Author and Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh outlines three common mistakes people make in their pursuit of happiness and helps us to answer the question what does it mean to live?
– by Thich Nhat Hanh
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 51.
Like every species on Earth, we are always seeking the ideal conditions that will allow us to live to our fullest potential. We want to do more than just survive. We want to live. But what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to die? What happens when we die? Is there life after death? Is there reincarnation? Will we see our loved ones again? Do we have a soul that goes to heaven or nirvana or God? These questions are in everyone’s hearts. Sometimes they become words, and sometimes they are left unsaid, but they are still there, pulling at our hearts every time we think about our life, about those we love, our sick or ageing parents, or those who have already passed away.
How can we begin to answer these questions about life and death? A good answer, the right answer, should be based on evidence. It is not a question of faith or belief, but of looking deeply. To meditate is to look deeply and see the things that others cannot see, including the wrong views that lie at the base of our suffering. When we can break free from these wrong views, we can master the art of living happily in peace and freedom.
The first wrong view we need to liberate ourselves from is the idea that we are a separate self cut off from the rest of the world. We have a tendency to think we have a separate self that is born at one moment and must die at another, and that is permanent during the time we are alive. As long as we have this wrong view, we will suffer; we will create suffering for those around us, and we will cause harm to other species and to our precious planet. The second wrong view that many of us hold is the view that we are only this body, and that when we die we cease to exist. This wrong view blinds us to all the ways in which we are interconnected with the world around us and the ways in which we continue after death. The third wrong view that many of us have is the idea that what we are looking for—whether it be happiness, heaven, or love—can be found only outside us in a distant future. We may spend our lives chasing after and waiting for these things, not realizing that they can be found within us, right in the present moment.
There are three fundamental practices to help liberate us from these three wrong views: the concentrations on emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness. They are known as the Three Doors of Liberation and are available in every school of Buddhism. These three concentrations offer us a deep insight into what it means to be alive and what it means to die. They help us transform feelings of grief, anxiety, loneliness, and alienation. They have the power to liberate us from our wrong views, so we can live deeply and fully, and face dying and death without fear, anger, or despair.
We can also explore four additional concentrations on impermanence, non-craving, letting go, and nirvana. These four practices are found in Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a wonderful text from early Buddhism. The concentration on impermanence helps free us from our tendency to live as though we and our loved ones will be here forever. The concentration on non-craving is an opportunity to take time to sit down and figure out what true happiness really is. We discover that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy, right here in the present moment. And the concentration on letting go helps us disentangle ourselves from suffering and transform and release painful feelings. Looking deeply with all these concentrations, we are able to touch the peace and freedom of nirvana.
These seven concentrations are very practical. Together, they awaken us to reality. They help us cherish what we have, so we can touch true happiness in the very here and now. And they give us the insight we need to treasure the time we have, reconcile with those we love, and transform our suffering into love and understanding. This is the art of living.
About the author: Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, poet, scholar and peace activist. He has written more than 100 books, which have sold millions of copies around the world. He lives in France where he founded a Buddhist community and meditation centre. The Art of Living (Rider Books, paperback) is available to buy here.