the Heart Sutra – Interbeing

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from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Commentary to the New Heart Sutra:


If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.

“Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not heretime, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word interbe should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper elements.” And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without “non-paper elements,” like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.

But the Heart Sutra seems to say the opposite. Avalokitesvara tells us that things are empty. Let us look more closely.


“The Bodhisattva Avalokita, while moving in the deep course of Perfect Understanding, shed light on the five skandhas and found them equally empty.”

Bodhi means being awake, and sattva means a living being, so bodhisattva means an awakened being. All of us are sometimes bodhisattvas, and sometimes not. Avalokita is the name of the bodhisattva in this sutra. Avalokita is just a shorter version of Avalokitesvara. The Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra is a wonderful gift to us from Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. In Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese, we translate his name as Kwan Yin, Quan Am, or Kannon, which means the one who listens and hears the cries of the world in order to come and help. In the East, many Buddhists pray to him, or invoke his name. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva gives us the gift of non-fear, because he himself has transcended fear. (Sometimes Avalokita is a man and sometimes a woman.) Perfect Understanding is prajnaparamita. The word “wisdom” is usually used to translate prajna, but I think that wisdom is somehow not able to convey the meaning.

Understanding is like water flowing in a stream. Wisdom and knowledge are solid and can block our understanding. In Buddhism knowledge is regarded as an obstacle for understanding. If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that even if the truth comes and knocks at our door, we won’t want to let it in. We have to be able to transcend our previous knowledge the way we climb up a ladder. If we are on the fifth rung and think that we are very high, there is no hope for us to step up to the sixth. We must learn to transcend our own views. Understanding, like water, can flow, can penetrate. Views, knowledge, and even wisdom are solid, and can block the way of

According to Avalokitesvara, this sheet of paper is empty; but according to our analysis, it is full of everything. There seems to be a contradiction between our observation and his. Avalokita found the five skandhas empty. But, empty of what? The key word is empty. To be empty is to be empty of something. If I am holding a cup of water and I ask you, “Is this cup empty?” you will say, “No, it is full of water.” But if I pour out the water and ask you again, you may say, “Yes, it is empty.” But, empty of what? Empty means empty of something. The cup cannot be empty of nothing. “Empty” doesn’t mean anything unless you know empty of what. My cup is empty of water, but it is not empty of air. To be empty is to be empty of something. This is quite a discovery.

When Avalokita says that the five skandhas are equally empty, to help him be precise we must ask, “Mr. Avalokita, empty of what?”

The five skandhas, which may be translated into English as five heaps, or five aggregates, are the five elements that comprise a human being. These five elements flow like a river in every one of us. In fact, these are really five rivers flowing together in us: the river of form, which means our body, the river of feelings, the river of perceptions, the river of mental formations, and the river of consciousness. They are always flowing in us. So according to Avalokita, when he looked deeply into the nature of these five rivers, he
suddenly saw that all five are empty. And if we ask, “Empty of what?” he has to answer.

And this is what he said: “They are empty of a separate self.” That means none of these five rivers can exist by itself alone. Each of the five rivers has to be made by the other four. They have to co-exist; they have to inter-be with all the others.

In our bodies we have lungs, heart, kidneys, stomach, and blood. None of these can exist independently. They can only co-exist with the others. Your lungs and your blood are two things, but neither can exist separately. The lungs take in air and enrich the blood, and, in turn, the blood nourishes the lungs. Without the blood the lungs cannot be alive, and without the lungs, the blood cannot be cleansed. Lungs and blood inter-are. The same is true with kidneys and blood, kidneys and stomach, lungs and heart, blood and heart, and so on.

When Avalokita says that our sheet of paper is empty, he means it is empty of a separate, independent existence. It cannot just be by itself. It has to inter-be with the sunshine, the cloud, the forest, the logger, the mind, and everything else. It is empty of a separate self. But, empty of a separate self means full of everything. So it seems that our observation and that of Avalokita do not contradict each other after all.

Avalokita looked deeply into the five skandhas of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, and he discovered that none of them can be by itself alone. Each can only inter-be with all the others. So he tells us that form is empty. Form is empty of a separate self, but it is full of everything in the cosmos. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.


“The Insight that Brings us to the Other Shore” translation by Thich Nhat Hanh (2014) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License






New Heart Sutra -Thich Nhat Hanh

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The Heart Sutra

The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore

New Translation

By Thich Nhat Hanh, August, 2014



while practicing deeply with

the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,

suddenly discovered that

all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,

and with this realisation

he overcame all Ill-being.


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what to do?

by Thich Nhat Hanh


What do you do when it feels like the walls of the cliffs surrounding you are starting to crumble and cave in on you?

What to do when every step you take seems to be leading you further and further into uncertainty and quicksand?

When this feeling of overwhelm starts to creep into your mind’s edges?

When you long for the early summer meadow lying in the grass with lazy white clouds above in the deep blue sky?

And it’s raining, raining, raining…

Can I recognize the dead end I am in as I look outwards?

Letting go sounds so simple but it is so very, very hard when I’m feeling like this.

What is the advice that comes down to us from the ancients and even from our contemporaries? Can I not only listen to that advice but somehow find the inner will and determination to actually practice it? Can I smile with my in-breath and fill my pain with compassion while breathing out?

