Publisher : Ha Ngoc Tho

Ediditor : Do Thi Quynh

Proofreader : Thuan Tue

Designer : Truc Lam Nunnery

Asociate : Lotus Flower/ Bong Sen Company


Block 11, number 4 - Tran Duy Hung Street - Hanoi

Tel: 04.5566701 - Fax: 04.5566702

First printing 2008

Second printing 2011

Third pringting 2012

Print 1000 copies, size14,5 cm x 20,5 cm,

at Cong ty In & Van Hoa Pham

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Archieved: 2nd quarter of 2012


Zen Master Thich Thanh Tu


Thuan Tue - Huyen Bach - Thuy Lien Shutt

Religious Publishing

Third printing 2012


Table of Contents

Foreword 7

Preface 11

Chapter 1: Who Was the Buddha? 13

Chapter 2: The Teachings of the Buddha 17

Common truths 17

Relative truths 26

Absolute truth 37

Chapter 3: Learning Buddhism 79

Wisdom through Learning 80

Wisdom through Reflecting 81

Wisdom through Practice 84

Chapter 4: Practicing Buddhism 89

Practicing within Reincarnation 89

Practicing to Escape Reincarnation 96

Conclusion 133

About the Author 135

Notes 137



This book presents the teachings of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Thanh Tu. Buddhism first came to Viet Nam from India in the third century, with Masters K'ang Sen Houci, Marijivaka, and others. In the sixth century, Zen came with Master Vinitaruci, who received transmission from the Third Chinese Patriarch Sengcan. In the centuries after, Zen flourished but declined during the wartimes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1970's, Thich Thanh Tu revived Zen, combining a mixture of teachings and practices of the Second Chinese Patriarch Hui-Ke, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch Hui-Neng, and the First Vietnamese Patriarch Tran Nhan Tong of the Truc Lam (Bamboo Forest) Zen sect.


While the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha are timeless, the manner it is taught has to fit time and place. Our intention with this translation is to make Master Thich Thanh Tu's teachings available to English readers in the 21st century. Other English translations of the Master's works are available but this is the first work to be translated in Viet Nam. The main advantage to this is that practitioners with deep understanding of the Buddha-dharma, and who have practiced with the Master for a long time, therefore, understanding well the way he teaches, have been involved. In addition, as this work took place at Truc Lam Da Lat, the current resident of the Master, we were able to consult and clarify with him many points. The Buddha-dharma, in general, and Zen in particular, has many subtleties. The way it is explained or translated can make all the difference. For example, choices in verb tense, whether a pronoun is needed or not, or whether a sentence (especially in those koans!) is a question or a directive, can make all the difference between an explanation which will just give us a neat story, to laugh or ponder over, or one which will point our minds towards freedom.

Another intention is to make these teachings applicable to Western audiences while keeping the Master's tone and the cultural nuances of Vietnam. Hopefully, this has been achieved.

May the words in this book and the practices it can inspire bring all beings to true happiness and wisdom.

October 2007,



This book was written for people who are beginning their study of Buddhism. Although the first steps may seem minor or insignificant, they are important. If overlooked, it may be hard to keep up with the following steps. If the beginner does not properly understand the spirit of Buddhism, the path of their practice may go astray. Those who have the responsibility of guiding beginners cannot underestimate the value of this task. A strong foundation is essential in leading others to the proper path of practice.

Because I want to show beginners what is correct and incorrect practices so that they will not make mistakes, I have dared to point out some faults of Buddhism in Vietnam as I see them. I very much want to weed out the superstition that has been incorporated into some parts of Buddhism here; like wiping off dirt to show the true


face of the Buddha underneath. By doing so, my intention is not to reopen ugly scars1, but rather to promote a Buddhist practice that is more in line with our current society and can serve us in the future. We are now living in the age of science, an age in which the search for truth has become of utmost importance. Buddhism is also a search for truth. It is a Buddhist teaching that the truth is always present, waiting to be found. There is no need to distort it, promoting misunderstandings. In this spirit, I take full responsibility for what is written in the following pages, even if others may disagree. May we all find and experience the truths of the Buddha's teachings.


