Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on 11 July, 2005 in Plum Village, France.
You are invited to sit beautifully, upright, and practise mindful breathing, breathing in and out. Breathing in, I feel calm, breathing out, I feel happy.
[Bell] (Please breathe with us)
Good morning, my dear friends, today is the 11th of July in the year 2005, and we are in the Upper Hamlet, Dharma Cloud Temple. I would like to talk to you a little bit about the Buddha, about who he is. First we have to say that the Buddha is not a god, he is a human being like us. This is very important to know. Buddha is not a god. The Buddha does not claim to be a god, a creator of the universe, and he is a human being like all of us. As a young person, he suffered like us, like we do, but because of his practice, he could transform his suffering, he could develop his understanding and his love, and he could became a teacher, a wonderful teacher. He has helped many people transform their suffering, to cultivate great love, great understanding, and the best way to look at the Buddha is to see him as a teacher, a big brother. At the age of 80, he died. But that was not the end of him, because he had taught many, many disciples, monks and nuns and lay friends. These monks, these nuns, these lay people, they have also practised like him, they have also been able to transform a lot of their suffering, they have cultivated love, and understanding, so they are like the continuation of the Buddha. So the Buddha is continued by his friends, his disciples. And now, as we gather here, we have to look at ourselves. We have accepted the Buddha as our teacher, we follow his way of practice, so that we can transform our suffering, cultivate our love, our understanding. So we are also the continuation of the Buddha. I’m very proud to be a continuation of the Buddha, because I am doing what he did during his life: transforming suffering, cultivating love and understanding. So I am a continuation of the Buddha, and when you look into me you can see the Buddha in me. But when you look into yourself, you see that you are a continuation of the Buddha also, because you are determined and you have accepted the Buddha as your teacher. You learn his way to transform your suffering, to overcome your suffering, and to cultivate more love, more compassion, more understanding, more insight, so that we become happier, so that we become more capable to help the people around us to suffer less, and to be happy. So we must see ourselves in the best way, to look at ourselves as a continuation of the Buddha. The Buddha has never died. He has continued throughout 2,600 years, and now we are his continuation, each of us, not only Thay, but all of you are the continuation of the Buddha. You continue the Buddha as a monk, a nun, a lay person, because you are a practitioner of the Teaching of Awakening, the Teaching of Understanding, the Teaching of Love. Buddha means the one who is awakened, and we are cultivating awakening – we are the continuation of the Buddha. And we should be proud that we are the continuation of the Buddha. It’s very nice to be a continuation of the Buddha. You can be a continuation of the Buddha even if you are still very young. If you know a little bit about how to transform your suffering, how to be more loving, more understanding, you are doing the work of the Buddha. You are a continuation of the Buddha. So today, I would like you to find the occasion to sit down and discuss the topic: “How to continue the Buddha in a beautiful way, in the most beautiful way” O.K.? “How to continue the Buddha in a beautiful way.”
When the Buddha was about to die…it means that his physical body will not be there, but his dharma body will be alive forever, and we carry within ourselves the dharma body of the Buddha, so the Buddha never died. When he was 80 and he knew that he had to get rid of his old body, he was a little bit worried that his disciples and students and friends would cry, because some of us are still weak, and when our teacher dies, we cry. The Buddha knew that after his passing away, many disciples would cry and miss him, because these disciples had not seen the dharma body of the Buddha – they had only seen the physical body of the Buddha. There are at least two bodies of the Buddha, and I want you to recognise the dharma body. The physical body of the Buddha only lasted for 80 years. Mine may last more than that because we live in a time when there are more doctors, there are more medicines, more care, and that is why many of our physical bodies can last a little bit longer than the Buddha’s! So the physical body of the Buddha only lasted for 80 years. That’s not too bad! But his dharma body may last a very long time. It depends on us whether the dharma body lasts a long or not very long time. Dharma is the teaching, the truth, the practice, and while he was still alive, he tried to transfer the dharma to his disciples, to his friends. The way to develop compassion and love, the way to look deeply in order to understand better, deeper, that is the dharma, and the Buddha did not do anything except show the dharma, transfer the dharma to the next generation, and Thay is trying to do the same! The whole day, he doesn’t want to do anything else. He wants to show the dharma and transfer the dharma to his friends and students. It’s a very nice thing to do because the dharma helps. When you suffer a lot, when you are angry, when you are in despair, when you feel very lonely, then if you know how to take up the dharma and practise, you feel much better after a few minutes, and that is the dharma body of the Buddha. The physical body may die after 80 years, but the dharma body may live forever. And as you receive the dharma body into yourself, you practise the dharma, the dharma helps you to suffer less, to be happier, to be more compassionate, and then you also have a dharma body, and your dharma body is the continuation of the Buddha’s dharma body. Is that clear? And I want to tell you that you have a physical body, but as a student of the Buddha, you also have a dharma body, and you have to take care of your dharma body. That dharma body does not only serve you, but it serves many people in society and in the future, so take care of your dharma body by the study and the practice of the dharma. And Thay cares very much about his dharma body.
