothing you become someone. If we take this moment and we meditate on our own self, we can see that inside of us, there are elements of our father, there are elements of our mother. Our parents had to come together for us to manifest. That is a condition, we call this condition. And then that is just one of the conditions. And then our mother had to nurture us, and in this time we are already interbeing, we are already interconnecting. So even as a manifestation, we are not exactly separated from all the conditions that nourish us. And then once we’re born, then we start to grow up, we need the environment, we need nature, we need to breathe. We are also a child of the Earth because we rely on the oxygen, we rely on the sunshine. And even the elements that are around us, such as our loving parents or an environment that may not be so loving that also will impact us and change us and will create our consciousness, create our being. And so we start to dissect ourselves with meditation. We start to see the different elements that make us who we are. So even looking at our tradition, our culture… Where do you grow up in? You will be influenced by that. And then our parents history, they will also transmit to us their greatest joy, the greatest happiness, their greatest insight that they may have had in life and also transmit to us maybe some of their deepest suffering that they haven’t transformed. And maybe even their fear, their despair. We also get this inheritance, and that’s from our closest ancestor, which is our parents, and even deeper in our meditation, we can see that we receive also from our ancestors. And then going even beyond our community that is around us, our society, our nation, the world that we are in, depending on what area we are born in, all of this is a part of us. So, in our meditation, we start to see the non-self element of oneself because we identify with a self. I am Jo Confino. I am Brother Phap Huu. I’m afraid I will not be Brother Phap Huu, I am afraid I will not be Jo Confino. But if we look with that eye, then can you really identify yourself as an individual? But deeply, we know that we cannot be by ourselves. We have to interbe with all of these other conditions for us to manifest. So this is a meditation to help us, first of all, see that we are not separated from everything is because of the notion. The idea that I am an individual, a creation that is just… ‘This is who I am, nothing else affects me.’ That is a wrong view in Buddhism. That is a wrong view that we have to learn to remove, and we may get this insight that I am sharing, you may start to realize, ‘Ah, yeah, that makes sense.’ But once you start living, can you remove yourself of this ego, of this pride, in daily life? That is where the practice comes in. And our practice, the question that Thay is asked sometimes is ‘What happens when you die?’ Thay likes to reverse it, and his question comes as a bell of mindfulness to all of us: ‘What happens when you are alive? Answer me. Tell me.’
Beautiful. And brother, just to track back to the start of your conversation, so one of the things is that people shouldn’t feel in any way bad about fearing death, because what you’re saying is, actually, at this moment of birth, that is the original fear that we are separated from this deep sense of security, this deep sense of belonging. And we’re sort of, in a sense, ripped out from that and have to exist and have to survive on our own. So this this sense of separation is actually something everyone experiences, isn’t it? It is not something that some people get and some people have this easy path in… Actually, everyone has to take that journey. So immediately creates that fear of separation. So I think that’s one thing to say, well, actually, it’s very natural in one sense to have that fear. And then that fear gets sort of built into it by society and especially in the West, where this sense of individualism, and ‘I’ve got to get what I can.’ And so it builds up this whole idea of separation and that separation then leads to grasping, which is if I’m on my own, I’ve got to protect myself and I’ve got to amass enough security in terms of money or in terms of my career or whatever. So actually, you can see this journey, how easy it is for people to actually create this idea that they are separate and whatever. And what I love about the Five Remembrances and the fourth one is that we’re going to lose everything that is of value to us. So, so it’s really interesting, isn’t it? The sense of we spend our lives amassing things, but we know that actually we’re going to lose everything of value because we’re going to actually, at the end, be separated from everything when we die. And actually, that sort of makes sense then that while we’re living, we should be in community with everyone because actually when we pass into another realm, we will actually lose those direct connections. So, in a sense, we’ve got it a bit the wrong way round, haven’t we?
It seems that way, and I think this is what Thay has been trying to introduce, reeducate in a way, this idea of instead of being afraid of death, be happy about life. And Thay always says a lot, a lot of the Dharma talks he will start ‘Breathing in, I know I’m alive. Breathing out, I am happy. Breathing in, I recognize life inside of me and all around me.’ So this is like to reinsert this notion of death is part of life. You shouldn’t spend your years to be afraid of it because if you do, you’re going to arrive at it anyways. There’s no point in running away from death. It’s a part of being human, is a part of being a manifestation of this earth. And what we have to learn to to do is to live life with the insight of impermanence. Like what you shared, fear is an original…. It is one of the mental formations that we all have, and it’s not to suppress it, it’s not to push it away. But we can, we can soothe our fear, we can offer it insight. We can allow mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness, of being alive, to make our life more meaningful, more rich. Just like you said, if one day we are, we will say goodbye to our dearest friends, our partner, our parents or grandparents, our… even our children, if we have this insight don’t wait till that moment to be sad and to celebrate their life. We should be celebrating life in every moment, and this is the key of mindfulness. Mindfulness gives us this awareness that life is here and we should be here.