Thich Thanh Tu

Who Was the Buddha?

The word "Buddha" means "awakened one." More than 2500 years ago, in the North central Indian city of Kapilavastu, a prince was born in the palace of King Suddhodana. He was given the name Siddhartha. When grown, while visiting the gates of the palace walls, he saw the four messengers: an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and a religious seeker. He suffered when he saw the first three and was inspired by the fourth. Therefore, he decided to leave the luxurious life of the palace to go into the forest in search of a path out of the cycle of birth and death. After eleven years2 of different practices, including six years of ascetic life and 49 days of meditation under the bodhi tree, he attained


completely enlightened, from then on called "Shakyamuni Buddha."

After enlightenment, the Buddha saw clearly the original causes which carry human beings along the cycle of birth and death. He also understood completely the way out of this cycle. In other words, he knew the cause and effects of suffering and its solution, the way to emancipation. He knew clearly how all things come into existence and are destroyed. This wisdom of his is called Sarvatha-jnana, or omniscience. Embodying this wisdom, he taught others how to become enlightened.

The Buddha's solution to the suffering from the continual involvement in the cycle of birth and death is the teaching of Interdependent Origination.3 Looking at these twelve steps, we see that ignorance is the initial element of the cycle. To eliminate ignorance is to be free from the cycle of birth and death. When the initial element remains, the branches keep on developing; when the initial element is eliminated, the branches stop growing.

What is it about ignorance that gives it such a powerful capacity? Ignorance is false perception, a lack of awareness of the true nature of things or the

Who Was the Buddha?

true essence of existence. We are often mistaken yet will not admit that we do not know what is true or false in life. On the contrary, the Buddha knew clearly that which is false and recognized that which is true, so he was called "The Awaken One." When he became enlightened, not only was he freed from the cycle of birth and death but he also was able to develop wonderful means which are beyond human understanding. This state is called "inconceivable liberation."

The Buddha was a real person, not a myth or a legend. We can learn about his genuine enlightenment through the teachings in the Tripitaka.4 At this time, he also introduced the achievements and vows of other buddhas in the ten directions.


The Teachings of the Buddha

The Teachings of the Buddha

The Buddha-dharma is the teachings of Shakyamuni. These teachings came from his direct intuitive experience, unlike the intellectual philosophies of other masters of his time. The Buddha-dharma is the truth, expressed in different ways so that it can be understood and practiced on many levels. The teachings on common, relative, and absolute truths are presented below.

Common Truths

Common truths are principles which are easily seen. When the Buddha points them out, if we examine


them carefully, we will find that what he says makes sense to us. Two main principles are the law of Causation and Conditionality.


All things manifest with cause and effect. The law of cause and effect, or causation, applies to everything. Nothing that has form and creates effects is beyond this law. This is further broken down into principal, secondary, favorable, and adverse causes, making it more complex. When causes are so subtle or too far in the past to remember, it can become even more difficult to understand. Let us look at how this law is played out in the plant and animal realms.

No grass or plant comes into being without a cause, from either a seed, root, bud, leaf, or trunk. Where there is a cause, there is an effect. From the cause, the effects are varied, such as, the plant growing, flowering, and producing fruits. No plant produces fruit by chance. For example, if an orange seed is the main cause; fertilizer, soil, water, and sunlight are the secondary causes; care for the plant is a favorable cause. Therefore, depending on secondary or favorable causes, a tree will be able to produce fruit. Even when the seed grows into a

The Teachings of the Buddha

tree, if it is not well cared for or its roots are eaten by insects (adverse causes), it may not produce fruit or may perish. Again, when all conditions are adequate, an orange seed generates, grows, and produces fruits.

In some cases, it may seem that the effect may come into being without a cause. For instance, we clear a plot to cultivate, making sure that all of the grass is removed. However, after some rainfall, there is grass growing all over the ground! Where did the grass come from? Did the soil produce grass? No. In fact, tiny grass seeds that we could not see were buried deep in the soil. Absorbing rain water, grass seeds naturally generated. In this case, the cause was too small for us to see and therefore, perhaps giving rise to false deduction.

