Monday, October 17, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh Dharma Talk, 10/14/11

Once again this year, I was able to attend the Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) in New York City at the end of his North American Teaching Tour.  While the style of the lesson was identical to the prior talk I attended, the content was quite different.  As before, Thay sat on stage with a group of monastics who accompany him on his teaching tours.  The nuns sat to his right and the monks were seated on the left side.

To open the talk, Thay invited the audience to sit quietly and come back to our breath as we listened to the monastics singing the name of Avalokiteshvara.  Thay introduced Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva of Deep Listening.  I have heard Avalokiteshvara referred to as the bodhisattva of Compassion.  The following gives a good description of the various translations of the name of this bodisattva:

Thay's description of Avalokiteshvara was the bodhisattva who listens deeply to the laments of human beings who are suffering.  This being represents the symbolic taking in of our pain, our deepest worries, our cries.  Thay invited us to be present with our own suffering as we sat for approximately 15 minutes.  He said the energy of compassion can only arise when we are able to get in touch with our own suffering.  It is impossible for us to extend compassion to another person if we ourselves are not aware of our own suffering.  Thay said that through deep listening, through the profound experience of our own suffering, we allow compassion to arise within.  He described the universal human tendency to try every means to escape our suffering.  Rarely are we willing to accept and be mindful of our own pain, be it physical, emotional, mental or spiritual.  Thay repeated his well-known phrase, "No mud, no lotus." 

The remainder of the talk was organized around several revered and widely taught Buddhist principles, originating from the Diamond Sutra and the teaching of The Buddha's Four Nutriments.  This year's talk adhered more to classic Buddhist teaching, whereas the former talk I attended was slightly less structured and less religious. 

The Diamond Sutra teaches us to attain the quality of non-discrimination.  In explaining the Diamond Sutra, Thay asked us to envision a very large and sharp diamond, able to cut through and excise illusions and faulty concepts.  There are four common ways of thinking to be removed through following the teaching of the Diamond Sutra: 1. Self, 2. Man, 3. Living Beings vs. Non-Living Beings, and 4. Life Span.

Thay described the notion of Self as the idea that we are beings made up of elements which are exclusive to us.  This teaching gets at the heart of what Buddhists believe to be the illusion of individualism.  Thay said, "Look at your son.  You believe him to be made up of "son elements," but he is made entirely of non-son elements.  When you look at the son you see the father, the mother and all of the ancestors.  You cannot separate the son from these elements."  Thay also spoke of his famous cloud illustration, pointing to the presence of cloud elements in every one of us (we all contain water which came from the cloud, every flower has the cloud present in her, a cup of tea was once part of the cloud, etc.) "You are made exclusively of non-you elements," he said.

In elucidating the remaining three concepts, man, living beings and the notion of life span, Thay focused on the interconnectedness of all energy and matter.  He elaborated on the principle that neither energy nor matter may be created or destroyed.  All of this goes back to the Buddhist teaching of "No birth, no death."  He asked us to free ourselves from the notion that we pass from non-being into being and then back into non-being.  Thay noted that we observe no phenomena in the natural world that fit such a scenario.  He said that we all think of ourselves as distinct from plants, minerals and animals, yet he asked how this can be so since we are made up of elements from all of those things.  If we are able to understand this, then we can understand our interbeing with all of the planet.  We are simply not separate beings, according to Thay and to Buddhist philosophy.  This gives new meaning to the oft-quoted Christian teaching that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.  Nothing can ever separate us from God, from each other, or from...anything. There is no separation, period.

