What Happens When You Die?

transcription from a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh during a retreat with five
hundred people in Hong Kong on 15 May 2007 (apologies for any inaccuracies of
mine — Editor)

In order to answer what happens us
when we die, we need to answer another question – what happens when we are

What is
happening now to us? In English we say ‘we are’ but it’s proper to say ‘we are
becoming’ because things are becoming. We’re not the same person in two
consecutive minutes.

A picture
of you as baby looks different to you now. The fact is you are not exactly the
same as that baby and not entirely a different person either. In a picture of
you as a five year old, you are not exactly the same as that child and not
entirely a different person either – the form, feelings and mental formations
are different.

In the
middle way there is no sameness and no otherness.

You may
think you are still alive but in fact you have been dying everyday, every
minute, cells die and are born – for neither do we have funerals or birthdays

Death is a
very necessary condition of birth. With no death, there is no birth. They
inter-are and happen in every moment to the experienced meditator. For instance
a cloud may have died many times, into rain, streams, water. The cloud may want
to wave to itself on earth! Rain is a continuation of the cloud. With a
meditation practitioner nothing can hide itself. When I drink tea, it’s very
pleasant to be aware I am drinking cloud.

When you
are parents, you die and are reborn as your children. “You are my continuation,
I love you.” The Buddha told us how to ensure a beautiful continuation – a
compassionate thought, a beautiful thought. Forgiveness is our continuation. If
anger, separation and hate arise, then we will not ensure a beautiful
continuation. When we pronounce a word that is compassionate, good and
beautiful that is our continuation.

When a
cloud is polluted, the rain is polluted. So purifying thoughts, word and action
creates a beautiful continuation. We can see the effects of our speech in our
children. My disciples are my continuation ­– both monastic and lay. I want to
transmit loving speech, action and thought. This is called karma in Buddhism.

This body
of mine will disintegrate but my karma will continue – karma means action. My
karma is already in the world. My continuation is everywhere in the world. When
you look at one of my disciples walking with compassion, I know he is my
continuation. I don’t want to transmit my negative emotions. I want to
transform them before I transmit them. The dissolution of this body is not my
end. Surely I will continue after the dissolution of this body. So don’t worry
about my death, I am not going to die.

Let us
meditate on the birth of a cloud. Does it have a birth certificate? (laughter)
Examine the notion of birth – the notion that nothing can come from something,
from no-one to someone. Is it possible for something to come from nothing?
Scientifically this is not possible.

The cloud
was water in an ocean, lake, river and heat from the sun gave it birth – the
moment of continuation. For instance, birth – before you were born you were in
your mother’s womb. The moment of birth is a moment of continuation. Is the
moment of conception the start? You are half from your dad and half from your
mum already- this is also a moment of continuation. When you practise
meditation you can see things like that.

It is
impossible for a cloud to die. It can become water, snow – it cannot become
nothing. It is also impossible for us to die. Speech, action and thought
continue in the future. The person who dies still continues because we are not
capable of using meditators’ eyes. They continue in us and around us. All our
ancestors are alive in us. Our ancestors are in our chromosomes.

I wrote a
book ‘No Death, No Fear’. When conditions are right I manifest and when not,

There is no
coming, no going. Before she manifests we should not call her non-existing.
Before manifestation you cannot call her non-being. They are a pair of

on the nature of creation and being may be the best way to understanding God.
The theologian Paul Koenig describes God as the Ground of Being. Who then
is the Ground of Non-being? This diminishes God. In Buddhism both notions of
being and non-being can describe reality. Similarly, above and below, Europe and here.

Nirvana is
the absence of all notions, birth and death, coming and going, sameness and
otherness. According to Buddhism, ‘to be or not to be’ is not a real question.

takes us beyond to a place of fearlessness. We’re too busy, so we become
victims of anger, fear. If we have really touched our nature of no birth/death,
we know to die is one of the root conditions to realise oneself.

We have to
learn how to die in every moment in order to be fully alive.

This teaching on the middle way is the cream of Buddha’s teaching. Many of our
ancestors realised this and were not afraid of death.

We should
be able to release our tensions. We are the karma we produce every day in our
daily life, if we know how, to ensure continuation. I have a disciple in Vietnam who
wants to build a stupa with my ashes. He wants to put a plaque with the words
‘Here lies my beloved teacher’. But I want to write ‘There is nothing here’
(lots of laughter). Because if you look deeply there is continuation.

I treasure
the time I have left, more for me to practise. I want to generate energy of
love, compassion and understanding so I can continue beautifully. I would like
you to do the same. Use your time wisely. Every moment produce beautiful
thoughts, loving, kindness, forgiveness. Say beautiful things, inspire,
forgive, act physically to protect and help. We know we are capable of
producing beautiful karma for good continuations and the happiness of other

When the
time comes for dissolution of this body you may like to release it easily. You
aren’t to grasp – releasing body and perception. Remember the image of a cloud
in the sky seeing continuation in rice and ice-cream waving to itself. You can
already see your continuation. The art of living is continuation. For myself
and the other beings.

Sariputra –
one of Buddha’s main disciples, Ananda and other friends went to see
Anathapindika a lay disciple who was a businessman and dying. He had made time
to come to dharma talks and weekly practice.

When the
Venerables came they asked whether the pain had diminished. He replied that it
was increasing. The monks led him on a meditation on the Buddha, Dharma and
Sangha. After a few minutes there was no more suffering and he smiled.

When you
sit close to a person dying, talk to them of happy experiences in their life.
Touch seeds of happiness in them.

The monks
asked Anathapindika to look at his feelings and perceptions. “I am life without
boundaries, this body is a residue.”

Help the
dying person not to cling to his or her body. If there is regret, help them to
see they are not their feelings. When conditions are manifested this body
manifests and when not, it goes. The nature of this body is not birth, death,
coming or going – not hurt by notion of being or non-being.

I am free
from birth or death. That practice helps me.

cried. Ananda asked, “why are you crying?”
“No, I don’t regret anything,” Anathapindika replied.
“Why are you crying?” asked Ananda.
“I cry because I am so moved by such a wonderful practice as today,”
Anathapindika said.
“We monastics receive this every day,” said Ananda.
“There are those amongst us lay people who still need this, please tell the
Lord Buddha this.”
Ananda promised to tell the Buddha, and Anathapindika died smiling peacefully.

Thich Nhat
Hanh gave an illustration with a box of matches.
Holding up an unlit match, he said, “there is flame, but the conditions to
manifest it are not here now.”
Then he lit the match and blew it out.
He said when the conditions were right (the conditions being his hand striking
the match to the matchbox), the flame became. And when the conditions
were not right, the flame was extinguished.



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