This is an excerpt from a public Dharma Talk by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The event took place during a New Year retreat in Plum Village, on December 29, 2013.
We think that there are two more days and then the year 2013 will be gone. Is it true that the year is going to die? Can we speak about the birth or death of a year? This is an object of meditation.
We know that we invented the notion of months, days, and hours. They were invented by human minds. So the notion of year is also one that we have fabricated.
What does it mean to die?
Dying means that from ‘being’, you go suddenly to the realm of non-being. And that will happen to the year 2013. In two days, there will be no more 2013 – and the year 2014, we think that it is not here yet. It will come in two days – but where is it now, the year 2014? Can we touch it? Will the new year really be a new year, or will it just be a repetition of the old year? It depends very much on us.
Now the year is ending, we should be able to ask ourselves these simple questions: what have I done during the year 2013? Have I been able to produce feelings of joy and happiness? Have we learned to produce a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness every day during the year 2013?
We know what conditions, what ingredients we need to produce a feeling of joy, a feeling of happiness for us and for the person or people we love. As practitioners, we should be able to produce a feeling of joy, of happiness, to nourish us and the people we love. Have we done that during the year 2013?
From time to time, a painful feeling or a strong, unpleasant emotion comes up. Have we been able to handle them, to calm them down so that we will not be a source of suffering for ourselves or for others? Because, as practitioners, we should be able to handle a painful feeling or emotion. We should know how to calm down a painful feeling or emotion, or even transform it into something better, like compassion, friendship, forgiveness. Because, like love and hate, pain and pleasure are of an organic nature. If you don’t know how to handle love, it can turn into something else, like anger or hate.
But if you know how to handle hate and anger, you can turn them back into understanding and love.
We can learn all these things as practitioners of mindfulness. If we do not master the practice of generating joy and happiness, if we do not know how to handle painful feelings and emotions, we are going to repeat that in the new year. And the new year will not be very new, but a repetition of the old year.
So, for the year to be new, you have to renew yourself. You have to make yourself new. That is why, in Plum Village this year, we have the phrase, “New year, new me.” I need a new me in order to enjoy the new year.
A year is [a period of] time. And time is linked to space and action.
Some Buddhist schools think of space as unconditioned, an unconditioned dharma. But we know now that space is made of non-space elements; of matter, of speed, of time, of many conditions. So space is also a conditioned dharma.
The year that is going to end is our invention, our fabrication, our product. The value of the year depends on our way of acting and reacting, on our way of living our life. The value of the year depends on our way of life.
If we know the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and mindful dealing with pain, sorrow, and anger, then we can improve the quality of our actions, of our life, and of our days, months, and years.
Now it is wintertime; doing walking meditation, you don’t see butterflies. Flowers and these small creatures that appear during April and May, you think that they are not there. We tend to think of them as not existing. But that is not true: they are there, waiting for the month of April to manifest.
So the year 2014, you don’t think that it is already here. But it is already here. You don’t need two more days to touch the year 2014. It is already in and around you. You can touch it now. You know that in springtime those butterflies will manifest – but that does not mean that they do not exist now. The same is true of 2014. It is already there and you can already enjoy it, even 48 hours before its official arrival.
When we think of our childhood: you were a little girl or a little boy. You are no longer a little boy or a little girl. Has he died, the little boy? Has she died, the little girl? No. The little boy, the little girl is still very much alive in you. And sometimes your behavior is very much the behavior of a little boy or a little girl. So the little boy, the little girl has not died. They are always there and you can touch them. Meditating like that, we see that things continue.
Nothing is born, nothing dies.
That corresponds with the first law of thermodynamics: you cannot produce or destroy anything that is matter or energy. You can transfer matter into another kind of matter. You can transfer matter into energy. You can transfer energy into another kind of energy. You can transfer energy back into matter. But you cannot produce energy, and you cannot destroy anything. That corresponds to the teaching of no birth and no death.
Birth and death are only on the surface. If you go down deeply, there is no birth and no death. The same is true of 2013. In the beginning of 2014, we say au revoir to 2013. But as soon as we think ‘Au revoir’, 2013 continues in 2014. To me, the year 2013 is going to continue even in the month of January 2014.
We think that our ancestors are no longer there; that they are dead. But that is not true. Our ancestors are always alive. If we look deeply into every cell of our body, we can see the presence of our ancestors. They are fully present in every cell of our body and we carry them to the future. So their nature is also the nature of matter and energy, the nature of no birth and no death.
To meditate means to have the time to look more deeply; to see things that people who do not meditate cannot see. And if you do well, you can touch your nature of no birth, no death.
In the year 2013, have you had difficulties with someone? Have you got angry at him or her? Did you want to leave them forever? Did you know how to handle that kind of anger and despair?
This morning in Upper Hamlet, we touched the Earth after sitting meditation. We touched the Earth and invoked the name of the bodhisattva Earth Holder, Kṣitigarbha.
We know that we are all children of the Earth, of Mother Earth. And one day, we will go back to Mother Earth. Not only you, but that person also. Like you, she or he will go back to Mother Earth. The time during which you maintain this body, this form of life, is short – maybe only 30, 40, 50 years.
When you touch the Earth, you may be aware that you and that person are both going back to Mother Earth. And the insight will come that, during the years, the days, and the months that are left for us to be together, we should be more compassionate with each other. Because we will go back to the Earth.
If you can touch the Earth like that, all your anger and suffering will vanish very quickly. The practice of Touching the Earth is wonderful.
[This transcript was edited for readability.]
Watch the full Dharma Talk here: