This is the kind of post no blogger ever wants to write and these are the words that no person ever wants to find themselves saying: I have cancer.

Yep. The Big C. Liver cancer to be precise.

About fifteen or so years ago, I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, a chronic virus that affects the liver. I have no idea how I got it. HVC is spread by blood-to-blood contact. I didn’t shoot up drugs, I had no transfusions or surgeries, and it’s doubtful I was infected from a sexual encounter. The one likely suspect I can come up with is a tattoo I got in the late 70s (maybe the needles were dirty), because once you’re infected it’s supposed to take HVC about 15-30 years to show up and then an additional 15-30 years for it to kill you. The tattoo fits the pattern.

Not that I have spent a great deal of time trying to figure it out. It’s like the story the Buddha told about the arrow. Does knowing who made the arrow that pierced you relieve the suffering?

The doctors told me at the time I had a very mild case and not to worry because any number of other things would probably get me before HVC did. Looks like they were wrong.

Last year, an MRI revealed some lesions on my liver. It’s taken them quite a while but finally they have diagnosed it as cancer and now, barring any unforeseen developments, I am on the fast track for treatment. Later this month I will go into the hospital for a day or so to receive an intra-arterial chemotherapy treatment which involves inserting a needle into the artery of my groin and placing a catheter there to supply drugs to cause the cancer cells to die. Sounds like real fun. I am so looking forward to it.

Needless to say, I probably won’t be blogging for a few days.

The good news is that it’s pretty much a one shot deal. If the chemo does a good job, they might repeat it again in a few months, but it won’t be a regimen I’ll have to go through like other chemo treatments.

Nor is it a cure, but it might stall the progress of the cancer and keep the tumor small enough so that I can qualify for a liver transplant, which will cure the cancer . . . but then the new liver will just get infected with the HVC virus, taking me back to where I was 15 years ago. A vicious cycle, but it beats death by a mile. Maybe two miles.

The Buddha taught that there is birth, old age, sickness, and death. This is the cycle of existence that no one can get out of and it is often characterized by suffering, usually of our own making. This is my suffering. I have skipped over the stages where I look for someone or something to blame, or questioned why me, and this I think has given me an advantage because the conquest of suffering begins when we accept the truth of suffering.

I believe, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, that “We should look at our suffering in such a way that the suffering can become a positive thing.”  In Japanese Buddhism, this is called hendoku-iyaku or “changing poison into medicine.” I don’t know what this positive thing, this medicine, will be yet, but I feel confident that in due time, it will manifest itself.

Fortunately, I have been able to keep my spirits up and have this wonderful sense of humor that has endeared me to millions world-wide to help see me through. I’m sure that in the days and weeks ahead I will have more to say about all this and perhaps I will be able to share the “medicine” that comes from this “poison” with you.

For today, I will close with more of the Thich Nhat Hanh quote. I find it inspiring.  I might note that when he says, “go to the Buddha,” he is referring to ‘going for refuge.’ But he is also speaking figuratively. To for refuge, to really go to the Buddha, you have to look within because that is the only place where true refuge and the Buddha can be found.

Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Buddha said that if you have not suffered, there is no way you can learn. If the Buddha has arrived at full enlightenment, that is just because he had suffered a lot. The suffering was the path that helped him to arrive at full enlightenment, at full compassion, at full understanding. If you want to go to the Buddha, you need your suffering . . .

Suffering is the path . . . By true suffering you can see the path of enlightenment, the path of compassion, the path of love. According to the teaching of the Buddha, it is by looking deeply into the nature of your sorrow, your pain, of your suffering, that you can discover the way out. If you have not suffered, you cannot go to the Buddha. You have no chance to touch peace, to touch love. It is exactly because of the fact that you have suffered, that now you have an opportunity to recognize the path leading to liberation, leading to love, leading to understanding.

Don’t be discouraged when you see that in the past you have suffered and you have made other people suffer. If we know how to handle the suffering, we will be able to profit from our suffering. It is like an organic gardener. If she knows how to handle the garbage, she will get a lot of compost for the growth of her vegetables and her flowers. It is with the compost of the suffering that we can nourish the flower of understanding, of peace, of love. That is why we have to learn how to manage our suffering, how to cherish our suffering, how to transform our suffering.”

