So, before I offer a little teaching tonight on the Buddha's basic essential teachings, as ChiSing asked me to do, I would like us to pay homage to our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Dear Thay, you teach if you have the insight of non-self, if you have the insight of impermanence, you should make that insight into a concentration that you keep alive throughout the day. Then what you say, what you think, and what you do will be the light of that wisdom, and you will avoid making mistakes and creating suffering. Oh lovely teacher, we pay homage to you.
So tonight's teaching is one of the Buddha's foundational teachings on—the Buddha called it emptiness. Our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls it inter-being. So Shakespeare had Hamlet say, "To be or not to be. That is the question." But the Buddha said, "People in the world tend to believe in one of two views—the view of being or the view of non-being. That is because they are bound by wrong perceptions." So Shakespeare and Buddha have a different point of view there. So I thought we might look at this idea of being and not-being and see how we come out—whose side we come out on, Hamlet or the Buddha.
So I brought my PowerPoint presentation in. This looks like a lead rope, but it's a PowerPoint presentation. This represents a timeline—a time and space line. So, somewhere around here, you are born, and somewhere around here—you're going to live a lot longer than this, but I can only reach it so far. Thank you. And that is where you die. And so we say before you are born, you are non-being. And after you die, you are a non-being. And in between that time, it you are a being.
Now we have official government certificates to prove that this is the truth, because we have a birth certificate that says that you were born on this day at this hour at this minute, and we have a death certificate stamped by the government that shows that you died on this day at this hour at this minute, and so this is true. Our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says that it is a conventional truth. So let's see how this conventional truth, our historical truth, conforms with the Buddha's teaching that it is a wrong view to have the view of nonbeing and being.
So, we will look here at where you were born. Your mama might say, "Now, you did not just become alive when you came out of my womb, because I could feel you kicking around in there, and in fact I couldn't sleep very well for the last few months because you are moving around so much." And if you were born in the last 50 years, your mama would also say, "Plus I have pictures of you alive in my womb moving around, sucking your thumb. I could see your heartbeat."
So we could say, "Okay, mom. I think you have a point there. We'll move our being back 9 months to when I was conceived." And in fact a lot of people in Asian countries do count their birthday as the day they were conceived. But your dad might say, "Wait a second. You didn't just pop into your mom's womb. I had something to do with that. At least half of you was in me, and half was in your mom." And your daddy has a point there.
Also, half of his mom and dad are in him, right? And then half of their moms and dads are in him, and so we can see that we have been alive from beginningless time. We could say we have never been born, because we have always been alive. So I'm going to cover up this "non." We can say now, "Okay. You always have been alive. You were never born, because you've been carried down. You get it from your mama and daddy and their mama and daddy and their mama and daddy and their mama and daddy and so on.
So then, let us look at this death. Our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a wonderful lesson here. You see—oh, that is a little one. These are little Mexican matches, and they do not waste wood. So if we look at this match, we can see that there is a flame in there, but all of the conditions haven't come together yet for this flame to manifest. It still needs something to strike on and some kind of striker. That would be moi.
Dear little flame (sound of flame lighting), please manifest. And there she was born, and now if you notice, she didn't die, but she became a different form. She became smoke and heat and ash and a burnt stick. She took a different form.
When my daughter was pregnant with—I started to say our first baby. When she was pregnant with—I named her Precious Perfect. When she was pregnant with Precious Perfect, we knew right away, and we looked it up, and she was the size of a lentil. That is the form of—her name is Shane, but I call her Precious Perfect. So there we go. So there is Precious Perfect, and then after a few weeks, she grew a little bit and became a pea size. We called her Sweet Pea at that time. Then she kept growing into a bean, and then she grew into a bigger bean, and she kept changing her form, until she was born, and she looked like a human bean—big. That was a little joke (laughter). She looked like a human bean.
She kept changing, by the way. Now she is 21, and a senior at St. Ed's in Austin. She is continuing to change. If you picture yourself when you were born, and then you have pictures—your mom and dad have pictures of you as a baby. You know what you looked like. And then you changed form. You became different. So you are 5 and then a young adult come back and then some of us can go even beyond that. So we change form.
Then when we die, we also change form, just like match changed forms—the flame changed form. She is still a flame, but she has taken on different forms. We do the same thing. My mama died, and we cremated her body, and so my mama took on the form of ashes and little bitty white bones. And we spread her ashes—I have a little ranch near Maynard, and we spread ashes out on the takedown, where she wanted her body—her ashes—to be spread. And over time, my mama took the form of bluebonnets and grass.