My favorite part of the Diamond Sutra teaching was the easy explanation of "no life span": we think that we have a life span of 70, 80 or 100 years.  We believe that such a time frame contains our life, in a nutshell.  According to Thay, this is simply mistaken perception.  Our lives are infinite.  I was able to find a previously recorded excerpt of a talk given by Thay on December 4, 1997, that is very close to what he said last Friday evening:
“…We think we exist from the time we were born to the time we die, and that this is our life span. That is another notion, a perception, a concept that we need to overcome and liberate ourselves from. According to that notion, before we are born we do not exist and after we die we are nothing. This is a very wrong notion. It is said in many sutras that when conditions are sufficient our body is formed, and when conditions are not sufficient then our body does not manifest. We are caught by the idea of birth and death, the idea of existence and non-existence, and the idea of life span. The notion of life span is the basis of the notions of birth and death, coming and going, existence and non-existence, permanence and annihilation. All of these pairs of concepts have their foundation in the concept of life span. Therefore when we can destroy the notion of life span we can destroy the other notions."

Thay shifted into the next segment of the Dharma talk by tying the concept of interbeing into the logical next step: mindful consumption.  If everything we think, do, say and consume has an effect on everything and everyone else, we can take concrete steps to heal our lives and our planet through being mindful of what we consume.  This leads us to the Buddha's teaching of the Four Sources of Nutriment, which are the following: 1. Edible Food, 2. Sensory Impressions, 2. Volition and 4. Collective Consciousness.  

In his discussion of the mindful consumption of food, Thay predictably explained ways for us all to become more mindful of what we eat and how choosing our food has an effect on people, animals and plant life all over the planet.  When he began to speak about vegetarianism, people in the audience started to leave in surprisingly large numbers.  Unfortunately they did not get to find out that Thay was only suggesting that those of us who are meat eaters could make a commitment to eating vegetarian for 10 or 15 days per month.  In my household, this is something we already do, for economic as well as health and environmental reasons.  Thay reminded everyone of the large amount of grain it takes to feed cattle, and also to make alcoholic beverages.  This was a good reminder to become even more mindful of the amount and type of alcohol we consume, if any.  

Thay's teaching on the mindful consumption of sensory impressions was, in my opinion, a very badly needed reminder for the great majority of us.  He tied this back into the idea of becoming more mindful of suffering.  We consume many, many things in order to avoid the direct experience of our suffering.  The social media we subscribe to, the articles and the books we read, the music we play in our cars and homes, the television and radio programs we see and hear... all of these things have an enormous impact on our lives and the lives of everyone we come into contact with.  What if we could become more mindful of the sensory input we consume?  I, for one, would consume less.  I know that I turn on music throughout the day to shift out of presence and consciousness.  I am now challenged to look at that behavior and modify it somewhat, or at the very least to become more conscious of the times I do it.  

The nutriment of what Thay calls "volition," has also been referred to by other Buddhist teachers as "intention."  Volition describes our desire to get what we want and achieve our goals, immediate and long-term.  Thay said that often the direction of our desires leads us to an unhappy path, snaring us into more suffering.  Our desires can lead to impulsive actions.  In becoming overly focused on our goals and desires, we can lose sight of the best that life has to offer us in the present moment.  Thay says we adjust this tendency through participating in mindful sitting, walking and looking--in other words, through the spiritual practice of mindfulness we can adjust what our volition leads us to consume.  

Finally, in clarifying the meaning of "consciousness" as the fourth nutriment, Thay emphasized that whatever we consume feeds our consciousness.  Our consciousness is dominated by the thoughts we think, the words we speak and the actions we perform.  Thay encourages us to become more mindful of our consciousness and to feed it with love, compassion, joy and peace.  He says that if we look deeply at our suffering, we will see the things we have been feeding our consciousness which have led us down an unhappy path.  We can ease our suffering through taking good care of our consciousness and nourishing it in healthier ways. 

The points above were all I was able to take away from the Dharma talk, other than the peace and clarity exuded by Thay and his group of monastics.  Although I attended the talk by myself, I know that in reality I was connected to each and every person in attendance, as well as countless others on the outside who are contributing to the evolution of our consciousness as human beings. 

May you be safe.  May you be happy.  May you be healthy.  May you be free. 

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