"You are looking for what is looking."
~ St. Francis of Assisi
Friday, April 17, 2009
What Happens When We Die?
A transcription from a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh during a retreat with five hundred people in Hong Kong on 15 May 2007
In order to answer what happens us when we die, we need to answer another question – what happens when we are alive? What is happening now to us? In English we say ‘we are’ but it’s proper to say ‘we are becoming’ because things are becoming. We’re not the same person in two consecutive minutes.
A picture of you as baby looks different to you now. The fact is you are not exactly the same as that baby and not entirely a different person either. In a picture of you as a five year old, you are not exactly the same as that child and not entirely a different person either – the form, feelings and mental formations are different. In the middle way there is no sameness and no otherness.
You may think you are still alive but in fact you have been dying everyday, every minute, cells die and are born - for neither do we have funerals or birthdays (laughter). Death is a very necessary condition of birth. With no death, there is no birth. They inter-are and happen in every moment to the experienced meditator. For instance a cloud may have died many times, into rain, streams, water. The cloud may want to wave to itself on earth! Rain is a continuation of the cloud. With a meditation practitioner nothing can hide itself. When I drink tea, it’s very pleasant to be aware I am drinking cloud.
When you are a parent, you die and are reborn as your children. “You are my continuation, I love you.” The Buddha told us how to ensure a beautiful continuation – a compassionate thought, a beautiful thought. Forgiveness is our continuation. If anger, separation and hate arise, then we will not ensure a beautiful continuation. When we pronounce a word that is compassionate, good and beautiful that is our continuation.
When a cloud is polluted, the rain is polluted. So purifying thoughts, word and action creates a beautiful continuation. We can see the effects of our speech in our children. My disciples are my continuation – both monastic and lay. I want to transmit loving speech, action and thought. This is called karma in Buddhism. This body of mine will disintegrate but my karma will continue – karma means action. My karma is already in the world. My continuation is everywhere in the world. When you look at one of my disciples walking with compassion, I know he is my continuation. I don’t want to transmit my negative emotions, I want to transform them before I transmit them. The dissolution of this body is not my end. Surely I will continue after the dissolution of this body. So don’t worry about my death, I am not going to die.
Let us meditate on the birth of a cloud. Does it have a birth certificate? (laughter) Examine the notion of birth – the notion that nothing can come from something, from no-one to someone. Is it possible for something to come from nothing? Scientifically this is not possible.
The cloud was water in an ocean, lake, river and heat from the sun gave it birth – the moment of continuation. For instance, birth – before you were born you were in your mother’s womb. The moment of birth is a moment of continuation. Is the moment of conception the start? You are half from your dad and half from your mum already, this is also a moment of continuation. When you practise meditation you can see things like that.
It is impossible for a cloud to die. It can become water, snow – it cannot become nothing. It is also impossible for us to die. Speech, action and thought continue in the future. The person who dies still continues because we are not capable of using meditators’ eyes. They continue in us and around us. All our ancestors are alive in us. Our ancestors are in our chromosomes.
I wrote a book ‘No Death, No Fear’. When conditions are right I manifest and when not, not. There is no coming, no going. Before she manifests we should not call her non-existing. Before manifestation you cannot call her non-being. They are a pair of opposites.
Meditating on the nature of creation and being may be the best way to understanding God. The theologian Paul Koenig describes God as the Ground of Being. Who then is the Ground of Non-being? This diminishes God. In Buddhism both notions of being and non-being can describe reality. Similarly, above and below, Europe and here.
Nirvana is the absence of all notions, birth and death, coming and going, sameness and otherness. According to Buddhism, ‘to be or not to be’ is not a real question. Meditation takes us beyond to a place of fearlessness. We’re too busy, so we become victims of anger, fear. If we have really touched our nature of no birth/death, we know to die is one of the root conditions to realise oneself. We have to learn how to die in every moment in order to be fully alive. This teaching on the middle way is the cream of Buddha’s teaching. Many of our ancestors realised this and were not afraid of death.
We should be able to release our tensions. We are the karma we produce every day in our daily life, if we know how, to ensure continuation. I have a disciple in Vietnam who wants to build a stupa with my ashes. He wants to put a plaque with the words ‘Here lies my beloved teacher’. But I want to write ‘There is nothing here’ (lots of laughter). Because if you look deeply there is continuation.
I treasure the time I have left, more for me to practise. I want to generate energy of love, compassion and understanding so I can continue beautifully. I would like you to do the same. Use your time wisely. Every moment produce beautiful thoughts, loving, kindness, forgiveness. Say beautiful things, inspire, forgive, act physically to protect and help. We know we are capable of producing beautiful karma for good continuations and the happiness of other people.
When the time comes for dissolution of this body you may like to release it easily. You aren’t to grasp – releasing body and perception. Remember the image of a cloud in the sky seeing continuation in rice and ice-cream waving to itself. You can already see your continuation. The art of living is continuation. For myself and the other beings.
Sariputra – one of Buddha’s main disciples, Ananda and other friends went to see Anathapindika a lay disciple who was a businessman and dying. He had made time to come to dharma talks and weekly practice. When the Venerables came they asked whether the pain had diminished. He replied that it was increasing. The monks led him on a meditation on the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. After a few minutes there was no more suffering and he smiled.
When you sit close to a person dying talk to them of happy experiences in their life. Touch seeds of happiness in them.
The monks asked Anathapindika to look at his feelings and perceptions. “I am life without boundaries, this body is a residue.”
Help the dying person not to cling to his or her body. If there is regret, help them to see they are not their feelings. When conditions are manifested this body manifests and when not, it goes. The nature of this body is not birth, death, coming or going – not hurt by notion of being or non-being. I am free from birth or death. That practice helps me.
Anathapindika cried. Ananda asked, “why are you crying?” “No, I don’t regret anything,” Anathapindika replied. “Why are you crying?” asked Ananda. “I cry because I am so moved by such a wonderful practice as today,” Anathapindika said. “We monastics receive this every day,” said Ananda. “There are those amongst us lay people who still need this, please tell the Lord Buddha this.” Ananda promised to tell the Buddha, and Anathapindika died smiling peacefully. Thich Nhat Hanh gave an illustration with a box of matches. Holding up an unlit match, he said, “there is flame, but the conditions to manifest it are not here now.”
Then he lit the match and blew it out. He said when the conditions were right (the conditions being his hand striking the match to the matchbox), the flame became. And when the conditions were not right, the flame was extinguished.