The Heart of What Really Matters

The Heart of What Really Matters

Discussion date: Thu, Apr 02, 2015 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Sometimes the simple and direct questions of children can take us right to the heart of what really matters. This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will watch a short video segment of Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) responding to the questions of two young children last summer.

A young girl, perhaps eight years old, asks, "Everybody says we should be happy in our lives, but what does happiness mean?" Thay begins his response with a behavioral definition:

Happiness is possible. When you are happy you enjoy the sunshine. You enjoy the trees. You enjoy the fresh air. You enjoy the people around you. When you are not happy you cannot enjoy them. You see everything in a negative way. You don’t appreciate what is there. When you are happy, you appreciate your body, your eyes. your nose, your ears. You appreciate the beauty of life that is all around. There is so much beauty.

Thay also explains that we can learn to be happy:

In order for happiness to be possible, we know how to remove obstacles that prevent happiness from happening. And these obstacles are anger, jealousy, fear, craving, irritation, things like that.

Happiness is an art. It is a kind of habit. There are people who have the habit of being happy, because they have learned that habit. For these people, anything can make them happy, like the fresh air, the fresh water, the morning sunshine. The songs of the birds. The presence of friends. …

There is the art of happiness — and there is the art of suffering. There is a way to suffer. If you know how to suffer, you suffer very little. You do not allow suffering to stay around.

A young boy, perhaps nine years old, asks: "When we die, where does our spirit go?" Thay takes a breath, looks up at the ceiling, and says: “This is a difficult question.” Then he calmly and tenderly explains to the young boy his understanding of life and death.

Suppose you see a bird and that bird is dead. You ask whether the bird has a soul or a spirit and you don’t know where the soul or the spirit has gone. When a human being dies. that person does not see, think, speak, think any more. You say that that person has gone and you ask where has he gone.

That question presupposes that there is a body and a spirit that can exist separated — that the spirit can be without the body and the body can be without the spirit. But the truth is that the spirit cannot be without the body. And the body cannot be without the spirit. Without a spirit, the body is a dead body. Without a body, the spirit cannot manifest.

This is a bit difficult, but if you try a little bit hard, you can understand it.

Later in his ten-minute response, Thay elucidates in very simple words, the Buddhist concept of "co-dependent arising," or inter-being.

When you strike a match, a flame is born. The flame has not come from anywhere. … Because conditions are sufficient, the flame manifests and you can see it. And when you blow out the flame, the flame does not go anywhere. …. Because of the lack of conditions, the flame just stops manifesting. … So the fact is, when someone dies, the spirit does not go anywhere. It just stops manifesting … and waits for conditions to be sufficient in order to manifest again. That is true of everything. Not only a human being, but a tree or a stone.

When you look at a cloud, you know that someday the cloud will die. But to die means to become nothing. But the cloud can never become nothing. A cloud can become the rain or the snow. Because conditions are not sufficient, that is why the cloud stops being a cloud and becomes the rain or the snow. So conditions are favorable for the rain and the snow to manifest. The one thing we can be sure of is that when conditions are sufficient, something will manifest. And when conditions are no longer sufficient, something will stop manifesting and manifest differently. So the cloud stops manifesting as a cloud and begins to manifest as the rain.

So, it looks like this is no death. It seems there is only transformation from one form into another form. If you practice Buddhist meditation deeply, you will find out that nothing can die. Everything can change, but nothing can die.

As I listened repeatedly to the exchanges between these two young people and Thay, an 87-year-old teacher, I was aware of a subtle energy underneath the words. I think of it as a transmission from heart to heart. I was touched and opened.

You are invited to join us this Thursday. (And if you are not able to join us, you are invited to watch the video online at,)

In addition, you are invited to join us this Thursday for a brief newcomer’s orientation to mindfulness practice and the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Apr 02, 2015


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Tue, April 16

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Fri, April 19

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Sat, April 20