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I had promised to talk about the Buddhist understanding of Self. But the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has just died. I’ll still talk about self, through his teachings. You can find information and access the talk at https://www.hokyoji.org/sunday-talks/ The talk begins at 9:30 am; sitting meditation is offered at 8:30 and 9:00.
On Friday the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh entered parinirvana, at 95 years of age. He wrote:
Instructions for the Continuation
“Please do not build a stupa for me. Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside, and limit who I am. I know this will be difficult for some of you. If you must build a stupa though, please make sure that you put a sign on it that says, ‘I am not in here.’ In addition, you can also put another sign that says, ‘I am not out there either,’ and a third sign that says, ‘If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.’”
We think we have selves, and that they last, that they are more important than our bodies. This is a mistake. There is a self for each of us at every moment. It arises in the moment, given birth by our own karma from past actions, and by everything around us – everything in the world. Each self is instantaneous; they seem to last because the karma is similar and some of the surroundings are similar too. But a self is momentary.
The thought of speaking about self was triggered by reading this from Ivan Illich:
In oral cultures, one may retain an image of what has been …but the person exists only in the doing or the telling, as the suffix comes to life only when it modifies a verb. Like a candle, the “I” lights up only in the activity and is extinguished at other times. But not dead. With the retelling of the story, the candle comes to glow again. No pilot light gives continuity to the first person singular between one story and the next. The “I” can exist only in the act of speaking out loud – or to oneself.
The idea of a self that continues to glimmer in thought or memory, occasionally retrieved and examined in the light of day, cannot exist without the text. Where there is no alphabet, there can neither be a memory conceived as a storehouse nor the “I” as its appointed watchman.
We now live in a time and place that idolizes the self. A look at advertising will tell you that. We can’t imagine meeting each other except as selves. We worry about losing ourselves – and our protective actions create a suit of armor – heavy, exhausting, and inaccessible to the outside – inaccessible to life. We’re ready to fight to protect this self. Even if we know better, we imagine a lasting self.
Other things also seem to have selves: a family, a neighborhood, a group, a nation, a world. Imagining that they are permanent and thinking they can be annihilated, we arm ourselves and defend them. The idea of a lasting self causes suffering. Yet there is a self that arises and ceases, moment by moment, fresh and new. Here is an image of the way it goes with self, from writer Sharon Blackie:
We think that we imagine the land, but perhaps the land imagines us, and in its imaginings it shapes us. The exterior landscape interacts with our interior landscape, and in the resulting entanglements, we become something more than we otherwise could ever hope to be.
And my own story – I didn’t become a Buddhist, or receive the precepts or shave my head and become a priest. I didn’t walk for three months through the Great Plains. Something moved in the wholeness of things, and pushed this little personal self one way or the other, and I found myself in places I had never imagined. Doing things I can’t possibly do as a self.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote this about losing his mother:
The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, “A serious misfortune of my life has arrived.” I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died. When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.
I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet… wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I knew this body was not mine but a living continuation of my mother and my father and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Of all my ancestors. Those feet that I saw as “my” feet were actually “our” feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil.
From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time.
These are very personal experiences, described by a great teacher who was once that young man whose mother died. So he gives us the same thought now: don’t think that I’m in the stupa, or outside of the stupa, but maybe think that I’m in your own mindful breathing and peaceful steps.
Don’t think that he is gone. He’s just moved on. Don’t think that you or I exist or can be destroyed. Think of yourself as lightly as a feather, a leaf on the wind, moved by something larger, carried by all beings, created every moment by Life itself.
This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
and I shall never die.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
manifestations from my wondrous true mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,
sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.
So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say good-bye,
say good-bye, to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
They remind us of the Buddha’s teaching on death:
One day the Buddha asked the monks to leave and find other places to stay during the monsoon….After the monks had left, Ananda could see that his master was ill. The Blessed One, in great pain, found comfort only in deep meditation. But with the strength of will, he overcame his illness.
Ananda was relieved but shaken. When I saw the Blessed One’s sickness my own body became weak, he said. Everything became dim to me, and my senses failed. Yet I still had some comfort in the thought that the Blessed One would not come to his final passing away until he had given some last instructions to his monks.
The Lord Buddha responded, What more does the community of monks expect from me, Ananda? I have taught the dharma openly and completely. I have held nothing back, and have nothing more to add to the teachings. A person who thought the sangha depended on him for leadership might have something to say. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea, that the sangha depends on him. So what instructions should he give?
Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. My body is like an old cart, barely held together.
Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no other refuge; with the Dharma as your island, the Dharma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.
At Kushinagara, where he died:
Then the Blessed One said to Ananda, Enough, Ananda! Do not grieve! Have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change and separation? All that is born, comes into being, is compounded, and is subject to decay. How can one say: “May it not come to dissolution”? This cannot be.
He said a few more things, then:
All compounded things are subject to decay. Strive with diligence. Then, serenely, he passed into Parinirvana.
Thich Nhat Hanh had retired after his stroke, and gone to live quietly in his home of Vietnam, surrounded by students who loved him. The Buddha continued teaching to the last, and even gave teaching from his deathbed, to one last beginner. Both let their lives go lightly and peacefully.
We have this teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh.
There is no birth, there is no death;
there is no coming, there is no going;
there is no same, there is no different;
there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation.
We only think there is.
May we receive this teaching. May we allow our lives to be lived. May we recognize that myriad things come forth and experience the self.