I thought there were a few things in Tuesday’s post that might raise questions in some reader’s minds. First, one might wonder if it is possible to be a “good” Buddhist if you do not totally buy into rebirth.

In Mahayana Buddhism, I’m not so sure that rebirth is presented as anything to “buy into.” Especially in the case of Nagarjuna. Here is someone who rejected assertions of both existence and non-existence, who saw all things as empty because they posses no intrinsic essence of their own, and realized that it was the tendency to find things to seize, to assert, to cling, that is the primary cause of suffering. It is difficult for me to accept that a person with such a mind would then take an absolute stand on rebirth, a theory that is really little more than rank speculation.

Rebirth has to be a metaphor. And for many other “Mahayanists” it must have been the same case. Jung might have classified rebirth as an archetype. We get confused by the translations and the layering on of our own prejudices and Western way of thinking.

I think many people misunderstand the significance of rebirth. They mistake it for an ultimate truth, when actually it belongs with the conventional truth. Teachings on rebirth are upaya or skillful means, preparatory teachings leading to the ultimate truth, which unfolds only when we free ourselves from thought constructions and “enter” into emptiness, which is neither existence nor non-existence.

We get a clue about this from K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna`s Philosophy, who notes that The Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sastra

points out that when one sees only the birth and endurance of things, then there arises the existence-view, and when one sees only the decay and death of things, there there arises the non-existence view.”

Both views, existence and non-existence, are regarded as extremes. Indeed, all views are extremes, and they are all empty. Ramanan says further that

all schools [of Buddhism] recognize the denial of views . . . and the denial of views means the denial of such view as are based on extremes, especially the extremes of externalism and negativism, both of which are traced back to the false sense of self.”

The cycle of birth and death (and rebirth) represents the continuous flow of reality in which nothing is created or destroyed, comes into existence or goes out of existence, and where neither being nor non-being are tenable, let alone the notion of self-being (svabhava). Looking at it this way, the principle of rebirth is a tool for us to use in breaking free of the notion of a self that persists eternally. Part of the key to understanding this is having a good grasp of what Buddhism means by “rebirth.” It requires some further explanation, but in short, its literal sense does not suggest that the same person is reborn.

I wonder, though, if the question of whether or not there is literal rebirth should such take up much of our time. I feel what’s more important is how birth and death plays out in our mind. Nagarjuna himself says,

The single instant of a snapping of the finger contains sixty “moments,’ and in every one of these moments there are phases of birth and death. It is by virtue of the birth of the continuity of these mental elements that is possible to know that this is the mind of greed, this is the mind of anger ect. The wayfarer comprehends the stream of birth and death of the mental elements like the flow of water or the flame of the lamp. This is known as the door to the comprehension of emptiness (sunyata).”

The challenge for us to go beyond our usual thinking processes. To think anew. To have a rebirth of thought. That’s what we really mean by putting an end to thought construction. We can’t put an end to thinking. But we can transform it, construct our thoughts differently. We can empty our mind, and open it.

If this is a subject that is of interest, you may want to check out this post from a few months back that suggests yet another practical and rational way of looking at rebirth.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt from a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh,

There is a classic Buddhist gatha:

All formations are impermanent.
They are subject to birth and death.
But remove the notions of birth and death,
and this silence is called great joy.

. . . It means you have to kill your notions of birth and death. As someone who practices the way of the Buddha, you have [a] sword . . .  which is sharp enough to remove wrong perceptions and cut through all notions, including those of birth and death . . .

The true practitioner understands real rebirth, real continuation . . .

Before you can answer the question, “What will happen to me after I die?” you need to answer another question, “What is happening to me in the present moment?” Examining this question is the essence of meditation. If we don’t know how to look deeply to what is happening to us in the here and the now, how can we know what will happen to us when we are dead?

. . . I don’t care at all what happens to me when I die . .  When I walk, I want to enjoy every step I take. I want freedom and peace and joy in every step. So joy and peace and lightness are what I produce in that moment. I have inherited it and I pass it on to other people. If someone sees me walking this way and decides to walk mindfully for him or herself, then I am reborn in him or in her right away—that’s my continuation.

One of my favorite traditional Japanese poems is by Muso Soseki (1275-1351). It reads:

When there is nowhere
that you have determined
to call your own,
then no matter where you go
you are always going home.