Here is another case. One day, the monks and I visited our garden. We picked two sour sops from two different trees growing four meters apart. Tasting the fruits, the monks were surprised because one was sour and the other was sweet! Looking at one another, they inquired, "These two trees are of the same variety and planted in the same garden, why do they produce fruits of different tastes?" Each


person had his own idea, but I just smiled as they speculated. At last, I explained, "These two fruits have different tastes because, previously, I cultivated them with seeds from two different plants." In this example, when people do not know the reasons from the past, they may wonder. The law of cause and effect can be complex because of subtle reasons. Not understand thoroughly, we may make quick and superficial deductions.

Animals also come into being due to the law of cause and effect. Depending on the species, the cause may be an egg, such as a fetus. No animal is created by chance. Due to main, secondary, favorable, and adverse causes, animals will develop well or become feeble and die. It can be said that all beings on earth and the earth itself come into being in the realm of cause and effect.

This law also influences the actions of all beings. For example, with human beings, unselfish, altruistic words and actions that bring happiness and peace to everyone are wholesome causes. These words and actions will bring us peace and happiness in the present and the future. They produce wholesome results. On the contrary, harmful words or actions that make

The Teachings of the Buddha

people suffer are unwholesome causes. The resulting sufferings, called unwholesome effects, will return to us in the present or in the future.

When we help people who are in misfortune, they happily thank us after they are out of trouble or danger. Seeing them safe and at peace, we feel light-hearted. Though we do not expect anything in return, these people may want to repay our deed when they have the chance. Conversely, when we hurt or bring suffering to others, they may be vexed, resentful, or want to argue with us. This makes it hard for us to be at peace. Someday perhaps, when the opportunity arises, they may take revenge, only feeling satisfied when we have had multiple sufferings. Doing wholesome causes, we reap wholesome effects; doing unwholesome causes, we harvest unwholesome results.

Sometime, a case may seem to be an exception to the law of cause and effects, but, in fact, it is not. For instance, we have created a wholesome or an unwholesome cause, but during our lifetime, we seem not to reap the effect. The reason is that the cause has not yet ripened. However, the cause still produces its process in time. In another case, we seem not to have created a cause but acquired an


effect. This may be because we cannot remember the cause from the remote past.

The results of thoughts are not seen outwardly but can still have considerable consequences. Thoughts are the stimulus for all words and actions. When we have a wholesome thought, it gives rise to a wholesome cause. Then, word and action accordingly create further wholesome causes or effects. When there is an unwholesome thought, word and action accordingly create other unwholesome causes or effects. When people understand this law, they are careful with their thoughts. Thoughts have cause and effect like words and actions.

However, the law of cause and effect is not as simple. Many people assume that it is a simple matter of raising wholesome cause to reap wholesome effect or raising unwholesome cause to reap unwholesome effect. There are cases that seem to contradict this since cause and effect is a changing process operating within the three times of past, present, and future. We cannot take out a segment of time from the whole process to judge or make predictions. If we want to thoroughly understand this law, we have to base our examination within the three times. When we grasp

The Teachings of the Buddha

this law fully, understanding the way it works, we will be very confident in ourselves, not relying on outside supernatural powers. We recognize that we are the masters of our own lives. Causation is a continuous, changing flow of birth and annihilation and, therefore, is an example of impermanence. Due to impermanence, sentient beings are tossed about in samsara5, resulting in reincarnation. This law is not fixed or definite in the way it works but is flexible, depending on various causes.

If Buddhist practitioners clearly understand the law of cause and effect, they will have a stable foundation for their practice. From this foundation, they will rid themselves of idle superstitions. When we know the wholesome or unwholesome influences of our actions, we may repair and build our lives accordingly, now and into the future; courageously taking responsibility for all our wholesome or unwholesome actions, not complaining or feeling resentful. When people understand that nothing in the world is fixed, unique, or haphazard, but is formed by cause and effect, they will not be so dogmatic about ideas such as fate, destiny, monotheism, or chance.