Does it all look different now?





Image result for counting stones in the pond


Thich Nhat Hanh:

Counting is an excellent method for beginners. Breathing in, count “one”. Breathing out, count “two”. Continue up to ten and then start again. If at any time you forget where you are, begin again with “one”. The method of counting helps us refrain from dwelling on troublesome thoughts: instead we concentrate on our breathing and the number. When we have developed some control over our thinking, counting may become burdensome, and we can abandon it and just follow the breath itself. This is called “Following”.

Well-known commentaries (on the Sutra on Full Awareness of Breathing), … teach that while we breathe, we should be aware of our nostrils, the place where the air enters and leaves the body. Just as when we cut a log we keep our eyes on the place where the saw touches the log (rather than looking at the teeth of the saw), we pay attention to the nostrils, and not to the air as it enters the body. … If the practitioner focuses his mind at the tip of his nose and is aware of the first moment of contact of air at its place of entry into the body … gradually his rough, uneven breathing will become gentle and subtle, and then all discrimination will disappear.


I will add that “Counting” is not only useful for beginners, but also when I am sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s or standing in line at the grocery store. I also find that touching the tip of my index finger to the tip of my thumb on “One” and then the middle finger on “Two” and so on to the little finger on each hand, gives me a count of eight and helps me keep my focus, for example when walking.




full awareness of the body


I am, once again, finding great satisfaction and pleasure in this practice of the full awareness of breathing. Below are two short excerpts from the Buddha’s discourse.


“O bhikkhus, the full awareness of breathing, if developed and practiced continuously, will be rewarding and bring great advantages. It will lead to success in practicing the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. If the method of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness is developed and practiced continuously, it will lead to success in the practice of the Seven Factors of Awakening. The Seven Factors of Awakening, if developed and practiced continuously, will give rise to understanding and liberation of the mind.

“What is the way to develop and practice continuously the method of Full Awareness of Breathing so that the practice will be rewarding and offer great benefit?

“It is like this, bhikkhus: the practitioner goes into the forest or to the foot of a tree, or to any deserted place, sits stably in the lotus position, holding his or her body quite straight, and practices like this:

‘Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.’

1. ‘Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath.

2. ‘Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath.

3. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.

4. ‘Breathing in, I calm my whole body. Breathing out, I calm my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.

“In what way does one develop and continuously practice the Full Awareness of Breathing, in order to succeed in the practice of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness?

“When the practitioner breathes in or out a long or a short breath, aware of his breath or his whole body, or aware that he is making his whole body calm and at peace, he abides peacefully in the observation of the body in the body, persevering, fully awake, clearly understanding his state, gone beyond all attachment and aversion to this life. These exercises of breathing with Full Awareness belong to the First Establishment of Mindfulness, the body.

from Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary:

“I wish to say something about the expressions ‘observing the body in the body,’ observing the feelings in the feelings’, and ‘observing the objects of mind in the objects of mind.’ The key to ‘observation meditation’ is that the subject of the observation and the object of the observation not be regarded as two separate things. A scientist might try to separate him or herself from the object he or she is observing and measuring, but students of meditation have to remove the boundary between subject and object. When we observe something, we are that thing. Nonduality is the key word. ‘Observing the body in the body’ means that in the process of observing we do not stand outside of our own body like an independent observer, but we identify with the object being observed.

“This is the only path that can lead us to the penetration and direct experience of reality. In ‘observation meditation,’ the subject and object of meditation are one entity also.

“In order to succeed in the work of observation we must go beyond both attachment and aversion.”


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guided meditations – Thich Nhat Hanh


SoundCloud Playlist


In these intense and sometimes turbulent times these meditations are giving me a source of calm and centeredness. Sometimes I listen to the first 30 minutes of Track 2, which is just the bell at intervals. Regularly I listen to Track 3, which is the basic Mindfulness of Breathing meditation, spoken by  Sister Jina van Hengel, Plum Village Monastery. Continue reading

on the Full Awareness of Breathing



Plum Village Bell Meditation


Dear Friends, These are my favorite meditations at present. They are lead by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, zen master, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. These meditations are based on the Buddha’s

Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing

Thich Nhat Hanh lived for many years in the Plum Village Monastery in the Dordogne region in the South of France. These meditations were recorded there. (Below are Dropbox links to the MP3’s – HERE is the complete SoundCloud playlist.) Continue reading

shelter from the storm


These are very simple practices that have been passed down through the centuries because they are so effective.


Thich Nhat Hanh:


Suppose there is a storm raging – you don’t mind, because your house is solid. You close all the doors and windows, and although the wind is blowing fiercely outside, and there is rain and thunder, you still feel safe within your home. The island of self is like that. You have to practice, to learn, in order to allow that shelter, that island within yourself to appear for your use. During your daily life, learn to dwell in that safe island of mindfulness within you. Then you will be protected from provocations, you will be protected from anger, and from despair. There are many elements around you that are ready to invade you, to attack you and to deprive you of your peace and stability. So you have to organize in order to protect yourself, and to build up the practice of dwelling in that island of self is the practice recommended by the Buddha.

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