Soseki was a Zen priest in the Rinzai sect. He became famous for the network of Zen monasteries he established, the gardens he designed, and for the poems he composed. Many of his poems and a few of his dharma talks have been translated by the current United States Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, and Soiku Shigematsu in Sun at Midnight – Poems and Sermons of Muso Soseki. In “West Mountain Evening Talk”, given when Soseki was abbot at Nanzen-ji, a fellow senior priest reproaches him,

[For] the last twenty years, ever since you finished your study in the monasteries, you have been moving from one place to another. By now, you have changed the place you live more than ten times. I think this is harmful to a Zen student. It exhausts him and interferes with his practice.

To this, Muso Soseki replies,

[I]t was not because of the Buddha’s words that I kept moving on. I think of his enlightenment as my home, and I never left that whether I went off to the east or stayed behind in the west. Some people stay at one monastery for a long time, but they do not always sit on the same Zen mat. Sometimes they leave it to wash their hands or faces. Sometimes they walk in the garden or climb a mountain to look out over the country. You might say that they too were rather frivolous. But, because their minds are fixed on the one point, even when they are moving around, it is not correct to say that they are somewhere else.

We usually think of “home” as a physical place. From Soseki’s poem and dharma talk, we get another sense of home.

In Buddhism, “monks” are called bhikkhus. Often this term is defined as “homeless ones” or “beggers” but both of these are incorrect. The term literally means “sharesman.” In the Buddha’s time, homeless ones were called parivrajakas. Not all of the bhikkhus were actually “homeless.” Some had relatives take care of their possessions and the family home was always waiting if they decided to give up the bhikkhu life, just as it is done today, and of course, the bhikkhus had temporary homes when they sought shelter during the rainy season.

The act of “going forth”, a ritual in which one symbolically severed all ties with the “whole system of Vedic social practice and religious culture with all its signs and symbols” (SN Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. I) is not unique to Buddhism, it was already a long established practice in Indian spirituality by the time the Buddha began to teach.

However, in Buddhism the idea of “homelessness” goes much further than merely standing outside of society. You can stand inside and be homeless if you break free of conceptual limits, and as the quote from Tagore the other day mentioned, “the limits of love.” Zen priest Akizuki Ryomin has called it a “homelessness of the heart.”

This may seem rather bleak to some individuals. But, paradoxically, being homeless in this way does not mean we have no home. When we fare on the Buddha Path the Buddha’s enlightenment is our home because it represents our enlightenment, too. Moreover, as long as our mind is fixed on the path, on the process of becoming enlightened, we’re not just always going home, we are already home.

Thich Nhat Hanh puts it this way:

Every time we listen to the sound of the bell in Deer Park or in Plum Village, we silently recite this poem: “I listen, I listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” Where is our true home that we come back to? Our true home is life, our true home is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and right now. Our true home is the place without discrimination, the place without hatred. Our true home is the place where we no longer seek, no longer wish, no longer regret. Our true home is not the past; it is not the object of our regrets, our yearning, our longing, or remorse. Our true home is not the future; it is not the object of our worries or fear. Our true home lies right in the present moment. If we can practice according to the teaching of the Buddha and return to the here and now, then the energy of mindfulness will help us to establish our true home in the present moment.

A final note, for now, on the subject of enlightenment and the spiritual journey’s destination. I’ve blogged about this aspect before, however, in light of recent controversies involving Buddhist teachers, I think it’s something that can’t be repeated too often.

Believe me, this is a great piece of free advice:

If you meet a teacher on the road who claims to be a Buddha, don’t kill him (that wouldn’t be nice) but definitely run for the hills. If you meet a teacher who claims that he or she has a process, a system or a secret teaching that will guarantee enlightenment for you, avoid that teacher like the plague.

Assuming that there is such a thing as Enlightenment, a person who has attained such a state would never make any claims about it. How do I know? Am I enlightened? Not by a long shot. It’s really just common sense. This is also a core understanding of Mahayana Buddhism.

Again, the Diamond Sutra:

“What do you think, Subhuti, has the Thus-Gone One realized the highest, most perfect, awakened mind . . . ?

