Welcome to episode 40 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.
This time, the presenters, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and journalist Jo Confino, are joined by a returning guest, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Linh (Brother Spirit) – who is also the composer of the podcast’s theme music. Together, they talk about how to stay centered in difficult and dark times by looking at a particular deep teaching within Buddhist philosophy: the two dimensions – the ultimate dimension and the historical dimension – and helping us to meaningfully integrate them into the present day.
They further explore how feelings of grief and joy don’t have to be in conflict with each other; challenges to touching the ultimate dimensions, and (finally) touching the ultimate peace and freedom; the terror of nothingness; true presence; letting go of the four notions (of self, man/human, living beings, and lifespan); cultivating good energies; how the ultimate transforms the historical – and more!
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Brother Phap Linh (Brother Spirit)
Enjoying the Ultimate Dimension: The Nirvana Chapter of the Dharmapada
Classes: ‘In the Ultimate Dimension, Every Dharma Is an Unconditioned Dharma’
Dharma Talks: ‘The Nature of No Birth and No Death’ (Neuroscience Retreat)
Dharma Talks: ‘Free from Notions: The Diamond Sutra’
Dharma Talks: ‘The Diamond Sutra’
Dharma Talks: ‘Freeing Ourselves from Notions’
The Way Out Is In: ‘From Extraction to Regeneration: Healing Ourselves, Healing Society (Episode #16)’
“In the historical dimension, we understand that there is time: time is passing; we are in the present moment; the future hasn’t yet come; the past is already gone; and things are outside of each other. I’m sitting over here, you’re sitting over there, Phap Huu is over there; we are apparently separate. I’m separate from my father, from my mother, from the world. I am myself. There are things outside of me, you could say. Thay once said that, in that world, the cow is outside of the ice cream. That’s the historical dimension. Things are made up of other things. Things are composed of parts; that’s what we learn in science. Everything is made up of atoms and molecules, and beyond the atomic to the subatomic, to the quarks, the gluons, all that other stuff. It seems to be made up of ever smaller things. And that can all be ultimately teased apart and separated and identified. That’s the historical.”
“The ultimate is this sense in which – poets and artists and meditators all touch on this – everything is interconnected. The all is in the one. You look into an oak leaf, you see the tree. And not only the tree, but the whole forest. You see the whole Earth. You see the sun, the moon, the stars, time, space, consciousness. It’s all there, somehow implicit in whatever you look at, whether it’s a leaf or a block of concrete. It’s like everything is in everything else. And that’s in the realm of space, but also in time. So in this present moment, from the point of view of the ultimate, we can see that the whole past history of the cosmos has brought about this moment. So, in a sense, all of that past is in this moment. This is the interbeing of the past and the present. And then the interbeing of the present and the future gives birth to the entire future of the cosmos, according to what we do, how we speak, how we think, how we act in this moment. So the future is also present in this moment. It’s the interbeing of the three times: past, present, and future. You look deeply into it, you see the whole of eternity in the present moment.”
“Getting in touch with the ultimate dimension doesn’t mean a kind of spiritual bypass. Learning to touch these wonderful states of bliss in your sitting meditation doesn’t mean you can then ignore all of the terrible things going on in the world and still feel fine. That is not touching the ultimate; that is spiritual bypassing. Touching the ultimate means that you are able to contact this deeper level of meaning, of significance – of love, ultimately – in your life, and in the world. And that nourishes you, gives you energy, gives you peace, and [allows you] to come back and stay in the game: to do daily things but with the freshness and the freedom of the ultimate dimension.”
“In meditation practice, when we really start to still our minds, you can do it just by following your breath. [Even] the very basic teaching goes all the way; it’s the whole thing. You sit in stillness and start to follow your breath. And if you are sufficiently determined – or maybe stubborn – and you manage to stick with the sensations of the breath, the whole of the inbreath, the whole of the outbreath, then every time your mind gets pulled away into thinking and distraction and fantasizing, or worrying, regretting or whatever, you can gently bring it back, over and over and over again. If you’re lucky, maybe it becomes completely still and you reach an effortless concentration and your mind just stays there. And if you continue, a fear comes up: the fear of abandoning our inner monologue. The part of us that we tend to unconsciously identify with is the little voice, the nonstop thinking radio that’s narrating our experience to ourselves. It’s very natural, it’s part of the human condition. There’s part of us which is anxious; the part of us which worries about our social standing: are we liked? Are we good enough? Do we have what we want? Do we want something else? It’s always pushing us out of stillness into wanting to get something else, wanting some other experience.”
“Zen is all about transcending language. It’s difficult; you have to be quite stubborn, quite determined.”
“When we use language to understand the world, we start to believe the separateness of things, because the words are separate. Things have separate names: ‘leaf’ is not ‘table’, ‘table’ is not ‘chair’, ‘egg’ is not ‘chicken’. They seem to be separate because they have different names. If we are perceiving the world through language alone, we start to think those separations are real. And that gives rise to so much suffering, stress, and confusion because it includes us: we think that we humans are different, separate, cut off, maybe even lonely. And we experience species-loneliness or -superiority: ‘We’re better than all the rest, we’re the master race.’ That’s also stressful and lonely – but it’s just an artifact of language and [a result] of the way language dominates our perceptions.”
“We want to touch the ultimate, not to escape but because we want to do everything we can to transform the historical dimension, to make it a more beautiful place, a more loving place, a place where there’s less stress and anxiety. So there’s a reason to do all this.”
Dear listeners, welcome to this latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In. I am Jo Cofino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.
And I am Brother Pha Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the community of Plum Village.
And today, Brother Phap Huu, we are going to be talking about how to stay centered in difficult and dark times. How do we keep our joy? How do we keep our happiness when we know of all these troubles in the world? And we’re going to look at one particular deep teaching within Buddhist philosophy, the two dimensions, the ultimate dimension and the historical dimension.
The way out is in.
Hello dear listeners, I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And today, brother, we have an honored guest, Brother Phap Linh. And do you want to just, he’s been with us once before, but do you want to just introduce him to those who haven’t heard about him before?
Yes. We have a returning guest, Brother Phap Linh, or some of us we call him Brother Spirit because that’s what it means. And Brother Phap Linh has been in our community for a long time. He’s a Dharma teacher and he was a composer and still is a composer, but now under the brown robe and the bald head. And the music that you just heard was produced by Brother Linh, as well as a lot of the chanting that we do in Plum Village was produced by Brother Phap Linh. And it is a wonderful, wonderful honor to have him as a guest, to go in through this philosophy, this teaching, this insight of the historical dimension and the ultimate dimension. Because Brother Phap Linh is much smarter than I am.
Well, both of us together actually.
And that is why we needed his support, because we both felt quite clueless when we looked at this topic and, hmm, we need help.
Speak for yourself, brother. I completely understand this teachings.
Sure you do. We took about 30 minutes preparing for this episode right before this recording, so.
Yeah, thanks for that. So, Brother Phap Linh, do you want to just say hello and say how you’re feeling today?
Yeah, well, first of all, thank you for having me back. It’s great to be with you again. And yeah, I’m feeling a mixture, in fact, the perfect mixture of historical and ultimate knowing that, you know, Russia is in the middle of a draft, you know, hundreds of thousands of young men getting pulled from their families and their workplace and even their studies and being forced to go and fight a war that most of them don’t want to fight in. So I’m with the grief of that. I’m really feeling it since yesterday, actually. And at the same time, you know, getting to live this amazing life in Plum Village where we have so many opportunities to take care of ourselves, to keep coming back to the present moment, to keep going, going deep. We have sitting meditation in the morning and then silent meals and then we get to sit with and, you know, offer teachings to people who are really inspired to go deeper and understand themselves and understand the suffering and their joy. And then we have walking meditation and we have another meal in silence. And it’s just kind of so many opportunities to actually put these teachings into practice that somehow, with all the grief I actually feel, yeah, I feel that I can touch a kind of peace in the midst of all of that.
Great. And thank you, Brother Phap Linh, that’s such a wonderful example, isn’t it, of this idea that a lot of people feel that if they’re seeing, if they’re feeling grief, that that has to be all of them, that you can’t be you can’t grieve for something and find happiness or joy. And I think the purpose, in a sense, of this podcast is to help people and rethink it ourselves of how can we actually, as you say, feel a deep grief and also feel a joy, that they are not in conflict with each other. And so understanding the relative historical dimension and the ultimate dimension is such a beautiful way to sort of draw us into that. So, brother, you want to start off with a little bit about just to give people a flavor. What do we mean by two dimensions?
