This is the opening to a recent book by a Buddhist Monk from Vietnam. He came to America in 1965 to ask us to stop blowing up his country. He continues to teach peace. Yes, life involves suffering, but as he says, “We want to discover who we really are, and we want to understand our suffering. Understanding our suffering gives rise to acceptance and love, and this is what determines our quality of life.”
We’re so close to Earth that sometimes we forget how beautiful it is. Seen from space, our blue planet is remarkably alive — a living paradise suspended in a vast and hostile cosmos. On the first trip to the moon, astronauts were stunned to see Earth rise above the moon’s desolate horizon. We know that on the moon there are no trees, rivers, or birds. No other planet has yet been found to have life as we know it. It is reported that astronauts orbiting high up in space stations spend most of their free time contemplating the breathtaking sight of Earth far below. From a distance, it looks like one giant living, breathing organism. Seeing its beauty and wonder, astronauts feel great love for the whole Earth. They know billions of people are living out their lives on this little planet, with all their joy, happiness, and suffering. They see violence, wars, famine, and environmental destruction. At the same time, they see clearly that this wonderful little blue planet, so fragile and precious, is irreplaceable. As one astronaut put it, “We went to the moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians.”
Science is the pursuit of understanding, helping us to understand distant stars and galaxies, our place in the cosmos, as well as the intimate fabric of matter, living cells, and our own bodies. Science, like philosophy, is concerned with understanding the nature of existence and the meaning of life.
Spirituality is also a field of research and study. We want to understand ourselves, the world around us, and what it means to be alive on Earth. We want to discover who we really are, and we want to understand our suffering. Understanding our suffering gives rise to acceptance and love, and this is what determines our quality of life. We all need to be understood and to be loved. And we all want to understand and to love.
Spirituality is not religion. It is a path for us to generate happiness, understanding, and love, so we can live deeply each moment of our life. Having a spiritual dimension in our lives does not mean escaping life or dwelling in a place of bliss outside this world but discovering ways to handle life’s difficulties and generate peace, joy, and happiness right where we are, on this beautiful planet.
The spirit of practicing mindfulness, concentration, and insight in Buddhism is very close to the spirit of science. We don’t use expensive instruments but rather our clear mind and our stillness to look deeply and investigate reality for ourselves, with openness and non-discrimination.
We want to know where we come from and where we are going. And most of all, we want to be happy. Humanity has given rise to many talented artists, musicians, and architects, but how many of us have mastered the art of creating a happy moment — for ourselves and those around us?
Like every species on Earth, we are always seeking the ideal conditions that will allow us to live to our fullest potential. We want to do more than just survive. We want to live. But what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to die? What happens when we die? Is there life after death? Is there reincarnation? Will we see our loved ones again? Do we have a soul that goes to heaven or nirvana or God? These questions are in everyone’s hearts. Sometimes they become words, and sometimes they are left unsaid, but they are still there, pulling at our hearts every time we think about our life, about those we love, our sick or ageing parents, or those who have already passed away.
How can we begin to answer these questions about life and death? A good answer, the right answer, should be based on evidence. It is not a question of faith or belief, but of looking deeply. To meditate is to look deeply and see the things that others cannot see, including the wrong views that lie at the base of our suffering. When we can break free from these wrong views, we can master the art of living happily in peace and freedom.
The first wrong view we need to liberate ourselves from is the idea that we are a separate self cut off from the rest of the world. We have a tendency to think we have a separate self that is born at one moment and must die at another, and that is permanent during the time we are alive. As long as we have this wrong view, we will suffer; we will create suffering for those around us, and we will cause harm to other species and to our precious planet. The second wrong view that many of us hold is the view that we are only this body, and that when we die we cease to exist. This wrong view blinds us to all the ways in which we are interconnected with the world around us and the ways in which we continue after death. The third wrong view that many of us have is the idea that what we are looking for — whether it be happiness, heaven, or love — can be found only outside us in a distant future. We may spend our lives chasing after and waiting for these things, not realizing that they can be found within us, right in the present moment.
There are three fundamental practices to help liberate us from these three wrong views: the concentrations on emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness. They are known as the Three Doors of Liberation and are available in every school of Buddhism. These three concentrations offer us a deep insight into what it means to be alive and what it means to die. They help us transform feelings of grief, anxiety, loneliness, and alienation. They have the power to liberate us from our wrong views, so we can live deeply and fully, and face dying and death without fear, anger, or despair.
We can also explore four additional concentrations on impermanence, non-craving, letting go, and nirvana. These four practices are found in Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a wonderful text from early Buddhism. The concentration on impermanence helps free us from our tendency to live as though we and our loved ones will be here forever. The concentration on non-craving is an opportunity to take time to sit down and figure out what true happiness really is. We discover that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy, right here in the present moment. And the concentration on letting go helps us disentangle ourselves from suffering and transform and release painful feelings. Looking deeply with all these concentrations, we are able to touch the peace and freedom of nirvana.
These seven concentrations are very practical. Together, they awaken us to reality. They help us cherish what we have, so we can touch true happiness in the very here and now. And they give us the insight we need to treasure the time we have, reconcile with those we love, and transform our suffering into love and understanding. This is the art of living.
We need to use our mindfulness, concentration, and insight in order to understand what it means to be alive and what it means to die. We can speak of scientific and spiritual discoveries as “insights” and the practice of nourishing and sustaining those insights as “concentration.”
With the insights of science and spirituality, we have an opportunity in the twenty-first century to conquer the root causes of suffering in human beings. If the twentieth century was characterized by individualism and consumption, the twenty-first century can be characterized by the insight of interconnectedness, and by efforts to explore new forms of solidarity and togetherness. Meditating on the seven concentrations enables us to see everything in the light of interdependence, freeing us from our wrong views and breaking down the barriers of a discriminating mind. The freedom we seek is not the kind of freedom that is self-destructive or destructive of other nations or the environment, but the kind of freedom that liberates us from our loneliness, anger, hatred, fear, craving, and despair.
The teaching of the Buddha is very clear, effective, and simple to understand. It opens up a path of living, not just for our personal benefit, but for our whole species. We have the power to decide the destiny of our planet. Buddhism offers us the clearest expression of humanism we have ever had. It is our insights and our actions that will save us. If we awaken to our true situation, there will be collective change in our consciousness. Then hope will be possible. Let us explore how the seven concentrations — deep insights into reality — can shine light on our situation, our suffering.
If while reading you find yourself in unfamiliar terrain, just breathe. This book is a journey we make together, like taking a walk through the forest, enjoying the breathtaking wonders of our precious planet. Occasionally there is a tree with beautiful bark, a striking rock formation, or some vibrant moss growing just off the path, and we want our companion to also enjoy the same beauty. Sometime along the path we’ll sit and have lunch together, or further on the journey drink from a clear spring. This book is a bit like that. Occasionally we will stop and rest, to have a little drink, or to simply sit there, the stillness between us already complete.