Practicing with Impermanence and Nonself

San Cristóbal Hill, Santiago, Chile. Photo by Eric Donaldson.

Practicing with Impermanence and Nonself

Discussion date: Thu, May 27, 2021 at our weekly Thursday evening practice
May 27, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Silver Spring, Maryland, community online on Thursday evening
May 28, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all online on Friday evening

Dear Still Water Friends,

This past weekend I had the opportunity to travel to Pennsylvania to visit with and help my elderly father with a few chores at the old farm house in the area where I spent most of my childhood. Visiting my childhood home always brings back memories. As I drove through the town of Brave, Pennsylvania, I remembered fishing in Dunkard Creek, playing baseball on the old ball field that is now a junk yard, riding my bicycle throughout the town with my friends, sleeping out on the front lawn at night in the summer looking for UFOs, and other memories too numerous to mention. There were other aspects of Brave that are not as I remember, like the Confederate flag flying proudly from the front porch of a house on Main street, the Trump signs posted all about, and the signs stating the COVID-19 vaccine is the mark of the beast that shows you have sold your soul to the devil.

At the farm, I was confronted with the roots of my own habits and notions, good and bad, as I interacted with my father and my sister and brother-in-law who were there helping, too. Being back in my home town, and working with my father helped me realize just how far I have come in my practice and how far I still have to go. I was immediately confronted with the old habit energy of needing him to approve of me, and the sense that we are all in a competition for his approval. At one point, my sister responded to one of my father’s comments with, “Wow, it is no wonder why we are all so competitive.” Even though I had no sense that any of us were truly competing with each other, it was clear through my father’s speech that he was watching us closely and looking for deficiencies to point out.

What came to mind as I experienced the emotions and habits associated with being there, working side by side with my father and siblings, was the idea of releasing the notion of of an unchanging separate self. One evening in the motel when I could not sleep, I listened to The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching and encountered this passage:

Nonself means that you are made of elements which are not you. During the past hour, different elements have entered you and other elements have flown out of you. Your happiness, in fact your existence, comes from things that are not you. Your mother is happy because you are happy. And you are happy because she is happy. Happiness is not an individual matter. The daughter should practice in a way that she can understand her mother better and her mother can understand her better. The daughter cannot find happiness by running away from home, because she carries her family in her. There is nothing she can leave behind. There is nothing she can get rid of, even if she runs away and tells no one where she is going. Her store consciousness carries all the seeds. She cannot get rid of a single one.

I also found a video by Thay on YouTube entitled, Four Notions to Remove, in which Thay provides instructions on how to practice with impermanence and nonself. I gained valuable insights through these teachings, although there is still much for me to learn and do as I continue to encounter old elements and habit energies that have long been associated with my strong notion of an unchanging separate self.

This Thursday evening, we will watch a few minutes of the video entitled, Four Notions to Remove and focus our discussion on the practice of releasing the notion of self. I offer three questions to help guide our discussion.

  • What have been your challenges and successes with letting go of the notion of an unchanging separate self.
  • What has been your experience with the connection between your own notion of self and your suffering?
  • Do you have a specific practice that helps you experience nonself?

Below is another excerpt from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh.

I hope you can join us and I look forward to your participation on Thursday and Friday evening.

Warm regards,

Eric Donaldson


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A Sheet of Paper’s Story
by Thich Nhat Hanh from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

When you look at this sheet of paper, you think it belongs to the realm of being. There was a time that it came into existence, a moment in the factory it became a sheet of paper. But before the sheet of paper was born, was it nothing? Can nothing become something? Before it was recognizable as a sheet of paper, it must have been something else — a tree, a branch, sunshine, clouds, the earth. In its former life, the sheet of paper was all these things. If you ask the sheet of paper, “Tell me about all your adventures,” she will tell you, “Talk to a flower, a tree, or a cloud and listen to their stories.”

The paper’s story is much like our own. We, too, have many wonderful things to tell. Before we were born, we were also already in our mother, our father, and our ancestors. The koan, “What was your face before your parents were born?” is an invitation to look deeply, to identify ourselves in time and space. We usually think we did not exist before the time of our parents, that we only began to exist at the moment of our birth. But we were already here in many forms. The day of our birth was only a day of continuation. Instead of singing “Happy Birthday” every year, we should sing “Happy Continuation.”

“Nothing is born, nothing dies” was a statement made by the French scientist Lavoisier. He was not a Buddhist. He did not know the Heart Sutra. But his words are exactly the same. If I burn this sheet of paper, will I reduce it to nonbeing? No, it will just be transformed into smoke, heat, and ash. If we put the “continuation” of this sheet of paper into the garden, later, while practicing walking meditation, we may see a little flower and recognize it as the rebirth of the sheet of paper. The smoke will become part of a cloud in the sky, also to continue the adventure. After tomorrow, a little rain may fall on your head, and you will recognize the sheet of paper saying, “Hello.” The heat produced by the burning will penetrate into your body and the cosmos. With a sophisticated enough instrument, you will be able to measure how much of this energy penetrates you. The sheet of paper clearly continues, even after it is burned. The moment of its so-called dying is actually a moment of continuation.

When a cloud is about to become rain, she is not afraid. She may even be excited. Being a cloud floating in the blue sky is wonderful, but being rain falling on the fields, the ocean, or the mountains is also wonderful. As she falls down as rain, the cloud will sing. Looking deeply, we see that birth is just a notion and death is a notion. Nothing can be born from nothing. When we touch the sheet of paper deeply, when we touch the cloud deeply, when we touch our grandmother deeply, we touch the nature of no birth and no death, and we are free from sorrow. We already recognize them in many other forms. This is the insight that helped the Buddha become serene, peaceful, and fearless. This teaching of the Buddha can help us touch deeply the nature of our being, the ground of our being, so that we can touch the world of no-birth and no-death. This is the insight that liberates us from fear and sorrow.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, May 27, 2021


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