Right. So part of the difficulty with this teaching, I think, is that it sounds like a description of reality. It sounds like we’re saying, you know, that reality is made up of these two different dimensions. But I understand it more as the sense in which our minds interpret reality in two fundamentally different ways and apparently contradictory ways. But reality is just itself, is just getting on with being itself. And it’s perfectly fine with, you know, having this apparent contradiction at the heart of it. It’s just our brain that struggles to reconcile these two things. So the apparent contradiction is actually sort of throughout Buddhist teaching, it’s really there, because when you first come to a Buddhist monastery, they tell you you have to practice. You know, you have to, you know, you only have one lifetime. You have to use your time. Well, don’t waste your time. Practice sitting meditation like your hair’s on fire. You know, break through your illusions and transform all your afflictions. And, you know, time is running out. Time is short. So there’s that aspect. And then as you go deeper in the teachings, they say nothing to do, nothing to worry about. Everything, you know, the work has already been done. You can just relax. Enjoy the practice of non practice… You already are what you want to become. Everything is already complete since the non beginning, you know. And so it seems very strange. So it’s like, what do I have to do? Do I have to work really hard and struggle and strive and try to, you know, understand my suffering and transform? Or can I just sit back and, you know, lie in a hammock and relax and, you know, just enjoy like that? So those that kind of sums up a little bit these two contradictory, apparently contradictory attitudes. Another way of seeing it is that, you know, in the historical dimension, we understand that there is time. Time is passing. We are in the present moment. The future hasn’t yet come. The past is already gone. And things are outside of each other. You know, I’m sitting over here. You’re sitting over there. Phap Huu is over there. And we are apparently separate. You know, I’m separate from my father, from my mother, from, you know, from the world. I am myself. There are things outside of me. You could say, you know, Thay once said that, in that world, like the cow is outside of the ice cream. You know, that’s the historical dimension. Things are made up of other things. Things are composed of parts, right? So that’s what we learn in science. So everything is made up of, you know, atoms and molecules, and all down, you know, beyond the atomic to the subatomic, you know, to the quarks, the gluons, the all that other stuff. It seems to be made up of ever smaller things. And that can all be ultimately sort of teased apart and separated and identified. And so that’s the historical. And then the ultimate is this sense in which we start to… which, you know, which many poets, I think touch, poets and artists and meditators all touch this sense that everything is interconnected. The all is in the one. You look into an oak leaf, you see the tree. You see not only the tree, but you see the whole forest. You see the whole Earth. You see, you know, the sun, the moon, the stars, time, space, consciousness. It’s all there, somehow implicit in whatever you look at, whether it’s a leaf or a, you know, a block of concrete, honestly, you know, it’s like everything is in everything else. So this kind of a… And that’s in the realm of space, but also in time. So in this moment, this present moment, from the point of view of the ultimate, we can see that the whole of the past history of the cosmos has given rise, has brought about this moment. And so, in a sense, all of that past is in this moment. And this is the interbeing of the past and the present. And then the interbeing of the present and the future is that this moment gives birth to the entire future of the cosmos, according to what we do, how we speak, how we think, how we act in this moment. That determines to some extent the future of the entire cosmos. And so the future is also present in this moment. So it’s the interbeing of the three times: past, present and future. You know, you look deeply into it, you see the whole of eternity in the present moment.
Now we know why we invited him, don’t we, Brother Phap Huu?
Should we just stop there?
I think we’re done.
So Brother Phap Linh, okay, so there are these two ways of seeing our lives, the world, everything. And this podcast is all about the Zen art of living. It’s about saying, Well, by knowing these, there are two dimensions, by understanding them, is that just going to confuse me or actually is going to help me? So bringing that sort of those two ideas down-to-earth in the sense of what that means for someone living their daily life, how does it help to understand those two dimensions?
Right. Well, first of all, I think I want to say something which is that this doesn’t, it’s kind of not the property of Buddhism in a sense, right? It’s not just because we have this teaching of the ultimate and the relative that it’s… or the ultimate and the historic, that this is kind of that only Buddhism has access to this. I think you can find this in every spiritual tradition. It just comes with different names. And I even encountered scientists who I think are starting to touch this kind of sense of the possibility of consciousness, kind of touching oneness, touching this profound connection with everything in the sense of meaning, the sense of deep, deep meaning and yeah, that it’s not all for nothing, that it’s not all, you know, that we’re not living in a kind of big clockwork cosmos that’s just kind of mindlessly going through its motions, but that there’s something up, something is going on, it means something, and it matters what we do, it matters what we say, it matters what we think. And so, in a sense, I see it as it’s, first of all, there’s an aspect of good news, right? Because it means that there is something afoot. You know, there’s something going on, there’s something deep, there’s something mysterious, there’s something wonderful that we can all touch in our daily lives. And that’s pretty good news because I think, you know, it would be easy in this day and age to think, you know, the more we know about the world, the more we see about what’s happening in the world, the more overwhelming it can feel and the more kind of terrifying and sometimes meaningless it can feel. It can feel like we are, you know, our societies falling apart. The planet is falling apart, the environment’s falling apart. The economy is falling apart. Politics is falling apart. Nothing means anything anymore. We don’t trust each other. We don’t believe what we read in the newspapers. We don’t, you know, there’s this feeling of, yeah, things coming apart at the seams a little bit. And so, what can this practice bring us? How can we sort of ground it in our daily lives? I think it’s exactly when we encounter those feelings of everything is not okay, you know, I’m not okay, the world is not okay. I feel disturbed, but I feel scared, I feel maybe desperate or some aspect of despair or anxiety, of stress. You know that what is going to happen? You know what does my future look like? What does my children’s future look like? You know, is there a future for us as human beings on the world? These are very, very scary thoughts. And I think they are rising in the collective consciousness. People are talking about the possibility of collapse, you know, of our civilization collapsing. And that’s kind of normal now to just kind of throw that into conversation. I see it in the news. Before it would have been a pretty fringe thing to say. Now it’s fairly ordinary and that’s scary. That’s really scary. So, knowing all that, knowing, you know, when we have these feelings, which can be every day, you know, can be frequent, the question is, how do we… What do we do? How do we respond as practitioners of meditation? And I just feel incredibly lucky to have met my teacher and to have been given all of these different ways to touch, to go deeper, to go in search of the ultimate within myself. Because, you know, whether you call it the ultimate from the Buddhist point of view or whether you call it God or, you know, kind of cosmic consciousness or life itself or, you know, the life spirit or, you know, yeah, there’s this feeling that there’s more to life, there’s more to what’s going on. And we have to be able to touch it. And when we can touch it, that gives us the feeling of a great, a bigger purpose. We are in touch with our kind of ultimate concern, like, why are we even getting up in the morning? You know, why do we go through the motions every day? Why do we do what we do? Why do we strive to try to understand ourselves more deeply or to love more deeply or, you know, there has to be a kind of bigger underlying purpose that kind of fills us with with energy, that can carry us through all of these daily difficulties that we face. So that’s kind of the, for me, the part of the why of it, the utility of it, the ultimate dimension. You know, saying, Oh, you know, you should get in touch with the ultimate dimension, it doesn’t mean kind of spiritual bypassing. It doesn’t mean learn to touch these kind of wonderful states of bliss in your sitting meditation, and then you can ignore all of the terrible things that are going on in the world and you’ll still feel fine. That is not touching the ultimate. That is, you know, well that’s, yeah, that is spiritual bypassing. So touching the ultimate means that you are able to contact this sort of deeper level of meaning, of significance, of love, ultimately, in your life, and in the world. And that nourishes you, gives you energy, gives you peace to come back and kind of stay in the game, you know, to do the daily things, but with the freshness and the freedom of the ultimate dimension.
