Black Buddha figurine on green leaf

Becoming Truly Alive

We live a kind of artificial life, says Thich Nhat Hanh, lost in worries and anger. Our practice is to wake up and live each moment fully.

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Photo by Sam Austin

Would you do if your doctor told you that you only had three months to live? Would you waste this time bemoaning your fate? Would you give yourself over to pain and despair? Or would you resolve to live each moment of those three months in a deep way? If you do that, three months of life is a lot.

Some twenty years ago, a young man came to me and told me exactly this—that he had only three months to live. I asked him to sit down with me and have a cup of tea. “My friend,” I said to him, “you must drink this tea in such a way that life is possible. We must live this moment we have together in a deep way.”

One day is a lot. A picnic lasts only half a day, but you can live it fully, with a lot of happiness. So why not three months? Your life is a kind of picnic, and you should arrange it intelligently.

Someone I knew once said to his Buddhist teacher, “Master, I would like to go on a picnic with you.” The teacher was very busy, so he replied, “Sure, sure, we’ll go on a picnic one of these days.” Five years later they still hadn’t had the picnic.

One day the master and the disciple were on some business together, and they found themselves caught in a traffic jam. There were so many people in the street that the master asked the disciple, “What are all these people doing?” The disciple saw that it was a funeral procession. He turned to the master and said, “They’re having a picnic.”

Don’t wait to start living. Live now! Your life should be real in this very moment. If you live like that, three months is a lot! You can live every moment of every day deeply, in touch with the wonders of life. Then you will learn to live, and, at the same time, learn to die. A person who does not know how to die does not know how to live, and vice versa. You should learn to die—to die immediately. This is a practice.

Are you ready to die now? Are you ready to arrange your schedule in such a way that you could die in peace tonight? That may be a challenge, but that’s the practice. If you don’t do this, you will always be tormented by regret. If you don’t want to suffer, if you don’t want to be tormented by regret, the only solution is to live every minute you are given in a deep way. That’s all there is to it. The only way to deal with insecurity, fear, and suffering is to live the present moment in a profound way. If you do that, you will have no regrets.

That’s what the young man who was told he had three months to live chose to do. He decided to live every moment of his life in a very deep way. When he started doing that, he felt the sources of his despair leaving him, and he got himself back on his feet. It was a miracle. Though his doctor had pronounced a kind of death sentence on him, he lived another fifteen years. I gave him the dharma name Chân Sinh, which means “true life.” Before he was told he was going to die, he didn’t know what real life was. But after that happened, he learned what real life was, because he was there for every moment of every day.

Albert Camus, in his novel The Stranger, used the term “the moment of awareness.” When the protagonist of the novel, Meursault, learns he is going to be executed for the murder he has committed, anxiety, fear, and anger are born in him. In despair, he is lying on his prison bed looking at the ceiling when, for the first time, he sees the square of blue sky through the skylight. The sky is so blue—it’s the first time in his life that he has gotten deeply in touch with the blue sky. He has already lived for decades without ever really seeing the blue sky. Perhaps he has looked at the sky from time to time, but he has not seen it in a deep way. Now, three days before his death, he is able to touch the blue sky in a very deep way. The moment of awareness has manifested.

Meursault decides to live every minute he has left fully and deeply. Here is a prisoner who is practicing deep meditation. He lives his last three days in his cell within that square of blue sky. That is his freedom. On the afternoon of the last day, a Catholic priest comes to Meursault’s prison cell to give him the last rites, but Meursault refuses. He doesn’t want to waste the few hours he has left talking to the priest, and he doesn’t let him come in. He says, “The priest is living like a dead man. He is not living like me, I am truly alive.”

Maybe we too are living like dead people. We move about life in our own corpse because we are not touching life in depth. We live a kind of artificial life, with lots of plans, lots of worries, and anger. Never are we able to establish ourselves in the here and now and live our lives deeply. We have to wake up! We have to make it possible for the moment of awareness to manifest. This is the practice that will save us—this is the revolution.

Has the most wonderful moment of your life already happened? Ask yourself that question. Most of us will answer that it hasn’t happened yet, but that it could happen at any time. No matter how old we are, we tend to feel that the most wonderful moment of our life has not happened yet. We fear maybe it’s too late, but we are still hoping. But the truth is, if we continue to live in forgetfulness—that is, without the presence of mindfulness—that moment is never going to happen.

The teaching of the Buddha tells you clearly and plainly to make this the most magnificent and wonderful moment of your life. This present moment must become the most wonderful moment in your life. All you need to transform this present moment into a wonderful one is freedom. All you need to do is free yourself from your worries and preoccupations about the past, the future, and so on.

