About thirty years ago I was introduced to the teachings of Master Thích Nhất Hạnh. Since his passing in January of this year, I’ve been listening to some of his books again, and, as things often go, they’re particularly relevant now that I have once again turned my attention there.
Thay (as the Master was known to his followers; Vietnamese for “teacher”) was born in 1926 in Vietnam, and entered the monastic life at 16. In his middle years, during the time of war in the 1960s, he began to struggle over whether to adhere to the contemplative life and remain meditating in the monasteries, or to help those around him suffering through the horrors of war. He decided that it was within the principles of Buddhism to attempt both, and founded the movement of Engaged Buddhism. His social activism and calls for a peaceful resolution to the war led to his exile from Vietnam for almost 40 years. After meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton and others in the United States in 1966, he was not allowed to return to his home country. Ironically, and in an eerie parallel to some factions of today’s America, his peace activism was seen as “Communism” in South Vietnam, and his calls for a peaceful solution to the war made him a pariah in many places, including the United States.
Although I was saddened to hear of Thay’s death, I have been buoyed by listening (audio book version) to his writings on the Buddhist concept of Impermanence.
“Impermanence does not necessarily lead to suffering. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
In one lesson, Thay used the water cycle to illustrate impermanence. To (clumsily and simplistically) summarize: someone looks into the sky and sees a beautiful cloud and loves it. It is beautiful, calm and serene. He wishes to be like the cloud – even to be the cloud. But then the cloud begins to change, and before long it gathers more clouds around it, and becomes darker in color, and the air turns cold and damp and it begins to rain. The man is sad, because he misses his cloud. But he walks along and comes to a river, and realizes that the cloud that turned to rain is now the river. Then the river runs to the ocean. Soon the ocean is touched by wind and changes in temperature and sea smoke rises from it and becomes… a beautiful cloud. The cloud was there the whole time – in the rain, the river, the ocean, the mist, and then reinvented again as a different/same cloud.
“Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us. When we practice mindfulness of impermanence, we become fresher and more loving.”
Our perception of our short time on this planet is that things are born from nothing, and then die and are forever gone. But the cycles of our lives, of businesses, of nations and their systems of government, of political eras and their ramifications, even of the life of our planet, can be thought of similarly to the life cycle of the cloud. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but changes form. Nothing comes from nothing, and nothing truly dies – it just changes form. When your grandmother was pregnant with your mother, the egg that would become you was cradled within two generations. An amazingly beautiful thought..
“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat.”
In my work I “talk” with Ancestors through the Bones who don’t see what the fuss is about their passing. They of course understand grief and the sense of loss – they also had a human experience after all. But the primary message they want to impart is that they really haven’t gone anywhere. They have left the bodies they occupied here, but the essence of who they were and still are survives, and thrives outside the confines of a physical form. They have gained a wisdom that comes from the freedom of seeing things from a bird’s-eye – without the constraints that were imposed on their bodies and their thoughts and emotions during their time here. They revert to their Highest Selves, as each of us will do. And, if they so choose, they may decide to come back – different and the same.
“Our presence here means the presence of all our ancestors. They are still alive in us. Every time we smile, all the generations of our ancestors, our children, and the generations to come—all of whom are within us—smile too. We practice not just for ourselves, but for everyone, and the stream of life continues.”
Our grief in times such as the one we’re experiencing now may be tempered, if we allow it, by the solace of impermanence. This, too, shall pass. What comes after may be better, or worse, for a time, but it will change again, in an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
“Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. We believe that we are born from nothing and that when we die we become nothing. And so, we are filled with the fear of annihilation. The Buddha has a very different understanding – that birth and death are notions. They are not real.”
I’ve been comforted somewhat over the past few years by remembering these concepts. As a child growing up in the 1960s, I remember the Vietnam War, and the fear that my older brother would be conscripted. I also remember the protests and the “peaceniks” that made a difference and perhaps accelerated an end to the United States’ involvement in the war. I remember the cruel and unequal treatment of people of color, which, of course, is resurging today – or perhaps the light is being shone on it in a new way, bringing more awareness to problems that never really left – and the incremental changes the anti-racism movements made. I remember the “Women’s Lib” movement (which was a particular burr under my father’s saddle, and was thus a common topic of rants in our household), and the slow and steady march toward gender equality. In each of these cases, it took turmoil, pain, suffering, conflict, to bring to light an unjust situation in order to provoke change. Now, fifty or sixty years later, here we are again, in the midst of turmoil, pain, suffering and conflict involving the exact issues we thought were “settled” back then, this time adding a few more (such as transgender children, class inequality and gay rights) for good measure. It’s our chance to either reaffirm our commitment to equality and justice, or allow a backslide into inequality and pain. One thing is for certain – either outcome will not be permanent. If transgender youth are besieged now, when they are adults, things will change again. If Russia prevails in Ukraine, there will come a time when it will fall, and vice/versa. If there is a political upheaval in November that changes the balance of power in Washington again, or gives the states more power to disenfranchise and discriminate against their residents, it won’t last forever. Nothing is constant but change.
All quotes in this Blog are from the various writings of Thich Nhat Hanh.