The Buddha teaches that just like the flame's actions that live on forever—heat and smoke and ashes and burnt stick—we too have actions that live on forever, and they are our thoughts, our words, and our physical actions. They are carried on forever in future generations, so we can say with some clarity that we never died. Our body changes form, just like the flame changes form, but it doesn't become nothing. From something, we don't suddenly become nothing, just like from when we were born, we were not nothing and suddenly became something.
So, would you cover up "non-"? I have horses on the ranch, and horses live 20, 30 years—not too long. One, Sunshine, lived 43 years, but when Apache died, my son said, "Mom, what do you want to do with Apache's body?" And Apache had died kind of in the woods, not by the house, so I said, "Well, let's just leave her body there, and when the coyotes come and eat from her flesh, and we hear the coyotes howling at night, we will know that it is Apache howling. When the buzzards come and finish off her bones, and we look up in the sky and we see the buzzards, we will see a flying horse—flying Apache. And when the buzzards poop in the stock tank, we will see Apache in the form of fish and snakes and turtles." And so that is what we did. We left her body just like that.
But about a week later, I was thinking about it, and when I saw my son, I said, "Christopher, when I die, I want you to take my body out and put it out in the back for me. I want to be like Apache. I want when you hear the coyotes"—he lives on the ranch with me—"when you hear the coyotes, you hear your mama. And when you see the buzzards, it's your mama." And he said, "Oh, mom. That is so gross. I am so not going to do that."
"No," he said. "I'm going to stuff you like this." (Laughter) " And I'm going to put you in the closet, and when Hunter"—that is my grandbaby, his son. "When Hunter is naughty, I'm going to say, ‘You go talk to your grandmother.'"
So I was telling my sangha that story about what Christopher said, and one of my sangha brothers, John, said, "Well, we're not going to do that. We are going to stuff you in the lotus position, and when it is your turn to offer the teaching, we're just going to set you up there on your cushion, and that will be your teaching." I don't know if they're trying to hint that I talk too much or that I could give a better talk if I just keep my mouth shut.
Okay. So remember that the Buddha said people in the world tend to believe in one of two views—the view of being or the view of non-being—and that is because they are bound by wrong perceptions. So we have come to agreement with the Buddha about non-being. We can see that we have never been nothing, and we never will be nothing. But he says that being is a wrong perception as well. So let's look at this before we are born.
We said that we were alive in our ancestors, in the people who are our blood ancestors. It is also true that we have always been alive in our animal ancestors, plant and mineral ancestors. Because our people ancestors depended up on animals, plants, and minerals to live, they were interdependent, and interconnected with them, and all the animals, plants, and minerals are in your blood ancestors. Interdependent.
We can say then that we have never been a separate being, that we have always been interconnected, interdependent on all other beings. The only way we could have been alive forever is to have been alive and all other beings. And we said that after we make our transition, change our form—we die—that our actions, our thoughts, and words, and actions are carried on by future generations of people, animals, plants, and minerals. So we have to say that we can't be by ourselves. The only way that we can be is to be—inter-be—with all other beings.
That is true now also, right? How did you get here tonight? You rode your bikes or you came in a car, and somebody built a road for you, and somebody before that planned the road for you, and somebody donated money through their taxes for those folks to be able to do that, and somebody filled your car with gasoline, and somebody refines the gasoline. You get it? And you are—now, that you and I are dependent on—cannot survive without—all other people, plants, animals, minerals. Minerals like air, water, soil.
Even if you are a vegetarian, even if you are a vegan, you are dependent on other animals. You are dependent on bees to pollinate flowers. So maybe you have cats to enjoy, dogs, horses. Maybe you like to look at birds. So, we are now, we always have been, and we always will be interconnected, interdependent on all other beings. We are not—cannot be alone, cannot be separate from all other beings.
I would like to read you three little poems. This first one is by Mary Oliver. "This morning the beautiful white heron was floating along above the water, and then into the sky of this, the one world we all belong to, where everything sooner or later is a part of everything else, which thought made me feel for a little while quite beautiful myself."