And especially, brother, it’s rather, you know, when when you stand back from this is rather bizarre, because when we look out in the world, everything we see manifest and de-manifest, you know, a tree, a flower, you know, the weather, you know, countries, civilizations. I mean, literally, there is not a single thing that isn’t constantly in flux. The Earth is in flux, that the universe is in flux. Literally everything is moving. And yet we have this sort of desperate wish to hang on to things being the same. I mean, it’s a rather extraordinary state of affairs that we put ourselves in the very point of suffering.
Because when we let go and say, actually, ‘I am part of everything, everything’s in flux, I’m in flux’, and we start to settle into that, then actually we’re flowing with life rather than trying to build a dam against life.
Exactly. And I think if we had this insight, we will stop pushing ourself and we’ll stop running after more desire, more power, more possessions, because if we keep running after that, do we have time to be alive? Do we have time to enjoy what we have? And that’s why Thay sometimes has this calligraphy ‘You have enough.’ That’s it. And that’s to remind us that are you always running after something? Are you sure that grasping whatever it is in the future is going to bring you happiness? Because if you’re going to keep running towards the future, what you arrive at is death, is your plaque. I remember one time Thay drew a line and he said, ‘If you don’t live life, you will just arrive at D, which is death.’ And why waste your time to be fearful and to run after that and then arrive there? But what we are offering this very moment is a chance to be alive. And so with this insight and with this deep looking, we can start to translate it into our life. So if we are healthy now, you know, Thay has very simple meditations that Thay tells us to learn to be happy with the simplicity of life. Every morning you wake up. And you can look at the trees, you can see your loved ones, you can look at all the colors that the leaves offer you. If you don’t know how to enjoy that, do you think after death you will enjoy it? Do you think in the Kingdom of God or in the Pure Land, you will enjoy it? If you can’t do it now, do you think that after you die, you can do? That if your aspiration is to go to the Kingdom of God or to the Pure Land of the Buddha? And this is not to criticize a thought of what happens after you die, but in the Plum Village teaching and the teaching of Thay, it always brings back to the present moment, because to Thay, Planet Earth is the Pure Land of the Buddha. Planet Earth is the Kingdom of God. If you look at a flower and you look at it deeply, you see that all of these conditions that have come together for it to manifest, that is a wonder of life. And if that wonder of life doesn’t belong in the Pure Land of the Buddha or in the Kingdom of God, where does it belong? So we start to see that the simplicity of life are wonders. I had the chance of being close to Thay, and I can see in his way of being when he drinks his cup of tea in the morning, he drinks it with this insight that this cup of tea is a gift. This is where you practice impermanence, because if you enjoy this cup now, it may be your last one. You never know. You can’t bargain with life and death. Sometimes it comes unexpected, and so you start to have this new lens of way of looking at life. You start to be with your friends, be with your loved ones in a more deeper sense, and you start to share more beautifully. Why waste your time at arguing when at one day we will not be here anymore? Thay once said ‘If you’re so angry at someone, meditate on that person and see that person in 150 years. He may not be here anymore. She may not be here anymore. So is it worth it to always be angry at that person?’ Because if we’re all of the nature to one day return back to the Earth, let us live in a more loving way, let us live with more embrace, more connection, which we are longing for.
Yeah, I remember when I was young, and before I knew anything about Buddhism, I always remember seeing this phrase, which was a Buddhist phrase, which was saying, you know, ‘Imagine that today is your last day.’ Because if you, if you were to imagine is your last day, then you would enjoy every moment of that day. You would… It would be like a butterfly where one day in a butterfly’s life seems like nothing to us, but for them is, you know, a big chunk of their lifetime. It’s like you would focus on everything. You would find beauty in everything. You would get in touch with everybody you love. And we don’t… Because we don’t think that way, we just let time just go by without accounting for it, without paying attention to it.
But, brother, one thing I wanted to ask you, which has been on my mind, is that I know that quite a few times Thich Nhat Hanh has been asked about reincarnation, and he never seems to have really addressed that, and I’m really intrigued in that because, you know, in lots of religions, there’s this idea that if you live a good life now, then you will sort of go forth into the heaven or hell, whatever, depending on the life you’ve lived, which in a sense always is about only acting in the way you are now in order to get some benefit or avoid some suffering in the future. Whereas for me, Thay is always about the present moment. So… What does he… ? Does he believe he’s going to be reincarnated? What’s his… ? Why has he never really made this? Because in lots of Buddhist teachings, this is quite a core part.
