Welcome to episode 18 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 practitioner and journalist Jo Confino – delve deeply into Buddhist philosophy by discussing the teaching known as the Three Doors of Liberation (emptiness, signlessness, aimlessness), which is vital to understanding life and living it well.
Together, they go through each of the three doors, discovering and explaining the corresponding concepts, sharing their own experiences of these deep teachings and how to apply them in daily life.
Brother Phap Huu shares on the topics of ways to train ourselves to practice emptiness (even in success), signlessness, and aimlessness; Zen stories; touching liberation in daily life; and meditating on our aims in life.
In addition, Jo looks at the journey of stripping away individual selves, and recollects “the experience of the terror of nothingness”. He further muses on a day of mindfulness in the World Bank, and on not chasing life.
The episode ends with a short meditation on the Three Doors of Liberation, 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: ‘Three Doors of Liberation’
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
How To: ‘Begin Anew’
Dharma Talks: ‘Signlessness and Impermanence’
‘The Doors of Liberation’
Dharma Talks: ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’
“The First Door of Liberation is emptiness, shunyata. Emptiness always means empty of something. A cup is empty of water. A bowl is empty of soup. We are empty of a separate, independent self. We cannot be by ourselves alone. We can only inter-be with everything else in the cosmos. The practice is to nourish the insight into emptiness all day long. Wherever we go, we touch the nature of emptiness in everything we contact. We look deeply at the table, the blue sky, our friend, the mountain, the river, our anger, and our happiness and see that these are all empty of a separate self. When we touch these things deeply, we see the interbeing and interpenetrating nature of all that is. Emptiness does not mean nonexistence. It means Interdependent Co-Arising, impermanence, and nonself.”
“The Second Door of Liberation is signlessness, animitta. ‘Sign’ here means an appearance or the object of our perception. When we see something, a sign or image appears to us, and that is what is meant by ‘lakshana.’ If water, for example, is in a square container, its sign is ‘squareness.’ If in a round container, its sign is ‘roundness.’ When we open the freezer and take out some ice, the sign of that water is solid. Chemists call water ‘H₂O.’ The snow on the mountain and the steam rising from the kettle are also H₂O. Whether H₂O is round or square, liquid, gaseous, or solid depends on circumstances. Signs are instruments for our use, but they are not absolute truth, and they can mislead us. The Diamond Sutra says, ‘Wherever there is a sign, there is deception, illusion.’ Perceptions often tell us as much about the perceiver as the object of perception. Appearances can deceive.”
“The Third Door of Liberation is aimlessness, apranihita. There is nothing to do, nothing to realize, no program, no agenda. This is the Buddhist teaching about eschatology. Does the rose have to do something? No, the purpose of a rose is to be a rose. Your purpose is to be yourself. You don’t have to run anywhere to become someone else. You are wonderful just as you are. This teaching of the Buddha allows us to enjoy ourselves, the blue sky, and everything that is refreshing and healing in the present moment.
“There is no need to put anything in front of us and run after it. We already have everything we are looking for, everything we want to become. We are already a Buddha so why not just take the hand of another Buddha and practice walking meditation? This is the teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Be yourself. Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation. Most people cannot believe that just walking as though you have nowhere to go is enough. They think that striving and competing are normal and necessary. Try practicing aimlessness for just five minutes, and you will see how happy you are during those five minutes.”
“What we discover in Buddhism is that once you have a lot of complexes, even superior or inferior, even equality, they come with a lot of suffering. And because of these notions that humans have – right, wrong, good, bad – we start to discriminate. And to practice Buddhism and to touch one of the doors of liberation is to see the emptiness of everything and is to help us be more free.”
“You are who you are, but you are made of everything. And because you have that insight, you are also free from your own ego.”
“You cannot call a mountain a mountain until you see that it is not a mountain.”
“Practising signlessness, if you look at the mountain, it is made of rocks, dirt, soil, trees, and much, much more. And if you remove all of that, then suddenly the mountain is not there. That is the practice of seeing that the mountain is not a mountain. You are free from the sign that that is just a mountain; if you break it down, you see that it is all of these other elements. So this may be a meditation with which we can look into our own attachments, including to ourselves, like ‘I want to be like that for me to be happy.’ But is that image that we are creating for ourselves really happiness? Or is that just a sign that we have been educated to run after and to see as success? And so, if we break free from all these signs, we’ll become a little bit more free.”
“Man is not our enemy. The enemy is ignorance. It is hatred. It is discrimination. So we have to help others recognize that so that they can transform too, because everyone has Buddha nature inside of them.”
“Part of the way we try to define ourselves as individuals is by making someone else the enemy, or wrong – because that feeds our need to be right and intelligent [etc].”
“Happiness is a goal we should all touch in our daily life, because in true happiness you might realise that you don’t need more. What you have is more than enough. What you are is more than enough. And because you are fulfilled, you are at peace, you are free, you have time to love, you have time to be loved, you have time for the ones around you. Isn’t that success? Isn’t that happiness?”
Brother Phap Huu, we are coming to the end of 2021.
Wow, so fast.
Yeah. And we’ve, I think we’ve recorded about 20 podcasts and we are going to be taking a short break.
That is right, everyone. Thank you so much for joining our adventure and listening and being a support for us. It has been so wonderful to also see all the feedback.
And the Buddhist teachings, brother, are endless. And my suggestion is maybe our podcast series will be too. But… so we will be back, won’t we?
We will be back. Definitely, we will be back.
Yes. So the last person who said that was Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, so I’m not sure if that’s so relevant, but we will be back.
See you in 2022.
Hello, dear listeners, and welcome to the latest episode of our podcast series The Way Out Is In.
I’m Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems change.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village.
And today we are going to talk about one of the deepest teachings of Buddhist philosophy, known as the Three Doors of Liberation. They are emptiness…
The way out is in.
Hello, everyone, I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And brother, I’m a bit nervous about today’s episode because we’re going to be delving deep into Buddhist philosophy and we’re going to be talking about the Three Doors of Liberation. And they seem to be absolutely vital to an understanding of life and to living a good life. And yet, as soon as I sort of feel I get to know them, they sort of race away from me again. Can… Tell us a bit about the three doors and then we can sort of go through each one, maybe.