And this poem is called, "It is Enough" by Anne Alexander Bingham. "To know that the atoms of my body will remain, to think of them rising through the roots of a great oak to live in leaves, branches, twigs perhaps to feed the crimson peony, the blue iris, the broccoli, or rest on water, freeze and thaw with the seasons. Some atoms might become a bit of fluff on the wing of a chickadee to feel the breeze, know the support of air, and some might drift up and up into space, star dust returning from whence it came. It is enough to know that as long as there is a universe, I am a part of it."
And this last poem is from a longer poem. It is just a part of a poem from our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. "There has not been a moment when we have not inter-been. Therefore you know that as long as you continue to breathe, I continue to be in you."
ChiSing: Well, I will share that this practice—the Buddha said something about—compares it to the ocean. You can understand these insights at a very simple level, like the shore, as just a wave in the water. You can also go very deep in the ocean—miles and miles of depth—fathomless depth, the depth of the ocean. It is all there. What matters is that we come to an understanding and experience real understanding in our practice and our lives. So don't get too caught up in what is nonself and emptiness means on an intellectual level. That is not the point at all.
I love how Terry presented our teaching tonight. It is a reminder that it comes from deep, real life and our own understanding of infinite life. So you will understand emptiness more and more as you keep practicing, and different angles, different insights come at different levels of depth, and that is fine. One level or a level that I have been experiencing this year because of my health challenge is to realize that in my life, it is very tempting to let cancer be the big only thing I think about, right? It is very tempting to be seduced by that. It is understandable, of course. But then, you see, it is empty.
Cancer is empty. It is not everything, and it doesn't have to be everything in my mind. You know, there are so many other things that are going on in life, and I can focus on that also. So I do not need to just tune into the cancer channel constantly in my mind. I can tune into, oh, look. Today there was some sunshine. That's kind of nice. Oh, my nephew, we had a nice laugh. You know my niece, she shared some of her homework with me and some of her drawings.
There are so many wonderful things going on, you know? It is up to us to not make something like cancer or a problem or a breakup or whatever you are going through as this concrete, solid entity that just is impenetrable. It is empty. It is empty. And to me, one of the meanings of emptiness—it is changeable. It is malleable. It is flexible. It is not permanent. It is transformative. It can be transformed. It is always transforming. I love this perspective on this, because it makes so much sense, and it is very easy to understand.
You know, I also personally not only see this understanding of being and non-being and inter-being. I also believe in the afterlife and the heavenly realms and all of that stuff, but you do not need to believe that, you know? But I personally do, and I just wanted to share. I have two copies of this book, Proof of Heaven, by Dr. Eben Alexander, M.D., who had a near-death experience, and he was a speaker at Highland Park United Methodist Church in front of hundreds and hundreds of people this past week.
Karen Isbell, who is one of our members here, introduced me to this book a couple of years ago, and I really enjoyed reading it a couple of years ago, and when I reached page 71, I had an actual spiritual experience that confirms to me the truth of this book—and of course, it is still not proof to you, but it was proof to me at least. It was when I read these words that the truth of that heavenly reality: "You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you could do wrong. You are loved." I don't know what it was, but when I read those words, something happened inside of me, I remember. It reverberated for several hours, and it was very freeing. It was just a reminder that no matter what happens, we are loved.
And one of the insights I have had recently is about one aspect of emptiness, which is that I am realizing that—I don't want to go into this because it would take too long—but I am realizing that all of our lives are little scenarios, like virtual computer programs, and we enter into our particularity of life circumstances to learn and to grow and to love and to share and to just experience, but we do not need to take the programming too, too seriously. You know, don't get caught up in all of that. Absolute non-attachment, okay? Spaceless, empty, non-attachment. Because it is not about the concrete circumstances so much as what you are experiencing, what you are learning and growing from. So I am learning that. I am just going through that experientially, so I do not really have much to say about it yet. But I will just give you a little pre-hint and maybe in a few months from now—
But what really matters is not whether you got the job you wanted or you got the health you wanted or whether you got the house you wanted or the particular spouse you wanted or whatever. That doesn't matter as much. See, these details—these other details—don't matter. It is, how are you responding moment to moment in whatever situation you are in? What choices are you making? Are you choosing to be kind in that situation? Are you choosing to love rather than to hate? Are you choosing to honor and respect and be kind?
So, you know, what is your choice? That is what really matters. What are your choices? It goes back to the teaching. It is about your choices of thoughts, words, and actions. That is your internal life. That is for a fact. Not these external circumstances, but your choices. That is the true reality of it. And I'm only just now beginning to realize and understand that. So thank you so much for your practice and thank you Terry for your dharma talk.