The deep insight of impermanence is what helps us do this. It is very useful to keep our concentration on impermanence alive. You think the other person in your life is going to be there forever, but that is not true. That person is impermanent, just like you. So if you can do something to make that person happy, you should do it right away. Anything you can do or say to make them happy—say it or do it now. It’s now or never.

In the practice of Buddhism, dying is very important. It’s as important as living. Death is as important as being born. Without birth, there could be no death. Without death, there is no birth. Birth and death are very close friends, and collaboration between the two of them is necessary for life to be possible.

So do not be afraid of death. Death is just a continuation, and so is birth. At every moment, death is happening in your body—some cells are dying so other cells can come to life. Death is indispensable to life. If there is no death, there is no birth, just as there can be no left if there is no right. Don’t hold out hope that life will be possible without death. You must accept both of them—birth and death.

If you practice well, you can gain deep insight into the ultimate dimension while remaining in touch with the historical, or relative, dimension. And when you are deeply in touch with the historical dimension, you also touch the ultimate dimension, and you see that your true nature is no-birth and no-death.

Living is a joy. Dying in order to begin again is also a joy. Starting over is a wonderful thing, and we are starting over constantly. Beginning anew is one of our main practices at Plum Village, and we must die every day in order to renew ourselves, in order to make a fresh start. Learning to die is a very profound practice.

Shariputra’s Guidance

Sudatta was a very wealthy businessman in the ancient Indian city of Shravasti and a famous lay disciple of the Buddha’s. He had used a great part of his wealth to help the poor, helpless, and orphaned, and so the people of Shravasti gave him the name Anathapindika, meaning “supporter of orphans and the helpless,” and that is the name we know him by today.

Anathapindika was devoted to the Buddha. He spent a lot of money buying a park in Shravasti called the Jeta Grove in order to turn it into a monastery for the Buddha and a headquarters for the work of the dharma. In his life he got a great deal of pleasure from supporting the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. was always his joy to support the three jewels.

When Anathapindika was nearing death, the Buddha paid him a visit. It had been about thirty years since their first meeting. During that time, the Buddha had assigned his great disciple Shariputra to take care of Anathapindika and travel with him, so Anathapindika and Shariputra had become very close friends. Now, the Buddha assigned Shariputra to help Anathapindika die in a happy and peaceful way.

Learning that Anathapindika was very close to death, Shariputra asked his young brother in the dharma, Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha, to accompany him on his alms round, and they stopped at Anathapindika’s house. Seeing the two venerable monks, Anathapindika tried to get out of bed, but he was unable to do so. Shariputra said to him, “My friend, lie down. We will get some chairs and come sit with you.” After they sat down, Shariputra asked, “My friend Anathapindika, how do you feel in your body? Are your physical pains decreasing or increasing?”

When you are about to die, you have pain in your body, and perhaps in your mind as well—feelings of anxiety, isolation, and confusion. At this moment, which is a very important one in your life, you need help. You need someone with you at this difficult time.

Anathapindika answered Shariputra, “Venerable one, the pains in my body do not seem to be subsiding. They keep increasing. I am suffering more and more.”

Shariputra told him the time had come for him to meditate on the three jewels. He asked Ananda and Anathapindika to breathe deeply and concentrate on the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Shariputra conducted a guided meditation.

“The Buddha has attained reality, just as it is,” Shariputra said. “The Buddha is completely and truly awakened. He has brought understanding and action to the level of perfection. He has attained genuine happiness. He understands the nature of the world and of men. He is unequaled in wisdom. He is a great man. He is the teacher of both men and gods.”

Shariputra said these words to help Anathapindika see clearly who the Buddha really was—a person with a lot of tenderness, compassion, and happiness, someone who was an enormous help to other beings.

Shariputra was one of the Buddha’s most intelligent disciples, and he knew precisely what state Anathapindika was in. Shariputra recognized the seeds of happiness in Anathapindika’s consciousness, and he knew that Anathapindika took great pleasure in serving the three jewels. So to help restore Anathapindika’s equanimity, he watered the positive seeds of happiness by inviting him to concentrate on the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. practice was very effective. In a few minutes, Anathapindika’s pain was considerably reduced and he was able to smile again.

This is a wonderful practice, and we can all learn to do it. A person who is about to die has seeds of suffering in her, but she also has seeds of happiness. You who love this person should recognize the seeds of happiness and suffering in her, and speak to her about the things that evoke happiness in her. It is very important to do this. Even if the person is in a coma, you should speak to her like this. Communication is possible. She will hear you.