We have to feed the dharma body by our practice. We have to take good care of our dharma body so that it will be vigorous, solid, because when the dharma body is strong, we don’t suffer. You suffer because your dharma body is too weak, and when you come to Plum Village, you learn ways in order to make your dharma body strong by the practice of the dharma every day, by the practice of walking mindfully, sitting peacefully, eating happily, and so on. So the dharma is not just a dharma talk. The dharma should be the living dharma. A book about the dharma is the dharma also, but it is not the living dharma. The living dharma is seen in our daily life. While you walk, you sit, you smile, you work, you speak, the dharma should help you to be more joyful, calmer, more compassionate, friendlier, and when others see that, they recognise it is the living dharma. It’s not the dharma through words in a book or speech – it’s the living dharma, so when you smile to the other person with compassion, and forgive him or her for the mistake he had committed, then you are expressing the living dharma. You don’t say anything, you just look at him or her and smile with compassion; you are expressing the living dharma. And that’s more precious than the oral or written dharma, you see? And by doing things like that, looking at other people with the eyes of compassion, or forgiveness, or helping people to suffer less, you are generating the living dharma. The living dharma always makes you happy and makes other people around you happy. And that is why it is very nice to receive the living dharma from the Buddha, from your teacher, from your big brother or big sister in the dharma, so that you may begin to cultivate that living dharma in you. The dharma body is like a tree, like a plant, you have to take care of, to cultivate every day so that it becomes a strong plant, a strong tree. It will bring flowers and fruit that make you happy and make people around you happy. That is why taking care of the living dharma in you is very important. And that is why the Buddha has at least two bodies, the physical body and the dharma body, and you also, you have at least two bodies. People can see your physical body, but they may not have seen your dharma body. When you speak, when you act, when you think, the dharma body may manifest, because the dharma body can manifest in compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and you can also help other people to cultivate their dharma body. This is a very wonderful thing. And if all of us continue like this, to consolidate our dharma body and help other people to nourish their dharma bodies, we are wonderful continuations of the Buddha. The Buddha is not on the altar, the Buddha is in us, and is recognisable. The Buddha can be recognised through his dharma body that all of us have in us. When your dharma body is clear, is powerful, you are a happy person. You can help many people to suffer less. And that is why, please remember that each of us has a physical body, but we do have also our dharma body.
So when the Buddha was about to die, I mean as a physical body, he was a little bit worried that a number of his disciples would cry, would suffer, because these people had not seen very clearly his dharma body. That is why he gave this teaching…please listen.
When he was 80, and he was afraid that some of his disciples would cry too much after his physical body disappeared, he taught like this, “My dear friends, there is a beautiful island within, that you may take refuge in every time you suffer. Don’t take refuge in anything, in anyone, except in the island inside.” And this is a very wonderful teaching. At that time he was in the city of Vaishali. I have visited this city several times. When you cross the Ganges River, you arrive at the city of Vaishali. And he met with groups of students in Vaishali, and he went to visit many other sanghas, small communities of practice, monks and nuns and others, and he met with dozens of groups of friends and disciples like that, and he spoke about taking refuge in the island within yourself. Don’t take refuge in anything, anyone, but take refuge in the island within yourself. The island within yourself is for you to discover. It’s a very safe place. It’s a place where you feel calm, you are not disturbed, and you feel happy. You feel protected. Every time we feel we suffer so much, we feel we are attacked by every side, we feel that no-one loves us, that everyone wants us to suffer, every time we fail in everything we do, then we have to remember there is a very fine, beautiful place that we can go home to in order to take refuge, and that place, you have to discover…it is not located in space. It’s easy to go to Paris, because Paris is located in space. You look at the map, and you see in what direction Paris is, you just go in that direction and you find Paris, but this island of self, this refuge where you can feel safe, feel happy, feel connected, feel calm, that island of self you have to discover by your practice.
