I begin with the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh:
I have a box, a matchbox, and you are invited to look into this and you know that the flame is somewhere there. We use a match in order to bring out the flame and the impression we have is that the flame is somewhere there. It is waiting for us to help her manifest.
We have learned that when conditions are sufficient, something will manifest and when these conditions are no longer sufficient, that something will hide itself. So we have the impression that the flame is already somewhere there in the box and many conditions seem to be sufficient, except one and that is the movement of our fingers.
It is not correct to qualify the flame as non-existing, just because we have not perceived it. The flame is within the box and also outside of the box. We know that oxygen is there and without that condition, the flame cannot reveal herself. That is why we know that the flame is not only inside, but outside. The flame transcends the notion of inside and outside.
With the last condition, we can help the flame to manifest. (Strike match) There it is. And we would like to ask the flame this question, “My dear little flame, where have you come from?” The flame is here with us (put out) and now the flame is no longer with us and we ask these questions, “My dear little flame, where are you now? Where have you gone? I don’t have a perception of you anymore. Before you came, I didn’t see you and after you went away I don’t see you. Are you still there somewhere? Where have you gone?”
These are questions to ask the person we love. Looking deeply into his eyes ask, “My Beloved One, where have you come from?” This is a very important question. If you have not asked that question, please do so right away. This is a very good invitation for her, for him and for you to look deeply, to take a trip of investigation. “Where have I come from? Where have you come from, My Darling? Had you existed before you were born or did you begin to exist at the moment of your so-called “birth”? It is very useful to ask these questions and not with only your intellect. You have to ask with all your body and your mind, your consciousness. That is to embark on a trip of searching … searching for the ultimate … searching for our true nature.
If you have a beloved one that has left you and you cannot see him anymore, cannot see her anymore, you might like to ask a question also. “My Beloved One, where have you gone? I want to know.” This is also an invitation for deep looking and deeply looking is meditation. Looking deeply enough, we get the insight that we’ll have the power to liberate ourselves from fear, from grief, from sorrow.
When we listen deeply to the flame, we will hear her answer, “Beth, I have not come from anywhere. When conditions are sufficient, I manifest myself.” That is also the voice of the Buddha. No coming is our true nature. We have come from nowhere. When conditions are sufficient, we manifest ourselves.
Then, we continue to listen to the flame, asking ”Dear Little Flame, where have you gone?” “Dear, Beth, I have gone nowhere. When conditions are not sufficient, I cease my manifestation. My true nature is no going. My true nature is no coming and no going.”
A notion to be inspected is the notion of “life-span.” When we are born, we are issued a birth certificate, mentioning the hour, the date, the month and the year. When we die a death certificate is issued. So, all of us have a notion of lifespan based on those images. The notion is that from “nothing,” you have become “something” at birth. From no one, you have become “someone” at birth and from that moment on we begin to “be,” until the moment of death. After that, there is non-being. At birth, from “no one” you suddenly become “someone” and at death, from someone, you suddenly become “no one” again. So we qualify “life-span” (the time between our birth and death) as “being” and everything before and after those dates as “non-being.” This notion of “life-span” has to be removed and you will see that this is a door of liberation.
If we consider deeply our birth certificate, we see that it is not very correct, because the moment of your birth is not the moment of your beginning. Before you were born from your mother, you had already been there in her womb. Right? You live inside the womb of your mother for eight or nine months. So, the moment of birth is not when you begin to exist. You already exist inside of her. What we call “birth” is the moment when you come out. It’s not very accurate. You do not really begin to “be” at that moment. That is not really the moment of your birth. So, maybe you’d like to push it down to the moment of conception. The moment you were conceived in the womb of your mother may be more accurate. But again the question is asked, “Do you think that before the conception, you already existed?” The answer is “YES,” because from nothing you cannot become something. Look at reality. Is it possible that something can come from nothing? Like the flame, has she come from nothing? No, nothing can come from nothing.
This sheet of paper seems to have a birth date, too. At the moment that the factory produced the sheet of paper, it is conceived to be the birth date of the sheet of paper. But, do you think that before taking up this form, the sheet of paper did not exist? No, because when you touch the sheet of paper deeply, you see the forest. You see the trees, the sunshine, the cloud and the rain. So, before wearing this appearance, the sheet of paper had been sunshine, had been cloud, had been trees, had been earth and so on. So, the sheet of paper has not come from nothing and the moment of getting this appearance is only a moment of continuation. The moment of your conception is also a moment of continuation. Before that, you had been there, maybe half in your father and half in your mother and you are also in the sky, in the cloud, in the sunshine, in the earth, everywhere.
So, it would be more truthful, more correct, that when your birthday comes, instead of singing, “Happy Birthday” you say “Happy Continuation Day!” We will write another song. “Happy Continuation Day to You, My Dear One.” In fact, that is a continuation day and every day is a continuation day, even the day of your so-called “death.”
When I burn this sheet of paper, the moment of burning, you might call it the moment of dying of the sheet of paper. But, “to die” is what? In our mind, “to die” means from “something” you suddenly become “nothing” and that is absurd. From “something” you cannot become “nothing.” That is very unscientific.
Now, I’d like to burn this sheet of paper and I invite all of you to look deeply to see whether the sheet of paper is going to become “nothing.” (Light paper) Look Deeply. The object of your perception has changed. You no longer see the same kind of appearance. But, that does not mean that the sheet of paper is no longer there.
