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Melvin McLeod: Did the Buddha die?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Sure. As a human being, you should be born and you should die. That is the historical dimension. Then you have to touch the Buddha deeply in order to touch his or her ultimate dimension. You can also look deeply at an ordinary human being—not a buddha, just a non-buddha like myself or yourself. If you look deeply at yourself, you see that you have this historical dimension—you have birth and death. But if you look at yourself more deeply, you see that your true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. You are also like a buddha: you have never been born; you’ll never die. So in you I see a buddha; in everyone I see buddha in the ultimate dimension. That’s why we can talk about countless buddhas. It is exactly because the Buddha is a human being that countless buddhas are possible.

We have to remember that inside of the historical dimension there is the ultimate dimension. We are not really subjected to birth and death. It is like a cloud. A cloud can never die; a cloud only becomes rain or snow or ice, but a cloud can never be nothing. That is the true nature of the cloud. No birth and no death. A buddha shares the same nature of no birth and no death, and you share the same nature of no birth and no death.

We know that on Earth there are human beings who possess great wisdom and great compassion. They are buddhas. Don’t think that the buddhas are very far away up in the sky. You touch the buddha in yourself; you touch the buddha in people around you. It’s wonderful that it’s possible in the here and the now.

The buddhaland is here. If you know how to practice mindful walking, then you enjoy walking in the pure land of Buddha in the here and the now. This is not something to talk about; it’s something to taste. In our tradition, you should walk in such a way that each step helps you to touch the buddhaland. The buddhaland is available to you in the here and now. The question is whether you are available to the pure land. Are you caught by your jealousy, your fear, your anger? Then the pure land is not available. With mindfulness and concentration you have the capacity to touch the celestial realm of the buddhas and the bodhisattvas in the here and the now. That is not theory at all. That is what we live each day. What we practice each day. It’s possible.

Many of us are capable of this. When I talk to Christians I say that the Kingdom of God is now or never. You are free, and then the kingdom is there for you. If you are not free, well, the kingdom does not exist, even in the future. So the same teaching and practice can be shared between many traditions.

Melvin McLeod: You’ve lived a long life during a century that was as terrible as any, in a country that suffered as much as any. I think there are many people who now look at this new century and see, again, the seeds of tragedy, both at the human level and the natural level. Where do you feel the world is headed now?

Thich Nhat Hanh: I think the twentieth century was characterized by individualism, and more than one hundred million people perished because of wars. Too much violence, too much destruction of life and environment. If we want the twenty-first century to be different, if we want healing and transformation, the realization is crucial that we are all one organism, that the well-being of others, the safety of others, is our own safety, our own security. That kind of realization is very crucial. Modern biology has realized that the human being is really a community of billions of cells. No cell is a leader; every cell is collaborating with every other cell in order to produce the kind of energy that helps the organism to be protected and to grow. Only that kind of awakening, that kind of insight—that our danger, our security, our well-being, and our suffering are not something individual but something common to us all—can prevent the destruction that has arisen from individualism in the twentieth century.

This insight of no-self, this insight of togetherness, is very crucial for our survival and for the survival of our planet. It should not be just a notion that we can read in books; this insight should be something that animates our daily life. In school, in business, in the Congress, in the town hall, in the family, we should practice in order to nurture the insight that we are together as an organism and something happening to the other cells is happening to us at the same time. This insight goes perfectly with science and it goes perfectly with the spirit of Buddhism. We should learn how to live as an organism.

I have spent much of my time building communities and I have learned a lot from it. In Plum Village we try to live like an organism. No one has a private car, no one has a private bank account, no one has a private telephone—everything belongs to the community. And yet, happiness is possible. Our basic practice is seeing each one as a cell in the body, and that is why fraternity, brotherhood, sisterhood become possible. When you are nourished by brotherhood, happiness is possible, and that is why we are able to do a lot of things to help other people to suffer less.

This can be seen, it can be felt. It’s not something you just talk about. It is a practice, it is a training, and every breath and every step that you take aims at realizing that togetherness. It’s wonderful to live in a community like that, because the well-being of the other person is also our well-being. By bringing joy and happiness to one person, we bring joy and happiness to every one of us. That is why I think that community-building, sangha-building, is the most important, most noble work that we can do.

Melvin McLeod: And to extend that to the greater society.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes. It’s like in a classroom at school. If the teacher knows how to organize the kids in her class into a family, they will suffer much less and they will have a lot of joy. It’s the same in the town hall or in a business. Business leaders can organize their enterprise as a family where everyone can look at each other as a cell of the organism.    

We know that in our own body there are many kinds of cells: liver cells, lung cells, neurons. And every cell is doing her best. There’s no envy about the position of the other cells, because there’s no discrimination at all. It’s by being the best kind of liver cell that you can nourish other cells. Every cell is doing her best in order to bring about the well-being of the whole body. There is no discrimination, no fight among the cells, and that is what we can learn from modern biology. We can organize ourselves in this way as a family, as a school, as a town hall, as a Congress. It is possible, because if our cells are able to do that, we humans can do that also.

Melvin McLeod: I hope you don’t mind my asking this question, and you don’t have to answer. But I have always been very touched by what you’ve written about a love that you had, someone you clearly loved very deeply, whom you left. How do you feel about that now? Is that, at this point in your life, a regret?

Thich Nhat Hanh: That love has never been lost. It has continued to grow. The object of my love grows every day, every day, every day, until I can embrace everyone. To love someone is a very wonderful opportunity for you to love everyone. If it is true love. In the insight of non-self, you see that the object of your love is always there and the love continues to grow. Nothing is lost and you don’t regret anything, because if you have true love in you, then you and your true love are going in the same direction, and each day you are able to embrace, more and more. So to love one person is a great opportunity for you to love many more.

Melvin McLeod: Yet monasticism—and you are very encouraging toward those who would like to become monks or nuns—renounces this love. Why is it a good thing to forego this opportunity to love?

Thich Nhat Hanh: In the life of a monastic, you make the vow to develop your love and your understanding. You develop the capacity to embrace everyone into your love. So loving one person, as I said, is an opportunity for you to love many more people. Especially when that person shares the same aspiration as you, there is no suffering at all. As a monastic you lead a life of monastic celibacy and community, and if the one you love realizes that, she will not suffer and you will not suffer, because love is much more than having a sexual relationship. Because of great love you can sacrifice that aspect of love, and your love becomes much greater. That nourishes you, that nourishes the other person, and finally your love will have no limit. That is the Buddha’s love.

Originally published in our March 2006 issue and highlighted in our May 2009 "The Best of 30 Years: In Discussion" collection of highlights from classic Shambhala Sun interviews.Click here to see them all.

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