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Impermanence and no self are not rules to follow given to us by the Buddha. They are keys to open the door of reality. The idea of permanence is wrong, so the teaching on impermanence helps us correct our view of permanence. But if we get caught in the idea of impermanence we have not realized nirvana. The idea of self is wrong. So we use the idea of non-self to cure it. But if we are caught in the idea of non-self then that is not good for us either. Impermanence and no self are keys to the practice. They are not absolute truths. We do not die for them or kill for them.
In Buddhism there are no ideas or prejudices that we kill for. We do not kill people simply because they do not accept our religion. The teachings of the Buddha are skillful means; they are not absolute truth. So we have to say that impermanence and no self are skillful means to help us come toward the truth; they are not absolute truth. The Buddha said, "My teachings are a finger pointing to the moon. Do not get caught in thinking that the finger is the moon. It is because of the finger that you can see the moon."
No self and impermanence are means to understand the truth; they are not the truth itself. They are instruments; they are not the ultimate truth. Impermanence is not a doctrine that you should feel you have to die for. You would never put someone in prison because they contradict you. You are not using one concept against another concept. These means are to lead us to the ultimate truth. Buddhism is a skillful path to help us; it is not a path of fanatics. Buddhists can never go to war, shedding blood and killing thousands of people on behalf of their religion.
Because impermanence contains within itself the nature of nirvana, you are safe from being caught in an idea. When you study and practice this teaching you free yourself from notions and concepts, including the concept of permanence and impermanence. This way, we arrive at freedom from suffering and fear. This is nirvana, the kingdom of God.
Extinction of Concept
We are scared because of our notions of birth and death, increasing and decreasing, being and non-being. Nirvana means extinction of all notions and ideas. If we can become free from these notions we can touch the peace of our true nature.
There are eight basic concepts that serve to fuel our fear. They are the notions of birth and death, coming and going, the same and different, being and non-being. These notions keep us from being happy. The teaching given to counteract these notions is called "the eight no's," which are no birth, no death, no coming, no going, not the same, not different, no being, no non-being.
Ending Notions of Happiness
Each of us has a notion of how we can be happy. It would be very helpful if we took the time to reconsider our notions of happiness. We could make a list of what we think we need to be happy: "I can only be happy if..." Write down the things you want and the things you do not want. Where did these ideas come from? Is it reality? Or is it only your notion? If you are committed to a particular notion of happiness you do not have much chance to be happy.
Happiness arrives from many directions. If you have a notion that it comes only from one direction, you will miss all of these other opportunities, because you want happiness to come only from the direction you want. You say, "I would rather die than marry anyone but her. I would rather die than lose my job, my reputation. I cannot be happy if I don't get that degree or that promotion or that house." You have put many conditions on your happiness. And then, even if you do have all your conditions met, you still won't be happy. You will just keep creating new conditions for your happiness. You will still want the higher degree, the better job and the more beautiful house.
A government can also believe that they know the only way to make a nation prosper and be happy. That government and nation may commit itself to that ideology for one hundred years or more. During that time its citizens can suffer so much. Anyone who disagrees or dares to speak against the government's ideas will be locked up. They might even be considered insane. You can transform your nation into a prison because you are committed to an ideology.
Please remember your notions of happiness may be very dangerous. The Buddha said happiness can only be possible in the here and now, so go back and examine deeply your notions and ideas of happiness. You may recognize that the conditions of happiness that are already there in your life are enough. Then happiness can be instantly yours.
Reprinted from No Fear, No Death: Comforting Wisdom for Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh, with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002 by Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen teacher, poet and leader of the engaged Buddhist movement. A well-known anti-war activist in his native Vietnam, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. The author of more than forty books, he resides at Buddhist practice centers in France and Vermont.
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