So the Three Doors of Liberation, you can discover it in any Buddhist tradition, and it comes directly from the teachings from the Buddha during his time when he was teaching the monks and nuns and the laypeople in India. And, like you have mentioned, they are the foundations of his teachings, they help us to become more free from our suffering. And what we can see in the title is liberation. And us, monastics, when we aspire to become a monk or a nun, deep down inside of us, there is a deep wish to touch liberation in our daily life. But what I have learned in the teachings of mindfulness and the teachings of engaged Buddhism by our teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh – who we call a Thay. Thay teaches us that even when we practice mindfulness, we have to have an object so that we are mindful of something. So when we practice these Three Doors of Liberation, we will start to see that to be empty we also have to be empty of something. To practice signlessness we also have to meditate on something to be signless. And aimlessness, the same. So in this episode, we will try to go one by one and try to discover the teachings and then hear from my experience. And then also, we can hear from your experience, Jo, even though you think you don’t fully grasp it yet, but I think you are already practicing it in your daily life.
Great. So why don’t we dive in? So, so to help us, I was going to… One of my favorite books of Thay is his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings. And he has a little chapter, so I thought maybe for each door of liberation, I could start off by reading just a little bit, just to get us going, and then we can sort of go from there. So Thay says ‘The first door of liberation is emptiness. Emptiness always means empty of something. A cup is empty of water. A bowl is empty of soup. We are empty of a separate, independent self. We cannot be by ourselves alone. We can only interbeing with everything else in the cosmos. The practice is to nourish the insight into emptiness all day long. Wherever we go, we touch the nature of emptiness and everything we contact. We look deeply at the table, the blue sky, our friend, the mountain, the river, our anger and our happiness, and see that these are all empty of a separate self. When we touch these things deeply, we see the interbeing and interpenetration nature of all that is. Emptiness does not mean nonexistence. It means Interdependent Co-Arising, impermanence and nonself.’ Wow, that’s a lot to take in, brother.
That is a lot.
So I sort of, I sort of, you know, of the three this is the one I find easiest because what it tells us is that we spend most of our lives or we’re taught to imagine we’re individuals. So actually, the way we look out into the world is that how do I look after myself? How do I protect and defend myself? How do I get more for myself? And in a sense, that is one of the conditions that has led us to this sort of crisis in humanity where we’re consuming and we care about ourselves leads to this idea of, you know, I look after myself, but I don’t care about you, which we know is a big problem in the world. But brother, tell us a little bit… How how do we start to…? Because what I want this session to be for myself as much as anything is how do we practice this in daily life? So it’s one thing to have a concept and understanding on an intellectual level. But I often find just in my daily life, it’s very difficult to think that way because I’m so embedded in the thinking of me, me, me.
Yes, I would start off with how I trained myself to practice emptiness. Like, when we meditate, we have an opportunity to look more deeply to see beyond the image, beyond ‘what is that form?’ So part of our meditation, a lot of the times we ask ourselves to train to come back to our breath and to see that we are one with the cosmos because you cannot be by yourself. Just the action of breathing, you are relying on something outside of you. So when you meditate on your breath, you can also touch the non-me element. And one of the first meditation that I was asked to practice when I came to Plum Village, I remember in a Dharma talk Thay asked everyone to look at this pot of flower. And he asked all of us to put on these meditation glasses and to look deeply into this pot of flower. And Thay asked us, ‘What do you see?’ And then Thay started to guide us, ‘If you truly look deeply into this flower, you will see beyond the flower, you will be able to see the sunshine, the cosmos, the rain, the gardener, the soil.’ So then you start to see all of these other conditions that help the flower manifest. So if you are to ask the flower, ‘Where did you come from?’ And we may have a very conventional way of looking and say, ‘Oh, I come from this.’ But if you truly listen and you look at the flower and you let the flower speak its wisdom, the flower will actually tell that ‘I come from so many conditions. There is the soil that has helped me take root, help me nourish the seed or nourish this root for it to spring into the earth. And then once I’m in the earth, I am a form. I don’t rely on just myself. I now need the sunshine to penetrate each day so I can become stronger. I need the rain so that I have nutrition.’ And then you start… The flower starts to recognize that it is not just itself, and therefore the flower can say, ‘I am full of everything, but I am empty of a separate self.’ And that is also the key for us to meditate on oneself. Like you shared, we are probably taught and probably we have many role models that we see as heroes, individuals and who are superior, but all of that also has a complex that comes with it. And what we discover in Buddhism is once you have a lot of complexes, even superior or inferior, even equality, there comes also with a lot of suffering. And because of these notions that us as humans we have – right, wrong, good, bad – we start to discriminate. And to practice Buddhism and to touch one of this door of liberation is to see the emptiness of everything and is to help us be more free. For example, just very recently, I discovered that somebody stole cash in my wallet, and it was a huge surprise. And we were at the gas station and I asked one of the brothers, ‘Oh, can you get me the wallet in my bag so we can pay for our petrol?’ And when the brother handed me the wallet, I felt it and it was so light and I said, ‘This is not right.’ And I opened it and there was nothing inside. And so you can say my wallet was empty, but really, at that very moment, something happened in me and I started… my mind was, you know, ‘Who is this? Who stole?’ And I just left a kind of bitter feeling and a bitter taste in my mouth. And for it to happen in the monastery also is not a nice feeling. And I had to really meditate on this, and I started to see beyond the action. So whoever it may be, it may be someone in the community or it can be someone outside of the community, and we don’t really know. But at that very moment, I didn’t see just the action and just what is wrong, and that can just continue to like nourish my anger and hatred. But I started to have some compassion. I actually had compassion. And I made an announcement to the community, and I shared that this has happened. And in that moment of sharing to the community, I felt in my heart I was very light because I was able to say that this has happened, and if it is someone that’s in the community, please know that this is a wrong action and I don’t want you to live with this feeling of guilt. If it is you, please put the cash in an envelope and put it in a bell in our meditation hall, and you can practice beginning anew as a way of saying sorry, and you can touch the Earth three times to the Buddha. And I said, ‘And dear brothers and dear sisters and dear friends, any one of us in the community, if we are lacking anything, please let us know. Please share. We are here to support.’ And for me, at that moment, I really practiced to let go and to be empty of what is right and wrong, because the money is gone. If I continue to like, keep looking and keep like trying to hunt down who it is, then I’m just going to be full of resentment and full of of anger, and my eyes will start to look at people not trustworthy. And I start to see that that’s not how I want to handle this situation. And at that moment I was able to be free, I was able to see beyond, and whoever it may be, I hope that they are more free. They are free from guilt, free from wrong action. And if it is someone that was in the hall that I shared, I wish that they can touch compassion, touch understanding and to touch that they have done something wrong in order to begin anew, because that will help them be more free. So emptiness is a teaching that can help us see beyond what we see just with our eyes. And when we look at ourselves, now looking at myself like I can recognize I am not just Phap Huu, I have two beautiful lineages in me, I would say, and I’m sure there’s more, but I can recognize two. One is my blood ancestor: my father and my mother. And then the other is my spiritual ancestor, my teacher, the patriarchs of our tradition, and then go all the way down to the time of the Buddha. So every time I practice and I am able to accomplish something, our practice is to share the merit. So this is a very beautiful practice for us to learn to let go of our ego and be free from our pride. Right? Because we’re very human. And of course, when we do something good is so wonderful to feel I’m able to contribute, and I’m able to be a part of such a community, I’m able to bring happiness to someone. But if we are not careful and we don’t know how to meditate and to be free from even success, we can be a victim of our own success. So when we are practicing in our daily life, we can also practice emptiness even in our success. So we have this practice of sharing the merit, and it’s very simple. Like this podcast, for example, we’ve heard many good responses, and even some people have also given us feedback to help us grow in the podcast. And if we were not free and not empty, we would say, ‘Oh, no, you just don’t understand, you don’t get our message.’ And we won’t be able to listen. So also, if we’re more empty, we can be more open. And then when we’re successful, Jo, Brother Phap Huu, and the whole team, not to, you know, just be so proud, but also we can see that what we’re able to offer is thanks to all of the conditions around us. Right? The teachings of Thay that both of us have been so lucky to have the chance to learn and study under our teacher. And then this community where we’ve had the chance to live together, practice together and share insights. Because really, what I’m sharing to you right now is also not my own insight. They have been transmitted to me, so I can also practice emptiness of sharing. I don’t know if that is helpful.
Yeah, no, that’s great. In fact, as you were talking, I was feeling exactly the same because this podcast is a great example of that, brother, because when I hear a lot of compliments about it, I really am able to recognize, you know, I am very happy to receive them. And also, I don’t need them. And I think that’s the big change. Because when I was young, I was very, very needy to be recognized. And if I did something, I wanted to be seen to do it and it helped me to feel more myself if people were telling me good things and if they weren’t then responding, I was feeling less then. And so I think in terms of my journey through life, one of the most important things for me is to be able to receive that feedback, very positive feedback, but also not need it because then I’m free. Exactly what you’re saying. If I keep needing, if every podcast I need to look at the comments to say, ‘Oh, my god, look, I’ve only got three comments’ or, well, ‘This one is negative.’ Then actually, I would actually be different on the podcast because I couldn’t be myself. But because I don’t need that, even if people like it, don’t like it, what I want to do is offer my best.
And also in the teachings of emptiness, it was one of the ingredients that allowed our teacher to come up with a new word, which our teacher has shared a lot in his Dharma talks. And it is the very essence of interconnectedness, how everything relies on everything to be. And we, as a practitioner, we we have to practice this to see this is because that is, to see the root of everything. And what that word is that our teacher has coined this term called interbeing, where none of us can be by ourselves. That’s why all of us at the core of it we’re all empty, because if we remove our parents, we’re not here. If we remove our education, we won’t have the capacity to share, the capacity to understand. If we move the culture, we also may feel very isolated, not a part of anything. If we remove the food then we wouldn’t have the energy to be. So emptiness helps us see that our existence is not separate. And with that insight, it empowers us to make choices that allow us to also contribute to the well-being of life. And that’s very important. So emptiness and noself sometimes we also say the first Dharma door is no self, but that talks about us as an individual. And then someone has also asked me like, but if we say noself, then does it mean I’m not here? Ignore it, it doesn’t mean that. You are who you are, but you are made of everything. And because you have that insight, you are also free from your own ego.
So, brother, beautifully put. And I’m reminded as we speak of an experience I had many years ago where I used to… I spent many years working with a personal sort of development experiential group. And I went on a 10-day workshop once and we were looking through that whole journey to strip away individual selves. So we were looking at our beliefs, our judgments, and basically the whole superstructure of our lives have been built on personal beliefs and personal judgments. And this is right, this is wrong. This I like, this I don’t like. And we spent, literally every day, just stripping that down until we reached, I think it was day seven. And we went into the experience of the terror of nothingness. And it was very experiential so for each day, someone was picked to represent that feeling. And I was actually picked to represent that at the time because I really was terrified at that moment because ‘I’m not this, I’m not that, I’m not this, I’m not that.’ And if I’m not who I am, then actually all I was looking into is this abyss, in the sense of who… What am I? Who am I? If all this is just made up, then actually, who am I? And actually, when I broke through that, it was a sense that I’m actually connected to everything. And so I think that’s what exactly you’re saying. There’s a huge fear about letting go of our individual self because we put so much investment in it, so much time that our, you know, status is dependent on it, our belief system, you know, there’s so much that is in a sense in-built into this, this sort of almost rock hard mountain of ourselves that is very, very difficult to break out of that. Because I absolutely get 100 percent interbeing, I absolutely 100 percent get this idea that I cannot exist by myself alone. As you say, I’ve got my blood ancestors, I’ve got my spiritual ancestors, I’ve got my land ancestors, which we’ve talked about in a different podcast episode. But I’m finding it really, really difficult to separate my own identity from the whole. So I feel that I’ve become more generous, I’ve become more open, I’ve become more caring. You know, I can put lots of things to it. But actually, it still comes down to the fact that I see myself as myself and I’m still stuck in that place. What’s your advice?