Yeah, that’s a tricky question. And I will say that because that is a view that that’s a view that can also be quite dangerous in a way. If you believe in your reincarnation later, then in a way it goes against our practice of learning to live deeply in the present moment. But here’s the insight about reincarnation that Thay has offered us. With this notion of ‘I want to do good so that I have something better in the future’, this, in a way, this is also popular Buddhism. I also believed that when I was growing up as a young Vietnamese growing up in Canada, I was told If you do good, when you die, you go to heaven. I remember eating rice and my mom and my auntie always made me clean up everything in the bowl or else I will in Vietnamese we say [speaks Vietnamese] you will have a fault that later on, you have to repent for. And they used to say that if you don’t finish all the rice when you go to hell, when you die, you have to eat that, all that rice grain becomes maggots and you have to eat it. That’s a nasty view. It gives you this fear, inserts you this fear of, ‘Oh man, I got to eat this.’ And if you be evil, then later on, when you go to hell, you suffer 10 times more than what you would do. So it’s nothing wrong about this teaching. It can be a means to help people review and reflect on how they’re living their life now. So maybe in the future you don’t want that suffering that you’re offering and that the life that you are giving away. And that it goes into Karma. We use this language a lot in Buddhism. Karma, good Karma, bad Karma, Karma always comes around. You can’t escape it. That is true. But here Karma translated into English, Karma means action and our practice is to be aware of our action so that it can be a reincarnation into something meaningful, and beautiful, and as a legacy. And in Buddhism, we speak about three actions: our thoughts — that’s an action already. If you have a thought that is beautiful and joyful, you benefit from that. You feel peaceful, you feel alive, you feel happy, your mental state is being nourished. And then your words, what you say, already is an action. You know that words have a lot of power. It has a lot of effect. If you can offer loving kindness as in terms of words, they can benefit so much people. The way you share and guide can be more compassionate. It may have a more of a better effect than punishment. Sometimes words hurt like knives stabbing into our hearts. And those knives can stay for a very long time and it can wound us, it can bleed us each day, drain our energy, and sometimes our practice is learning to even remove these knives that we have received from people around us, even our parents. And so, this insight, it tells us that our action, just by words, can have such an impact. That is also a reincarnation, that is also a new manifestation. And the third action is our bodily action, what we do each day, the way we cook the food, how we offer it. If we are someone who has a lot of space, we want to give more. We would like to donate. We like to offer to those who are suffering. We know that, for a fact, that sometimes the more you give, the more you receive in terms of of happiness. And we know that when we express something with love and with generosity, people offer us gratitude. That gratitude is also a kind of nourishment and we can say that is a good karma that we receive. So for our teaching and our insight is that the reincarnation is happening in every moment. Some reincarnation we receive right away. Let’s say, after we finish this podcast like normal, we feel, wow, it wasn’t as bad as we thought, and we have this relief of that was so great, right? And we feel like this energy of a strength and this energy of refreshness. And then some Karma comes much later on. My father told me that his teacher sowed the seed in him when he left Vietnam as a boat person, he said, ‘If you make it to the West, look for Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. And he gave my father this seed, this Karma.
Wow. I’ve never heard you say that before, brother.
In nineteen eighty seven.
And only in 1990, when Thay and Sister Chan Khong first came to Toronto, that that Karma came into fruit as a reincarnation, Thay…. My father finally met Thay and Sister Chan Khong. And that that seed, that action could have just died out. Meaning maybe my father maybe didn’t like Thay’s teaching or Thay’s Dharma, and he would look for something else. But that words that that monk gave my father manifested into him coming to Plum Village and then later bring his children and I became a monk. And so this Karma is still blossoming in a way, you know, so this reincarnation of just that one action now present — I’m offering this podcast. So there are so many ways of looking at reincarnation. And for the Plum Village tradition, you can believe in it or you may not want to believe in it. But what we know for a fact is actions does come with consequences and they can be, they can arrive at beautiful energies, or they can also come back at something that may harm us or may haunt us later.
So, brother, there are a few things in that I’d like to pick up, but one is what I hear you saying. And of course, we keep coming back to this point because we keep having to be reminded of it is that what you’re saying is rather than see the way you act now as affecting what will happen after you die, is see what you’re doing now in terms of its impact on your life right now and the people around you. And that brings energy back to saying, actually, forget about the future. This is the life. This is the moment you’re having an impact on people’s lives. This is the moment you can either say something generous to someone which will cause them to smile and to open and to feel good about themselves. Or this is the moment where you say you fire an arrow in their heart and they they shrink and they feel that life is not worth living, that we have that capacity to do that in the present moment. And so every time we make a choice, every time we feel angry and we catch ourselves and say, rather than acting that out, I will actually do something else. That is where life becomes transformational, and we don’t need to worry about what happens after our so-called death.