Subhuti replied, “As far as I have understood what the Thus-Gone One has said, there is no independently existing object  called the highest, most perfect, awakened mind . . . And why? Because what the Thus-Gone One has revealed is beyond all conceptual thinking and cannot be seized; it is neither existent nor non-existent, neither real nor unreal, neither dharma nor non-dharma . . . The teachings that the Thus-Gone One has realized and spoken of cannot be conceived of as separate, independent dharmas and therefore cannot be described. The Thus-Gone One’s dharma is not self-existent nor is it non-self-existent. Why? Because the noble teachers are distinguished from others only in terms of the unconditioned.”

In The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, Thich Nhat Hanh has this to say about the last sentence in that passage:

Asamskrita dharmas are unconditioned. They transcend all concepts. The noble teachers are liberated. They are distinguished from others because they are in touch with and realize the unconditioned dharmas. They are no longer imprisoned by forms and concepts.

They may be liberated but they don’t go around proclaiming it. Since they are not caught up with forms and concepts, and because ultimately enlightenment is just a concept (see yesterday’s post) they are certainly not going to cling to something that has no substantive existence or tangible reality, something that is of the nature of emptiness.

In 1997 Andrew Rawlinson published a work entitled The Book of Enlightened Masters. He came up with a model in which he placed teachers, their teachings, practices, lineages and so on within four general categories (that could be combined and also overlap): Hot, Cool, Structured, and Unstructured.

Hot is that which is other than oneself; that which has its own life, it is not something that one has access to as of right. It is powerful and breath-taking, and is associated with revelation and grace. It is very similar to Otto’s numinous.

Cool is the very essence of oneself; one need not go to another to find it. Hence one does have access to it as of right. It is quiet and still, and is associated with self-realization.

The meaning of Structured is that there is an inherent order in the cosmos and therefore in the human conditions. There is something to be discovered and there is a way of discovering it. A map is required to find the destination.

By contrast, Unstructured teachings say that there is no gap between the starting point and the finishing post. Method and goal are identical. We are not separate from reality/truth/God and so no map is required. Everything is available now and always has been.

My feeling is that although Buddhism has some elements of each, it is essentially Cool Unstructured, which is the most accessible. Rawlinson notes that “Cool Unstructured traditions and teachers . . . say there is nowhere to go.” That’s because you are already there. There is no separation, no duality between the journey and the destination.

Rawlinson also points out that teachers “have to be true to their own ‘position’ – but not to anybody else’s.” In this way, Cool Unstructured teachers have to play it straight, whereas Hot Structured teachers do not.

The most pertinent comment that I have seen regarding the recent scandal with the Zen teacher named Genpo, came from a blogger who wrote something to the effect that as disturbing as the fact this teacher had sex with some of his students may be, even more disturbing is that he charges $50, 000 to attain enlightenment. Also makes you wonder about people who would fork over that kind of money. Know the old saying about a fool and his money?

The bulk of Rawlinson’s book contains biographies of various teachers, and while he focus was on Western teachers (in Eastern traditions), I think his model applies to purely Eastern traditions and teachers, too. Dennis “Genpo” Merzel has a short biography there. Not a hint that he might be up to anything untoward. Rawlinson mentions that he “emphasizes Zen’s traditional down-to-earthness.” I guess things have changed.

The bottom line is I feel that any teacher who claims to be enlightened, a Buddha, an Arahant, Kwan Yin, or the Virgin Mary is deluded. Even so, to be fair, that does not necessarily negate the value of teachings they give, but it does call them into question, and as well, begs questions about their motivation to teach.

I used to follow one of those guys myself, so I know a little about the subject. He was smart. He never said he was enlightened, he had his minions do it for him. Every chance they got. When I started hearing that he almost single-handedly ended the Cold War (a notion which I think a few Reagan supporters might have some issues with), then I knew I was in trouble.

We made a mistake. We thought there was more to him than there was. He’s human. We thought at first that he wasn’t.

- Paul McCartney

Sexy Sadie you’ll get yours yet
However big you think you are
However big you think you are
Sexy Sadie oooh you’ll get yours yet.

We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table
Just a smile would lighten everything
Sexy Sadie she’s the latest and the greatest of them all.

Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Some individuals do not believe in a connection between succeeding events, and because they doubt it, they feel that causality is a specious concept. They maintain that there is only a string of events or phenomena and one is not caused by another. However, this only leads to the notion that events come out of nothing, by chance, and that being the case, control of events is not possible.

Buddhism teaches that there is causality. The word “cause” refers to any “thing” (dharma) or any part of any thing which produces an effect. The effect implies not only manifestation but also the relationship between the cause and the effect.

Any event is not caused by only one thing. There are innumerable aspects that play a part, many of which condition the production of any event. Causes and effects form complex chains, each link is the effect of combinations of causes, and a cause is also a combination of effects.

According to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, avijja or ignorance is the cause of desire and clinging and creates dukkha or suffering. Ignorance is lack of knowledge or understanding. In Buddhism this is meant in the sense of a fundamental darkness within life. The Buddha taught that it also refers to ignorance of cause and effect and the way things really are.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

The purpose of practice is not to be reborn in paradise or Buddha-land after death. The purpose is to have peace for ourselves and others right now, while we are alive and breathing. Means and ends cannot be separated. Bodhisattvas are careful about causes, while ordinary people care more about effects, because bodhisattvas see that cause and effect are one. An enlightened person never says, ‘This is only a means.’ Based on the insight that means are ends, all activities and practices should be entered into mindfully and peacefully.

Human activities result in interaction between individuals. Some are peaceful and co-operative, while others are turbulent and conflicting. In conflict, the weaker individual is overcome by the stronger one, but conflict is always self-destructive. Discordant activities are caused by ignorance of the interdependent nature of all things. All life is activity, and to know that a higher quality of life is achieved through better co-operation with others is the antidote to conflict and disharmony.

An atom, a cell, an organ, our entire person is comprised of co-operative groups of single entities, and just as a healthy individual body is achieved when these entities work in harmony, together with other individuals we form a society that functions better, that is, there is increased welfare of all its members, when relationships are non-antagonistic and co-operative.  This simple truth opens the gate to real solutions to enduring problems.

Ultimately, we cannot say that there is ever an end to ignorance of cause and effect. If anyone could fully comprehend all the various elements and factors of causality, that person could predict the course of future events.

The idea is to understand as best we can, to be mindful of causality and interdependency so that we live with others peacefully. Whether or not it is possible to control events is a debate that I’m not sure we need by concerned with, for we do know with absolute certainty that we can control ourselves. By training our mind, practicing mindfulness, we can control the causes we make and that in turn will influence events. If we construct our lives and society based on causes that promote harmony and peace, then surely we need not fear anything the future can bring.

Seng-ts’an wrote in the Verses on the Faith-Mind:

One thing, all things;
move among and intermingle,
without distinction.
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about nonperfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.

The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is

no yesterday

no tomorrow

no today.

I had another post planned for today, but it is not quite ready, and besides, I forgot that today is Thanksgiving. For those readers outside of the United States, Thanksgiving is the one day that Americans dedicate to overeating and watching a lot of football. It’s not the only day we do this, but it does seem to be the primary focus of the holiday in this modern age. It also officially begins the dreaded Christmas marketing blitz.

Andie Macdowell has nothing to do with this post, but it was either her or a photo of a turkey, and she's more fun to look at.

Thanksgiving has always been about food. In olden times, it was a harvest festival. Of course, the origin of this celebration in the US is said to have occurred at the Plymouth Plantation, in Massachusetts, in 1621, when the Pilgrims shared food with the Wampanoag Indian tribe. I don’t believe that turkey was on the menu at that first Thanksgiving, but somehow the bird has become synonymous with the holiday, and many people do refer to today as Turkey Day.

Since eating is such a salient aspect of Thanksgiving, let me present to you five apropos gathas (verses) by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Serving Food

In this food I see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence.

Looking at the Filled Plate

All living beings are struggling for life. May they all have enough food to eat today.

Just Before Eating

The plate is filled with food. I am aware that each morsel is the fruit of much hard work by those who produced it.

Beginning to Eat

With the first taste, I promise to practice loving kindness. With the second, I promise to relieve the suffering of others. With the third, I promise to see others’ joy as my own. With the fourth, I promise to learn the way of non-attachment and equanimity.

Finishing the Meal

The plate is empty. My hunger is satisfied. I vow to live for the benefit of all beings.

May you all be happy and well on this and every day.