I think we have to go to the second one, it’s signlessness.
Oh, good. That was not meant to be a segue.
Not meant. But I think we will discover that in the practice of signlessness.
Great. So shall I just read a little bit about signlessness? ‘The second door of liberation is signlessness. “Sign” here means an appearance or the object of our perception. When we see something, a sign or image appears to us. And that is what is meant by “lakshana”. If water, for example, is in a square container, its sign is “squareness”. If in a round container, its sign is “roundness”. When we open the freezer and take out some ice, the sign of that water is solid. Chemists call water H2O. The snow on the mountain, the steam rising from the cattle, also H2O. Where the H2O is round or square liquid, gaseous or solid depends on circumstances. Signs are instruments for our use, but they are not absolute truth and they can mislead us. The Diamond Sutra says wherever there is a sign, there is deception, illusion. Perceptions often tell us as much about the perceiver as the object of perception. Appearances can deceive.’ So brother, when I think of signlessness what comes to mind is this phrase, which I think is one of the most wonderful phrases: ‘You cannot call a mountain a mountain until you see that it is not a mountain.’ Now I love that, and it’s like, occasionally, I’ve understood what that means. And then it suddenly disappears from my mind. I think ‘Oh, my god, I’m sure I understood that.’ And it’s like… Can you… ? Is that a good way of getting into the subject? Because it’s so fascinating.
It is fascinating. And just to continue on that because it’s part of a story that that phrase, right? I don’t know if you remember, but one of the Zen story that I read, and the monk he looks at the mountain and he sees the mountain is not the mountain, right? That’s the phrase that you just said. And then later on in his practice he says, ‘I see the mountains, just the mountain.’ And I’m like what? And then later on, then he goes again and he sees ‘Now I still also see the mountain is not the mountain.’ Wow. So that’s very confusing.
… not to blow your mind.
But just to not go into that story because I don’t remember it, but I do remember that phrase because it has also been something that sometimes I see myself as Phap Huu, but then sometimes I see I am not Phap Huu. And I sometimes I see, ‘Oh, but I am Phap Huu.’ And where signlessness comes in is to help us be free of all notions, of forms and images and our attachment to it. This is very important. Signlessness goes in hand with… to help us be free from our attachments. We all have a notion of who we are, what we are, who we want to become, an image that we would like to reach either physically or spiritually even, or even develop as a human being. But in the text that we just read that was described by our teacher, he says ‘all signs can also hold deception’, meaning also because our creation of a sign it comes from our mind, it’s coming from our perception. So we are starting to perceive what we want to be. And what we’ve learned in our practice is when we fall under our desire, we can be a victim of a bait. There can be a hook under that bait that we might not recognize. So practicing signlessness, when you see the mountain, if you look at the mountain, the mountain is made out of rocks, dirt, soil, all of these minerals that form in order to hold everything together, the trees, and much, much more. Right? And if you remove all of that, then suddenly the mountain is not there. So that is the practice of seeing the mountain is not the mountain. So you are free from the sign that that is not just a mountain, but if you start to break it down, you see that it is all of these other elements. So this may be a meditation that we can look into our own, our own attachments, whether it is to ourselves, like I want to be like that for me to be happy. But is that image that we are creating for ourselves, is that really happiness? Or is that just a sign that we have been educated to run after and to see that that is success? And so if we break free from all these signs, we’ve become a little bit more free. We are just a manifestation and we allow ourselves to be. And also, this practice can also help us when we meditate on someone who is not here with us anymore. Someone we love dearly is a part of our life, is very impactful in our life, we can see him or her in every action with us. And one day, because of the nature of impermanence, that loved one will not be there anymore and at that very moment we can ask, ‘Where is that person?’ But if we have the eye of signlessness, we can see that that person is a little bit everywhere, that is still around us. For example, I meditate a lot on my teacher. Our teacher, he is one of the biggest reason for who I am today, that I can’t remove Thay from me. And so even though our teacher is not physically here with us, in Plum Village, France, anymore – he’s right now in Vietnam. But I don’t have to be right next to him to feel his presence. But if I look deeply into myself, the way I’m able to share the insights that I can rely on, the connections that I have. All the breakthroughs that has manifested in my meditation, I can see it’s my teacher’s insights that has helped me arrive there, but I’m also not attached to that because he has also allowed me to have my own insight. So he, in a way, is present and is now me. And so if I ever need to meditate and I miss my teacher, which I do from time to time, I truly deeply miss Thay, I just miss being around him and I just miss sitting with him, drinking a cup of tea, or I just miss walking with him. And in that very moment, if I can be aware of my gratitude towards my teacher, and I can see that the way I’m holding the cup of tea in my two hands is my teacher, right there, in that very moment. And his manifestation is not lost because now his manifestation has been transmitted to me. And this image that Thay gives a lot when he talks about signlessness is the cloud. We may see a very beautiful cloud that offers a shade, that gives us rain, it refreshes our life. And one day the cloud is not there anymore. But if you look deeply, you can see that the rain is now the cloud. You can see that the trees that have been nourished by the clouds is the cloud. Right? You can see the tea that you drink that comes from a source, it’s also the continuation of that sign, which was a cloud. So this insight can help us be free from being attached to a form because in all forms, they are of the nature of emptiness. And as a human being, we have many signs that we offer. Our way of speaking is an action. Our way of thinking is an action, and our daily actions are all our continuation. And you may not see them later in the future, but what you offer today can leave an impact to tomorrow. And that is signlessness of our actions of the present moment.