I remember going with Sister Chan Khong to visit my friend Alfred Hessler, who was dying in a Catholic hospital in New York State. Alfred was a peace activist who had been a tremendous help to us during the Vietnam War in our efforts to stop the bombing. We worked shoulder to shoulder with him, and we became very close friends.

That day, Sister Chan Khong and I were on our way to a retreat in upstate New York at which six hundred people were expected, and by chance the clinic was on our way. When we entered his room, his daughter, Laura, tried to get Alfred to come out of the coma. “Alfred! Alfred!” she cried out, “Thay is here, Thay is here! Sister Chan Khong is here! Come back!” But Alfred remained in the coma.

Sister Chan Khong then began to sing a verse that is drawn directly from a sutra written by the Buddha. The words go like this:

This body is not me, I am not caught in this body.
I am life without boundaries. I have never been born, and I shall never die.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars, manifestations of my wondrous true mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are just a game of hide and seek.
So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say goodbye,
say goodbye, to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source at every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.

The third time Sister Chan Khong repeated this chant, Alfred came to and opened his eyes. We were very happy. Laura asked him, “Do you know that Thay and Sister Chan Khong are here?” Alfred was unable to speak, but he answered with his eyes that he knew his friends were there.

Then Sister Chan Khong began the practice of watering the seeds of happiness in him. She spoke about our work for peace in Vietnam and, like Anathapindika, how much Alfred had found happiness in this work. “Do you remember the time we were in Rome?” she asked him. “There were three hundred Catholic priests, and each of them carried the name of a Buddhist monk who was imprisoned in Vietnam because he had refused to join the army.

“Alfred, do you remember the time you were in Saigon with the Venerable Tri Quang, the head of the pacifist movement in Vietnam? The night before, the United States had decided to bomb the country. Venerable Tri Quang was furious and refused to see anybody who was American. But you sat down at his door and said that you were a friend and not an enemy. You said, ‘I am here to help you, and I am going to stay on a hunger strike until you open your door.’ The venerable monk invited you in. Do you remember that?”

Sister Chan Khong practiced watering the positive seeds in him because she knew that Alfred had a great deal of suffering in him. Suddenly, he opened his mouth and said, “Wonderful, wonderful.” He repeated it twice. What was wonderful, too, was that at that moment he had friends to help and support him. When it was time for us to go, I said to his family, “Continue the practice. You should talk to him about these things that have brought him happiness.”

Another time, Sister Chan Khong’s older sister was in a coma and nearing death. She had suffered a great deal. She lay in bed writhing and moaning and crying out in pain. The doctors did all they could to alleviate her pain, including giving her painkillers, but they were unable to help. Sister Chan Khong arrived with a tape player containing a Vietnamese chant to the bodhisattva of great compassion, chanted by the monks and nuns in Plum Village. She put the headphones over her sister’s ears and turned up the volume so the sound could reach through the coma. Within two minutes her sister stopped writhing and crying out. She became completely peaceful. Why? Because she had in her the seeds of that chant. When she was a little girl, she had gone to the monastery and heard the monks chanting. The seeds of peace, faith, and compassion were in her already. During her life of hard work, she never had taken the time to water these seeds. But as she was dying, Sister Chan Khong was able to help her water them. She became very calm and remained peaceful until her death. The doctors there—who included her own daughter—were astonished. None of the drugs had worked. Only that tape was able to break through and allow the seeds of spirituality in this person to be touched. We all have these seeds in us; and it’s never too late to touch them.

You Are More Than This Body and Mind

After Shariputra watered the seeds of happiness in Anathapindika by talking about the three jewels, he did a guided meditation for him on the six senses.

“Listen, my friend,” Shariputra said, “let us practice together. Breathing in, I know that my body is not me. Breathing out, I know I am not caught in this body. These eyes are not me. I am not caught in these eyes. These ears are not me. I am not caught in these ears. This nose is not me. I am not caught in this nose. This tongue is not me. I am not caught in this tongue. This body is not me. I am not caught in this body. This mind is not me. I am not caught in this mind.”

We are in the habit of identifying ourselves with our bodies. The idea that we are this body is deeply entrenched in us. But we are not just this body; we are much more than that. The idea that “this body is me and I am this body” is an idea we must get rid of. If we do not, we will suffer a great deal. We are life, and life is far vaster than this body, this concept, this mind.

“These mental formations are me”—this is another idea we have to get rid of. Therefore, when someone is dying, above all we have to help them stop identifying with their body and mind. We are not prisoners of our senses. We are not prisoners of our bodies or our minds. We must become free of our body and free of our mind. We must be free of the idea that “I am this body, I am this mind.” When we get rid of these ideas, we become greater, deeper, and freer than our mind.