Brother, the other thing, I think there’s something interesting, just picking out one aspect of that again, is that so… I think there’s this belief in the world that what counts as our actions that are seen, that I actually do something, someone sees me do it. Someone says, ‘Hey, Jo, great, you did that’ or whatever. That we have this notion that our physical actions, what we manifest directly physically in the world matters, but our thoughts don’t. And because no one sees them and we can have all these horrible thoughts, but because no one sees them, actually, you know, it’s cool, you know, and they have no impact. But actually, one of the things I’ve learned is that actually, and as you describe it, and as Thay described it, I’d like to talk a little bit more about is that a thought, even if nobody ever knows you had that thought, that thought has an impact in the world. And if everybody is starting to have negative thoughts about acting kind, actually what you’re driving is negativity. And one of the ways that sort of really hit home was when I interviewed Sister Chan Duc, who’s one of the longest serving nuns in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition. And I asked her — this was a year ago when she was, I think, around 70 years old –and I said, you know, ‘What do you want to do with the rest of your life?’ And she said something… ‘I want to be the best person I can be.’ But when she described it, she talked about cleansing her mind, cleansing her way of being. And she talked about saying, it doesn’t matter if anyone knows, everyone sees I’m doing that, everyone knows I’m doing that, because, actually, the way I am, the way my thoughts are, actually, contribute to the collective consciousness. And I was really that sort of really hit me because it’s like our thoughts do matter.
Yes, they drive us to take action into words or physical action, and a part of Buddhism is learning to understand your mind more because the Buddha has taught us that the mind creates the world. Of course, the world is as it exists, but if your mind is carried away by worries and fears, then you cannot arrive in the present moment, you’re living in your own little world, whatever it may be. And so part of meditation and part of our training is learning to come back more and more to our mind to see what seeds are we nourishing. In Buddha psychology, in the part of the Plum Village School, we learn about the 51 mental formations. We all have so many seeds that are sown in us when we are alive: seeds of fear, seeds of anger, seeds of hatred, seeds of jealousy, greed. And we have some neutral seeds and we also have some very wholesome seeds: compassion, peace, joy, happiness, generosity. And the list goes on. Please, you can find this list on the Plum Village website. And some of us, some the way, like I shared, the way we are brought up, the conditions that are around us will strengthen particular seeds in us. We may have some fear. For example, I noticed when I was growing up, because my parents lived… were born and raised during the war, so not having enough food was a real fear, like just to make sure that on the table there’s enough rice for the whole household. So I remember growing up, I always make sure I always had to have more than enough in order to feel safe. And one day, as a monk, we are taught moderation and we’re taught ‘Don’t eat with your eyes’. Um, yeah, sometimes ‘don’t eat with the greed inside of you, but learn to have moderation’ because you’re retraining ‘what is enough.’ And I start to recognize this seed of fear of never having enough, and I can connect it to the roots of my parents suffering. And that is a part of your consciousness that becomes a part of your mind. So you have store consciousness, which are things that are sometimes weak. It looks like the basement. And then you have your mind consciousness, which is like everything that manifests in your energy, in your way you look at me, in the way I look at others, the way you’re expressing yourself — that can be a lot of mine consciousness. And then you also have a middle layer is called manas, and manas doesn’t have the insight of enough, it belongs to more of wanting more, greed, it’s your temptation, your desire. And so a part of it is to tame the mind, to learn, to understand a mind more. And how do you understand the mind? You have to go inwards: the way out is in. And a part of…
No advertising allowed, brother.