Thank you, brother. Can I just talk a little bit about how it’s helped me, actually, which may be useful. Because when I was working at The Guardian, I interviewed Thay on a few occasions, but on one occasion I interviewed him about the historical and the ultimate dimension. And I found, actually, my limited understanding fundamentally shifted the way I was able to be present for the work I did. And, as you say, to really feel the depth of the grief and pain out in the world, as well as staying happy in myself. And the way I understood it is that sort of, you know, as you explain very well, you know, the historical dimension is, you know, me, I’m living this life, I’m feeling these things, I have my sufferings, etc., etc.. And the ultimate dimension, my sense of it was that actually, you know, everything, you know, I’m living in this moment. And so this moment feels the most important for me. It’s my kids, my family, my friends, my community. And so in a sense, I’m deep in the wood, amongst the trees. I see basically what I perceive out of my own sense. And then that old thing of when you rise above the trees and you get to see that actually all the pathways and the trees in context. And for me, the ultimate dimension helped me to understand that actually everything on the long arc of history, going back to the very beginning of time, going through to find the future, you know, things always rise and fall. Things always… There’s happiness and there’s suffering, that civilizations all through history have come and gone, that there is this deep sense of impermanence, but actually that beyond impermanence, everything is okay. That, you know, that if we understand that everything is impermanent, everything can be destroyed, that in a few billion years the Earth will get too close to the Sun and itself will be destroyed. So I want to preserve what’s beautiful in this planet, but also I recognize this planet itself is impermanent. And what that helped me to do was let go of my attachment to being a certain way. Because in this lifetime, what I see and the difference I want to make sort of fills my mind. But actually when I step back from it, it’s saying, I don’t actually know what needs to happen. I don’t actually know what would be the best thing for this earth, whether humans disappear or whether we flourish, whatever… I don’t know that. And so by letting the ultimate take care of itself, I can actually just focus on being here in this moment without a need for it to be a particular way. So what I’ve been trying to do with, brother, and I don’t know if this makes sense, is, in a sense, have you see the interplay between that. To see that, yes, I want to do everything I can, as Thay would say, to sort of protect this beautiful blue jewel in the cosmos. And at the same time, this jewel in the cosmos has its own life, has its own sort of rises and falls, of which I don’t need to know. So I can be fully present, fully engaged, do everything I can, and also let go of this need for it to be that. And I think the most difficult thing when I talk to people about it, they say, but what about all the suffering? They say, it’s all very well you saying that, but actually, if, you know, we talk about the end of civilization, you know, or the extinction of human beings, and that is intense and enormous amount of suffering at a scale we can’t even begin to imagine. And that’s where I think people get a bit stuck. It’s because they say, is all very well saying, oh, well, I’ll do everything I can, but I let go of that. And people say, But look, there are people suffering now, there are people dying now. How can you almost be so cold? Sometimes people say.
Right. So I think the key is to understand that touching the ultimate doesn’t mean that we become passive or indifferent or cold. On the contrary, it means that we become more free to actually engage in a more helpful way. If we only concern ourselves with the historical dimension, then there’s a big risk that we get into a state of panic, basically, of sort of frenetic activity, because it is overwhelming. There is, you know, more than any one individual can do or can handle. The suffering is already immense, let alone what may be coming in a decade or two. So if we stay at that level, it’s just sort of tasks and to do lists and it’s never enough and we can never be enough and we can never do enough. And that’s just very stressful, basically. That’s very stressful. And that stress then causes us to behave in a stressful way. And maybe we are so panicked by the impending doom that we see coming that we actually bring it on sooner, because our actions may contribute to, you know, spreading panic and fear and doom if we’re not careful. So what is the alternative? The alternative is not just to sort of go off into some fairyland and, you know, just hide ourselves in caves and go into full lotus position and go on for the rest of eternity and everything’s fine. It’s actually just to have a way to be in touch with wonder every day, every moment. To refresh ourselves with the sense of mystery, of wonder, of love that is available to us. And yes, also to be at peace with our own death. You know, fundamentally, that’s a part of it, to have a kind of, to be able to touch a non fear, to be able to see that we are not limited to just this life span, that we continue in important ways. That gives us non fear that not only we continue, but every action continues. Every action resonates sort of throughout time and space in ways that we can’t really fathom. And so every action matters. And so there’s a sense in which, you know, you could say, well, okay, so human civilization may come to an end. It’s important to realize that, to accept that even, that doesn’t mean that we by accepting the possibility of the end of civilization, that we don’t do anything about it. It means that we are able to be at peace with the possibility that our civilization will be extinguished. To see that we… And that peace comes because we see our profound interbeing with the Earth. So if you see yourself as just human, then the end of civilization is pretty scary, right? Because then that means the end. The end. The end, you know, it’s all over. Game over. But if you see yourself as the Earth, well, the end of civilization is just it’s, yeah, it’s tragic and it’s not something, you know, trivial, but it’s only the end of a part of you. And so much of you continues. Like, if we are the Earth, well, we will continue. We will continue in other forms, in countless other forms. The Earth will regenerate herself. Maybe she takes 100 million years, you know, to restore the richness of biodiversity that we enjoyed, you know, a couple of hundred years ago. But she’ll be able to do that. And even if this planet is ultimately swallowed, you know, engulfed by the Sun, when it grows into a red dwarf, a red giant, sorry. And then… But the Earth also is only a part of what we are. We are the cosmos. We are, you know, the Earth is a flower of the cosmos. And there are many flowers, you know, that will bloom elsewhere. And so it’s kind of yeah, it’s kind of mystical. It’s hard to make it, you know, to convince ourselves just with logic alone, you know, that that sense of continuation beyond humanity, beyond even planet Earth is a meaningful one, is a refuge. But that’s why you have to not just talk about it. Right? It’s not just an idea. It’s not enough. You can’t convince yourself with logic. You actually have to do it. You have to have a practice that gives you the possibility of touching that experience directly, beyond words. And then you get it. And then you feel that peace. It’s not that you kind of think your way to it. You actually touch it and and then you’re free to come back. And, like I said before, to stay in the game. And then you see the preciousness of everything we have, the preciousness of everything that still remains of our civilization. And you want to do everything you can to save everything that you can, even if we are in a collapse, you know, situation. Doesn’t it still matter that we are kind? You know, doesn’t it still matter that we express love and compassion? I believe it does. I believe that that love and compassion can’t be extinguished. They’re not extinguished by death or even disaster. And I can’t explain to you why I’m so sure of that. It’s beyond logic. But you can, I think all of us can feel it deep inside us. And sometimes you have to have a way to quiet the noise, you know, in your mind, and then you feel that there’s something inside of you that just, that is just connected to… That there’s this powerful force that tends towards love and beauty and goodness and kindness. And it’s not really logical in a sense. It’s way beyond, you know, anything that you could justify by logic. It’s completely mad in a sense. It’s just totally bonkers. It’s not anything that, you know, to give you an example, like if you do something kind and nobody knows. Right? Does that matter? That nobody knows? No. You still have the sense that that kindness is important, even if nobody else ever sees it or understands it. It’s still important. You don’t only do it to get other people’s praise or approval or acceptance. It’s because there’s something intrinsic in us that just wants to help relieve suffering in the world. And that, yeah, I think that transcends all kind of explanations and logic.
Thank you, brother, that was beautifully spoken. And I just want to bring you in here because I just want to go a bit deeper into what Phap Linh just said about the difference between intellectually knowing something and touching something. And, you know, I recognize that, I mean, I’m not a practitioner like both of you, but I do know in my own life that, through Thay’s teachings and interviews and whatever, I did touch that. It’s not… And it is quite hard to explain because actually if you’re just thinking about it, then it’s still spiritual bypassing because it’s so, if you’re not in touch with the suffering as well as touching the joy, then it becomes an exercise of spiritual bypass. And so it’s only when you deeply touch it that one is able to sort of hold both in the cusp of your two hands. So, Brother Phap Huu, help us take a bit further on this journey of what it really means to touch this, to know it in a deeper way, where it becomes embodied within us.
I was in the ultimate. Now you’re bringing me back to the historical.
