Dear Still Water Friends,
During the 2006 retreat at Plum Village a student asked Thich Nhat Hanh for guidance in “looking deeply” into his fears. The student’s approach had been to look closely into his personal history, trying to identify how the fears had come to him. He realized that there was a limit to what he could uncover. There seemed to be many key events that had occurred early in childhood, before he had speech.
In his reply, Thich Nhat Hanh explained that to look deeply means to identify the roots or the origin of something. He went on to explain that the roots of our fears are not only in our personal histories, but also in our perceptions, in the implicit notions we use to to make sense of the world. When we look deeply, we come to understand that we suffer because our concepts are not subtle enough to capture reality as it is:
When we look into our fear, we see the desire to be permanent. We are afraid of change. Let us visualize a cloud floating in the sky. The cloud may think that one day it will have to change into something else, like rain or snow. It does not want to change, and that is why the cloud can suffer. . . . . The cloud may be afraid of dying. Of becoming nothing. But if the cloud practices looking deeply, she will find that It is impossible for a cloud to die. . . .
Our anger, our fear, our despair are born from our wrong perceptions, from our notions of being and non-being, coming and going, arising and falling. But if we practice looking deeply, we find out that these notions cannot be applied to reality, and we can touch our true nature. We can touch the ultimate dimension, which will bring about non-fear. When we trust that insight of no birth and no death, joy becomes possible at every moment of our life.
It is a pity that many people do not have the time to practice looking deeply. With the practice of looking deeply, they can acquire true joy and non-fear. With non-fear, every moment of our daily live becomes enjoyable.
You are invited to join us this Thursday evening. After our meditation, we will watch a video of the question and answer, reflect on the exchange, and share our own experiences of looking deeply into our fears.
The text from a very similar question and answer with Thich Nhat Hanh that occurred in 1998 is offered below.
Q and A with Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village July 20, 1998
Question: You said once that when one has the chance to ask a question of a teacher, one ought to ask something that can help one in one’s practice. I hope this is one of those questions. You speak a great deal about looking deeply. Can you elaborate on the difference between merely thinking about a problem and looking deeply at that same problem?
Answer: Looking deeply is the term we use to translate the word Vipashyana. That is the heart of meditation. When you are really there, body and mind united, you are calm, you are concentrated, you are in a position of looking deeply, and the act of looking deeply helps you to discover the nature of what is there. When you have touched it, you have seen it, you get insight, awakening, enlightenment.
Looking deeply is made of several elements. The first ingredient is mindfulness. Mindfulness is to be really there, body and mind united. Without that, looking deeply would not be possible. When you are completely there, fully alive and fully present, you are capable of calming what is in you, your body, your emotions, your feelings; you are concentrated. Concentration is a very important ingredient of looking deeply. Without concentration you cannot look deeply. First you have to stop, and then, after having stopped, you practice concentration, and now you are in a position of going deeply into it. The element of thinking may be helpful. Thinking is spoken of in terms of vitaka and vichara. Vitaka means initial thought, the first thought you have of it, and vichara means more elaborated inquiry about it.
The Buddha devised principles and methods and guidances to help us to be successful in the practice of looking deeply. For instance, he said that you need to be guided by the insight of impermanence. If in the act of looking deeply you can discover the nature of impermanence, then you have a great chance to go deeper. But if you do not pay attention to the aspect of impermanence, you may miss the whole thing, you cannot go deep into the nature of what is there. And then the other element is the element of emptiness. Emptiness is a guide. If you practice looking deeply with awareness of emptiness in you, then you can discover the nature of interbeing, of what is there.
Emptiness means the absence of a separate existence, such as when you look at this flower, you can touch first of all the nature of impermanence. You don’t just talk about impermanence, you actually experience the nature of impermanence at first hand. And then you can go deeper, because the insight of impermanence helps you to see the nature of interbeing. It’s always changing, and what is in front of you is made of several elements. The flower has the sunshine in it. Sunshine is a component of flower. You do not call sunshine “flower,” but you discover that without sunshine a flower cannot be. So you discover that a flower cannot be by itself alone, it has to interbe with nonflower elements, like sunshine, like clouds, like rain, like minerals, like earth, like the gardener. There is a multitude of elements that we call nonflower elements. And the flower is possible only with the coming together of these nonflower elements. That is why the flower is described as empty of a separate entity. So the insight of interbeing helps you to get deeper into the reality of the flower. Emptiness is the lack of a separate entity. When you continue to focus your attention, your concentration, and your deep looking on it, you might discover that this flower contains the whole universe. You might discover that the extremely tiny contains the extremely large, and you may be liberated from the idea of big and small. You may get free from the idea of “this” and “that”, you may get free from the idea of “I” and “you,” because I contain you, and you contain me, and we contain the whole universe. You may get rid of the idea of birth and death, just by looking into the heart of a flower.
The Buddha said that thinking, initial thinking or elaborated thinking, is only a part of the work. Sometimes we don’t need the thinking any more. Sometimes we penetrate with other elements of the practice. When you can touch a flower deeply with the insight of impermanence, of no self, of interbeing, then that insight can liberate you from fear and from sorrow. The Buddha said that all fear and sorrow and suffering are born from your wrong perceptions about reality. “Looking deeply” is not just a term, an expression, because the Buddha has indicated very clearly all the steps that you need to take in order to succeed in the act of looking deeply.