I would like to tell you a story that will help you to understand better the practice of taking refuge in the island of self. About 30 years ago, I was practising and living in the northern part of France and there was a hermitage called “Les Patates Douces” and I went to a solo retreat in that hermitage, and that morning, it was beautiful, and I decided to spend the whole day in the wood. The hermitage was situated in a kind of forest called “La foret d’Othe” and I like to do walking meditation and sitting meditation in a wood, so that morning, I decided to spend the whole day in the wood. I brought with me a bowl of rice, some sesame seeds, a bottle of water, and off I went to the forest and wanted to stay the whole day there. I enjoyed it very much, but at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon black clouds began to gather and I knew that I could not stay longer in the wood, that I had to go home to the hermitage. Before I left the hermitage I had opened the door and all the windows so that the sunshine could come in, and now the wind had begun to blow and I knew that I have to stop my stay in the wood and go home to the hermitage to take care of it. When I arrived at the hermitage, I found the situation not pleasant at all. The wind had blown very hard, and all the papers I put on my table were blown a little bit everywhere, and then it’s cold, it’s miserable in the hermitage, cold and dark and disorder, it’s a mess! The first thing I did was to go and close all the windows because I didn’t want the wind to continue its work of destruction, so I closed the windows and I also closed the door. And then I made a fire in the chimney and when the fire began to come alive, I began to collect all the sheets of paper on the ground and put them on the table and then took the little brick I had to put on it, and tried to make the hermitage tidy, in order. By that time, the chimney was very pleasant already. By that time it was warm, it was pleasant, it was cosy in the hermitage and I sat by the fire, I toasted my fingers, and I listened and enjoyed the wind and the rain outside. And that is my practice.
There are days when you feel that it’s not your day, everything goes wrong. And the more effort you make, the situation becomes worse. Of course you have gone through days like that in your life. You fail in everything, you suffer, you get angry, people blame you, you are not happy, you are frustrated. And you tell yourself that you have to make more effort, but the more effort you make, the worse the situation becomes, and then you know that it’s time to stop, it’s time to stop everything, it’s time to go home to yourself and take refuge in yourself. You have to close your windows, the eyes, the ears; you have to close the five windows. You should not be in touch with the outside any more; you have to close the windows of your hermitage. Because there is a hermitage within yourself – that is the island of self that I want you to discover. If you continue to be on the outside, then you continue to suffer, you know. That is why in moments like that, you have to go home to the island of self, and the first thing you do is exactly what I did with my hermitage, to close the five windows. And you know that eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, are the six windows you close. Don’t look, don’t listen, don’t touch, and don’t think. Stop everything in order to prevent the strong wind from the outside to continue to blow in and to make you miserable, because the eye is a window, the ear is a window, the mind is a window, and if you keep them open, the wind of suffering, the wind of disturbance will continue to come and make the situation worse and worse. Don’t try any more. Stop trying and shut the windows. You shut also the door, and you have to go to the chimney and make a fire. You want to get a feeling of warmth, cosiness, and comfort by practising mindful breathing, going home to yourself. And rearrange everything, your feelings, your perceptions, your emotions, they are all scattered all over, it’s a mess. You have to recognise each feeling, each emotion, and you have to collect them like I collected all the sheets of paper that were scattered a little bit all over. Practise mindfulness and concentration, and tidy up everything within yourself. You are going home, you have gone home to your island of self, and you are transformed into a place that is cosy and pleasant for you to take refuge in. Everyone has a hermitage within, very safe, very cosy, very comfortable, very calm, and they have to go home to that hermitage. The expression that the Buddha used is “dípá atta dípá saraná.” “Atta” means self, “dípá” means island, and “saraná” means refuge. “Taking refuge in the island of self.” This is the dharma talk that the Buddha gave when he was 80 to many groups of friends and disciples. If you rely on the outside, you get lost. That is why you have to go home and rely on something that is reliable, that is the island of self.
