Monday, July 14, 2014

What is "right thinking"? (Thich Nhat Hanh)

Thich Nhat Hanh; Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, Crystal Quintero (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly

WALDBROL, Germany - Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) gave a 102-minute Dharma talk at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

The talk is in English with simultaneous German translation. This is the first Dharma talk of the German Retreat on the theme "Are You Sure?"

The talk begins at 12 minutes into the recording following two chants by the Plum Village monastics.

Let us begin immediately with the concept of dualist thinking and Right Thinking. [Right Thinking refers to the second Noble Eightfold Path factor, often translated as Right Intention, but it seems that what Thay is actually talking about here is the more profound Right View, which is the first factor of the Path.] How do we see the interconnection between things?

For example, how do we see the interconnection between happiness and suffering or all the elements of a lotus flower? The lotus is made of non-lotus elements. 
Wisdom Quarterly on the wisdom that goes beyond
Li'l Buddha book (literatureismyutopia.tumblr)
[Thay teaches that a lotus flower is composed of non-lotus elements like water, mud, air, sunlight, and so on. These things are not themselves lotus flowers, but a lotus flower does not exist without them.

Whether we accept this insight as true or not, Why is it important? It is important because the Buddha teaches a more profound insight necessary for enlightenment: The "self" ("soul" or "ego") is composed of all non-self elements -- form (body, materiality, the Four Great Elements), feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousnesses (eye consciousness, ear consciousness, etc.)
Buddha and Angel' (K/Xiangjiaocao/flickr)
In just the same way, whatever is considered a "lotus" is a construct, a dependently-originated, conditionally-arisen thing that does not exist apart from its component parts.

Since the components are not the whole, not the "thing," the thing's existence is illusory, a dream, born of ignorance of how things really are. What illusion? The illusion that there is a thing there apart from its components! It is not a thing but, paradoxically, it is not nothing. It, whether we are talking about a lotus or a self, arises always and only completely dependent on causes and supporting conditions.
Great News
Gold Buddha (Chris & Annabel/Chngster/flickr)
This is great news, but it is an ultimate truth; conventionally, of course, there is a flower -- look, it's this thing I'm holding in my hand. There is a self -- look, it's this thing holding up the flower.
There is a world, suffering, and everything else. It is great news that things are dependently-arisen because, if this is a painful dream, we CAN wake up. If this is an illusion, we CAN become enlightened. Others have -- others like Thay and certainly the Buddha and the earliest disciples.

Enlightenment, nirvana, final liberation means seeing things as they truly are, for it is the Truth that sets a person free. Just as ignorance is trapping and binding us to suffering, rebirth, more suffering, and this endless round of wandering, so enlightenment means the end of ignorance about the the Four Noble Truths.

Have you ever heard of the Buddhist teaching or concept of Dependent Origination? It may be the most important thing the Buddha ever said. He describes it in this way: Seeing dependent origination is seeing the Dharma; seeing the Dharma is seeing dependent origination. It is due to not seeing this dependent origination that not only you but I have wandered from life to life, suffering and searching. One who sees the Dharma sees me, and so on. What could possibly be so important?

"Dependent Origination" as a formula is a set of 12 causal links. In the simplest terms, the formula goes like this: Wait. Why do we want to know this formula? Because it leads to enlightenment, nirvana (the complete end of all suffering), and deathlessness, that's why. Oh, okay, then go on. The formula runs: "Because of this, that comes to be; with the ending of this, that ends." Wait, what's this? What's that? The 12 links beginning with ignorance. Do you know how Siddhartha became enlightened? Most people do not.

How did the Siddhartha become enlightened?
Why do beings suffer, why is there suffering?
He became enlightened because he kept asking a question. He had asked it in many previous lives as a bodhisattva (buddha-to-be), and he asked it as a prince, then asked it as a renunciant, then as a meditator:

"Why is there suffering?" After learning how to enter the jhanas, the meditative absorptions, for about six years, he went off on his own without a teacher, still asking this question.
He sat under a heart shaped leaf tree still asking this question. The answer that dawned on him, after emerging from mind/heart-purifying absorption was Dependent Origination working backward to a first cause:

There is suffering, this always-unsatisfactory and often-painful state we find ourselves in. What is it dependent on? It is dependent on formations...and so on all the way back to ignorance. Ignorance is not really a "first cause," a prime mover, a causeless cause as in Western philosophy, Christian theology, and linear logic.