Wow. So let me see if I’ve got this right, because, as you say, this is intimately connected with emptiness because we need this idea of separation in language. Because if you’re driving, you say, ‘Be careful, there’s a tree in front of you, swerve.’ And you don’t think a tree exists, you know, you’re going to die. So actually having signs is important. Like, I’m not you, you’re not me. In terms of, you know, I am Jo Confino. But actually, the mistake is to think that’s all we are. Because if I just think a tree is a tree, a mountain is a mountain, Phap Huu is Phap Huu, I’m Jo Confino, a car is a car, then actually, in my mind, what I’m doing is creating a complete separation. Because in my mind I’m thinking that each object is actually of itself alone. But if I take away the sign, I will see that actually everything is in everything. So if I look at a car, the mountain is in the car and the car is in the mountain because actually you can’t make a car without the metals, and the metals may come from digging up a mountain or whatever. So if I recognize that a mountain is not a mountain, in other words, it’s everything is in that mountain. Then actually I’m able to appreciate the mountain, but in relationship to everything else, not in separation to everything. Is that… Am I getting anywhere with this?
I think you’re there, bro. And one thing I really wanted to mention is that the teachings of the Buddha has to always be understood skillfully. So when we say we are all signless, but like what you just mentioned, it doesn’t mean that you are not Jo and I am not Brother Phap Huu. And the teachings is to help us be free. So we also don’t want to be too caught in the words of it. And sometimes it’s applicable, we apply the teachings and sometimes we don’t need… Sometimes it’s not useful. So the Buddha even has a Sutra, the Sutra on how to catch a snake. Because the teachings, if not understood correctly, you can bite yourself with it, it can be more harmful. So as we learn the Buddha’s teaching, the Sutras and even the teachings of Plum Village, sometimes we always have to ask ‘How do I apply that and where is it applied?’
And also, I imagine, just thinking about it, that if we take emptiness and signlessness seriously, then actually those two, putting those two into practice naturally leads to love and compassion and generosity and understanding, which are in a sense, you know, some of the core ways that we, as a society, need to function, especially now in these times where the separation and polarization and everyone’s going back to that sense of self. Actually, if you recognize that actually we are all interconnected and that we cannot exist by ourself alone, and if you recognize that actually, rather than looking at someone and saying, ‘Oh, you’re right wing or your left wing, or you’re sort of… you’re a young activist and so you’re radical, and you’re this’. You know, then actually what we’re creating is the opposite of that. But when we understand the interrelationships, it’s very, very hard not to feel compassion. It’s very, very hard not to be more generous. It’s very, very hard to just want things for myself because that starts to make no sense.
Exactly. And what we can use this signlessness practice is when you are speaking to someone who is an image, let’s say a CEO of an oil company who we can see is the destruction of life. It is creating our climate to have this crisis and all of us will suffer. But if we come to him or her and we see him or her with this sign, that is just, let’s say, evil, then we cannot really communicate to him or her. But if you see the human side of him or her, which is the nature of all of us, we are human at the end of the day and we have feelings. We have somewhere… In all of us there is understanding, there is compassion, and there is suffering. And if we can touch and help that person recognize their suffering, they can also be free from their ideas, which are signs, their notions. And we can help them more than just seeing them as bad and us as good. So signlessness can also help us transcend boundaries. And one of Thay’s teaching during the war – which he taught to his young students, monks, nuns and laymen and women – is man is not our enemy.
And this was the Vietnam War.
This is the Vietnam War. And he said that ‘Man is not our enemy. The enemy is ignorance. It is hatred. It is discrimination.’ So what we have to help is we have to help them recognize that and transform that so that they can transform because everyone also has Buddha nature inside of them. So that’s very difficult. But this practice can really help transform violence, hatred and discrimination.
And brother, isn’t this at the heart of Thay’s poem, which we read out in an episode with Joanna Macy, which was Call Me by My True Names, which is in context of what you were saying, ‘I am the CEO of an oil company sort of creating suffering, loot, destruction and havoc. And I am also the young activist who sees the CEO as evil.’ So actually, we start to expand our consciousness to say actually, because part of the way we, I think, try to define ourselves as individuals is by making someone else either the enemy or wrong, because actually what that does is feed our need to be right and intelligent or whatever. So I think what I hear you saying is signlessness and emptiness actually help us to go beyond this need to understand myself by doing it in relationship to someone else, or rather by understanding myself, by trying to make someone else the problem. Because I’m also the problem.
Wow. Oh, that’s good. Two down, one to go.
Actually the whole reason I wanted to do this episode was actually I wanted to mainly talk about aimlessness because this is…
This is a tough one.
I’ve been really working with this a lot in the last couple of years, brother. Let’s see what Thay has to say and then let us get stuck in. So ‘The third door of liberation is aimlessness. There is nothing to do, nothing to realize, no program, no agenda. This is the Buddha’s teaching about eschatology. Does the Rose have to do something? No. The purpose of a rose is to be a rose. Your purpose is to be yourself. You don’t have to run anywhere to become someone else. You are wonderful just as you are. This teaching of the Buddha allows us to enjoy ourselves, the blue sky and everything that is refreshing and healing in the present moment. There is no need to put anything in front of us and run after it. We already have everything we are looking for. Everything we want to become. We are already a Buddha. So why not just take the hand of another Buddha and practice walking meditation? This is the teaching of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Be yourself. Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There’s no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation. Most people cannot believe that just walking as though you are and have nowhere to go is enough. They think that striving and competing are normal and necessary. Try practicing aimlessness for just five minutes and you will see how happy you are during those five minutes.’ Wow. Well, that is a challenge to Western capitalist system.
And brother, I first became interested in this in 2013 because – and you may have been there. But Thay was invited by the then president of the World Bank to go and do a day of mindfulness for all his managers because they were going through a very stressful reorganization. And I read an article in The Economist, a few days afterwards, which made fun of the president of the World Bank saying that they had brought in this zen monk who talks about being aimless and how ridiculous it was that, you know, the last thing the World Bank needed was to be aimless and needed to set goals and to get on with it and meeting them. Were you there at the time, brother?
I was there.
So let’s dive into being aimless.