No advertising, we’re not sponsored. The part of our practice is to look at the mind and sometimes that can be very scary because our mind can be very noisy. It can be overwhelmed with negative thoughts. It can be overwhelmed with violence. It can be overwhelmed by sexual temptation. And it takes time to to filter our mind, to allow new images, new experiences to come. And a part of our training is not to say that is negative, that is bad, cut it away. No, no. That is already a part of you. Accept it, embrace it. If you know that because of these images of this experience that you have had, such as watching so much pornography growing up. I grew up in Canada and I remember being introduced to pornography at a very young age that has such an impact on me. And it made the way I look at women, the way I look at advertisement, it always triggered the sexual desire. And I had to take time to identify the sexual energy, identify the images, the sounds that I have heard, and to filter it out in a way by not watering those seeds. And luckily, the training that I receive is the monastic training, and my environment is very supportive of that. And you have to have Dharma trainings as well as precepts are what we say, mindfulness trainings. So you know that if you want to be free from this desire, you have to train yourself not to get drowned in these images and these sounds. And that’s a discipline in itself, because a part of a desire may want to, we may be addicted to it. And sometimes by ourself, it may not be helpful. We may not have enough strength. And that’s why we need communities. We need supports. So coming back to the mind, that’s what the thoughts need to be looked at and transformed — we call it transformation at the base, which is our mind. And we know that someone who has a very dangerous mind can bring a lot of harm to the Earth, to humanity. And in history we’ve had those figures, Hitler was one of them. Just this idea, a view that is a thought led us to World War Two and to so much suffering. And someone with a compassionate mind like the Buddha has allowed the world to be taught compassion, love, and that mind is so powerful it has lasted over 2600 years, transmitted from generation to generation. So you can see that the mind is a big energy of the world.
Thank you, brother. And earlier you were talking about about actions in the world, which brings us to the fifth remembrance. So you gave us the first four, so why don’t we dive into the fifth, which is all about our influence in the world, not just in our life, but after our death. So can you read it for us, brother, and give us a sort of a sense of it?
The Fifth Remembrance. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions, my actions are the ground upon which I stand. So everything that we say has our signature, every step that we take bears our signature because that’s our action. Every act of kindness becomes our legacy. Every act of violence and hatred also is our legacy. So we can see that we don’t stop manifesting after our body doesn’t exist anymore because we know that deep down the fact is we will decompose, right, back to the Earth. That is a part of life. So with this insight is not to make us fearful, but is to give us power to give us understanding that every action that we offer will be the continuation of who we are. And this is to go beyond the form. So we’ve been learning about different bodies that we have as a human. So we have the human body which we get to experience life. And then in the Dharma world, in the meditation school, we have a Dharma body, the practice body, the spiritual home, which becomes alive once you take a mindful inbreath, a mindful outbreath, once you practice walking meditation, once you practice the mindfulness trainings, which is our precept body. And then we have a Sangha body, a community body, or translated into modern day, a family body. Your children also are you. You are part of your ancestors. So the way you live can be what you offer to the next generation. And then we have another body in the Buddhist world, we have the Buddha body, the awakened mind. And that’s the good news that we all have the seed as one of the mental formation of waking up, being alive, being liberated. And then there are the bodies that we don’t see, such as words. Sometimes we may write something and that is not the form of Phap Huu, but someone receives that. That is another form of Phap Huu. That’s another way of expressing yourself. And so, you know, sometimes before you send that email, take a few mindful inbreath and outbreath before you press send. You know, are you sure you want to say that? Are you sure you want to offer that input? Or can you rephrase it in a more compassionate, in a more community building than just punishing? You know, so there are so many ways of our contribution that will go beyond us.
And brother, you know, one of the things that has helped me start to release my fears around death is this idea, as you say, of continuation and following Thich Nhat Hanh’s recent death, I mean, a lot of the conversation, a lot of what people have been talking about is how to be Thay’s continuation, because what I understand is that all the actions we take in the world, all the thoughts we have, all the ideas we have actually have an impact on all of those around us. And the impact we have on the people around us will change them in some way and then will lead to them responding to the people around them with their thoughts, and ideas, and actions, which will in turn… It’s a bit like dropping a pebble in the water and it sort of echoes of that wave that sort of ripples go out to eternity. So if I impact one person’s life in some either very ugly or some beautiful way, that will affect the way they treat all the people they know and that will affect those people. So actually the way we are in our life continues into eternity at some level, and it means that actually this idea that we don’t… that when we die doesn’t just stop. Actually, throughout our entire life, actions, thoughts, feelings are having an impact, are changing the world, are continuing, and obviously some of that is very direct, isn’t it? If we have children, we see that very much, and our grandchildren, that’s one very direct way, that’s an easy way to understand. But it’s like a teacher who teaches kids. The way they teach those children will either inspire them or close them down, they’ll either be punished or loved. And that one teacher’s life, even if they were to pass, the emanation of their teachings, will go out. And if they teach a thousand kids in their lifetime, only a thousand kids, that can have an impact over millions of people. So that has really helped me to understand that when I die, I know that while I will be buried, or cremated, or whatever, that actually I will continue in many, many different forms.