[Bell] (Please breathe with us)
There are many ways to go home to the island of self. One of the ways is to practise mindful breathing and concentrate on your breath. You will discover the island of self. The other way is to do walking meditation. Every step brings you home to the here and the now, and then you can open the door of the island of self and go into it. In Plum Village, we have written a few songs about the practice of taking refuge in the island of self. Maybe we ask Sister Chan Khong to sing to us. We have it in French, we have it in English, and we have it in German and so on…
Sister Chan Khong sings:
Breathing in, I go back to the island within myself
There are beautiful trees within the island
There are clear streams of water
There are birds and sunshine and fresh air
Breathing out I feel safe
I enjoy going back to my island.
Thank you Sister Chan Khong, everyone…
We remember the teaching of the Buddha when we are tired, when we feel that we are not solid, we feel we are victims of the environment and victims of our emotions, and then what we should do is to go home right away, to the hermitage, to the island of self. And with the practice, we will discover that is the safest place to go back to. And after some time being in the island of self, in the hermitage of self, you recover yourself and then you are in a much better position to get in touch with the world outside. And Thay has said that it takes time, it takes practice in order to recognise, to find our island of self, because the island of self is not exactly in the body. When we say inside, that does not mean exactly inside the body, it is not really located in the body. We have a better chance to find it in the dharma body than in the physical body. And everyone has that island. No waves can reach that island, so standing on the island, we are very safe, we recover ourselves, restore ourselves, become strong, and then we are ready to go out again, to help. And so even if you are still very young, you know that there is an island within yourself. Every time you feel you suffer so much, nothing seems to go right, you have to stop making efforts, you have to go home to that island right away. And taking refuge in the island for five, ten, fifteen minutes, half an hour, you know that you feel stronger, much better within yourself. Taking refuge within ourselves… “Monks, you should know how to take refuge in the island within yourself”…that was his teaching.
I think the young people can stand up and make a bow and go out and practise.
[Small bell] (Please breathe with us)
Dear Friends, one of the ten epithets that Thay uses to describe the Buddha is Sugatha, and it may be translated in French as “Le bienheureux”. It means that the Buddha is a happy person, the happy one. It means that it is possible to be happy and according to the teaching and the practice happiness can be there, can be touched in the present moment, in the here and the now. The freer you are, the happier you are at the same time, because freedom is the ground of happiness, and freedom here means freedom from afflictions. When you are caught by sorrow or by regret, caught in your sorrow or in your regret concerning the past, you are not free. You are not free from the past. You keep thinking about the past. And because you don’t have freedom, you suffer. That is why we have to free ourselves from our sorrow, or our regret concerning the past, so that we can establish ourselves in the present, because in the present, there is life, with all the wonders. It is regrettable if you are caught in the past, and you are not capable of touching all the wonders of life that are available in the here and the now. The practice should be able to liberate us from the past. Of course the sorrows, the suffering of the past are still there within our body, within our mind, and we have to learn how to recognise them, embrace them tenderly and tell them, “It’s OK. We will be able to take care of each other.” And out of this suffering, out of this pain, we can create the flower of peace and happiness. When we visit the lotus pond, we know that these beautiful, refreshing lotuses are born from the mud. Without the mud, the lotus cannot come to life, and suffering plays a role in creating happiness. We cannot grow lotus on marble, we have to grow it in mud, so happiness is born from suffering. Happiness is the lotus flower, and the suffering is the mud. So the practice is how to make use of the suffering, make use of the mud, to create the flower, the happiness, and this is something possible. If you are an organic gardener, you know that you don’t want to throw away the garbage because the garbage can be transformed into compost to nourish the plants, the flowers, the vegetables. And suffering and happiness are both organic. Happiness, if you don’t know how to handle it, will turn into suffering very soon. The love, in the beginning, that you cherish so much, if you don’t know how to take care of it, it will turn into something sour. And that is why flower turning into garbage is what happens every day. We have to learn the art to maintain the flower longer. We have to learn the practice in order to make our love, our happiness last longer. And if it happens that some of them turn into garbage, we should know how to turn them back into flowers. For someone who has wisdom, insight, when she looks into the heap of garbage, she can already see the flowers in the garbage. If the flower is on her way to the garbage, the garbage also may be on her way back to the flower. And according to the teaching of the Buddha, both suffering and happiness are of an organic nature. And something we do know is that you cannot recognise suffering unless you have suffered. Suffering is a kind of background that can help happiness to be seen clearly, because sometimes happiness is there but you cannot recognise it and you continue to suffer. Suppose this is something black, and if you want to see it clearly, you should put it against a background that is white. But if you put it on something that is darker, it is harder to see. Happiness is like that. If you look for it in the background of suffering, then you can recognise it and suddenly you become happy.
