No Death, No Fear

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat HanhIn my hermitage in France there is a bush of japonica, Japanese quince. The bush usually blossoms in the spring, but one winter it had been quite warm and the flower buds had come early. During the night a cold snap arrived and brought with it frost. The next day while doing walking meditation, I noticed that all the buds on the bush had died. I recognized this and thought, this New Year we will not have enough flowers to decorate the altar of the Buddha.

A few weeks later the weather became warm again. As I walked in my garden I saw new buds on the japonica manifesting another generation of flowers. I asked the japonica flowers: “Are you the same as the flowers that died in the frost or are you different flowers?” The flowers replied to me: “Thay, we are not the same and we are not different. When conditions are sufficient we manifest and when conditions are not we go into hiding. It’s as simple as that.”

This is what the Buddha taught. When conditions are sufficient things manifest. When conditions are no longer sufficient things withdraw. They wait until the moment is right for them to manifest again.

Becoming Nothing
Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a life span beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die. We believe that we are born from nothing and when we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with fear of annihilation.

The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering.

The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.

Nothing Is Born, Nothing Dies
A French scientist, whose name is Lavosier, declared, “Rien ne se cree, rien ne se perd.” “Nothing is born, nothing dies.” Although he did not practice as a Buddhist but as a scientist, he found the same truth the Buddha discovered.

Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Only when we touch our true nature can we transcend the fear of non-being, the fear of annihilation.

The Buddha said that when conditions are sufficient something manifests and we say it exists. When one or two conditions fail and the thing does not manifest in the same way, we then say it does not exist. According to the Buddha, to qualify something as existing or not existing is wrong. In reality, there is no such thing as totally existing or totally not existing.

We can see this very easily with television and radio. We may be in a room that has no television or radio. And while we are in that room, we may think that television programs and radio programs do not exist in that room. But all of us know that the space in the room is full of signals. The signals of these programs are filling the air everywhere. We need only one more condition, a radio or television set, and many forms, colors and sounds will appear. 

It would have been wrong to say that the signals do not exist because we did not have a radio or television to receive and manifest them. They only seemed not to exist because the causes and conditions were not enough to make the television program manifest. So at that moment, in that room, they do not exist. Just because we do not perceive something, it is not correct to say it doesn’t exist. It is only our notion of being and non-being that makes us think something exists or doesn’t exist. Notions of being and non-being cannot be applied to reality.

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Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, and peacemaker who was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize. The author of many books, including Living Buddha, Living Christ, he lives in France in the monastic community known as Plum Village and lectures and gives retreats regularly in North America.

From No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh. Copyright © 2003 by Thich Nhat Hanh. Published by Penguin Group USA, a Penguin Random House Company.