First of all, I want to say how relevant that the teachings of the Buddha is even in 2021. And the first thing that comes to me, comes to my mind is why do we need to practice aimlessness? It’s because we’ve all been taught to run after happiness, and we all are always chasing after success. And it means that if we don’t know how to be aimless, then, can we say we know how to be in life? Do we know how to live life? And so for me, the first teaching of aimlessness is learning to also enjoy the process. Because I want to go into this because I had an understanding and I want to be very honest. A lot of the understanding that I come through the Dharma is still a lot through what I read and what I hear from my teacher. But I always meditate on it and to recognize if it becomes my insight one day. And there was one day I was listening to a Dharma Talk by Thay with the whole community in New Hamlet, and once again, in that talk Thay talked about these Three Doors of Liberation. And when Thay talked about aimlessness, somehow this time an Insight came up in me, and it can be very contradictory when we hear about this because it say you don’t need a go, you don’t need to run to accomplish anything. But at the same time, we are taught that we need an aspiration, which can also be translated as a goal, which can give us energy. And I started to look at my life, at my monastic journey, especially now that I am the abbot for 10 years, and I started to see that my way of being in the community, I started to run after success. Meaning I am a part of an organization, I am a part of many committees, and we do a lot of planning. And I allow myself to run after the success of it. And what does that mean? It means that I am not enjoying each moment in the process because life is only in the present moment and only in the present moment can we create the future. But I was always living in the mind of creating a future and losing myself in the present moment. And I look back and I say, ‘How many times have I given up an opportunity to really be there with the team that I’m with creating this moment, creating this project?’ Or that whole time that I am with them, am I just thinking about the success? Then I lose myself in the goal. So for me, when we talk about aimlessness, the deepest level of it is that we are already what we want to become. Stop trying to run after something that you are not because you are beautiful. Be beautiful, be yourself. That is one of our teacher’s very famous calligraphy. And when you look back at yourself, it’s true, you are beautiful, you are love, you are compassion. But you are also emptiness and you are also signlessness. And what does that mean? You continue to have an opportunity to grow. You continue to have an opportunity to be more and more beautiful because you know how to be who you are. But if you are always, always, always, always outside of yourself, running after the future, running after the success, then, you know, you can spend your whole life running without truly living in the present moment. So the practice of aimlessness can empower our faith in the present moment. And what does that mean? It gives us the opportunity to have a go, but not be a victim of the go because you can enjoy the process of the journey also. And that’s what I was recognizing that I was forgetting. I was forgetting to enjoy the process. I was too caught in success, and then I give up my appointment with life, I give up my appointment with the present moment. And so that’s why we have to learn how to stop. We have to be happy with what is here and now, even though it is not perfect.
Wow. Beautifully said, brother. And yeah, I mean, when when you look again at, you know, my main experiences in, you know, Western sort of democratic capitalist society is like that… When you look at our education system and the expectations on us as individuals, it’s exactly the opposite of that. It’s saying, from school, you have to be number one, you have to be the best. You have to work hard in order to get a good job and to get a good job, you have to sort of, you know, build your knowledge and then you have to, you know, when you get your first step on the career ladder, you have to work really hard to get on with the next step. And you need to do that in order to have enough money to get a mortgage. And you need a house in order to be able to basically have status and it’s a way of showing you’ve made it in the world. And you want someone with you who’s beautiful and you want your kids to be perfect because actually they are a representation of who you are. So if they’re misbehaving or doing something terribly wrong, then that says you’re a bad person. And then we want to be important in the community because that shows that actually we’ve made it and we want to… da da da da da da da. And all that is, as you say, running. It’s running after something that we are ultimately not. And it reminds me, brother, there are many versions of this, but there’s this wonderful story, which I had, which sort of seems to sum this up for me, and it’s about a beach. There’s a beach in Portugal and there’s a fisherman having a siesta in the afternoon, and he’s in his hammock, in the shade, rocking back and forth. And this American, loud American tourist, comes onto the beach and goes up to him, says, you know, ‘What are you doing?’ And the guy says, ‘Well, you know, I’m having siesta. I went out fishing this morning. I caught enough fish. I sold it in the market and now I’m relaxing.’ And the American tourist says, ‘Well, but this is crazy, you know. If you went out in the afternoon as well as the morning, then you could do another catch and sell that to make more money. And if you make more money, you can buy a bigger fishing boat, which will allow you to go into the deeper water where there’s the real prize fish. And then you can really start to make enough money. And then if you do well enough, you could have a fleet of ships. And then eventually you’ll be so successful that you’ll be able to reduce your working hours and just maybe just work in the morning and take the afternoon off.’ And the fisherman looks at him, closes his eyes and goes back to sleep. Because that’s how we’ve been taught… Is strive, strive, strive in order to get to the place you already were way before. And the other story that comes to mind, which I might have mentioned another episode, I can’t remember, was… I imagine you were there as well, Phap Huu, because you were Thay’s attendant. But when he came to the Houses of Parliament, and I always remember there was a meeting of the sort of cross-functional MPs and members of the House of Lords. And one of the members of the House of Lords turned to Thay, after he did a little talk, said ‘Tay, you know, the UK political system is based on confrontation. We sit opposite each other and we argue and we keep on attacking each other and we sort of keep on sort of, you know, saying what each other is doing wrong. What do you think about that?’ And I remember there was a sort of moment of quiet and Thay looked at him and said, ‘Does it make you happy?’ And it was such a moment because it was so way outside the normal political discourse where you would have an intellectual response. Well, either you could say, well, actually it’s better if everyone was in a circle or it was, yes, actually, it’s really important to have this form of politics. He just took it into a completely different zone, which was saying, actually, if you’re always confronting each other, if you’re always attacking each other, if you’re always looking for the holes in what everyone else is doing to make yourself and your policies better and to make yourself more electable, but it doesn’t generate happiness. And if it doesn’t generate true happiness, then the politics itself will feed into the country and create the conditions of separation and divisiveness in a country, and that divisiveness will bleed out into culture, into the world. So actually behind that one question, which was so profound, actually, it just spoke volumes. Were you there at the time, Phap Huu?
