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Melvin McLeod: Conversely, do you see things in Western thought or knowledge that can contribute to Buddhism?

Thich Nhat Hanh: I think that democracy and science can help Buddhism, but not in the way people might think. You know, the practice of democracy already exists in the Buddhist tradition. But if you compare it to democracy in the West, you see that Buddhist democracy is more grounded in the truth, because if you are a teacher and you have much more experience and insight, your vote has more value than the vote of a novice who has not got much insight and experience. So in Buddhism, voting should combine the way of democracy with the way of seniority. That is possible. We have done that with a lot of success in our community, because the younger and less experienced people always have faith and respect toward the elder ones. But, you know, many Buddhist communities don’t follow that approach; the teacher decides everything and they have lost the democracy. Now we have to restore the democracy, but not as it is practiced in the West. We have to combine it with the spirit of seniority.

Personally, learning about science has helped me to understand Buddhism more deeply. I agree with Einstein that if there is a religion that can go along with science, it is Buddhism. That is because Buddhism has the spirit of nonattachment to rules. You may have a view that you consider to be the truth, but if you cling to it, then that is the end of your free inquiring. You have to be aware that with the practice of looking deeply you may see things more clearly. That is why you should not be so dogmatic about what you have found; you have to be ready to release your view in order to get a higher insight. That is very exciting.

In the sutra given to the young people of the Kalama tribe, the Kalama sutra, the Buddha said, “Don’t just believe in something because it has been repeated by many people. Don’t just believe in something because it has been uttered by a famous teacher. Don’t just believe in something even if it is found in holy scripture.” You have to look at it, you have to try it and put it into the practice, and if it works, if it can help you transform your suffering and bring you peace and liberty, you can believe it in a very scientific way.

So I think Buddhists should not be afraid of science. Science can help Buddhism to discover more deeply the teaching of the Buddha. For example, the Avatamsaka Sutra says that the one is made of the many and the many can be found in the one. This is something that can be proven by science. Out of a cell they can duplicate a whole body. In one cell, the whole genetic heritage can be found and you can make a replica of the whole body. In the one you see the many. These kinds of things help us to understand the teaching of Buddha more deeply.

So there is no reason why Buddhists have to be afraid of science, especially when Buddhists have the capacity to release their view in order to get a higher view. And in Buddhism, the highest view is no view at all. No view at all! You say that permanence is the wrong view. So you use the view of impermanence to correct the view of permanence. But you are not stuck to the view of impermanence. When you have realized the truth, you abandon not only the view of permanence, but you also abandon the view of impermanence. It’s like when you strike a match: the fire that is produced by the match will consume the match. When you practice looking deeply and you find the insight of impermanence, then the insight of permanence will burn away that notion of impermanence.

That is what is very wonderful about the teaching of nonattachment to view. Non-self can be a view, impermanence might be a view, and if you are caught in a view, you are not really free. The ultimate has no view. That is why nirvana is the extinction of all views, because views can bring unhappiness—even the views of nirvana, impermanence, and no-self—if we fight each other over these views.

Melvin McLeod: I very much like the way you describe what other Buddhist traditions call relative and absolute truth. You describe these as the historical and ultimate dimensions. Much of your teaching focuses on the relative or historical dimension, or on the principle of interdependence, which you call interbeing. Is that a complete or final description of reality, or is there a truth beyond the insight that nothing exists independently and all things are interrelated?

Thich Nhat Hanh: There are two approaches in Buddhism: the phenomenal approach and the true nature approach. In the school of Madhyamaka, in the school of Zen, they help you to strike directly into your true nature. In the school of abhidharma, mind-only, they help you to see the phenomena, and if you touch the phenomena deeper and deeper, you touch the ultimate. The ultimate is not something separated from the phenomena. If you touch the ultimate, you touch also the phenomena. And if you touch deeply the phenomena, you touch also the ultimate.

It is like a wave. You can see the beginning and the end of a wave. Coming up, it goes down. The wave can be smaller or bigger, or higher or lower. But a wave is at the same time the water. A wave can live her life as a wave, of course, but it is possible for a wave to live the life of a wave and the life of water at the same time. If she can bend down and touch the water in her, she loses all her fear. Beginning, ending, coming up, going down—these don’t make her afraid anymore, because she realizes she’s water. So there are two dimensions in the wave. The historical dimension is coming up and going down. But in the ultimate dimension of water, there is no up, no down, no being, no nonbeing.

The two dimensions are together and when you touch one dimension deeply enough, you touch the other dimension. There’s no separation at all between the two dimensions. Everything is skillful means in order to help you touch the ultimate.

Melvin McLeod: Some people I have spoken to seem to interpret the concept of interbeing as a statement that all things are one. That sounds like one of those views we’re not supposed to hold on to.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes. One is a notion, and many is also a notion. It’s like being and nonbeing. You say that God is the foundation of being, and then people ask, “Who is the foundation of nonbeing?” [laughs] That is why that notion of being and nonbeing cannot be applied to reality. They’re only notions. The notion of two different things, or just one, are also notions. Sameness and otherness are notions. Nirvana is the removal of all notions, including the notions of sameness and otherness. So interbeing does not mean that everything is one or that everything is different. It will help you to remove both, so you are not holding a view.

Melvin McLeod: You said that the Buddha was a human being. But the Mahayana says that there are countless buddhas and bodhisattvas at many levels of existence who are sending their compassion to us. How are we rationalist Westerners to understand these beings? How can we open ourselves to them when we can’t perceive them with our five senses?

Thich Nhat Hanh: In Buddhism, the Buddha is considered as a teacher, a human being, and not a god. It is very important to tell people that. I don’t need the Buddha to be a god. He is a teacher, and that is good enough for me! I think we have to tell people in the West about that. And because the Buddha was a human being, that is why countless buddhas become possible.


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