Letters from Nina

by Nina van Gorkom | 1971 | 26,358 words

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Fourth Letter

The Hague, March '79

The Hague,
March '79.

Dear Maud,

You asked me, whether the Buddha's teachings could console our friend Ina, who lost her husband and who has to bring up her children all by herself.

The Buddha's teachings can help us to have right understanding about life and death. What is life? Why must we die? We make ourselves believe that life is pleasant, but there are many moments of pain and sickness, sorrow and grief. And inevitably there is death.

Everything which arises must fall away, it cannot stay. We are born and therefore we have to die. The body does not disintegrate only at the moment of death, there is decay each moment. We notice that we have become older when we see a photograph taken some time ago. But the change which is noticeable after some time proves that there is change at each moment.

There are many phenomena taking place in our body and they change each moment. Temperature changes: we feel sometimes hot, sometimes cold. We feel motion or pressure in our body time and again. What we take for 'our body' are many different elements which arise and than fall away, but we are so ignorant that we do not notice it. The Buddha reminds us that our body is like a corpse, because it is disintegrating, decaying each moment. Our body does not belong to us but we cling to it, we are ignorant of the truth.

We may understand intellectually that the body does not really exist and that it is only physical elements which change all the time. However, intellectual understanding is thinking, and thinking, even if it is right thinking, cannot eradicate wrong understanding of reality. We should learn to experience the truth directly.

Can we experience the body as it really is? Let us for a while forget about our theoretical knowledge of the body and ask ourselves whether there is not a bodily phenomenon now, which we can experience directly, without having to think about it. While we are sitting or walking, is there no hardness? Can it be experienced now? Is there no heat or cold? Can it be experienced now, just for a moment, without having to think about it? These are physical elements which can be directly experienced, one at a time, through the bodysense.

There are many different kinds of elements. The element which is solidity can be directly experienced as hardness or softness, when it appears through the bodysense. Bodysense is all over the body. In order to experience hardness and softness, we do not have to think of the place where they appear.

Temperature is another physical phenomenon, an element which can be directly experienced. It can be experienced as heat or cold when it appears through the bodysense. There is change of temperature time and again. Is there not sometimes heat, sometimes cold? We do not have to think about it in order to experience it.

I have given only a few examples of bodily phenomena, (physical elements which constitute the body). These examples may help us to see that all the Buddha taught can be proven, through direct experience. Knowledge which is developed through direct experience is clearer than theoretical knowledge.

The knowledge acquired through direct experience is the wisdom the Buddha taught his disciples to develop, so that all ignorance and clinging can be eradicated.

Not only bodily elements arise and fall away, also what we call mind arises and falls away, each moment. There is not a mind or a soul which 'exists', there is only a moment of consciousness now, and this falls away to be succeeded by the next moment. There may be thinking now, but it falls away to be succeeded by the next moment. Don't we think then of this, then of that? Thinking never stays the same. Can we control our thinking? Now we may have attachment, then aversion, then a moment of generosity. Is there generosity all the time? It falls away and very closely afterwards there may be pride, or stinginess.

What we call mind are many different elements which arise and then fall away immediately. There is actually birth and death of consciousness, time and again, all through life. Thus, we may understand that what we call in conventional language 'dying' is in fact not different from what takes place each moment of our life.

The Buddha and the disciples who had attained supreme perfect enlightenment felt no grief about anything, whatever happened to them. We have not attained enlightenment and thus we feel deep grief when those who are dear to us die, and at times we think with fear of our own death.

Does the Buddha have a message for us who are only beginners on his Path?

The Buddha has a message for all those who are afflicted by grief and are disturbed by the thought of death. He teaches us to develop clear comprehension of the present moment.

The wisdom the Buddha taught to develop is knowledge acquired from direct experience of the physical elements and mental elements of which our life consists. Mental elements are moments of consciousness, feelings and other mental qualities such as anger and attachment.

We can have clear knowledge only of what occurs at the present moment, not of what is past already. Is there hardness now? That is only a physical element. Is there no heat or cold now? These are only physical elements. Is there pleasant feeling now? That is only a mental element. Is there dislike of something now? That is only a mental element.

We are not used to considering the world in us and around us as elements.

Someone may be inclined to say "How can this kind of understanding help me now? It will not return to me my husband or wife, my child or my friend who have died. It will not alleviate my bodily pain, it cannot make me healthy again."

When we learn to see realities as elements which do not belong to us and which are beyond control, there will be less ignorance in our life. We will suffer less from the adversities of life.

We still have sorrow, but we should know sorrow as it is. Sorrow or grief is a kind of aversion, it is dislike of something we experience. It is natural that we feel grief. It is bound to arise when there are conditions for it.

We had aversion in the past and this conditions the arising of aversion today. Ignorance of realities conditions everything which is unwholesome and thus also aversion. Aversion is also conditioned by attachment. We are attached to the pleasant feeling we have when we are in the company of someone who is dear to us. When that person isn't there any more we have grief.

Thus, it is actually a selfish clinging to our own pleasant feeling which conditions grief. This may sound crude, but if we are sincere to ourselves we can see that it is true.

When we know more about the conditions for grief, we can understand that grief is only a mental element. Grief does not last, it falls away as soon as it has arisen. It may arise again, but then it is a different moment of grief. When we learn to see grief as a conditioned phenomenon, we will think less in terms of 'my grief', and thus we will be less overpowered by it. Our life consists not only of grief, there are many other realities which arise.

When there is, for example, seeing or hearing, there cannot be grief at the same time.

When we learn to know the present moment, we will worry less about the past.

What has happened, has happened already, how can we change it now? What can be done now is the development of right understanding of the present moment.

We read in one of the 'Jatakas', the Birthstories of the Bodhisatta, in the 'Birthstory about Desire' (Kama Jataka, no. 467 [1] ) about grief, conditioned by clinging. In the commentary to this story we read that a brahmin cultivated corn with the greatest care. He had the intention to give alms to the Buddha and his disciples when it was ripe. However, the night before he was to reap it, a great flood of rain carried away the whole crop. The brahmin pressed his hand to his heart, because he was overcome with grief, went home weeping and lay down lamenting. The Buddha came in order to console him and said:

'Why, will what is lost come back when you grieve?'

The Brahmin answered: 'No, Gotama, that will not.' The Buddha then said:

If that is so, why grieve? The wealth of beings in this world, or their corn,
when they have it, they have it, and when it is gone, why, it is gone. There is
no composite thing that is not subject to destruction; do not brood over it.'

After the Buddha's discourse the brahmin could see realities as they are and attained enlightenment. The Buddha said that he had also in a former life, when he was still a Bodhisatta, cured this brahmin of grief. The brahmin was then a king who was very greedy for power. He wanted to possess many kingdoms. When he did not obtain three cities which were promised to him, he became sick of grief. The Bodhisatta explained to him that those who are greedy want to have more and more and are never satisfied. He cured the brahmin of his sickness by words of wisdom. He said:

'What, O King! Can you capture those cities by grieving?'

When the king answered that he could not, the Bodhisatta said:

'Since that is so, why grieve, O great King? Every thing, animate or inanimate, must pass away, and leave all behind, even its own body...'

We read that the Bodhisatta also said:

'For each desire that is let go a happiness is won:

He that all happiness would have, must with all lust have done.'

With metta,
Nina van Gorkom

Footnotes and references:


Published by the Pali Text Society.

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