I was there. And what you just shared is also the teachings of aimlessness it tells us to, from time to time, we all have to have time to meditate on what is our aim in life. Right? Because we may be a victim of a cycle that we may not even know. And I remember also a moment that Thay had with different CEOs. And Thay said something very strong and Thay said that ‘In life, you will have to choose either to be number one or to be happy. But you can’t have both.’ And I remember, like many people were looking like wait, ‘What does that mean? Isn’t being number one equals happiness?’ And I don’t remember exactly if somebody asked, but Thay continued on and he said, ‘Well, because if you want to be number one, you have to sacrifice a lot. You have to sacrifice your time, you have to sacrifice your relationships, you may have to make a lot of enemies in order to be at the top.’ And we can ask ourselves if we have arrived there yet. And maybe most of us have already arrived at number one at a different stage in our life, but we still see that’s not enough. And so we’re going to continue to look for that other number one spot and we’re going to keep striving. And as we continue to go, what are we sacrificing for that position, for that spot, for that idea? And Thay said, ‘But what if we change our aim? We have a different notion of success.’ And for me, happiness is a goal we should all touch in our daily life, because in true happiness you might realize you don’t need more. What you have is more than enough. What you are is more than enough. And because you are fulfilled, you are at peace, you are free, you have time to love, you have time to be loved, you have time for the ones around you. Isn’t that success? Isn’t that happiness? And I remember that that was also a very powerful moment, and there was a silence, that everybody was reflecting on their idea of what happiness is, what success is, what our aims are. So I think this third door of liberation, we all have to meditate on it from time to time. We have to recheck ourselves, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What is it that I want, right?’ For example, I’m now, maybe I’m a Dharma teacher, I’m the abbot. There’s nothing more. What else is there for me to try to accomplish? Right? But that’s not my aim, my aim is to continue to have more relationships, more connections, have more understanding, have more space for one another, have more solidity – that’s one thing that I really want to develop in order to be there. And all of that it doesn’t cost anything. It’s all this inner development, this inner strength that we can practice and gain by our daily practice. And for me, that right now speaks volumes to my source of energy, my source of happiness.
And brother, just to add one element to the number one. Because I think if you become number one at something, your greatest fear is losing your number one slot, because once you’ve made it to the top, it’s like you feel you have to do everything to maintain it. Because if you slip, then actually, you will think you failed or that you’ll think you’re now vulnerable or you’re weak. So there’s a huge danger with wanting to be number one. And I know, dear listeners, Phap Huu and I were joking the other day that sometimes we look at the… We get a charter which shows us how this podcast series is doing. And we’ve been consistently number two in the UK and the US in terms of ratings for Buddhism. And we’ve been just saying how wonderful it is not to be number one because we don’t have to care about being number one. But in seriousness, I mean, there is such a mistake in wanting to be the very best because it’s like, as you say, brother, it means that anything less than that is a failure and feeds into that. Actually, because the sense of failure which leads back to signlessness and emptiness feeds into the fact that I’m a separate person. So I have to succeed because it’s me who’s succeeding rather than actually say, it’s the community succeeding, it’s the whole family succeeding. It’s like all these three and I’m starting – this is very helpful to me, thank you – all this is showing me that actually, they’re all about breaking down the sense of it’s me, each one. Because in a sense all of our problems are down to this sense of separation and I’ve got to amass this for myself, I’ve got to be the best, I’ve got to succeed. And it’s based on family expectations and child expectations. You know, there’s so much pressure on people to be a certain way. And that pressure, all that pressure does, is take us away from who we are and want to be. And I remember when I was at school, I always remember one of my best friends at school. He loved science and he really wanted to go to university to study science. But his father ran a small business, selling car parts. And his father insisted that he’ll give up on his dreams and just join the family business and go away from the things he really, really loved. And I always remember at the time that pain of what it must be like to to be forced to do something and to build a career on something that actually, genuinely is not who we are. Because actually that causes so much suffering in every aspect of life.
Just sitting here, one example came very… that came up for me that is very close to me. Because right now I am taking care of four aspirants, I’m their mentor. And one of the aspirants…
And by aspirants you mean people who want to… who are training to be monastics.
Exactly. So they have been accepted to be part of the program, to be trained, to become a novice monk. And one of my aspirants, he’s very young, and I can see, you know, his love for the path and even ambition to become a monk. But then he becomes a victim that he’s not a monk yet, and he’s suffering because of that. And so I had a moment in my one of my classes that I was sharing with them, and I talked about aimlessness, and I said, ‘You know, the idea that you’re going to be happy once you are a monk, it’s just an idea, it’s an illusion. But if you cannot be happy right here right now as an aspirant, you’re not going to be happy if you’re a monk.’ And I said, ‘So, dear brothers, you need to enjoy this moment that you are an aspirant. You have no pressure, no big responsibility in the community, you have all this space and time to really develop your foundations in the basic practices, in the basic teachings, and get to know the community. And so, if you’re running after that idea that once you are a novice monk, you’re happy, you are giving up all this appointment with life. All this youth, all this energy that is here for you right now. And I hope he got it.
Yeah, but brother, it also, I think, this need to succeed, and this need to be separate, and this need to make something of yourself, one of the things it takes away from us is the ability to be vulnerable. And you know, one of the things I think is most important in life is if everyone is pretending to be somebody else or to be something that they aren’t, then actually you create a culture of denial. You create a culture that makes it very, very difficult to be vulnerable, to be able to cry, to be able to say, actually, I’m really lost or to say I’m feeling worthless at the moment, I don’t know what to do with my life. It’s like it pushes all under the carpet because success is everything. And so if you’re not successful or if you don’t know what you want to be doing or if you can’t commit to something that you’re not comfortable with, actually, it’s very difficult to say anything. And I see that in companies I’ve worked with. You know, that there’s this whole culture of denial, this whole culture… You’ve got to be on it, you’ve got to be – especially when I was working in America – you know, success is very determined. You’ve got to fit in, you’ve got to fit in and you’ve got to, you know, you’ve got to show you’re doing everything. And I know even in Japan, there’s this whole culture where you even if you’ve got nothing to do, you’ve got to work 14 hours, you’ve got to sit there and look busy. And so you create this whole society which is based on being other than who we really are. And the other thing that comes to mind, brother, is, you know, coming back to being aimless, so I decided to practice being aimless when I left New York two years ago. During COVID I was with my wife, Paz, and we were stuck in Mexico, and it was the first time in my life where I… You know, Thay has this saying ‘Nothing to do, nowhere to go.’ It’s one of his famous calligraphy. And I’ve never experienced that in my life, because I’ve always had something to do and always had somewhere to go. And for these three, four months, literally we couldn’t go anywhere. We were stuck in one place and there was nothing to do there. All I did was I had my camera and I would walk into the desert landscape four or five hours a day and just take photographs of insects or leaves or whatever. And that is literally all I did for four months. And when we left, Paz and I said these were actually the happiest three months in our life. We lived in an Airbnb in a very small sort of room. It was part of a bigger complex, but we had no responsibilities. We had no building to look after. We lived out of one suitcase each for four months, so we had no belongings. And, oh my god, you know…
Complete freedom, brother. And so I made a commitment, when we arrived here and bought a house next Plum Village, that I was not going to strive because what I had recognized is, and it may be… You know, I recognize it may be because I’ve just turned 60, so maybe that aspect of my life recognizing actually there’s a new part to my life which is not ambitious. But I recognize that, you know, everyone talks about consumption that is overconsumption. But what is leading to that overconsumption? And I think it’s because people are striving. They need to strive to make something of themselves, and consumption becomes a sort of a public way that people recognize that they’re successful. So you have to own things because that’s how, because there’s so little spiritual life or so little ability to show up emotionally, or spiritually, and the only way people feel they could show up is through physical, through their physicality, through buildings, cars, clothes. And so I just decided I’m not going to strive. I’m not going to look for work. I’m not going to go through my virtual Rolodex and start chasing people for work. I’m going to just see what happens, see what comes to me.