Another common truth is that all things are formed by conditionality, meaning many elements combine to make one thing. Things, in themselves, are not self-created but are a union of many elements. Also, phenomena do not exist in isolation, but depend upon numerous conditions to arise. All things with form on this earth, including the earth itself, are made-up of many elements and conditions. Even formless phenomena operate according to conditionality.

First, let us examine a few forms near us. This desk, previously, did not come into being by itself. It had to have wood, nails, plane, chisel, saw, etc. and the labor of a carpenter using these various tools to assemble all the pieces. The materials, tools, and labor are elements and conditions which have been combined to make up the desk. Supposing someone asks us, "What is this desk made of?" and we reply, "It's made of wood, by a carpenter." This is a straight and simple answer but not a complete one. We may keep insisting that we are correct, but we are really only partially so.

The Teachings of the Buddha

Similarly, the house in which we live cannot come into being by itself. If it is a thatched house, it requires pillars, rafters, grass, etc. If it is a concrete house, it needs bricks, cement, sand, tiles, wood, etc. In both cases, people are needed to assemble the elements to make a house. When the house is formed, it is from gathered conditions. When the house deteriorates, it is due to dispersed conditions. The thing called "house" only exists in between gathered and dispersed conditions.

After examining these examples, we realize that all things are combined from conditions; even tiny things like a needle or a piece of grass to large things like mountains, oceans, or the earth. Formless things which still created affects are also conditioned. We cannot see electricity or wind, but we can see their manifestations. With electricity, when negative and positive charges combine, we have electric power. When there is unequal air pressure, wind is created.

Similarly, for thoughts to arise there needs to be the meeting of the six sense organs and their respective outside objects. If either organ or object is not present, no thought will arise. Therefore, all


thoughts, words, actions, and their effects are created due to conditions.

When we apply the law of conditionality to phenomena, we see that there is no solid or enduring form. Therefore, the name given to it is also empty. For example, we try to analyze a house by naming its parts (such as bricks, tiles, etc.) in an effort to define it. When these conditions come together, we temporarily give it the name "house". That name has a temporary value because, before and after the combination forms, it does not apply. Even when the house is combined, we cannot find the true substance in each of the elements which were used to make it. So we say, "All things are formed by conditions, having no real individual essence." Before it formed, there was nothing. After deteriorating, it disappears. In the middle, it is unreal. Therefore, the presence of the combination is a mirage. In relation to conditionality, all things are false and illusory.

Understanding thoroughly conditionality, we are freed from two diseases: bias and ignorance. Ignorance, which leads to bias, is really the more serious disease, and therefore, the more difficult to cure. Anything that forms due to combination is false

The Teachings of the Buddha

and unreal, but we take to be real. Once we believe it to be real, then likes and dislikes form accordingly, creating greed and hatred. This is the reason why we are in the ever-rolling cycle of birth and death. When we know that conditioned combinations are false, we end our ignorance and become enlightened. Understanding conditionality can be a gateway to enlightenment.

In this part on common truths, the law of cause and effect and the law of conditionality are two principles that govern everything, including human actions. These principles do not change in the past, present, or future. Nevertheless, they may be subtle and difficult to understand. When people are patient enough to study, reflect on, and carefully analyze these laws, they can realize these principles. These two principles work in two dimensions: the law of causality functions in the dimension of time while the law of conditionality operates in the dimension of space.

Relative Truths

Relative truths are principles operating in the realm of duality. These dualities are brightness and darkness, cold and hot, bad and good, sorrow and


joy, movement and stillness, birth and death, no-birth and no-death, etc. Living in the relative realm, we cannot deny the truth of duality. However, we need to be wise enough to use duality as a skillful mean in order to make progress. For example, a doctor has to use dualistic discrimination in order to diagnoses a disease correctly. Understanding medical methods, he is able to choose the correct medicine to cure a patient. Similarly, the Buddha-dharma is the medicine to cure the diseases of sentient beings. Therefore, we call the Buddha "Supreme Medicine King." To clarify this issue, here are some examples of how to use duality as skillful means.