The other day, yesterday, we said that we feel that happiness is somewhere there, but we cannot touch it, but we know it is there, because when it is gone, we know very well that it has gone. It is no longer there. That is why when happiness is still there, we should be able to touch, to recognise, and with what can you touch and recognise happiness? Can you touch happiness with your finger? It is by mindfulness that we can touch happiness and recognise its presence. To me happiness is the capacity to be happy, mindfulness is the awareness that happiness is there. Happiness should become the object of our awareness in order to be a real thing. When you are a young person, you can run very fast, you can jump; you can do many things that a young person can do. But being a young person, you may not realise that you are young, until you grow old, and you begin to regret that you have not profited from your youth, you see? There are those of us who have plenty of conditions to be happy, but we are not capable of being happy because we are not capable of recognising these conditions of happiness. And what helps us to recognise the conditions of happiness is our awareness, is our mindfulness. If you have lived through a war, if you have suffered because of the war, it will be easier for you to acknowledge, to recognise peace when it is there. There are many youngsters who have not lived through a war; they don’t appreciate the peace that is there, and they try to look for war, and that is why mindfulness is very important, mindfulness is the source of happiness. Cultivating mindfulness is cultivating peace. You can cultivate happiness.
Suppose someone has toothache during the night, and she suffers very much. She cannot sleep. And she knows that she has to wait at least until 9 in the morning in order to go to the dentist to get some relief. And during the time of suffering, she recognises a fact, she is awakened to a fact, that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing, is happiness. But in this very moment, not many people in this meditation hall have toothache, but we are not happy with our non-toothache! Our non-toothache is one condition of happiness. And we have plenty of these conditions. Our eyes are in good condition. We need only to open our eyes in order to get in touch with the paradise of forms and colours. See – our eyes are a condition of happiness! But we do not seem to be happy with having eyes in good condition. Our heart is functioning normally, and that is a basic condition of happiness. There are those whose only wish is to have a normal heart like ours because they risk having a heart attack at any time, so their deepest desire is to have a normal heart. But those of us who have a normal heart, we don’t seem to be very happy, because we lack mindfulness. So, breathing in, I recognise that my heart is there, I am aware of my heart, which functions normally. Breathing out, I feel happy to have such a heart. So mindfulness is the base of happiness. You recognise these conditions of happiness in you and you recognise these conditions of happiness around you against the background of suffering, and that is something we can practise.
[Bell] (Please breathe with us)
There are times when we are very sick, we are not allowed to get up and to go out, and we are too weak to do so. We are confined to our room, in the hospital or at home, and we know that the morning is very beautiful. The birds are singing, but our condition is not good enough. We have no strength in order to go out and enjoy the sunshine and the birds. We are confined to bed for ten days or twenty days, and our deepest wish is that we get well so that we can open the door and walk out into the garden and enjoy everything there. Now, as we are not sick, we are not confined to our bed in hospital, we have the freedom and the happiness of going out, walking in our garden, recognising every tree, every bush of flowers, and making beautiful and peaceful steps, touching the beauties of life around us, but we don’t enjoy, we don’t remember that we enjoy health, we enjoy solid feet, we enjoy our lungs, and if we think of the time when we were very sick, when we wished very much to go out for a walk in the garden, then suddenly we feel happy, and we enjoy right away. So suffering can serve as the background for us to recognise happiness, and that is why suffering plays a role in happiness, like the mud is crucial for the making of the lotus flowers. And this is an art; even if you have plenty of conditions of happiness, you are not happy because you don’t know how to recognise these conditions of happiness against the background of suffering.
