Joy, the Fundamental Condition of Existence


In a recent public talk, Thich Nhat Hanh quoted a poem attributed to the Buddha: All formations are impermanent. They are subject to birth and death. But remove the notions of birth and death, and this silence is called great joy. He goes on to say that this is one of the greatest poems ever written, and that it should be put to music, and that the music should be the thundering silence of all notions of birth and death. In this poem is a mixture of the absolute and the relative worlds. When we remove our notions of birth and death, we realize the two have always been one, the silence of great joy. In the relative world, pain and pleasure are opposites. Because joy is a fundamental attribute of the absolute world where nothing is separate, it has no opposite. Joy cannot be found. Joy arises when we are not preoccupied. On the other hand, when we seek joy—grappling and struggling for it--we are simply manifesting a new layer of thought. Joy is the fundamental condition of existence, life energy that is unaffected by our concepts of what is joyful and what is not. The mystical poet William Blake said, “He who binds to himself a joy, does the winged life destroy, he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.” Blake is instructing us to love the joy while it is here, even as it dissolves into something new. If we do not cling to our joy, we can be all the more intimate with it while it is here. We create a formidable barrier to a deep and intimate connection with

the objects of our experience when we are caught in the fear of losing them. Liberated from this fear, we have the potential to live a truly fulfilling life, to kiss joy as it flies. Living in eternity’s sunrise suggests living fully in the moment. The sun of awareness arises as a unique manifestation, while at the same time it is changing into another one. Living without getting caught in anticipation of the next moment is an expression of eternity. Eternity is not an incalculably long time: eternity is beyond time, without time, timeless. When we can be present without attachment to the past or future we experience eternity. In pure awareness there is no past or future. If we no longer numb ourselves—compulsively reaching out for something else--each moment is entirely new. The mystical, magical nature of the world becomes clear. Our continual attempts to grasp various forms of joy can be seen as aversion to it, to the fundamental joy that we are. Until we know that joy, minus our opinion of it, is exactly what is happening, we will only have a stingy amount of it. If we are taking a walk in the park and the weather is not to our liking even if we normally enjoy walking, we may drain the experience of its joy. A walk in the park is a joy unless we judge it. Or we worry about our pace, or scold ourselves because our minds are wandering. When we truly open up to and accept whatever thoughts or sensations are present by simply staying present with them, we can even find joy when the boss reproves us at work, or when our kids unmercifully pester us. We are meant to deal with suffering in our practice. It is not that the suffering is important or valuable in itself, but that suffering is our teacher. Suffering is the other side of life, and until we can embrace all of life we will not know any real joy. A benefit of traditional Zen practice is that we have a chance to face our grief and pains and losses. Whatever positive concepts we have of ourselves are put to the test in long retreats when almost all of us suffer from pain and fatigue. We learn we can come face to face with our agony and still go on. If we can embody our experience regardless of what it is, we connect with the whole of life. To become our experience, we first need to observe how we constantly attempt to separate ourselves from it. Thus we become an object of thought and lose touch with the raw, spontaneous sensation that is the mark of our original nature. We could name this basic nature joy. And joy manifests when we become present with the circumstances of our lives without adding or subtracting anything. Whatever we face, our circumstances are nothing more than forms, thoughts, sensations and sounds produced by the joyful presence that we are. Knowing we are not separate from this presence, not separate from our experience, is enlightenment. Through practice, we begin to see how we perpetuate our pain and cut ourselves off from the awareness of fundamental joy. Those who have physical suffering as a constant companion can be on the fast track for learning this lesson. Travelers to India sometimes report that along with enormous poverty they find extraordinary joy. Faced daily with life and death matters, the Indian people have learned to remain in the present, to appreciate each moment. Those in dire poverty learn to accept that pain is part of life, connecting us to the whole. They realize perhaps more easily than we who are burdened with affluence that birth and death are only notions. “From such a gentle thing, from such a fountain of all delight, my every pain is born,” said the great Indian peacemaker Mahatma Gandhi. The ground of being, the manifestation of delight, is always here with our pain. When we cease trying to avert pain, we realize our original nature, the thundering silence that is great joy.