The disintegration of the body is not the end. It is only the cessation of a manifestation. When conditions are no longer sufficient, the manifestation ceases. To light a fire, you need fuel, and as soon as there is no more fuel, the fire goes out. The same is true of the body and mind. Conditions must be sufficient for the manifestation to continue. If not, it will cease and then manifest again sometime in the future.

“These forms are not me, and I am not caught in these forms,” Shariputra continued. “These forms are merely objects of sight—when light strikes the eyes, sight manifests as the consciousness of perceiving shapes and colors. I am not those forms.

“When the tongue comes in contact with things that have taste, the consciousness of taste manifests and we perceive flavors. Tastes are not me. I am not caught in tastes. Smells are not me. I am not caught in smells. Tangible objects are not me. I am not caught in these. Thoughts and ideas are not me. I am not caught in thoughts and ideas.”

This practice is indispensable for liberation. We must not identify with the sense organs or the sense objects. We must not identify with the six sense consciousnesses— sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mind consciousness. These consciousnesses manifest when the necessary conditions come together, and they cease to manifest when the necessary conditions cease to be present. This is something that can be tested and confirmed. It is altogether scientific.

Here is a meditation on the six elements: “Breathing in, I am aware of the element of earth in me. Breathing out, I recognize it outside and around me. I smile at the earth element in and around me, everywhere. I recognize the element of fire in my body, and I recognize the element of fire in the world around me. I recognize the elements of water, air, space, and consciousness.”

Each element contains the five other elements. One thing contains all things. Look deeply into the water element, the earth element, heat, air, space, and consciousness and you will find that each one contains the five others. That is the inter-being nature of the elements.

Shariputra said to Anathapindika, “My friend, things appear and disappear according to causes and conditions. The true nature of things is not being born, and not dying. Birth and death are nothing more than concepts. Our true nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death, and we must touch our true nature in order to be free.”

Shariputra continued, “When the body or the mind manifests, we say that it exists, but that is not correct. When a thing has not yet manifested, we say that it does not exist, but that is not correct either. The ideas of being and nonbeing have to be rejected. These notions do not apply to reality. When the conditions come together, your body or your mind manifests.

“Let us look deeply into the five skandhas: feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness. There is nothing there that could be called a self. As a result of ignorance, we are caught up in ideas and concepts. But in truth we are free from these ideas and concepts. The true nature of reality is inter-being. The reality of inter-being has the nature of emptiness and of non-self. We are free in the past, and we are free in the present.”

At this point in the meditation, Anathapindika began to cry. It was the first time he had touched the profound teachings on emptiness, non-self, inter-being, and so on. He needed this teaching on the nature of no-birth and no-death in order not to suffer, but he had never had the opportunity to practice or study it.

Surprised by Anathapindika’s tears, Venerable Ananda asked him, “My friend, why are you crying? Is there something that you regret?”

Anathapindika smiled and replied, “No, Venerable Ananda, I have no regrets. I am crying because I have served the Buddha and the sangha for so many years, and I have never heard a teaching as profound as the one I have heard today. It is wonderful. I am free.”

Venerable Ananda said, “My friend, you don’t know it, but this kind of teaching is given every day to the monks and nuns.”

“Venerable one,” Anathapindika replied, “please tell the Buddha that it is true many laypeople are too busy to learn this teaching and practice. But tell him there are other laypeople who are capable of receiving this teaching and applying it in their lives. I beg you, go back to the Buddha and convey to him my request to teach this insight to laypeople.”

The Venerable Ananda agreed, and the two venerable monks withdrew. The layman Anathapindika died shortly thereafter in a very peaceful manner. This story is told in a discourse titled “Teachings To Be Given to the Sick.” You should study such texts if you wish to attend dying people.

To help dying people, you must be very solid. You must have fearlessness within you. You must be able to touch no-birth and no-death yourself in order to support a person whose manifestation is about to cease. If you want to attend the dying, you must practice. Through practice you can develop the solidity, the fearlessness, and the techniques that make it possible for you to help people to die in peace. We should never forget that dying is as important as living.

This article is from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment, 2009, excerpted with permission from Shambhala Publications.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022) was a renowned Zen teacher and poet, the founder of the Engaged Buddhist movement, and the founder of nine monastic communities, including Plum Village Monastery in France. He was also the author of At Home in the World, The Other Shore, and more than a hundred other books that have sold millions of copies worldwide.