This is a very deep conversation, and I’m really enjoying it because everything that has been shared, I’ve also been contemplating and one thing that has been coming up for me is that this insight of the historical and the ultimate dimension, it is old, but it is new, but it is also very ancient, meaning that if I… We’re sitting in Thay’s hut right here. And we’re surrounded by forests. I’m just looking at the trees. And when Brother Phap Linh spoke about the kindness aspect, I think about the tree. The tree has the deep insight of ultimate and historical, because the tree is doing the best it can as a tree to offer itself in the present moment for this environment, this cosmos, this Earth. But ultimately, it is also teaching us how life is. When the season changes, it knows how to let go because it has a deep understanding of continuation. It has a very profound understanding that by being the tree that it is, its transmission of its lifespan is continuous. And for us, humans, we’re very young, we’re a very young species. But we think we’re the best and we think we are the boss. And because of this ignorance, we like to divide and separate and have a lot of distinction. And so this teaching of the historical dimension and the ultimate dimension is to see that we inter be with everything. So when we talk about our way of being, even though it has a contribution to just the people that are around us, it may be a small family, three people, four people, two people, or maybe just yourself, but you think that you’re by yourself. But actually every action that you’re… Your way of life, you’re offering it to the ultimate dimension. So, practically, I always come back to the practice of the present moment, because that is the core teaching of the Buddha and the core teaching of Plum Village in order to be in touch with the ultimate and the historical. In the historical, I am Brother Phap Huu. I have my talent, I have my shortcomings, I have my way of speaking. But if I start to remove you, Jo, Brother Phap Linh, Brother Niem Thung, my teacher, Paz, my community, I start to lose myself. And I remove my parents, I remove my ancestors, I remove my education. Then who are you? So in the historical dimension, just by this understanding, you start to already touch the ultimate. So once you see that all of these conditions have come to allow you to be the you that you are, you start to see, Oh, my eyes are not just mine. My voice is not just mine. So the kind of words I want to say, it can be not just in this… It doesn’t just have impact in this moment, but it will trickle into the future. And by the historical dimension, we can touch the ultimate. Let’s talk about the Buddha. The Buddha, 2600 years ago, by his understanding of suffering, he embarked on a journey to find a way out of a suffering, to help free himself from notions of discrimination, notions of right and wrong, good and bad, and to have breakthrough and to touch interbeing and to touch emptiness and to liberate himself. And then, now, transmit all of this teaching to his community, the students that came to him, and for it to have an impact till now, that is the ultimate. So every word, every action has an impact because there are some things we cannot put our finger on because there’s a transmission of energy. When Brother Phap Linh spoke about love and compassion, there are people that you meet that somehow you just feel so drawn to them. Right? Like what? What is it? Like, why? And we can put words to it, but sometimes it’s maybe it is an energy that they have been cultivating, such as kindness, such as stability. And it just brings you into them. Such as, I’ll never forget the first time sitting in a Dharma talk with with Thay. I had no idea who this man was, but the moment he came into the hall and we all stood up to join our palms to greet Thay, just his way of walking. Historically is just a walk, but ultimately it is the cultivation of inner peace, transformation and insight. So in that particular moment, you get to be in touch with the historical Thay, but you get to be in touch with the ultimate of love, understanding, suffering, even. What he went through and how he embodied in this moment. And so that is a teaching for all of us that even in the most difficult situation that you can find yourself in you can still not lose yourself. You can still meet the chaos, meet the war, meet the death, meet the suffering, and still be an energy of love and compassion. And such honor to be able to be in his presence through so many years with Thay. And so now coming back to the historical, to us, sitting here listening, speaking about it, we have to cultivate the practice that the Buddha and Thay and many ancestors, spiritual and blood, as well as land ancestor, have been showing us that the life span that we have, even though it is short, but there is the ultimate that helps us see that we’re not limited to just this life span. So it gives you responsibility, mindfulness, the energy of awareness when you practice it and you start to identify the suffering that you’ve gone through. You start to have understanding. And if you have real understanding and you really touch Buddhism, the teachings of the practice, you wouldn’t want to make others suffer because ultimately we are the energy of love and compassion, healing, transformation, also the energy of anger, anxiety, fear. All these emotions are in us and in everyone. But ultimately we’re also free because we are more than just one emotion. We are more than just one experience. And so in our practice of dwelling happily in the present moment is where you meet the ultimate and you don’t get lost in the ultimate. Some of us we may practice and we may feel trapped into the practice of being bliss, of feeling you’re floating in a cloud because you enter a state of stillness. And that can be a trap itself. But you have to see that that experience there touches your inner peace to say, Oh, I do have inner peace in me. And you can see it as an experience that can give you trust in the practice. But you have to let go of that experience in order to experience a new historical and a new ultimate, because it’s a living, for me, the historical and the ultimate is a living dimension. And we are in it without knowing or knowing. And but it’s easier to come back to the historical because we feel. It’s easier to talk about the feelings, what we’re feeling in this very moment. And looking at habits, one of the most fundamental practices that we were train is to call our habits by its name. So if we realize that we’re always anxious, we are always in a hurry, so the way we walk, the way we move, the way we speak, it carries this energy. And if we don’t come to the present moment in the historical dimension, to work on it, to recognize it, transform it, ultimately we’re going to transmit this energy to our children, to our continuation, our friends, our colleagues. But then let’s say you meet someone who is still like a lake and you open yourself and you tap into that person’s stillness. It mirrors back to you that I can also be still like this, like this person. And you start to tune your habit, transform your habit. So in the historical you’re also taking care of the ultimate and sometime it has helped to see the ultimate to work in the historical. Because I want to be a Buddha, I want to be liberated, you know, I want to be free. That ultimate aspiration allows me in this present moment to have the determination and the energy to see where I will arrive into the future. But by doing it now and recognizing I know where I will be because of the present moment.
Does that help?
Yeah, that’s immensely helpful. And as you were talking, Brother Phap Huu, it brought up an old memory of mine, which is, in my early thirties I was doing some self-development work. And I was on a ten-day sort of, in a sense, retreat is one way, not like a Plum Village retreat, but an experiential group. And, in a sense, every day we were working on stripping out our beliefs, our judgments, our views. And then on day six, we hit this place that the facilitator called the terror of nothingness. And it was experiential, some people were chosen to represent something. And I was chosen to represent the terror of nothingness, because that’s probably what I was feeling, because actually what was going in, you know, I was probably 32 at the time, what was going through my head was, well, if I’m not this and if I’m not this and if I’m not this and if I’m not this and if I’m not this, then actually who am I? Which of course, it’s the deep question we all ask. But actually it came across as a terror. And so maybe Phap Linh, you just… you know, because it’s very nice to say, isn’t it, that you let go of the self and you recognize the ultimate and bring that in. But for some people that can also generate fear. Can’t it? That they’re saying, Well, actually I feel much more secure that this is me and these are my thoughts and these are my views. And in a sense, that’s what we’re seeing in the world, that in difficult times, a lot of people actually, rather than expand into a new space, shrink deeper into an old space and actually say, Well, no, I’m just going to actually stick with the people I know and they’re my tribe, and actually everyone else is wrong. And we see all this division and what have you so… So I don’t quite know what my question is, but it’s sort of saying, how can we work with this in a way that it doesn’t generate fear and retraction, but more sort of openness?
Yeah, that’s a very good question. So I think it’s a question of what is our true security? Because of course we can, I mean, we do instinctively in times of danger, we kind of do collapse back on to our small selves, onto our immediate concerns. Can I just look after number one or look after my family, look after their immediate security? Do we have enough? And, you know, it’s a little bit like the bunker mentality, which we’re starting to see amongst some billionaires these days. They’re kind of like, you know, prepping, just saying, Well, as long as I have enough money, land, you know, facilities, resources, food, whatever, guards, I don’t know, and I have a big tract of land in New Zealand and I can build a big enough bunker, then I’ll be fine. You know, and I’ll be able to look after my family or the people I invite to my bunker. But I don’t think, you know, I think if you look a little deeper, it’s easy to see that there’s no security in that because we’re still dying. You know, you can insulate yourself as much as you like, but you’re going to die. Sorry. That’s bad news.
That’s the reality. That’s the game of being human.
Not only are you going to die, but before you die, you’re going to get sick, you going to get old, you’re going to be infirm, you’re going to have physical pain, you’re going to have…. And, I mean, imagine you are in a collapse scenario and you’ve got your beautiful bunker and, you know, you’ve assured your little island of security for you and your people. But can you really have peace if you’ve abandoned the rest of humanity? You know, what kind of happiness is that? What kind of security is that? I just don’t believe that anybody in that situation could for a moment feel well. It would feel horrendous. Just it would be horror, utter horror. So there’s no security there. There’s no security. And so, you know, of course, that’s an extreme example, and we can say, yeah, but you know, most people are not building bunkers, they’re just trying to get through their daily life and trying to pay the bills and make ends meet. And, of course, that we seek for some semblance of security or stability in our daily lives as well, but I think, again, it’s not hard to see in that scenario too, in any scenario, we’re all subject to old age, sickness, death, to separation, to pain. And so we have to ask ourselves, where is my refuge? You know, am I looking for a small, a little moment of peace, which will then be snatched away? Or am I going for the ultimate peace and freedom? And I know which one I’m going for. You know, and the wonderful thing is you don’t have to wait. It’s actually available now. And it’s true, there is, I think, in meditation practice when we really start to still our minds, I mean, you can just do it by following your breath. You know, you just, I mean, the very basic teaching actually goes all the way, it’s the whole thing. You just sit in stillness and you start to follow your breath. And if you are sufficiently determined or maybe stubborn and you managed to stick with the sensations of the breath, the whole of inbreath, the whole of the outbreath, and every time your mind gets pulled away, it goes into thinking and distraction and fantasizing or, you know, worrying, regretting or whatever happens to do, you gently bring it back over and over and over again until, if you’re lucky, maybe it becomes completely still and you reach a kind of effortless concentration where your mind just stays there. And if you continue, there’s a point which I find… There is a kind of fear that comes up because the fear is to abandon our inner monologue. The part of us that we kind of tend to unconsciously identify with is the little voice, the me that ta da da, you know, the nonstop thinking radio that’s narrating our experience to ourselves and saying, Are we good? Or Did I like that? Did I not like that? Do I like him or did I like that situation? Did I say the right thing or the wrong thing? Did I impress them? Did I disappoint myself? Did I realize my potential? Am I good enough?