And then suffering can also help us to be more understanding, more compassionate - the role of suffering - because in Buddhism, suffering is talked about as a noble truth, a holy truth, because if we know how to look deeply into the nature of suffering, we can see the path, we can get the insight, that is why suffering is a noble truth. And we have to recognise the role of suffering in life and in happiness, like the role of the mud in the making of the lotus. We should not adopt that naïve attitude of running away, trying to run away from suffering, because if you run away from suffering, you cannot encounter happiness. Happiness can be seen right, can be touched right in suffering, and this can be experienced by your own daily life. Many people think that the kingdom of God is a place where there is no suffering – there’s only happiness. I don’t agree with them, because I don’t want to send my friends and my children to a place where there is no suffering. In a place where there is no suffering, my friends, my children, my students have no means to cultivate their understanding and their compassion. It is by touching suffering, it is by understanding suffering that compassion is born, that understanding is born. And if there is no suffering, there is no happiness either. That is why I don’t believe that the kingdom of God is a place where there is no suffering. We can say that in the kingdom of God, there is suffering, but there are people who can help us learn from suffering so that we can cultivate compassion and understanding. Understanding brings about compassion. If you are not able to understand the suffering in yourself and in other people, there is no way for you to cultivate compassion and love. Because compassion and love are born from understanding, understanding can be obtained when you touch the suffering, and you understand the suffering. So the idea that the kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha is a place where there is only happiness, there is no suffering, this is a rather naïve idea. We learn from suffering, and suffering plays a very important role in helping us to be understanding, to be compassionate, and suffering helps us to recognise our happiness when happiness is there. That is why we should not be afraid of suffering like the organic gardener should not be afraid of the garbage, because he knows how to preserve the garbage and to transform the garbage into the compost.
So the practice has two parts: the first part is to recognise the conditions of happiness that are there, the wonders of life that are available 24 hours a day, to recognise that the kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha is available, and we should be able to live in such a way that every day we can get in touch with the wonders of life and be happy. That happiness will help us to transform the suffering, the sorrow in us. That’s the first part of the practice. The second part, the second aspect of the practice is with mindfulness you can recognise the suffering, the sorrow, the despair, the pain in you, and help you to look deeply into the nature of that suffering, of that despair, of that pain, because that is holy, and once suffering is understood, is embraced and understood, wells of compassion inside are born, and we are liberated from that suffering. We can transform it with our understanding and compassion. Everything should be found in our own mind. We are used to blaming the environment for our suffering, we want to blame this person or the other person for our suffering, but in fact, the suffering comes from our own way of looking at things. Suffering comes from our minds, like happiness. If we cultivate our mind, if we know how to transform our mind, remove ignorance, remove wrong perceptions, get the insight, and then with that same environment, we don’t suffer any more. And we are capable of helping other people who are still in that situation, and who suffer. Those with understanding and compassion, in whatever situation they find themselves in, don’t suffer, and they are able to help. But those who have no compassion and understanding, they are drowned in the ocean of suffering, and they think that the only way to stop suffering is to change the people around them, but the fact is that we have to change our way of looking, of seeing things, and this is a practice – recognise the suffering in us and in other people, embracing it, bringing insight, understanding and compassion in, we stop suffering, and we begin to transform the situation. And these are two aspects of the practice. The first - to get in touch with the wonders of life, be happy - could be done by mindfulness. The second aspect - recognising suffering, learning from the suffering, cultivating our insight and compassion, that is also done by mindfulness, because mindfulness carries within itself the energy of concentration, and together, mindfulness and concentration bring about insight, and insight is the liberating factor. Smrti, Samadhi and Prajna – Prajna is the insight, understanding. And if we are equipped with these three energies, we are a happy person, we don’t suffer, and we are in a position to help the other person to do the same.
[Bell] (Please breathe with us)