A Walk in the Ultimate Dimension: Thich Nhat Hanh on the Two Realities of the Avatamsaka & Lotus Sutras

With the eyes of a poet and a unique way of revealing the beauty all around us, there are few better qualified than Thich Nhat Hanh to take us into the depths of two of Buddhism's most beloved texts: the Avatamsaka and the Lotus Sutras. The author of Living Buddha, Living Christ and more than 40 other books in the English language, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master in the Vietnamese tradition, scholar, poet, and peace activist, and the founder of the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon. Here, he describes a principal teaching of the Avatamsaka and the Lotus Sutras: how we come to enter “the ultimate dimension.”

When we look at the vast ocean, we see many waves. We may describe them as high or low, big or small, vigorous or less vigorous, but these terms cannot be applied to water. In the Lotus Sutra, the wave is described as being in the historical dimension, while water is in the ultimate dimension. From the standpoint of the wave, of history, there is birth and there is death, but these are just signs. The wave is, at the same time, water. If the wave only sees itself as a wave, it will be frightened to death. The wave must look deeply into herself in order to realize that she is, at the same time, water. If we take away the water, the wave cannot be; and if we remove the waves, there will be no water. Wave is water, and water is wave. They belong to different levels of being. We cannot compare the two. The words and concepts that are ascribed to the wave cannot be ascribed to water.

Perfection is for the wave to exist in both realms simultaneously. When you touch deeply the historical dimension, you touch the ultimate dimension, and when you have touched the ultimate dimension, you have not left the historical dimension.

When you step into the Avatamsaka realm—the realm of the ultimate dimension—you realize that touching the water is wonderful, but it does not mean the wave has vanished. The wave is always the water. If you try to touch only the wave and not the water, you will suffer from fear of birth and death and many other afflictions. But if you look deeply into yourself and realize that you are the water, all fear and afflictions will vanish. Touching the water, you also touch the wave.

One autumn day, I was practicing walking meditation. The leaves were falling just like rain. I stepped on one leaf, picked it up, looked at it, and smiled, realizing that that leaf has always been there. Every autumn the leaves fall, and every spring they re-manifest themselves. They stay throughout the summer, and then in autumn, they fall to the ground again. They are playing hide-and-seek, pretending to die and to be reborn, but it is not true. When I looked deeply into the leaf, I saw that it was not just one leaf, just as the Buddha is not just one person. The Buddha is, at the same time, everywhere.

We learn that in the Avatamsaka and Lotus Sutras. We are simultaneously everywhere, in all times. You can touch the leaf in the historical dimension or the ultimate dimension; it is up to you. The practice of the Lotus Sutra is to touch yourself, the leaf, and the tree in the ultimate dimension.

When you touch the wave, you touch the water at the same time. That is our practice. If you are with a group of friends practicing mindfulness while sitting, walking, or drinking tea, you will be able to touch the ultimate dimension while living in the historical dimension. Your fear, anxiety, and anger will be transformed easily when you are not confined by the waves, when you are able to touch the water at the same time.

When I picked up the leaf that day, I saw that the leaf was pretending to be born in the springtime and pretending to die at the end of autumn. We too appear, manifest to help living beings, including ourselves, and then disappear.

We have within us a miraculous power, and if we live our daily lives in mindfulness, with love and care, we can produce the miracle and transform our world into a miraculous place to live. Taking steps slowly, in mindfulness, is an act of liberation. You walk and you free yourself of all worries, anxieties, projects, and attachments. One step like this has the power to liberate you from all afflictions. Just being there, you transform yourself, and your compassion will bear witness. The energy of compassion in you will transform life and make it more beautiful. This is a deep practice, taught in the Avatamsaka and Lotus Sutras.

Words of Thich Nhat Hanh courtesy of our friends at Parallax Press, www.parallax.org

Thich Nhat Hanh

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Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master in the Vietnamese tradition, scholar, poet, and peace activist. He is the founder of the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon and has taught at Columbia University an...

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