Light versus Dark

We know that darkness does not exist by itself but is the absence of light. If we create conditions, such as a lit lamp or a flashlight, the darkness disappears, of course. Conversely, if we want darkness, we create the opposite conditions by turning off the light sources. The above are examples of darkness and brightness of outside phenomena. Similarly, inside mental darkness and brightness also depend on conditions. Due to a lack of knowledge, we are in the darkness of

The Teachings of the Buddha

ignorance. When we have the light of knowledge, the darkness of ignorance gradually dissipates.

Hot versus Cold

When we contact cold air, wind, or water, we shiver. Aware of this, we create conditions for heat to arise: a fire, radiator heat, or a blanket. Vice versa, when we are hot, we cool off with cold water, a breeze, or air-conditioning.

Suffering versus Ease

There are many kinds of sufferings, such as, suffering from cold and hunger, suffering from diseases, suffering from ignorance and afflictions.

To treat the suffering from cold and hunger, we create conditions for clothing and food. When we are sick, we reduce our suffering by using medicine to cure the disease.

The sufferings of ignorance and afflictions are treated with knowledge of the Buddha-dharma. Of the three poisons, ignorance is delusion while craving and hatred are afflictions. We use wisdom to treat ignorance. For instance, we may use the method of contemplation of distinguishing the realms, the


analyzing of our body, both insides and outsides, as different parts with their different limits. This analysis will help us to see properly that our bodies and minds are not real or substantial, gradually helping us to develop wisdom. Or, we may use the contemplation on Interdependent Origination to understand conditionality. If we do not observe or analyze conditions around us, it is difficult to develop wisdom.

When we experience the affliction of greed, we need to distinguish which of the five classic types we have: money, sex, fame, food, and sleep.

The treatment for greed of money is generosity. Wanting to accumulate and save is being greedy while generosity is about giving and sharing. If our intention is to give to others, how can we be possessive? When our generosity is sincere, greed for money will gradually lessen.

We may use the traditional method of contemplation on impurities to treat the greed for sex and food. When we examine our body in its various processes, we will see that impurities are stored in our body like a covered chamber pot which leaks, spreading its putrid smell. All kinds of perfumes and decorations are just skillful cover-ups for the chamber pot. If the body was clean, we would not

The Teachings of the Buddha

need to use these cover-ups. Similarly, when food is on a dish, it looks delicious, but becomes unclean by the time it goes through our digestive system. This traditional contemplation on impurities can help with our greed for sex and food.

To treat the greed for fame and sleep, we use the contemplation on impermanence. We contemplate how worldly things appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. The fame we gain may fade in a moment, like dew on grass or a flash of lightning. If we keep close to our hearts this understanding on impermanence, how could we even think about pursuing fame?! Human life is uncertain: fresh in the morning, only to fade away by the afternoon. Therefore, when we are still healthy and active, we should use time wisely. Try to do helpful things for ourselves and others, not wasting our lives. When we see clearly that time is precious, how can we waste it in sleep?

The three cures for resentful anger are the contemplation on compassion, the practice of endurance, and the practice of joy and equanimity. Anger is a form of hatred and resentment is a feeling of bitterness. When we are angry at somebody, we may want to penalize them, making them suffer to


satisfy our anger. Compassion is ability to love to everyone without exception, considering others' happiness and suffering as our own. When we love others as we love ourselves, we would not think of hurting or harming them. For example, when the left hand unknowingly hurts the right hand, the right hand bears the pain without returning the beating, knowing that both are of one body.

Similarly, when we consider others as ourselves, although people may cause us serious harm, we would not become angry or take revenge. Tolerance is acceptance. When anger arises, we try to repress and control ourselves, accepting it, and then letting it pass. However, repression is just a temporary means and cannot completely uproot anger. Only when we have successfully contemplated compassion, will our anger be uprooted. Bitterness is holding on to indignations which is a root of suffering and may cause illnesses. Joy and equanimity are happily letting go of everything, filling us with lightness, ease, and peace; no longer suffering.