Yes, this insight can help us be free from the notion of non-existent. And this is where this famous calligraphy and teaching of Thay is ‘a cloud never dies’ because the cloud in its form will just transform into another manifestation, such as rain or snow. And when the rain falls into the earth, it will penetrate into the grounds, it may nourish the trees. So the new manifestation of the cloud will be the tree, or it will come into the river, and it will nourish the life of the river. So it is a constant continuation, and this insight can really help us just be more free and allow us to experience life more deeply. Because you know that every moment is a moment of continuation and this insight also has helped me live also more deeply with… Sometimes I invite my ancestors into the present moment because even though they are not here, but they… My grandmother just passed away last year and one of her dreams was to come to Plum Village, France, to visit me because she has never been in Plum Village and never seen me as a monk in this community. But now that she’s not here and I can, I can now be regretful and saying, ‘Oh, I should have put more effort. I should have tried to create more conditions so that she can arrive in France’ et cetera, et cetera. And I can replay this story over and over and over. And every time I do that I have guilt, I have shame, I have a feeling of ‘I wasn’t a good grandson’, but now that she is not here, with this insight, she is now me and my presence here, I can invite her, because a part of her is very clearly in me. Because she gave birth to my mother and my mother gave birth to me. And so I am her continuation. Sometimes when I’m feeling a little bit not grounded, I will say, ‘Grandmother, take, take a step in, be here with me.’ And I would invite her to walk with me and I can invite her to be present, to live in this land of France, southern France. Enjoy the miracles that is here, the sunflowers, the oak trees. Enjoy the plum trees that Thay and the community has planted. So this insight can also free us to see that when someone is not there anymore, you have to have the eye of interbeing, the eye of signlessness. You see them in a new manifestation. And this is a reality now for a lot of us who are students of Thay, who our teacher is not here anymore physically. But if you say that, ‘Oh, I’m so unlucky, if only I made more effort to be with him when he was alive.’ Then you would just live in regret. But Thay has taught us to be free from that, now to see Thay in his new forms. He has given us so many teachings — that becomes our Dharma body. That is the Thay in us, the way we breathe, if we breathe mindfully, and that is Thay. I remember one time in the US — it may be his last U.S. tour in 2013 — and Thay said, on the last day of the retreat, ‘If you miss me and you want to be close to me, just take a mindful inbreath, and a mindful outbreath, and Thay is there. If you miss me, invite Thay to walk with your footstep. Each mindful step that you take, Thay is there. And I know that this is a teaching, but you can practice it. You can really feel it. And we, as a community, has been coming together for the last seven weeks on many occasions to celebrate Thay’s life, to mourn together, to cry together, to hug each other. But at the same time, to celebrate, to honor Thay’s teaching, but not as a way of putting it on a pedestal, but bringing it into our daily life. And we’ve done it in such joyful ways — retreats, singing, being, storytelling, daffodil festival. So there’s just so much way… if we see that all of this celebration is a manifestation of Thay. So if we have someone so dear to us, these practices, these memorial services, this remembering of them is also a way of letting them be alive in your life.
And Thich Nhat Hanh is a wonderful example of that in the sense of, you know, yes, at one level his body has gone, but he’s so present. I mean, and you know, and you can see him in so many different places. It’s in his books, it’s in his Dharma teachings online, it’s in his students, it’s in all the thousands of people that that wrote in to say how Thay had given… either saved their lives. I mean, we had Christiana Figueres just a few weeks ago saying that Thay had literally saved her life when she was in a deeply painful place. So, so to say that Thay is gone is true, but actually isn’t true at all. He’s very, very present. But, brother, one thing I’d like to go into is the sort of, is the deep teaching of no birth and no death, because, in a sense, on a relative level, people die, they’re born and they die. You see that physically. So that seems to be true. But Thay teachers on this sort of ultimate level…
‘There’s no such thing.’ How can that possibly be true? Tell us… What can our readers make of the idea that, you know, there’s no birth and no death? Like, come on, Phap Huu, be serious, what’s all that about?
