A Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh
CALLIGRAPHY BY BARBARA BASH
S HAMBHALA S UN
of truth, conventional truth and absolute truth, but they are not opposites. They are part of a continuum. There is a classic Buddhist gatha: H E R E A R E T WO K I N D S
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.
This beautiful poem has only twenty-six words, but it sums up all of the Buddha’s teaching. It is one of the great-
est poems of humanity. If you are a composer, please put it to music and make it into a song. The last two lines should sound like thundering silence, the silencing of all speculation, of all philosophies, of all notions and ideas. The gatha begins in the realm of conventional truth and ends in the realm of absolute truth. The ﬁrst line describes reality as we usually perceive it. “All formations are impermanent.” This is something concrete that we notice as soon as we start paying attention. The ﬁve elements that make up our sense of personhood—form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness—all are ﬂowing and changing day S HAMBHALA S UN
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and night. We can feel their impermanence and so we are tempted to say that the ﬁrst two lines of this gatha are true. But the danger of this statement is that we may believe that formations are real and impermanence is an absolute truth. And we may use that kind of truth as a weapon in order to ﬁght against those who don’t agree with our ideas. “Formations” is a notion, an idea. “Impermanence” is another notion. Neither is more true than the other. When you say, “All formations are impermanent,” you are indirectly conﬁrming their permanence. When you conﬁrm the existence of something, you are also implying the existence of its opposite. When you say the right exists, you have to accept the existence of the left. When you conﬁrm that something is “high,” you’re saying something else is “low.” Impermanence becomes a notion that opposes the notion of permanence. So though perhaps it tried to escape, the ﬁrst two lines of the gatha are still in the realm of conventional, relative truth. To reach the absolute truth, the ultimate truth, you need to release the conventional truth found there. There’s a Chinese term that means halfway truths and another that means all-theway, hitting-the-bottom truths. The ﬁrst two lines are a halfway truth and the third and fourth lines try to remove what we learned in the ﬁrst two. When the notions are removed, then the perfect silence, the extinction of all notions, the destruction of all pairs of opposites, is called great joy. That is the teaching of absolute truth, of nirvana. What does nirvana mean? It is absolute happiness. It’s not a place you can go; it’s a fruit that you can have wherever you are. It’s already inside us. The wave doesn’t have to seek out the water. Water is what the wave has to realize as her own foundation of being. If you have come from a Jewish or Christian background, you may like to compare the idea of nirvana, great bliss, with the idea of God. Because our idea of God may be only that, an idea. We have to overcome the idea in order to really touch God as a reality. Nirvana can also be merely the idea of nirvana. Buddha also can be just an idea. But it’s not the idea that we need; we need the ultimate reality. The ﬁrst two lines of the gatha dwell in the realm of opposites: birth and death, permanence and impermanence, being and nonbeing. In God, in nirvana, opposites no longer exist. If you say God exists, that’s wrong. If you say God doesn’t exist, that’s equally wrong. Because God cannot be described in terms of being and nonbeing. To be or not to be, that is not the question. The notions of being and nonbeing are obstacles that you have to remove in order for ultimate reality to manifest. In classical Chinese, the third line of the gatha...
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