How do you know what I’m thinking, brother?
That’s what we call the nonstop radio thinking.
Yes. Yeah. So I know what you’re thinking because I’m thinking it too. It’s very natural, it’s just, it’s part of the human condition. There’s part of us which is anxious, it’s part of us which worries about our social standing, how, you know, are we liked? Are we good enough? Are we, you know, do we have what we want? Do we want something else? It’s always pushing us out of stillness into getting something else, getting some other experience. I want a piece of chocolate. No, actually, I don’t know. I want a cup of tea. No, I want to stand up. No, I want to sit down. I want to lie down. I want to turn on the TV. No, I want to go to sleep. I want to read a book. You know, it’s like always something else. I want a diploma, I want a car, I want a, you know, it’s like I want I want I want this, this, this, this. Now. Whatever this happens to be generally feels unsatisfactory in some way. And so the tendency is when you actually touch that unsatisfactory experience to think that to get out of it, you have to have something other than this, something else. Whether it’s, you know, a partner, you know, a job, a career, an achievement, an accomplishment, or a sense of pleasure of some kind or another. Just something else, not this. So that’s very, very normal. And that little voice is always telling us what the next thing to get, to grasp at is. And we’re very identified with it. We have a tendency to think That’s who I am. That’s me. And in meditation if we are able to still that sufficiently to really settle into concentration, this is mindfulness of the breath becoming concentration. That voice starts to slow down. The volume goes down and maybe it starts to stop from time to time. There’s spaces and it’s slightly terrifying. It says, Well, if I’m not that, then what am I? Can I actually let go of that? It’s a kind of death. It’s a kind of, it should be slightly terrifying, you know. So you asked me, like, how can you, you know, touch the ultimate without it being terrifying? Well, I’m saying maybe you can’t, you know, maybe there is a little moment of it’s a little bit terrifying, but if you can go through that and sink into it even deeper, what you find is this vast oceanic peace and joy and wonder, because actually that little voice is a cage, it’s a trap, it’s very narrow and it’s very stressful, you know. So the the whole point is we are trying to, we’re always trying to be. You know, who do you want to be? I want to be someone, you know, I want to be the best, I want to be myself. You know, we’re all trying to try to be, which means we have to kind of define ourselves against everything else. We have to say what we are, what’s special about us, what’s unique about us. We’re trying to consolidate being, but it’s very stressful because it’s not the truth. Right? So it’s not that you have to sort of let go of self or dissolve self or something like that, because it was never there in the first place. It isn’t there. It’s an illusion. So it’s actually just relaxing and relaxing and relaxing into what is already the case, which is our interbeing, our interconnectedness, which is a much less stressful, fearful, anxious place to be because this is it. It’s already everything. We are already what we want to become. You know, we were already free, we were already in touch with the ultimate. You know, that’s the weirdest part is this kind of very famous statement of a Zen master whose student asked him, How do I, you know, where do I go to find no birth and no death? And he says, You find no birth and no death in birth and death. So where do I go to touch the ultimate? The historical. You touch the historical deeply enough, it already is the ultimate. It’s actually the same thing. It’s just our way of looking needs to open up a little bit. We need to relax the part of our mind that ratifies things, that cuts reality into little pieces, into names, and names everything. Thay once said something, at the end of a Dharma talk, that has always stayed with me. And it was just a throwaway line. I think it’s, for me, one of the most profound things he ever said. And that one line is still resonating in me.
Listeners, you’re going to get to hear it. Wait, wait, wait. It’s coming, it’s coming.
And now is going to resonate further. Maybe. So from the beginning of the talk he’d held up a leaf. He had an autumn leaf and he showed us the leaf and he said, Look at this leaf. Is this leaf inside of you or outside of you? And some people put up their hands: It’s inside of me, thinking that they’re very deep and then Thay is kind of smiles, and he goes, Yes, very difficult. Mm hmm. You know, he doesn’t give the answer. And then, at the end, I mean, there’s a whole Dharma talk, so I kind of can’t really do it justice. But he basically said, I think this is original sin. And so the concept of original sin in Christianity is sort of like something’s wrong with us. Something is profoundly wrong with us since we left the Garden of Eden. And what is that? What was the mistake? You know, what went wrong? And Thay said, This is the mistake. And he made this gesture kind of like a pair of scissors to cut out this leaf and say, leaf, to call it a leaf is original sin. To separate it from the rest of reality and to say that it is itself a thing, a separate thing. And the problem with our consciousness being so dominated by language, this is why we have to stop that nonstop thinking, chattering voice, because when our consciousness only happens, is only mediated by language, when we use language to understand the world then we start to believe the separateness of things. Because the words are separate. Things have separate names. Leaf is not table. Table is not chair. You know, egg is not chicken. So they seem to be separate because they have different names. And if we are perceiving the world through language only then we start to think those separations are real. And that gives rise to so much suffering, stress and confusion because it includes us. We think we, humans, are different. You know, separate, cut off, maybe even lonely. And we have species loneliness now, you know, like we, you know, or superiority, it’s also stressful. You know, we’re better than all the rest. You know, we’re the master race. You know, that’s also stressful and lonely, but it’s just an artifact of language and of the way language dominates our perceptions. So if we can, that’s why we like to, you know, to practice meditation, and, you know, Zen is all about transcending language. It’s difficult, you have to be quite stubborn, you have to be quite determined, you know? So you’re doing walking meditation, you know, maybe for the first 20 minutes you’re just thinking. Your mind is spinning. And then you keep bringing your attention back. Okay, yeah, I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to breathe in with my two steps and breathe out with three steps. And then you start wondering what’s for lunch? And then you come back and okay, you know, and then you start thinking about the meeting you have to go to later this afternoon. And, you know, and you start thinking about the podcast and, you know. But you’re stubborn, right? You keep coming back and you keep coming back because you won’t settle for less than the ultimate. And that’s my recommendation to you all as listeners. Don’t settle. Don’t settle for less than the ultimate dimension. Thay gave us the keys. He showed us exactly what we have to do. And it’s that simple. You just go for a walk in the woods or in the park or in your garden or in your yard, even in your living room. And you are stubborn. And you keep bringing your mind back to the sensation of your foot touching the earth with infinite gentleness, the sensation of your breath, the feeling of your weight on Mother Earth. And you’re relentless. You know, and every time your mind starts chattering, you go, Hi, I know you’re there. Thank you. You’re very sweet, but not now. Right now I’m doing walking meditation. And you just come back, and you come back, and you come back. And gradually, you know, the mind it’s like a fan, you know, it’s like, when you turn it off, when you press the button, it keeps spinning. It’s not going to stop immediately. So that’s why you have to be a little bit stubborn, you have to be patient enough to keep coming back to the practice of walking, or breathing, lying, relaxing. Whatever practice you’re doing, you keep coming back until your mind starts to slow down and even stop. And then you can see the truth directly for yourself. You don’t need to take anybody’s word for it. You don’t, you know, touching the ultimate is not a matter of listening to somebody saying, Oh, you know, it’s all wonderful, everything’s connected. That’s not going to do it for you. It’s not going to work. You can’t read it in a book. Nobody can give it to you, but you can touch it yourself if you have the courage and determination, the stubbornness and the patience, the relentlessness to stop your chattering mind and find out what’s really there when you do that.
So thank you, Brother Phap Linh. When our wonderful produce of Clay just puts the podcast together, he normally just puts some natural sounds in. And I thought maybe after hearing that we should, the rain has just started here, we haven’t had rain for…
A long while. It’s been very dry. And there’s a, I’ve been waiting for this moment to hear the rain, so maybe we should just take a moment and just listen to the rain.
Well, that means, Clay, a little bit less work for you to do on this episode. I want to come back to practicalities soon with you, Phap Linh, but before that, Phap Huu, I just wanted to come to you and ask you a bit about, you know, you were Thay’s attendant for 17 years, so you spent lots of time with him. And I’m just wondering if you can tell our listeners sort of how you experienced Thay in the sense of the ultimate and historical, bringing those two together, and how you feel that showed up in his life? Because a lot of people who are listening, most people may not have met Thay. They may have just heard a Dharma talk. But you saw him all day, every day, for many years in different contexts. I’m just wondering how you felt he embodied those?