The Lotus Sutra contains a number of parables and stories, and this is one of my favorites. From Chapter Twenty, based on the Watson and Kato translations, the story of Bodhisattva Fukyo:

“Once there was a bodhisattva bhikshu named Fukyo (Sadaparibhuta) whose name meant ‘Never Disparaging.’ Why was he given this name? Because he paid respect to everyone he saw, whether bhikshu, bhikshuni, layman or laywoman, by bowing in reverence to all of them, saying, ‘I deeply respect you. I would never condemn or disparage you, because you all walk the bodhisattva path and are becoming buddhas.’

Bodhisattva Fukyo did not devote his time to reading and reciting the scriptures but only to bowing and paying respect. If he happened to see any of the four kinds of believers far off in the distance, he would go to them and bow, saying, ‘I would never disparage you, because you are all to become buddhas.’

Bodhisattva Fukyo was often subjected to insults and abuse, and yet, he did not give in to anger, instead, each time, he spoke the same words, ‘You are to become Buddhas.’ There were those who said, ‘Where did this ignorant person who predicts we will become buddhas come from ? We need no such false predictions!’ And some of them attacked him and beat him with clubs and sticks and pelted him with stones. Still, while escaping from these people, he continued to call out in strong voice, ‘I would never disparage you, for you are all certain to become buddhas!’ It is because he always spoke in this way that the contemptuous bhikshus, bhikshunis, laymen and laywomen gave him the name ‘Never Disparaging.’

When Bodhisattva Fukyo was at the point of death, he was able to receive and retain a million verses of the Lotus Sutra as it had been taught by the Buddha Awesome Sound King.  As a result, he obtained the purity of the sense organs and extended his life span by two hundred ten thousand million billions of years, and taught the Buddha-dharma to countless beings. Those who had slighted and condemned Bodhisattva Fukyo then became his followers.”

In this story, Bodhisattva Fukyo sees that all people have Buddha nature, that they inherently possess the capacity to become enlightened. The practice he engaged in is called raihaigyo or “bowing in reverence.” He represents the Buddha himself, in another lifetime.

Obviously, the major point here is that we should treat others with respect, and it is offered as an example of bodhisattva practice. The reward of long life that Fukyo obtains as a benefit from this austerity represents the principle of ‘what goes around, comes around’ in the positive sense.

Here’s what Thich Nhat Hanh has had to say about this inspiring bodhisattva:

Sadaparibhuta, the bodhisattva who says, “I would never dare to despise anyone,” is also everywhere. Even if someone does not seem to have the ability to be awakened, he sees that within everyone there is that capacity. Sadaparibhuta helps everyone to have self-confidence and remove any feelings of inferiority. This kind of complex paralyzes people. Sadaparidhuta’s specialty is to be in touch with and water the seeds of the awakened mind or the mind of love in us. This bodhisattva is not just a person in the Lotus Sutra but can be found right here in our society in many different guises. We have to recognize the bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta, who is around us in flesh and bones.

We do not worship imagined or mythological figures. Bodhisattvas are not figures from the past living up in the clouds. The bodhisattvas are real people who are filled with love and determination. When we can understand someone else’s suffering and feel love for him/her, we are in touch with the bodhisattva of understanding.

This bodhisattva removes the feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem in people. “How can I become a buddha? How can I attain enlightenment? There is nothing in me except suffering, and I don’t know how to get free of my own suffering, much less help others. I am worthless.” Many people have these kinds of feelings, and they suffer more because of them. Never Disparaging Bodhisattva works to encourage and empower people who feel this way, to remind them that they too have buddha nature, they too are a wonder of life, and they too can achieve what a buddha achieves. This is a great message of hope and confidence.

“To be or not to be – that is the question” is, of course, one of Shakespeare most famous lines. Hamlet is contemplation suicide, and this phrase, according to Schopenhauer “is, in condensed form, that our state is so wretched that complete non-existence would be decidedly preferable to it.”

However, this assumes that there is existence and non-existence, being and non-being. Within the Buddhist tradition, there are divergent opinions on the subject of being and non-being. Nagarjuna rejected both the notions that ‘being is and nothing is not’ and ‘nothing exists.’ In considering this matter, he set up a formula of four possibilities, each one of which he rejected: something is, it is not, it both is and is not, and it neither is nor is not.