The smoke has come up and the smoke will join a certain cloud in the sky and we can very well look up and say, “Goodbye. Goodbye, dear little sheet of paper. Have a good time up there. We’ll see you later on.” Maybe tonight, you will encounter the sheet of paper in a new manifestation, a drop of rain. Nothing is lost. There’s only a continuation. There is no death.
There was heat generated by burning the sheet of paper. The heat entered into me and I will carry the sheet of paper with me, in her new manifestation as heat, when I leave today.
Then, this ash, I will put in the garden and return it to the earth, where this sheet of paper came from and maybe later this summer, when you come here to church, you might recognize the sheet of paper in her new form, as a little flower.
So, from “something,” you can never become “nothing.” From “someone” you can never become “no one.” Your nature is the nature of “no birth and no death.”
The teachings I have just shared were from the retreat I attended in August 2002. My father had just been diagnosed as “terminal” with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. I was sad. I had eight months to help my father and to live with these teachings, until he died on May 5th, 2003. That September, a few months after my father’s death, I had the opportunity to attend another retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and this story is my memory of it.
Up early one morning, at the YMCA of the Rockies, I lit a candle and dressed in its small circle of light. Leaving the room, I joined the others in the chilly, pre-dawn darkness, in the parking lot outside the building.
Hundreds were gathered and the monks and nuns began gracefully, wordlessly, to lead us in mindful movement … humans moving powerfully, yet silently, like the wind. The power of the practice shifting and sweeping away old paradigms, so that new thoughts might take hold and grow. This movement through consciousness is as dramatic as a forest fire destroying old growth. At first, it is the loss that is obvious but quite soon it is the new growth which becomes apparent.
The group shifted from gentle movements in place to walking meditation, truly a human river, flowing down roads and walkways, pooling finally in a field for sitting meditation.
We faced northeast, embraced and surrounded on all sides by mountains. In this cold darkness, we anticipated the sun. This I knew as “anahata” or hearing the sound of the un-struck bell. So it was to anticipate the light and warmth of the sun before it’s arrival.
In this pre-dawn quiet and stillness, my father came to sit with me. I was so warmed by his presence that my eyes filled with tears. I held my left hand with my right hand, as I had held his hand often at the end of his life. I thought, “It’s good to sit with you again.”
He replied, “You know what I remember best about you?”
“Yes,” I answered, “the night I held your hand all night and you felt the life flow back into you.” He’d remembered this to me many times at the end of his life. Only this time, the energy flowed into me, with his presence as the channel. I received deep love and peace, a truly blessed gift. My heart filled with gratitude for this sweet reunion.
The sky lightened. The group stood, walking in silence, moving out of the field and into our day. This new energy would carry me back into the fullness of life.
Later that morning, during the Dharma talk, Thich Nhat Hanh held up his left hand and said, “This is your father’s hand, for your father lives on in you. If you ever are missing your father hold your left hand with your right hand and know you are holding your father’s hand.”
I knew this to be true, but was struck by the powerful confirmation of this message so soon after feeling the fullness of my father’s presence.
This talk was originally offered here in 2004 and then again in 2010. It has been 12 years since my father died and I have had many more opportunities to use these teachings, to look deeply and to see how my beloved relatives and friends have continued in their new forms. I’d like to share a few with you.
For those of you sitting in the back rows, smiling at me when I enter the sanctuary, you are the beneficiaries of the warm and welcoming energy of dear Wavis Twyford. Before there ever was a committee by that name, there was Wavis and I feel her continuation in those of you who welcome me warmly.
“Love is the spirit of this church,” and every time I speak those words, I am in the presence of our former minister, Rev. Suzanne Meyer, who told me that she wasn’t worried about what happened after she died, saying, “Love never dies.” I feel her continuation in the very real love that IS the spirit of this church.
My friend, Ann Kimsey, was a member of the Air National Guard and a yoga teacher here at UUCC. During Mindful Monday Meditation, we did a meditation on sound. Some people were annoyed by the rumbling of large C-130 transport planes, circling the city to practice take offs and landings, but Ann said, “Those are my angels.” She had been deployed in them, to transport the wounded to hospitals in Germany, as well as to deliver equipment and supplies to remote bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. C-130s became my angels, too, for they delivered countless letters and packages to my sons at war and those big-bellied planes carried my sons out of combat, bringing them home. Every
C-130 I hear is an angel and a continuation of Ann.
My teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, suffered a catastrophic brain hemorrhage in November 2014 and though he is still very alive and resides back in his hermitage in Plum Village France, he is no longer able to speak. But, you see, he has many students like me, who are sharing his teachings and his words. Thay’s voice continues on in me and should you remember a phrase or an image from this talk today, then he continues on in you, too.
These are the messages of mindfulness that remain with me: “That which is part of you can never be lost.” You may, however, have to find and feel it within you. Also, “Something can never become nothing.” This is the principal teaching of the Buddha in order to overcome fear. The energy of one you have loved deeply remains. The challenge is to look deeply, to be quiet, aware and willing to find and feel the energy in a new form. Once you discover this, you will begin to understand that you can never lose someone you love. You will only begin to find them again in a new form.