I think I can say Thay was very free. And he wasn’t caught in the worries of success, failure, happiness, suffering. And he knew how to accept everything as this manifests, and be there fully for every situation. And that is true presence. And because when you see it for the situation as it is, you know what to do and what not to do. A lot of the times we see a situation and then our perceptions, our mind, our judgment comes in and draws up a brand new picture rather than what is actually there. And so with that insight and that cultivation of presence and ability to look at it and recognize it for what it is, he’s very intentional with every action. And I think that was one of the greatest blessing to just be in his way of living. Like everything is so intentional, nothing is wasted. You know, one of Thay’s, I call it superpower, it was just knowing how to let go, like he knows how valuable each minute, each moment was and he arrives at the right moment, arrives at the right time. And when he’s there, he’s fully there. And all of us who are living in our heads, as his students, when he arrives, we arrive. And that presence is because he sees that in the here and now when he’s with his students, his bodily action is a teaching, is a transmission, which now we have inherited and now we can transmit to our own practice, as well as transmit to everyone we meet who is willing and open to learn. And so that true presence and that freedom that Thay was able to be, like, I never felt like he wanted to be anything less than he is and anything more than he is. And because of that we felt his warmth and we felt his ability to see us as we are. I think I can speak for many of his monastic students and I’m sure even lay students who had a chance to be with him, when he looks at you, you get scared, you look down because your mind starts to create perceptions of what Thay sees in you. But maybe Thay is just seeing you for who you are. And I remember every time Thay would look at me, like my first reaction was I look down. And because his presence and his freedom was so real that it challenges me. Am I here? And because I’m not here, I can’t look. And so I’d like to say that his presence and his actions were very intentional, but very effortlessly, because it’s been cultivated for many years. And for us, who are babies in the practice, we know that as we continue to develop our sitting, develop our listening, develop our mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of action, mindfulness of speech, mindfulness of happiness, mindfulness of suffering, our understanding will become more natural. Our awareness becomes effortlessly. So, you know, from me, when I see Thay walk, that’s mindfulness. It’s like there’s no effort because the walk is the practice. So for us, I think we still divide spirituality and normal life. Like, I don’t have enough time to practice. But for Thay, when you walk that’s the practice. You don’t say, I have to be in a retreat, I have to have time, because time is also a concept that we put language to. But if you just walk and you’re present, that is you in the historical and the ultimate. And so I never forget his way of drinking tea. It’s a very, it’s a style I think we all inherited, which is like holding the cup in two hands. And then gently smelling the fragrance of the tea and then sipping it. And a small cup of tea Thay can take a good 30 minute to enjoy. And in that very practice of drinking a cup of tea, which I believe to Thay is just a normal act, but because we’re like, Oh, that’s such a Zen moment where, you know, I know Thay is so in touch with the clouds, the conditions for the plant of the tea to be cultivated from the high mountains, the sun, the rain, the gardener, all of the effort. So when you have that cup of tea in your two hands, you’re in gratitude. And that is the ultimate, because you don’t take this present moment for granted. And even if you die tomorrow, you’ve enjoyed a cup of tea in the here and now. And if you can be in touch with that, then you know that you have the capacity to be in the present moment, which is in the ultimate. Sometimes it pushes us to a very harsh situation for us to realize the simplicity of life and the beauty of life. In Thay’s Dharma talk, he used to explain to us a story that he read, which is like a prisoner who was about to be executed. But in his days in the prison, he was able to touch the ultimate. And every time he looked at the window and he see the blue sky, he sees the sun, the sunshine, he feels so alive. He feels that he’s living every moment the deepest that he can. And he is already beginning anew. And so when the moment came and they offered him a priest to do some prayer, and he said, No, I don’t need it. Because for him, he’s already free. He’s already recognized all his actions. And in this present moment, the blue sky, the universe, him, life is so precious. So I don’t want to waste my time with someone who is praying for me, but maybe is not as free as I am. So then that person becomes ultimately free. And life and death is a game of hide and seek, like we’ve touched, so even if we’re not here, we are still here.
Can I tell the story?
Because that really reminded me of a situation with Thay. I think it was in 2004 or 2005. I wasn’t a monk yet, and I was here for a retreat. And Thay gave a Dharma talk. And suddenly, about halfway through the talk, he said, Okay, any questions? And it was Q&A time. So he, in those days, he didn’t even have a lapel mic or a, you know, like one of those TED mikes, it was just a handheld microphone. And so he started… Yeah, I put out my hand immediately. I was sitting in the front row and I was very excited and I thought I had a great question. And, you know, this is my moment, ask the Zen master. And then Thay started walking towards me with the microphone. But because it’s Thay and because of, like you were saying, this deep cultivation, you know, the only way he walks is in walking meditation. So he’s walking very slowly and he must have been under now, five or six meters away across the hall, and he starts walking towards me. And when he’s maybe two or three meters away, I kind of reach forward to get the microphone. And usually what happens when you do that is the other person reciprocates and they kind of lean forward so you can get it half second more quickly, you know, because that’s sooo important. And what happened, of course, I sort of leaned forward and lunged to get the microphone and Thay does nothing. He just continues to walk at exactly the same speed, and I’m just left hanging. I basically just kind of like lunging into space and just completely, like, left in the splash of my own, kind of, you know, falling forward into the future and trying to, like I was saying before, it’s like you’re trying to get, you’re not… basically, because in that moment, although I might have thought, you know, I’m in Plum Village, I’m meditating, I’ve just listened to a Dharma talk, I might have had the impression that I was in the present moment. But suddenly what I then got to see was that I was still leaning into this moment isn’t good enough, I want the microphone. I got to ask my question. It’ll be better when I get the microphone. Then I’ll be able to answer my question. Then I’ll be happy. But there’s some kind of fundamental discomfort in this moment that is pushing me. And so, it’s really… What was extraordinary was that Thay was like a mirror, like he didn’t have to do anything. He didn’t have to decide, Okay, I’m going to give this guy a Zen lesson. You know, it was just totally effortless. Exactly as you were saying, he didn’t have to suddenly, you know, think I’m going to respond in some profound way and teach him something. No, he was just completely himself. He remained totally solid in the present moment, taking one step, taking another step free, like you were saying. So he just had this incredible freedom that he wasn’t touched by my craving for I want to get this bit of candy a little bit sooner than otherwise, you know? He wasn’t touched by that. He was still himself, still free. And it wasn’t unkind either. You know, I felt stupid, but that’s, you know, I have my own self judgment. You know, and Thay was just looking at me with these big eyes, just kind of seeing the mess I was, but without any kind of unkindness, just very loving and very like, okay, it’s okay. You’ll understand, you’ll learn, you know? But it was kind of like this mirror effect. So I suddenly got to see my mind. It’s like in that millisecond I saw all these layers of kind of craving, in a sense, of just like pushing me, wanting something else, lunging into the future, not being quite satisfied, not really being at peace, not really being comfortable in my own skin. You know, not being able just to sit there and be free and be satisfied and just go, actually, this is enough. I don’t need anything else. The microphone will come, but I’m already fine. So I wasn’t… So I suddenly got to see how, even though I thought I was in the present moment, I wasn’t in the present moment. I was like in the next half second still leaning into the future. And then, of course, you know, Thay takes this peaceful steps, and hands me the microphone and everything’s fine. But I got this whole kind of like teaching in 2 seconds. My whole mind just kind of went, Wow, okay, that’s what mindfulness is. That’s what being in the present moment is. Wow. You know, I still got to ask my question, which was fine. And Thay gave me an amazing answer, which was great, but the teaching was in that silent interaction. And how could Thay do that? Is because he had been cultivating that his entire life. So he was rock solid. You know? So when I was lunging, he didn’t do that classic mirroring. He was just immovable.
So what I hear from both of you is that if we are able to integrate these two dimensions in a meaningful way where we really feel it, then we are of great use in this world.