And how do you feel?
Well, so happy.
Because what I realize is as soon as you approach somebody and you want something from them, so you know, you can say, oh, I got these 100 people in my network and I’m going to reach out to all of them. And I’ve got to say, ‘Oh, hi, Jim, how are you? Haven’t caught up with you for a long time? Be lovely to have a chat.’ But actually behind that would be ‘Hi, Jim, I really need some work. Can I pretend to you that I want to chat with you? Can we have this pretense? But actually, you know, that I’m in touch with you because I’m looking for work, I’m now in touch you.’ And it creates such a false relationship, whereas actually what I’ve done is just say what is coming to me. And then does that make sense to do it? And it’s worked out really well because actually people have come to me and the work I’m doing is, you know, in terms of, you know, the Eightfold Path. But is Eightfold Path, no Eightfold Path rather is, I feel I’m doing Right Livelihood – I’m doing things that I care about. But it’s because I’ve said, I’m here and I’m open and I want to make a difference, but I will allow life to come to me rather than I’m going to chase after life. And I think that has been a fundamental shift and I feel so much more at peace. Oh my gosh, yes.
Wow. So we should practice emptiness, signlessness and aimlessness, so once this podcast is done, we let go of it. This episode, even though we were nervous at the beginning…
I know, oh God we’re so excited.
And now that it is done, I think we can just let go. And you know what? Two years or five years from now, when we talk again about emptiness, signlessness and aimlessness, I think we’re going to have a new understanding. And that’s thanks to being empty to being more free, and it’s thanks to not being caught, so we’re more signless. And we’re not looking for the correct answer all the time because we know how to just be.
Yeah. Thank you, brother. And yeah, it’s like we started out, as usual, not knowing where this conversation was going. And I was, I was a bit nervous because actually these are deep and very profound teachings. And actually, what it helps me realize is as we share and as we open up, in this case to each other, that we do learn. And it does create an atmosphere in which we can… an open space in which we can show up without knowing what’s going to happen and be open to that. And it makes the learning so much more joyous. So, thank you.
Thank you, listeners.
So Brother Phap Huu, as normal, we finish every episode with wonderful, guided meditation. So have you got something you can offer us today?
Of course. So dear friends, dear listeners, let us give ourselves this space and time to practice mindful breathing together. So if you are sitting on a bus, on a train, in your car, or going for a walk, going for a jog or cleaning your house. Wherever you may be, if you can allow yourself just a few minutes to be still, you can remain standing or you can just sit down on a bench with our two feet on the ground. Our back upright, but not rigid. Our shoulders relaxed. And now allow yourself to be in touch with the inbreath. And called the inbreath by its name. Hello, inbreath. And recognize the outbreath. Call the outbreath as this name. Hello, my outbreath. And just be aware of the inbreath and aware of the outbreath. If the breath is short, enjoy the short breath. If the breath is long, enjoy the long breath. Breathing in, I’m aware this is an inbreath. Breathing out, I am aware that this is my outbreath. Inbreath. Ourbreath. In touch with the breath, I feel life inside of me. In touch with the breath, I also feel life all around me. The trees, the sun, the cloud, the trees, the flowers, the hums of life all around me. Life is present and I am present with life. Breathing in, my breath grows deeper. Breathing out, my breath grows slower. In, deep. Out, slow. Whatever worries I have, if I can release with my breath, allowing myself to be in the present moment. In, deep. Out, slow. I am present with my body. I am present in the very moment. Breathing in, I get in touch with my whole body. From my head, my face, my shoulders, my upper body, my lower body. If there’s any tension, I will release the tension with my breath, allowing myself to sink deeper into my body, into the present moment. In. And out. Breathing in, I am in touch with the nature of emptiness inside of me. I am a manifestation of all the conditions. My ancestors: spiritual and blood. The whole universe, the cosmos, nature. Everything that is around me is also present in me. Breathing out, I am free from all. In, I am in touch with emptiness. Out, I am one with emptiness. I am the nature of interbeing. Breathing in, I recognize myself in this moment. Breathing out, I am free from all thoughts of what I am, who I am. I am a wonderful manifestation. I am free from all signs. And I am free to also grow each day, each moment. Breathing in and out. Breathing in, I allow myself to be here, not running after the future. Breathing out, I enjoy this present moment. I enjoy this process. In, not running after. Out, I am grounded. Breathing in and out. Breathing in, you are beautiful, you are kindness, you are compassion. Breathing out, how wonderful to have all these elements inside of me. In, life inside of me. Out, life all around me.
Thank you, listeners, for practicing with me and Jo. We wish you a wonderful day wherever you are. And we see you again next time.
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The way out is in.