If you have a Christian background, you can say that this flower belongs to the Kingdom of God. In the Buddhist tradition, we say this flower is a manifestation from the dharmakaya.
The word “dharma” means “things”, “phenomena” – like a flower, a cloud. And “Dharma”, written with a capital letter, means “teaching”; the teaching of the Buddha. So dharma with an ordinary ‘D’ means a phenomenon, like a marker, like a house, like a tree: all dharmas. And when Dharma is written with a capital ‘D’, it means the teaching of the Buddha.
And there is the word dharmadhatu – realm of the dharma. The realm of all phenomena, all the dharmas, the cosmos. Dharmadhatu is the cosmos. It comprises all phenomena. And sometimes it is considered to be a “body”. Dharmakaya means the body of the Dharma. It’s interesting to compare the notion of dharmakaya with the notion of ‘Kingdom of God’, because many of us here are from a Christian background.
During the time of the Buddha, people practiced taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the teacher, the Dharma is the teaching, and the Sangha is the community that applies the teaching in daily life.
A practitioner has his physical body, but he also has his Dharma body; his Dharma body is his practice.
When you learn the practice of breathing, walking, sitting, meditating, you begin to have a Dharma body. That is our spiritual dimension. If you have a practice, if you have a spiritual practice, then you can encounter the difficulties of life; you know how to handle a feeling of fear, anger, distress; you know how to overcome obstacles, difficulties in your daily life.
You need a spiritual practice. And that is the dharmakaya. And every one of us has our physical body, but every one of us also has a Dharma body, because you have a spiritual practice. And then in order to practice well, we need another body – which is ‘Sangha body’; we need a community, we need friends on the path to support one another. So you take refuge in the Dharma, but you also take refuge in the Sangha.
Here, in Plum Village, monks, nuns, and lay practitioners take refuge in each other; they take refuge in the Sangha. And they keep their practice alive, they deepen their practice everyday thanks to the collective practice, through the collective energy of the practice. If you don’t have a Sangha body, you will abandon your practice after a few months when you go home.
If you have a Dharma body, your spiritual practice, and if you want to nourish and preserve that Dharma body, then when you go home to your city, you have to build a Sangha: find friends in order to set up a community of practice. And you meet every week to do walking meditation, sitting meditation – and by doing so you nourish, you maintain your practice. And you nourish your Dharma body.
So you need a Sangha body to nourish your Dharma body, your practice. And that is the meaning of “Dharma body” in the time of the Buddha.
One day a monk was dying. His name was Vakkali. And the Buddha went to see him, and asked, “Dear friend Vakkali, how do you feel in your body?” And Vakali said, “Well, there is a lot of pain in my body.” And the Buddha reminded him to practice mindful breathing, and focus his attention on the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
And finally, the Buddha said, “Dear friend, do you still regret anything?” And he said, “Dear Teacher, I have no regrets except one. That I’m too weak these days, and I regret that I cannot go to the mountain to see you.”
Vakkali, in the past, had been an attendant of the Buddha. And because he was a little bit too attached to the Buddha, he wasn’t allowed by other brothers to be an attendant of the Buddha. Some attachment!
And then Buddha said, “Dear friend Vakkali, this is only my physical body. This physical body of mine will disintegrate in a number of years. You already have my Dharma body. My Dharma body is always with you. It’s important. This physical body is not important.”
So at the time of the Buddha, there was already a distinction between the physical body and the Dharma body. It is essential that you get the Dharma body of the Buddha, but his physical body is impermanent. You should not be attached to a physical body. If you already have the Dharma body, you can continue to nourish your Dharma body. So that is the meaning of “Dharma body” in the time of the Buddha, but later it gained another meaning, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, where “Dharma body” means the body of the dharmas.
There are Mahayana sutras where you read that the Buddha never died. The Buddha continues in many forms, including this flower. This is a continuation of the Buddha.
And if you know how to contemplate this flower, if you know how to listen, it is teaching you mindfulness, concentration, insight – the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths. It’s teaching! It’s teaching you impermanence, no self, interbeing. You need an ear that can hear the teachings of the Buddha through his new manifestation as a flower.
So, in Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha continues to be there. The Buddha has never died, and he’s always teaching the Dharma.
A tree standing in the front yard is teaching the Dharma. A river, a cloud – everything is teaching you the Dharma. And the dharmakaya is available in the here and the now. The Buddha is available. And this flower is one manifestation of the Buddha. And if you listen to it, if you contemplate it, you can touch the nature of no birth and no death in it. It’s teaching you the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s teaching you impermanence, no self.
A pebble, a butterfly, a river are also giving a Dharma talk. And the problem is whether you are capable of listening to it. They are all talking about impermanence, no self, interbeing, no birth, no death. And that is the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism.
So you can say that this flower is the manifestation of the dharmakaya, the Dharma body. And your body is also teaching you impermanence, no self, interbeing, no birth, and no death. If you listen to your body, you listen to the Dharma also. You no longer have a complex.
Your body is a wonder of life. Observing your body, you can find out about impermanence, no self, interbeing, no birth, and no death.
So if you have a Christian background, you can see that this flower belongs to the Kingdom of God. If you are a Buddhist practitioner, you say this flower is the manifestation of the dharmakaya. So the dharmakaya is equivalent to the Kingdom of God. And according to our practice, the Kingdom of God is available on Earth in the here and now.
And when you practice walking meditation, you touch the Kingdom of God with every step, every breath. You don’t have to die to go to the Kingdom of God. That may be too late. The Kingdom of God is on Earth. And you can touch the Kingdom of God through a flower, a pebble, a creek.
You can touch the Kingdom of God through your body, because your body also belongs to the Kingdom of God. That is the insight you need when you practice walking meditation. You are walking in the Kingdom of God. And if you do well, every step can bring joy, happiness, and freedom. Every breath can bring joy, happiness and freedom. And you get the healing, the transformation, the nourishment with every step and with every breath.
Walking meditation is not hard labor. It is enjoyment. And according to this practice, the Kingdom is now or never.
[This transcript was edited for readability.]
Watch the full teaching here:
Thank you so much for this Dharma talk which has really helped me in my practice. It was good to read it, write my notes then listen to Thich Nhat Hang’s talk. I am from a Christian background and appreciate the comparison to the Kingdom of God as l follow my new path.
Thank you for sharing 🙏🏻 🧡 ✨
Deep bows to all of you. This is a wonderful talk about dharma and sangha. Just makes my heart warm and my mind happy.