What Nagarjuna was really refuting were modes of thought, opinions, views, statements, and so on. As an antidote to the disease of clinging to either being or non-being, he took a middle path between the two. He taught that the tendency to cling to concepts and views was the root of suffering. His Middle Way is to see things as they truly are and to understand that nothing in the world actually exists absolutely, just as nothing perishes completely.

Here is an excerpt from a dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France, in which he discusses this ‘question’ of to be or not to be:

Descartes said: “I think therefore I am.” He was caught in a notion of existence, clinging to it to overcome the fear of non-existence. Because he did not look deeply enough, he was fearful of being nothing especially when he was confronted with the death of someone, or with his own death. If we are caught in the notion of being we will also be caught in the notion of non-being. From the perspective of life span, we think we start to exist at the point of time we call birth; and we think we continue to exist until the point of time we call death, after which we think we cease to exist. Thus the notions of birth and death form the basis of the notions of being and non-being. Both of these notions have their roots in the fundamental notion of life span. The Buddha has taught that when conditions are sufficient things manifest, but to label that manifestation as being is wrong. Also when conditions are not sufficient, things do not manifest, but to label that as non-being is also wrong. Reality is beyond being and non-being, we need to overcome those notions. Hamlet said: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” We can see that he was caught by these notions. But according to this teaching, “to be or not to be”, is not the question. Because reality is beyond the notion of being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going. Where do we come from and where do we go to? Those are philosophical questions. But if we understand suchness then we know that we don’t come from anywhere and we don’t go anywhere.

The Buddha accepted certain traditional Indian beliefs concerning the nature of reality, the chief one being the notion of a continuum of existence, a cycle of birth, death and rebirth called samsara.

Samsara (“going or wandering through”) was conceived as a three-layered system, consisting of arupa-dhatu (“world of immaterial form”), rupa-dhatu (“the world of form”) and karma-dhatu (“world of feeling”). The three are also referred to as arupa-loka, rupa-loka, and kama-loka – the word loka meaning world or realm as well. In samsara living beings move up and down through vertical realms (human, god-like, and hell realms), and all beings, including devas (gods, celestial beings) are trapped in this world dominated by suffering. Nothing is static – everyone is in a state of constant motion – rebirth is the mechanism of horizontal movement and karmic seeds or imprints help determine vertical movement.

It’s not important whether samsara exists in exactly this way. What is important is that samsara symbolizes the mundane, conventional world, the world of life and death, the world of suffering and problems, where all phenomena, including thoughts and feelings, rise and fall, act and react, according to the law of cause and effect.

The problem the Buddha considered was how to put an end to cyclic existence conditioned by suffering, not an end to cyclic existence itself.  In other words, he wondered if it were possible to rise above suffering. Transcend it.

The Buddha envisioned a state of life in which a person was somewhat impervious to suffering. Suffering will not, go away. Beings will always experience suffering, and yet, he believed there must be a way to minimize the impact of suffering emotionally and psychologically. The gist of the idea, not unique to Buddhism, it can be found in Taoism as well, is to take things in stride.

The 13th century Japanese Buddhist Nichiren once wrote, “Never let life’s hardships disturb you. After all, no one can avoid problems, not even saints or sages . . .  Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life . . .”

Pretty simply stated, but not always so easy to accomplish. Additionally, there is a much deeper and complex underlining system of thought that supports this process. But that’s it in a nutshell.

There are persons in some quarters who feel the concept of rising above suffering, realizing a state of life that we could call “happy”, is somehow trite, watered-down dharma, or that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes with “feel good” philosophy.

In the Buddha’s time, it was actually a radical statement to make, this idea that one can rise above suffering. Life was hard then. Most people worked from sunup to sundown and in the East, there were no days off. They lived in a hostile environment, permeated with filth and disease, and survival on the most basic level was the major concern.

Most cultures accepted suffering but not in the same way the Buddha did. They rationalized it. You were supposed to suffer in this world and then after you die, then you would have peace, happiness. There was no escape. One of the first persons after Buddha and Lao Tzu who suggested that there was another way to look at it was the same person who wrote these words: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That revolutionary statement was the real shot heard ’round the world.