Because I know Thay talks about, you know, in a boat that’s in danger of sinking and everyone panics, the ship is going to sink. But if even if there’s one person who, as you say, is rock solid sitting in that boat, who’s calm and is able to express that calmness through the embodiment of it, then it gives permission for other people to come back to themselves and realize actually not to panic, which is, in a sense, how we started this conversation. So what I hear you saying is actually, the more that we, as individuals, are able to embody this, to understand it, then actually at the most important time in this moment of danger to human living beings, that we can be of most use because we’ve done that. And also, as you were talking, it brought to mind that, you know, one of the times I interviewed Thay, you know, he was, and this was, what, 13, 14, probably 14 years ago, he was talking about civilizational collapse. And I hadn’t really, you know, I hadn’t really heard anyone else talk about the collapse of the civilization. You know, I’ve heard people talk about, oh, well, it’s going to be difficult times, etc.. But he said it with calmness. He understood it with calmness. He understood that actually the collapse of civilization was a choice. And our behavior and our consciousness and whether we had a collective awakening would determine what way it would be. And it’s not that… Thay was hugely compassionate. He absolutely understood what it meant for collapse to happen, all the suffering. And he was able to be at peace in that moment. And as I’m thinking about it, I think that was probably quite an important moment for me because actually in all the work I’ve done on climate change, etc., I think that that understanding did help me to be more at peace, did help me to see things in a much broader context, has helped me to be there for other people in a way that helps them to relax, to be at ease, to find some joy. So actually this is really helpful to hear these stories because it’s about recognizing actually that we’re not looking for Thay to provide the answers, but actually he’s just showing us a path and we can also follow. But I just wanted to get practical again, which is we’ve talked about self, we’ve talked about life span. But I just want to come back to this, because one of the things I learned from Thay was sometimes the importance of repetition. That just because you said it… In journalism, if you said something once, you would never say it again in the same article. You know, it’s like you never use the same word twice. And that was in a sense a rule or habit that was stuck in me, and Thay had this habit of saying things sometimes many times in the same talk, and I was saying Why is he doing that? And it’s of course, because we don’t get it the first time. So I just want you to do something very simple and practical, Brother Phap Linh, which is, I know in Buddhism, one of the things that helps us to understand the movement from the historical into the ultimate dimension is what are called four notions. There is the…
Letting go of those four notions.
Can we edit this out? That wasn’t my voice. Is letting go of four notions. One is of self, one is of human, one is of living being, and one is of life span. So we sort of we jumped around, we cover those in a bit, but I just wonder, Brother Phap Linh, before we end this recording is just, because I think it’s quite useful to go through those four. Just to take us through those four and how those can help us to move out of this sense of I am this and only this.
Yes. So I think we’ve already seen a few ways, you know, in the conversation of kind of resting in the ultimate. And that can be just, you know, you sit on your cushion and you follow your breath and you quiet your mind and you find real deep inner silence and you just, boom, there you are, you know, you see it for yourself. But that, yeah, can be quite challenging and it’s actually very useful to understand what are the kind of habits of thought and perception that prevent us from seeing reality as it is. And, you know, the Buddhist masters were very, very good at identifying the traps of thought that prevent us from seeing things as they really are. Because the whole point is that the historical is the ultimate. It’s right there, like right in front of our nose. You know? We don’t need to go anywhere. We don’t need to, you know, be on top of the Himalayas to see the ultimate dimension. It’s right there, glaring us in the face, in fact. But somehow we have these habits of thought that just trap us in a kind of more narrow type of thinking. So these four notions come up in the Diamond Sutra, which Thay called the earliest text on deep ecology, which is really wonderful. We don’t know exactly when it was written, but probably sometime in the second or third century, I think, in northern India. So it’s an early Mahayana text. And then it was, it became one of the, I think, the earliest printed document that we have. They had these Chinese wood blocks that they would carve and then print on paper. And there’s a copy of it in the British Museum in London. You can go and see it. And we went to see it with Thay, which was really wonderful. You can ask why, what it’s doing in the British Museum? But anyway, there it is. Yes, so in that very, very ancient text is this very, very helpful piece of guidance for our practice and for our thinking, which says, Okay, if you can remove these four notions, then you can start, you have a chance to see the ultimate, to see reality as it is. So that all sounds very nice, you know? Okay, let’s remove the notion of self. Let’s remove the notion of human being, of living being, of life span. Great. But then the question is how? Because actually those notions are quite sticky. They’re really, you know, we’re quite convinced that we are actually, that we exist, you know, that we are a separate self and we have lots of ways to prove it. So we’re like, I have an identity card, I have a passport, I have a driver’s license, I have a birth certificate, I have a name, I have, you know, talents and weaknesses. I have my character, my identity. I have, you know, the things I know. And, you know, it’s like there’s so much evidence to say, Well, I exist, and I’m me, and I’m unique and I’m special. So how do we start to kind of unpick that? And I think there’s lots and lots of ways. You know, one could be as simple as like Thay Phap Huu was saying before, drinking a cup of tea. When you pour the tea in your cup or your mug you might think, Well, I’m me and the tea is over there. Right? And then you start drinking the tea. At what point does the tea become you? And this is some, there’s some sort of like we know we’re 70% water or probably more than 70% water. We know that water, some of that, is going to be taken up by our ourselves. You know, it’s going to change us. It’s going to become part of us. So there’s a sense in which we’re not our boundary that which we usually put on our skin. You know, I say like this is the edge of me. It’s not really, you know, the closer you look at it, the more it just dissolves. There is no boundary. Like that’s just physically. Right? You breathe. You know? So actually, if you want to, it’s like a child, you know, drawing an outline around something or saying everything inside of this line is me. And everything outside of it is not me. But where do you draw that line? Is it your skin? Or do you have to include a little bit of air, you know, so that you can breathe? Okay. So let’s make the boundary a little bit bigger. Let’s include the room. But actually, well, I need a bit more than the room because I need food. Okay, so let’s have a farm, you know. So we add a farm. And then, but the farm needs the clouds. And so now add the sky. And well, the, you know, the clouds need the sun, you know, to evaporate the water from the sea for that to be rain. So okay, so we throw in the sun… we got a lot of space we suddenly thrown in. We’ve got a whole planet now. So before you know, you’ve got a whole cosmos, you know? So where’s the edge? Where are you? Where, you know, where can you use your pair of scissors to cut yourself out and say, This is me and everything else is not me. You actually can’t. So it’s really worth meditating a little bit on that and doing your own investigation to find out like, am I bounded? Do I have an edge in space? Also in time? You know, like Thay Phap Huu was saying before, we are also part of a stream of transmission from our ancestors. You know, we look into our habits of speech, of feeling and thinking where we find everyone else. You know, we find, you know, our blood ancestors, but also our friends, our education, our culture. It’s all part of us. It’s all in us. We can’t separate ourselves from that. And we continue into the future through our actions of body, speech and mind that resonate outwards, that touch others, that connect us with others. So there’s no edge either in space or in time. So that notion just sort of crumbles. The more carefully you look at it, the more it falls apart. And then you go to a human being and you say, Well, hang on, come on, don’t be silly. Like, clearly, there are human beings. They’re all over the place that, you know, human beings everywhere, crawling around all over the place in their cars and wearing their funny clothes and building their boxes and, you know, living in them. Humans everywhere. So why does the Buddha say or the, you know, the ancient masters say there’s no human beings? Well, because they had this profound insight that there is no human being without everything else. We actually know now that we are a community, you know, you just look into your intestinal flora and you find all kinds of non-human cells. There are more non-human cells than human cells in our body. That’s just, you know, that’s basic science. We wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for this kind of symbiosis between us and all these different bacterial species that are part of us. We wouldn’t be able to digest food. We wouldn’t exist without the trees. So in the sense, like, you know, we think we’re so special, but without trees and plankton producing oxygen, we wouldn’t be here. So are we really us? Are we really human or are we also the more-than-human world? And like this isn’t just an intellectual exercise. This is actually a medicine for our suffering and especially for the suffering of our times, because it’s partly this notion that human beings are so special that gives us the impression that we can sort of use the Earth, that we can extract, that we can, you know, utilize or and kill, you know, that we can kill other beings for our own survival. It gives us permission because we think we’re the best. You know, we think we’re a part of… You know, we spent so much of the last few hundred years trying to convince ourselves of everything that’s special about humanity and science, you know, just keeps pushing at the edges of that. We keep finding that actually now all of these things that we thought are unique to human consciousness, well, actually, it’s shared by the chimpanzees and maybe the parrots and maybe even the magpies. And, you know, it kind of goes wider and wider. And now it’s like squids and lobsters and even bumblebees now have feelings, apparently. You know, so we’ve been trying to tell ourselves that we’re special, that we have feelings, that we suffer, that we have joy, and that no other animals do, because that’s very