There was not one ignorance but lots of instances of it at every moment. Our suffering does not have just one cause; our suffering is being constantly replenished, giving rise to all the necessary causes and conditions. It is a dynamic, circular process.
  • The Heart Sutra (the core of the Prajna Paramita or the "Perfection of Wisdom" literature) is exactly this: understanding and penetrating "not-self" also called "emptiness" with insight. What is not-self? It is the "wisdom that has gone beyond." It breaks down or unpacks the Five Aggregates: "Form is emptiness, and the very emptiness is form. Feeling is emptiness, and the very emptiness is feeling," and so on.
When the "self" comes into existence, what has come into existence? No-thing really, just an illusion dependent on causes and conditions like the Five Aggregates that are the basis of clinging. But it is not nothing, as evidenced by the fact that by insight meditation, purified and supported by absorption, it is possible to discern the causes and conditions, the factors, the components, the parts that give the illusion of there being something that just came into existence.

There is no being, only becoming, no static entity, just a dynamic process, no personality, just a series of mental and physical processes. What goes out of existence at every moment? Not a "being" -- as there never was a being, not even for one moment, only becoming. What goes out for the enlightened person? Only ignorance, only the illusion, only the frightful dream.

If all of this sounds shocking, it is. What an awakening! But it can be confirmed in many lines and teachings scattered all over the Buddhist texts. One of the most famous is:

"Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found;

The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there;

Nirvana is, but not the person who enters it;

The path is, but no traveler on it is seen." 

There's a Meditation for Dummies in the series

The profound teaching of egolessness or not-self is not a teaching the Buddha, or Thay, directly gives ordinary instructed worldlings.
But it is the deeper meaning of "lotuses being composed of all non-lotus elements." Most monastics cannot grasp it for a long time as they are training to understand it. For it is subtle, deep, and goes against the stream of all of our assumptions. A clever person would never figure it out by mere reasoning.
No, no, What about that Descartes, the Westerner? He said it best: "I think; therefore, I am!" Yes, and didn't he jump the gun? Based on the evidence, all that one could conclude is, "Thinking is; therefore, thinking is going on."
Thinking -- that is, impersonal cognitive processes which are explained at length and in excruciating detail by the Buddha and cataloged in the voluminous Abhidharma and available for any and all of us to verify for ourselves during insight meditation -- does not need a self, a thinker. 
In fact, it is the process of thinking and cognizing that gives rise to the illusion/assumption of a self, not the other way around. And to assume that there is self, and to futher assume that self/the thinker is eternal or unchanging, permanent, destined for eternity in paradise or a pulverizing place of punishment is the sad state of the majority of the world's religionists. Isn't it great news that reality is not this way; it's not unfair and without a cause, not just some God's whim, not a random error of a cold universe that accidentally got a some heat in it....
Wait. What about karma? The five karmic causes (ignorance, karmic-formations, consciousness, mind-and-matter, six sense bases) of the past birth are the condition for the karmic-results of the present birth. And the five karmic causes of the present birth are the condition for the five karmic-results of the next birth. It is said in the Path of Purification (Vis.M. XVII):

"Five causes were there in the past,

Five fruits we find in the present;

Five causes do we now produce,

Five fruits we reap in the future."]

Gardening Analogy

A good gardener knows how to make good use of the mud just as a good mindfulness practitioner knows how to make good use of her suffering.

The goodness of suffering [is using it to grow]. When you understand suffering then understanding and compassion arises -- the foundation of happiness.

From the "Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing," we have exercises handed down by the Buddha to help our practice with suffering.
  • Generate a feeling of joy.
  • Generate a feeling of happiness.
  • Recognize painful feelings.
  • Calm down the painful feelings.
Mindfulness is an energy that helps us know what is going on in our body and our feelings [sensations]. How do we bring relief to our painful [physical] feelings and emotions?
Thay, Thich Nhat Hanh
There are three kinds of energies we should try to generate: mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

There are four elements of True Love and being present for those we love. By taking care of our suffering and our lives, we can learn to take care of the world. 

In the last 10-minutes, walking meditation instructions are given.

(Plum Village Online) Thay, Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches from Germany: Are you sure?

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