No Death, No Fear
Comforting Wisdom for Life
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Riverhead Books, 2003 208 pages, Paperback, $18.90
Reviewed by NANCY
Reading No Death, No Fear, I felt like I was walking on a beach with its author, the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. At first, his stories were like the soft sand shifting beneath my feet. As we approached the shore, waves of information about Buddhism swept in and tickled my toes. I picked up treasures. As we moved on, his stories drew me deeper and deeper into the water of awareness, until I was immersed in a whole new way of seeing myself and the world.
Buddhists believe we live our mortal life in the historical dimension and our eternal life in the ultimate dimension, simultaneously. However, it is the ultimate dimension that we come from and return to. When we free ourselves from dogma and look deeply into reality, we discover new things, surmount suffering and counter many wrong perceptions. When we centre ourselves peacefully in the ultimate dimension, “we will not drown in the ocean of suffering, grief, fear and despair.”
There is a gentle rhythm to Hanh’s writing. He presents the Buddhist teachings by providing an initial concept to contemplate, then retreats into stories and examples. The next concept is then introduced and blended with the previous one, a process that creates ripples in the sandy shores of the psyche. The unfamiliar becomes familiar, resulting in new thought patterns. The teachings are philosophically complex, though the writing is simple and quite poetic.
Intellectually understanding Buddhist principles is only part of the process. Hanh makes a compelling case for daily meditation. For many generations in Western society, the idea that life is a struggle has been imprinted on us. This creates a habit of being anxious. We are always rushing, preoccupied and disconnected from spirit. Through meditation, we practise becoming still by relaxing and calming down. Concentrating on being in the here-and-now frees us to be happy, at peace and fully alive.
Through meditation and looking deeply, we become aware of our true, infinite nature. In the process, we can turn suffering into joy and overcome fear, grief and sorrow. In meditation, we see the true essence of everything: to respect and appreciate that we are part of everything and that everything is part of us. Meditation helps one deal with anger, hatred, anxiety, cravings, regrets and resentments. It increases compassion and can restore a sense of calmness. About the only thing it can’t do is the dishes. Though if you meditate while you do the dishes, it will enhance the experience.
The idea that there is no death is a comforting thought. It brings peace of mind and it helps to manage the pain and sorrow of losing a loved one. The soul being eternal is a common tenet in many mainstream religions. But Hanh introduces concepts that require a greater willingness to challenge longstanding beliefs and assumptions about reality. If there is no death, there is no birth. The underpinning of all I know about myself is made null and void. Hanh explains that birth and death are just ideas we have about life. “We have to remove all notions concerning reality. Then we touch the ultimate reality, or suchness.” As I understand it, suchness can be summed up by the phrase, “it is what it is.”
Seeming contradictions force me to question preconceived notions. Everything is the same but different. When you look at an old school picture of yourself, you are different, but you are the same. This is true of all things. Hanh uses the example of a burning candle to explain this paradox. You see the same flame but it is a different flame than it was a moment ago because a new part of the wick is burning, some wax is gone, different oxygen is being burned. Therefore it is a different flame but it is also the same flame.
The Buddhist practices are a way to understand the truth, but they are not the truth. Instead they gently ask you to reconsider everything. The concepts presented by Hanh are like riddles inside riddles. Everything is under the influence of everything else and, “only nothing can come from nothing. Something cannot come from nothing and nothing cannot come from something.” We are everything and nothing. Impermanence is true but so is permanence. Interconnectedness suggests that one is both the victim and oppressor. As difficult as the concepts are to grasp, there is a True North feeling to them.
No Death, No Fear includes Buddhist terms, concepts and principles, such as bodhisattvas, dharma, sangha and nirvana. Some of these terms were foreign to me and I still don’t fully understand them, but Hanh’s writing resonates with inherent truth and wisdom. Look beneath the surface at what is not obvious. See the true essence and timelessness of everything.
Though we endlessly exist in the ultimate dimension, we need to learn about and practise living fully awake in the historical dimension. Our ultimate essence knows how. “The Buddha invites you to be in touch with the wisdom that is already in you.” This way of approaching life allows one to be deeply in touch with others and oneself. Another benefit of this practice is that you can learn to stop waiting for conditions to be right. Happiness is a constant. Hanh suggests you share your joy with others, especially when you are in the midst of a challenging situation. Instructions and phrases are provided. I liked the one for developing empathy and appreciation for others. “Breathing in you are alive, breathing out I am so happy.”
It might be tempting to skim through parts of this book because Hanh repeats his examples and stories many times, but it is not in your best interest to do so. With each retelling, he adds another layer of information for deeper understanding. By the end of the book, you will have been given enough knowledge to be able to try the exercises he includes.
One such practice, “touching the Earth,” provides a way to be in touch with the suffering in the world without being overwhelmed by despair. “Touching the earth helps us to purify our bodies and our minds. It helps us to maintain the awakened understanding of impermanence, interconnectedness and no self.” It brings clarity when things seem bleak and we are uncertain about what to do.
In the final chapter, Hanh provides a story and meditation on death and dying. Being open to the idea that you are part of all that is, was and will be, is necessary to appreciate the teaching. Life in the ultimate dimension is eternal. “We need to free ourselves from these ideas that we are our body, and that we die.”
Through Buddhist principles, you can enhance the quality of life for yourself and others. You can be any faith or no faith and still use the Buddhist teachings. I think focusing on the positive and surrounding yourself with calm people is good advice. Accepting the interconnectedness of ourselves and all that is could even be critical to our survival.
This way of living has a whole lot of benefits, but it also comes with responsibilities. Daily meditation is key. Practising mindfulness requires that you always ask yourself how your actions, words and thoughts will affect you and all other beings, because we influence others even when we don’t know it. Right action, right thought, right speech – that’s a big commitment.
Reading this book rekindled my desire to live fully awake and to really see and appreciate all that I have. It was a good reminder to stop stressing, to seek out kind compadres and to be mindful of my influence on my life and the world. In working on myself, I can reconcile the past and touch the future.
This book taught me a lot about Buddhist practices and beliefs. I felt it was a valuable and timely read, given our global situation. It includes good advice. “We have to live with peace and joy right away and not wait for the future to do it. We have to be well right now, right here, peaceful and joyful in the present moment.” Like a burning candle, we send energy out in all directions. When we spread kindness, happiness, generosity, forgiveness, joy and love, there will be more beauty in the world. In being a positive force for all, we benefit as well. One can expect to have fewer regrets, greater confidence and more energy.
Many of our habits and behaviours are tangled up with our fears. The ultimate fear is connected to our uncertainty about death. But where there is no death, there is no fear. We exist physically in the historical dimension. Through meditation, we can stay in touch with our essence in the ultimate dimension. It will take a bit of time out of each day to meditate, but according to Hanh, you’ve got all the time in the world, and then some.
Nancy, Night Sky Woman, has been doing psychic card readings professionally for over 20 years. She is also an astrologer and has studied a variety of spiritualities and philosophies. She has been writing Taroscopes for over six years and teaches the tarot through lifelong learning. She reads out of the Bella Vista Restaurant and at events around Winnipeg, MB. To book an appointment or for information about classes, you can reach Nancy at 204-775-8368 or by email at email@example.com.