That is to continue the teachings of manifestation. We’re always changing, so we are always born. Every morning we wake up, 24 four brand new hours. That’s a moment. If we realize that we’ve been sleeping our whole life, we want to wake up today. That can be a new birth. And we may wake up, but then we fall back to normal habits and then we need a reminder. We wake up again. That’s one example. Another insight that we have is Thay would tell us, you know, our cells are always dying and being reborn. That means that we’re always changing, we’re in this constant river of change. Time is a concept of mind and we are always just going to flow. And for us to be free from this idea of of being stuck as this is who we are. That’s not the reality. Because the Phap Huu yesterday is not exactly the same today, but is not exactly different from yesterday. So this gives us the insight that in the present moment, yesterday carries the past, but the now is creating the future. So we are dying and being reborn, and dying and being reborn at every moment in life. And this is another insight in the ultimate dimension that we see that birth and death comes and goes. And that may help us be free of this idea of non-existent, that one day we will not be there anymore because, like we have been sharing, our next birth may be a manifestation of the act of kindness that we gave. That’s why Thay tells us, ‘Don’t underestimate an act of kindness. Don’t underestimate an act of mindfulness, because that can be reborn into someone else and they can grow that love. They can grow that kindness. They can grow their generosity.’ And also, don’t underestimate an act of hate because that hatred that we offer can, that can dig deep into someone’s mind, someone’s heart. And one day they can offer that again, and that’s a samsara, a cycle of hatred. And because life and death alternates, it comes and it goes and it’s opposite of each other. It means that they always exist together. If there is birth, there has to be death. And if there is death, there will be birth. So don’t be sorrowful if there will be death because there may be birth again. So this is a teaching that not only in Buddhism… Look at nature. Nature teaches us. If we live in a country where there’s four seasons, you see the coming and going of the leaf of a tree, and you may ask that that leaf, if it was afraid. He say ‘No’, because once it was manifested on the branch, it enjoy being the leaf. It enjoy being a shade for those who come to take refuge. And when the time comes, he knows to let go and the leaf — he or she or they — will fall down into the earth and will nurture the earth for the new manifestation of the next seasons of leaf. So we can learn from nature. Also, no birth and no death.
Yeah. And that, and that we are part of a continuum that’s gone back from millions and billions of years. I mean, we are part of that river of consciousness and evolution and what we can offer the world is to be our best self. And as part of that stream, that if everyone is their best possible self, and is really mindful and really aware and acts, thinks, and feels in a way that is as positive as they can manage, that creates a more beautiful world. And not to see our life as a sort of separate moment that doesn’t have a before, it doesn’t have an after. It’s like we are aware of that, but we live in the present moment, and that heals the past and transforms the future.
Exactly. And from time to time, you know, part of our training is we would meditate on our own death. So you would practice and you would sit down or even lay down. When I practice this, I was laying down, and I can envision myself laying on a bed. And for me, I visualize the closest people that were meaningful to my life around my bed. And I can say that I have lived a very meaningful life. And then you can see, meditate on your body disintegrating — no sound, no sight, no taste — and you can see that you will become ash. Nothing. And just returned back to the earth. And I remember when I practiced this, and this was a few years ago, I woke up with tears. Not woke up, but I got out of the meditation with tears and I just saw how life is so fragile. And I saw that I am so fragile and that I just want to live life more deeply, more meaningful. And when that time comes, there will be no regret. And this allows us to practice acceptance more, because we know that when that time comes, we will grow ill. And if we have live a very deep and meaningful life, you will accept illness much more easily. And when the moment comes to really let go of life, you can do it gracefully and with gentleness. And I was in Vietnam a few weeks ago, with the honor of receiving Thay’s ashes in urns to bring back to Plum Village France. And I went with a delegation and when I was in Vietnam for a very short period, I wanted to hear the stories of the close attendants of Thay, of how Thay’s last few days were. And I had this conversation with the sister, who I’m very close to, and I said, ‘Sister, please tell me, how was it?’ And she said, ‘You know, the last 48 hours Thay had a shine in his eyes, and his energy of presence was so alive, and he looked at life with a sense of beauty, a sense of this has been a wonderful journey.’ And she said that he would look at the trees, at the students, in a very different way. She said it’s so hard to explain, but there was something so unique about it. And then when the moment came, Thay fully let go. And one of the attendant brothers who I spoke to, who I was sharing the room with for the eight days that I was there. So after Thay has passed, normally they have these ointments to to massage the body because sometimes when people pass away, they would stiffen up….
Rigor mortis sets in.
And all the muscle would be really stiff and you would have to massage it so it is relax. And they had the ointments, but when they touched Thay’s body, Thay was so relaxed. It was like Thay has let go fully. There’s nothing that Thay is holding on to life, Thay is now free. That was the sense. And during the memorial services, we were privileged to see Thay’s body lying on the bed. And for me, I saw that Thay was still so beautiful, and it just looked like Thay was sleeping, so gently laying there. And I can see that Thay has really returned to Mother Earth with nothing holding on to, clinging onto life. And my own personal experience during the time that I was attending him, especially after the stroke, I saw that Thay accepted the illness. He accepted not being able to speak, but then he was able to communicate in a different way. He wasn’t able to walk anymore, but he was able to be present with the Sangha very deeply, and we were able to continue to be in his refuge of his Dharma body, his virtue body, his teaching body of just presence. And this is all an encouragement for all of us that even when we arrive at that moment, we can still accept it with wholeness and learn to be happy in that present moment. And that’s what I’ve learned since 2014, since the stroke, I’ve learned Thay practice of accepting being one with the new manifestation, the forms that Thay had to accept. And that was a teaching for me.