Some of the individuals who think this is just “feel good” stuff have a better way. Of course. They say, don’t worry about trying to be happy, you can be enlightened instead. They know it can be done because they have attained enlightenment. Naturally. No surprise there.

I am not sure what the difference is between the Buddhist sense of happiness and enlightenment. Classic bait and switch, is what suspect. Don’t be concerned about your problems. Unimportant stuff. Your time would be better spent trying to understand meditation techniques and the teachings as we give them. That way we can impress you with how much we know, how intelligent we are, how enlightened . . .

Look, I am not trying to suggest that there are no wool-pullers out there or folks with watered-down versions of dharma. However, I feel that in some cases they are a picture is being painted with brush strokes much too broad.  Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it is not good dharma.

I think the key is to be able to develop some radar. Get to the place where you can sense whether it’s a sales job or not. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, but if you get burned don’t give up on the dharma.

And definitely, absolutely, whenever anyone tells you they have attained enlightenment, run for the hills.

Chinese character for happiness

Chinese character for happiness

What is the nature of this joy? How can we touch true joy every moment of our lives? How can we live in a way that brings a smile, the eyes of love, and happiness to everyone we encounter? Use your talent to find ways to bring happiness to yourself and others—the happiness that arises from meditation and not from the pursuit of fruitless pleasure. Meditative joy has the capacity to nourish our mindfulness, understanding, and love. Try to live in a way that encourages deep happiness in yourself and others. “I vow to bring joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the suffering of one person in the afternoon.” Ask yourself, “Who can I make smile this morning?” This is the act of creating happiness.  – Thich Nhat Hanh

A somewhat different take on fathers and sons for this Father’s Day, an excerpt from a dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 10, 1998  in Plum Village, France:

We know that the core of the Buddha’s teaching is non-self. This is something people find very hard to accept, because everyone believes that there is a self, and you are yourself, you are not the other person. But with the practice of looking deeply, we see things differently.

You see yourself as a person, a human being; you say that you are not a tree, you are not a squirrel, and you are not a frog. You are not the other person. That is because we have not looked deeply into our true nature. If we do, we will see that we are at the same time a tree. It is not only in our past lives that we have been a tree or a rock or a cloud, but even in this life, in this very moment, you continue to be a tree, you continue to be a rock, you continue to be a cloud. In fact you cannot take the tree out of you, you cannot take the cloud out of you, you cannot take the rock out of you., because if you could, you would no longer be there as yourself.

In the Jataka stories it is said that in past lives the Buddha had been a squirrel, a bird, deer, an elephant, a tree. It’s very poetic, but it does not mean that when the Buddha was a human person living in the city of Sravasti, he was no longer a tree, a rock, a deer. He continued to be all of these. So when I look into myself, I see I still am a cloud, not only during a past life, but right now.

There is a lady who wrote a poem about her husband, who is a student of mine. That student of mine is very fond of my teaching. And she said, “My husband has a mistress, and his mistress is an old man who sometimes dreams of being a cloud.” I don’t think that description of me is correct, because I am not dreaming of being a cloud—I am a cloud. At this very moment you could not take the cloud out of me; if you took the cloud out, I would collapse straight away. You cannot take the tree out of me; if you did, I would collapse. So looking deeply into our true nature, we see that what we call self if made only of non-self elements. This is a very important practice, and it does not seem as difficult as we may imagine.

So you are the son, but you are not only the son, you are the father. If you take the father out of you, you collapse. You are the continuation of your father, of your mother, of your ancestors. That is non-self. Son is made of father, and father is made of son, and so on. And the practice is that every day we have the opportunity to look at things in such a way–otherwise we live in a very shallow way, and we don’t get to the heart of life.

A young man may say, “I hate my father. I don’t want to have anything to do with my father.” He is very sincere, because every time he thinks of his father, anger is coming up. It’s very unpleasant, so he wants to separate himself from his father, and he is determined to do so. But how could such a thing be possible? How can you take your father out of you? The hard fact is that you are your father. It’s better to reconcile with your father within. There is no other way out. You can behave like that when you believe in the reality of self, but the moment that you see the true nature of self, you can no longer behave like that. You know that the only way is to accept, to reconcile and to transform. You know that it is the discrimination, it is the ignorance in you which has caused the suffering.