convenient. It’s very convenient. If that’s the case, then that means that we can kill them and not feel any moral compunction because, well, they don’t have feelings, they just have instinct. You know, that’s what science has been trying to tell us. Anybody who has a dog or a cat knows like, well, the dog or the cat is a very emotional being. They, you know, they can be happy, they can be sad, they can be angry, they can be lonely, they can be anxious. We know that. It’s, you know, and so if a cat can, why can’t a sheep or a pig? A pig is probably much more intelligent, you know, or a cow. And so we have to start letting that in and realizing, you know, maybe now, you know, they’re even telling us the forests have a kind of intelligence with their mycelial networks, you know, that this is a kind of underground brain. You know, that seems to be communicating, exchanging nutrients, passing, you know, stuff from even between different species. And maybe they’re more intelligent than we are. Maybe they have more wisdom than we do. You know, maybe we need to start paying attention and actually listening and stop thinking we’re so special. So that’s all different kind of angles on this question of, you know, is there really such a thing as a human being separate from the rest? And I think it’s very clear really that there isn’t. And when we think that there is, we suffer and we cause suffering. We do harm to the Earth. Same thing with living beings, with the notion of living being we have a tendency to discriminate between the living in the non-living. And so we might think, well, okay, fine, we have to look after the cows and the trees and the fish and… But the rocks, you know, they don’t feel anything. That’s just rock. It’s dead. So, inanimate, we can scrape it up and dig it and, you know, extract it and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t feel anything. But there’s this sutra inviting us to look a little deeper and to ask ourselves, Well, are we sure, are we really sure that the stuff that we call inert matter, inanimate matter, is it really so inanimate? Is it really so inert? If you ask any physicist to look into, you know, an atom or a subatomic particle, they don’t seem to be inert at all, they’re very dynamic. They’re fizzing in and out of existence in this sort of weird quantum foam. They seem to be very active. I mean, maybe most physicists wouldn’t be comfortable saying that they have intelligence, but certainly the word inert doesn’t seem to, you know, it doesn’t seem to stick anymore. And also, you know, with the eyes of interbeing, we see that that world of matter, what we call matter, is also part of us. We can’t exist without it. The way that you feel now in your bones, in your contact with the chair that you’re sitting on, the ground under your feet or, you know, wherever you happen to be, that’s the presence of an entire planet in your life. Like it’s sitting there. It’s right there. You can’t say that you exist independently of it. You wouldn’t feel like you do. You know, we wouldn’t be experiencing the sensation of weight if there wasn’t a planet sitting there. It’s part of us. So, what we call living or animate already includes the so-called inanimate world. You know, if we didn’t have the Moon orbiting the Earth, we wouldn’t have tides. And maybe life would never have evolved on this planet. Or not in the way that it has. And do you think the Moon is dead? But it’s part of life. So it’s a big Are you sure? It’s a big like, let’s reexamine our certainty. And we have a kind of pride that goes along with I know, you know, I know what I know. And, you know, that’s all I need to know. And it’s all fine. The humans are human and, you know, rocks are rock. You know, Buddhism is kind of going, Well, you know, let’s look again, check again. And then life span. Well, we’ve already touched on it a little bit, but is this, you know, we all so very sure that we are born and then we die, and that’s that. You know, it’s very clear. Birth certificate. Death certificate. What’s in between is life. Before is I don’t know what, we don’t exist. Afterwards don’t exist. But you know, like when we look at Thay, for example, Thay’s life. It’s just impossible to say that he’s gone in a sense. Like, it’s so clear how he continues in so many ways, in everybody he’s touched, in all of his books, in all of his talks, in us, you know, through his non-verbal actions as well as through his silent teaching he’s transmitted something that continues. So what was he? Was he just that body, that man? Or was he already something much bigger than what we can name and point out and, you know, give an identity to? Was he already, you know, more than just that body? Like we participate in the life span of the planet. We participate in the life span of the cosmos, of stars, of galaxies. Their lifespan is our life span. We’re not limited to 80 years. You know, we were, you know, it’s like the birth and death of suns, of supernovae is in our bones. Like the calcium in our bones they think can only have been created in supernovae. So it’s like, well, was that death or was that birth, that star exploding? It’s part of me. So, I didn’t start when I was born. I was already on my mother’s womb, you know. I was already, in fact, in my grandmother’s womb, you know, as an egg. You know, my mother was already an egg in my grandmother and she and her mother before her, and, you know, it’s like this uninterrupted chain that we participate in.
Yeah, we can use these… It seems to be kind of… maybe sometimes seems like a bit of an intellectual exercise, kind of removing notions and ta da da. But we always have to ask ourselves, and remember, like, what does this have to do with my suffering or my happiness? Like, there’s no point in doing any of this unless it actually frees us, unless it allows us to touch some feeling of greater depth and significance and meaning, love, purpose, freedom. Like, if it’s just a kind of dry intellectual exercise, then, you know, that’s not what the Buddha or the ancient masters or Thay intended. They offered us these tools because when we can touch the ultimate dimension, and this is what you were saying before, it shines. The ultimate shines in the historical. It’s a light. You know, somebody like Thay, who was dwelling constantly in the ultimate dimension and yet very active in the historical, was like this light, this shining, because he’s free and that freedom creates more freedom in the world. So it has like the ultimate it kind of transforms the historical. You know, when you touch it, when you have that freedom and joy, it’s infectious. It communicates. It lights up the room. You know, it lights up other people’s hearts. You know, those moments looking into Thay’s eyes they changed me forever. You know, that’s like getting a little taste of Thay’s freedom kind of gave me that taste. And so I can remember and so I know how to touch it again. And then maybe I have a chance, you know, eventually to transmit a little bit of that flavor to others. So it goes on, it transforms the world. And we want to touch the ultimate not to escape, but because we want to do everything we can to transform the historical dimension, to make it a more beautiful place, a more loving place, a place where there’s less stress and anxiety. So there’s a reason to do all this, you know, because it means that, you know, when we show up for a conference or we show up at work or we just sit with our partner, we’re different, and we communicate something different, and we bring a little bit more depth and wonder to the world around us. And I think everybody is hungry for that. And it makes a difference to how we address problems. Like, you know, I really think of Thay. We’ve seen Thay go through so many difficult moments, real moments of challenge. You know, when the monastery in Vietnam was disbanded and, you know, there were crowds of thugs surrounding, you know, the monastery and Thay’s in France, 400 of his students are in Vietnam. He can’t do anything. They’re physically in danger. And we were with Thay at the time and to see his way of responding to that was such a powerful lesson because he could remain free. And he could continue to… Yeah, his freedom changed the way of responding. So his way of responding was always surprising. So I would be there thinking like, Okay, what do we do? Either we have to kind of like, you know, we have to write a letter or we have to do… It was always kind of like an A and B, was like, do we do this or do we do that? But because Thay’s free, he’s always surprising, always unexpected. He always comes out with something you couldn’t see it coming. You’d have some other response. And that’s his ultimate dimension, that he’s free from thinking it’s like this or it’s like that, these very kind of narrow constraints of these are the options and we have to pick. And because, yeah, Thay is touching this deeper reality, he’s not caught by any of that. And so he can find solutions that nobody expects. And I think that’s what we need as well with the climate crisis. That’s what we need with all the crises that we face. We need many, many, many people like that who have that degree of freedom to see past the constraints that we think are kind of binding us.
Wow, Brother Phap Huu?
I just want to say that this topic is a very deep topic, it’s not something to grasp within one session. I’ve been a monk for 20 years, Brother Phap Linh has been a monk for…
15 years. And we’ve been meditating on this for years and we’re still meditating on it. So it’s to be free even from the notion of ultimate and historic.
So that’s quite important to say because we don’t want to bind ourself also in the idea, do I get it or do I not get it? But we see the Dharma like Dharma rain. So I would listen back and back to Thay’s teaching on it. Read again. My understanding of it becomes more profound as I grow in my own practice. So that’s just an advice for all the listeners.
Thank you, Brother Phap Huu for a very deep meditation, actually, on life, not just on our lives. And you talk about we can go and listen to Thay time and time again. I think I’ll probably listen to this podcast recording time and time again because I think you both gave such a beautiful and clear and actually very simple, given the complexity, very simple transmission of this and how it can truly help us in these times and how we can be a light unto others. So, thank you both very much. And Phap Huu, we are, I think we… Let’s break the tradition, shall we? Because this is what it’s about. We normally have a guided meditation by you, but I think we’ve had a very long guided meditation. And so maybe this will be a good moment just to stop, to thank you, dear listeners, for being on this journey with us. Because also without you, we wouldn’t be here. We certainly wouldn’t have got this far. So thank you. And also thank you all for all your beautiful messages of support and acknowledgment, it helps us a great deal in our recordings to know that this is proving to be helpful in people’s lives. That’s a great balm for us as well. And so if you did enjoy it, because we don’t know for sure, you can find many other episodes of our podcast series, The Way Out Is In, on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts, on other platforms that carry podcasts, and also on our very own Plum Village App.
And this podcast was brought to you by the generous donors of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. If