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The Thing About Death


Am Koe Su, Sunim

Our dear Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who left this realm in early 2022, left in our trust many revered works, including a wonderful book entitled, no death, no fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life. The back cover includes this quote: "Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. We believe that we are born from nothing and hat wen we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with the fear of annihilation. The Buddha has a very different understanding, that birth and death are notions. They are not real."

For most of us, especially in the West, that is a mind-blowing concept. Of course birth and death are real! How can they not be. We see babies emerge from their mother's wombs and we see our deceased loved ones lifeless in their caskets. What is more real than that?

The key to Hanh's quote lies in the word notions. "The Buddha said that if you get caught in one idea (notion) and consider it to be "the truth," then you miss the chance to know the truth. Even if the truth comes in person and knocks at your door, you will refuse to open your mind. So if you are committed to an idea about the conditions necessary for your happiness, be careful." This sentiment is echoed in the Buddhas first two Noble Truths: Life is suffering and the cause for our suffering is ignorance, greed, and anger, the Three Poisons, born out of attachment to things, ideas, and notions.

He goes on to say, "The true nature of all things is not to be born, not to die, not to arrive and not to depart. My true nature is the nature of no coming and no going...It is only because of our misunderstandng that we think the person we love no longer exists after the "pass away." This is because we are attached to one of the forms, one of the many manifestations of that person. When that form is gone, we suffer and feel sad." This same principle is true in the termination of a relationship, the loss of a job, or of a prized possession. With the loss, we suffer and feel sad. What we don't understand is that there is no loss...only a change of manifestation.

Often groups of students, from grade school to college, will visit the Temple. There are two exercises that I have all of them participate in. I give each of them a piece of paper and ask them to "look deeply into that piece of paper and tell me-When was this piece of paper born?" I get all sorts of answers like, "when it was made into paper", "when the tree was turned into pulp", "when the tree was cut down". The, I go on to ask, "When, then, was the tree born?"

Then, I ask them to look deeply into their hand and tell me when their hand was born. The answers are again varied. When I was born. In my mother's womb. At the time of conception. Then I will say, "If you look very deeply into your hand, can you not see your mother's hand, your father's hand, all of your ancestor's hands, their ancestor's hands? If you look deeply into your hand, like the piece of paper, you will see that it has always been and will always be. It's the primary law of physics regarding matter: matter can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed. As Hanh puts it, "When we lose someone we love, we should remember that the person has not become nothing. "Something" cannot become "nothing" and "nothing" cannot become "something." Science can help us understand this, because matter cannot be destroyed-it can become energy. And energy can become matter, but it cannot be destroyed. In the same way, our loved one was not destroyed, (they) have just taken on another form. That form may be a cloud, a child, r the breeze. We can see our loved one in everything."

When I read the book, no death, no fear, I see Thich Nhat Hanh, I feel his presence, I hear his voice in every page. He is not gone, he is simply transformed. When I see the Spring robin and hear its song, I am able to smile and say, "Hello, my friend. It's nice to see you again."

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