Suffering is the result of unwholesome causes. Physical and material sufferings may come from a lack of resources or adverse conditions. Mental sufferings

The Teachings of the Buddha

are brought about by ignorance, craving, and hatred. Being ignorant, not knowing the truth of things, creates craving. When things are not in accordance with one's craving, aversion and anger can arise. These three poisons are the principal causes which create suffering effects. These suffering effects are known in Buddhism as the Truth of Suffering. Their causes and conditions are the Truth of the Origin of Suffering. Knowing clearly the causes and conditions and then applying the Buddha-dharma as treatment is the Truth of the Path. Ending all the causes of suffering is the Truth of the Cessation of the Suffering. These Four Noble Truths are used as treatment for suffering.

Motion versus Calmness

Motion is agitation, restlessness, and disturbance. Calmness is quiet and peace. When we have mental agitation, we are restless and disturbed; our consciousness becomes weak and dim. We use calm and peace as treatments for these agitations. However, we also need to have an understanding of the causes which produced these states. When our minds run after the gain and loss of money, lust, fame, food, and sleep, we will become restless and


disturbed. To help us from running after these things, the Buddha-dharma teaches us to follow the precepts. Precepts are like fences to prevent us from running after outside things, such as, seeking after the five types of greed. Then, we use different methods of contemplations (such as, contemplation on the counting of breathes, contemplation on compassion, contemplation on the impurities, and the contemplation on Interdependent Origination) as ropes to lasso our minds. When there are the fences of precepts outside and the ropes of contemplations inside, our monkey-minds will be well controlled, sleeping soundly.

Birth and Annihilation/Death

versus Non-birth/Nirvana

In Buddhist terminology, "birth and annihilation" apply to non-sentient and sentient beings. However, "birth and death" only applies to sentient beings. "Nirvana" is the Buddhist terminology for "non-birth." All sentient beings are bound to birth and death, not knowing how to use non-birth as a treatment.

The stream of mental agitation is the source of birth and death. Minds are agitated due to

The Teachings of the Buddha

attachments to the sense of self and to outside dharmas, or phenomena. When we know well that outside dharmas are impermanent and that human bodies are insubstantial, the currents of attachment and craving will cease and the mind becomes calm. When the mind becomes calm, the causes which continues the cycle of birth and death ends. This is non-birth. Just like the wind ceasing or the waves calming down, the surface of the ocean becomes flat and smooth.

Craving is the engine which stimulates mind consciousness to come into being. Therefore, the cycle of birth and death cannot end as long as craving is maintained. For example, when the one we love is absent, we look for that person constantly, seeking endlessly. The search for the other will only end when craving ceases. Within the twelve links of Interdependent Origination, craving conditions grasping, existence, birth, decay, and then death. When craving ceases, neither grasping nor existence can be maintained. After that, how can birth, decay, and death follow? There is nothing better than using the contemplation on impermanence or the contemplation of non-self as walls to block the winds of craving.


Realizing clearly that this side of the river is birth and death and the other side is Nirvana, practitioners urgently make rafts to cross the river. From the point of view of a sravaka and a pratyekabuddha,6 when one reaches the other side, one does not return. Still operating with dualistic minds, they think that the cycle of birth and death is real; therefore, they yearn for the extinction of desire and suffering, or Nirvana. On the contrary, bodhisattvas7 also use duality as a treatment but they consider it as a temporary skillful means and do not want to escape duality for their own enlightenment. Relative truth permeates the world. Everything is in the realm of relative truth. We can make progress on our path towards enlightenment if we skillfully apply dualistic means to destroy unwholesome habits of mind and body. If we do not know how to use this treatment appropriately we may not succeed in our practice. Like a good doctor who knows well the disease, the medicine, and the cure, the Buddha is the physician using his teachings as "curing treatments."