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Sunday, September 4, 2011

The gift of understanding

On September 3 2011, I attended Thich Nhat Hanh's Dharma talk in Pasadena's Civic Auditorium, and listened, along with thousands of others to a number of powerful thoughts, which we may all be aware of, but often choose to ignore. In his calm and simple way, Thich explained the importance of understanding. When we understand, we may safeguard ourselves from a lot of unnecessary suffering. Often, when we are at work, we feel offended by things others say or do. Thich compared this emotion to a first arrow: it is often unexpected, and it hurts. But if we dwell too long on what happened, and choose to give rise to negative emotions such as anger and spite, we actually shoot off a second arrow to ourselves, and this time it will not hurt twice as much, but ten times or more! If we understand that many of the things others do are a result of their own fears or ignorance, we may become aware of their suffering, and understand the reasons behind their actions. This is how we outgrow the issue, and move on without too much disruption.

Thich further explained that suffering is universal, and that it serves a purpose. Everything does! We cannot understand happiness if we don't understand suffering. As an example, Thich mentioned the beautiful lotus flower, which grows in mud. If you think of it, a lotus flower consists only of non-lotus components. Air, sun, water... they all contributed in making the lotus come into being, so they are all in the lotus, even if we don't see them. So the mud, in which the lotus grows, is also in the lotus. Our suffering is like mud, and our happiness like the lotus. In order to fully appreciate and understand our happiness, we need to understand our suffering. When we understand our suffering, we learn about its roots and can do something about it. Many people think they can only achieve happiness when they have achieved certain things in their lives, and that is a great part of their suffering. Many people also think that they can only be happy if their suffering entirely ceases to exist.

To explain this even better, Thich referred to the interconnectedness of everything, or "interbeing". Shortly after his enlightenment the Buddha said, "When this is, that is," meaning that the arising of one thing leads to the arising of another. So, this also means, "When this isn't, that isn't." We should therefore understand that if we don't have left, we cannot have right, because right will cease to exist if left ceases to exist. Since this is the foundational thought of Buddhism, Thich humorously referred to it as the Genesis of Buddhism, and provided this wonderful example:

    "If God says, 'Let there be light,' then light will say, 'I have to wait.' And if God asks, 'what for?', then light will say, 'I have to wait for dark, because without dark, I cannot be. We inter-are'."
If we consider the interbeing of all things, we can make the quality of our lives and those around us much better, live more peacefully, and find happiness here and now.

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