It reminds me, brother, of this phrase I was once told which was deeply meaningful at the time, and it was saying ‘Being honest means not having to remember what you said.’ And it’s that sense, because if you’ve been honest, you don’t have to. If you’ve been dishonest, you’re constantly having to remember what you were dishonest about, whereas if you’re honest, you can let everything go. And, you know, I’ve felt for a long time that, you know, when people said, ‘What’s your aspiration?’ One of my aspirations is to die well. And what you’re saying exactly — what I’ve sort of learned as an idea rather than done yet — is to die well, you have to have lived well. And so you can’t wait until the day of your death…
To live or to forgive yourself for it because it doesn’t happen that way. But if we live a life that in the present, each present moment, to the extent we can, that we live free, we live open, we live vulnerable, we live honest, we live loving, compassionate, caring to the extent we can is the extent to which we’re going to have a good death. Because, as you say, Thay had this extraordinary life and it was constant transformation, letting go. So, at the point of his death, what you’re saying is that he was already free.
And therefore he… We don’t need to worry about what happens to him, whether he comes into another form, whether… It’s just he did the work. And that should be his true inspiration to people.
Mm hmm. And there’s a contemplation on no-coming and no-going. And this was written by Thay. So please allow me to read it. Contemplation on No-coming, No-Going. ‘This body is not me. I am not limited by this body. I am life without boundaries. I have never been born and I have never died. Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars, manifestations from my wondrous, true mind. Since before time, I have been free. Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred threshold on our journey. Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek. So laugh with me, hold my hand, let us say good-bye, say good-bye, to meet again soon. We meet today. We will meet again tomorrow. We will meet at the source every moment. We meet each other in all forms of life.’
Thank you, brother. And we traditionally finish our episodes with short guided meditation so brother, if you’re able to do that for us now and then we can wish our listeners goodbye.
So, dear friends, whether you’re going for a walk, going for a jog, or on a commute, wherever you may be, if you can allow yourself to be still, if you’re standing grounded on your two feet or if you’re sitting, sit relaxingly, feeling the two feet on the ground. You may rest your hands and palms on your thighs. Become aware of your body. If there’s any tension, just relax your body, from your face, your head, your shoulders, your upper body, your arms. Wiggle your fingers if you need to and release it. Let it rest. Feel your grounds,your two feet. And now become aware of your inbreath. Breathing in, this is life. Breathing out, I am alive. Inbreath. This is life. Outbreath. I am alive. Breathing in, I am joyful that I am alive. Breathing out, I live deeply this moment of life. In, the joy of life. Out, I am grateful to life in me and all around me. Breathing in, I’m aware of the nature of growing old. Breathing out, I know I will not escape growing old. Breathing in, I am grateful to the energy of life I have. Breathing out, I vow to live deeply with life. Breathing in, I know I am of the nature to get sick. Breathing out, I know I cannot escape sickness. In, aware that I am of the nature to get sick. Out, I cannot escape. I’m aware that I am healthy now and I want to live and enjoy my health and as well as nourish my wellness every day, so I don’t regret when I cannot walk anymore, I cannot hold a cup of tea anymore. Let us enjoy the simple things of life. Breathing in, I am of the nature to die. Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape that. In, I’m aware that I am of the nature to die. Out, I can’t escape. Let’s be aware of the nature of impermanence. Give rise to the mindfulness of living deeply so that when death comes, we can let go with a smile on our face. Breathing in, all that is dear to me, and everyone I love are of the nature to change. Breathing out, there is no way to escape being separated from them. In, everyone I love. Out, one day we all we’ll say goodbye. Let us love each other more deeply. Be compassionate toward one another. Forgive more each day so that our time together can be meaningful. And when the time comes we are happy to let go. Breathing in, my actions are my true belongings, body, speech, and mind. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. Breathing out, my actions are the ground upon which I stand. Our continuation it’s beyond form. Our legacy. Let us leave behind what will nourish this planet, what will nourish our loved ones, our descendants, into the future. A small act of kindness. A small act of generosity. Even an act of forgiving can change someone. Breathing in, I am alive now. Breathing out, I will be alive continuing into the future. Breathing in, aware of life inside of me, I smile. Breathing out, aware of life all around me, I smile. I smile to the miracle of life.
Thank you, dear listeners, dear friends for joining us, and we hope to see you in the future.
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Thank you, everyone. Be well.
The way out is in.