The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone
Thich Nhat Hanh
The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone
is called the Bhaddekaratta Sutta in Pali. It belongs to the Majjhima Nikaya
The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone teaches us how to live each moment of our daily life very deeply. When we can live our daily life deeply, we begin to have concentration and wisdom; we can see the true nature of life, and we arrive at a great freedom, and freedom is the essence of happiness. If we are suffering, it is because we are not free, and therefore to practice is to recover our freedom. When we have freedom, we will become solid. Freedom and solidity are the two characteristics of nirvana, so we need a program of freedom and solidity. If somebody is suffering, we know that person is not free; because they are not free, they are suffering, they are being imprisoned by the past, or they are being oppressed by the present, or they are being carried away by the future, and that is why they are suffering. The practice is to re-establish our freedom, and then we will no longer suffer, and our happiness will increase. The oldest writings on the better way to live alone, on how to live deeply in the present moment, are found in this sutra.
For example, someone hears the doctor say, "You have cancer, you may live for six months more." That person feels completely overwhelmed. The fear, the idea that I’m going to die in six months takes away all our peace and joy. Before the doctor told us that we had cancer, we had the capacity to enjoy ourselves with our friends. However, once the doctor told us that, we lose all our capacity to sit and enjoy our tea, or enjoy our meal, or watch the moon, because we are so afraid of the moment when we will die. It takes away all our freedom. If you know that death is something that comes to everybody, you will not suffer so much. The doctor says we have six months left to live, but the doctor also will die. Maybe the doctor knows we have six months, but the doctor does not know how many months he himself has left to live. Maybe the doctor will die before us. Maybe driving home after the examination he will have an accident, and therefore the knowledge of the doctor isn’t so great. He tells us we only have six months left. We may be lucky to live six months, because the doctor may die before us. So if we look deeply we see things, which if we don’t look deeply we wouldn’t see. Looking deeply we can get back our freedom from fear, and with that freedom, with our non-fear, we may live happily those six months.
All of us are equal as far as life and death are concerned:
we are all going to die. So it is very equal—it will happen to everybody.
Everyone has to die, but before we die, can we live properly? I am
determined to live properly until I die. That is a very awakened thing
to say. If we are going to die, then we have to live the best we can,
and if we can live six months in the best way we can then the quality
of that six months will be as if we were living for six years, or sixty
years. If our life is filled with being caught in the fetters of suffering,
then our life doesn’t have the same kind of meaning as if we live in
freedom. So knowing that we have to die, I am determined to live my
life properly, deeply. All of us have to die, but if we are able to
live with peace, joy, and freedom before we die, then we live as if
we are dead already, even before we die.
There was a monk whose name was Thera. His friends probably gave him the name Thera, which means "the elder." That monk liked to live on his own. He always went off on the alms round on his own. He liked to do walking meditation on his own. He like to eat on his own, he liked to wash his clothes on his own. He really liked to do everything on his own. He seemed to like to avoid his friends in the practice as much as possible. All the monks had heard the Buddha praising the better way to live alone, but the way the Buddha used the meaning of "living alone," he meant not to be imprisoned by the past, not to be pulled away by the future, and not to be carried away by what was happening in the present. The Buddha did not mean that living alone means to distance yourself and separate yourself from your friends in the practice.
evertheless, this monk liked to do things on his own, eating on his own, going to the town on his own, and avoiding other people. The other monks knew that he liked to do things alone, but they felt that there was something not quite right about this way of life. They felt that he wasn’t really practicing according to the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings. So the other monks went to the Buddha and they said, "Lord Buddha, one of our fellow practitioners called Thera, the elder, likes to do everything on his own: walking meditation, eating meditation, working on his own, and we don’t know if living like that that is really truly living alone." And Buddha said, "Where is that monk? Ask him to come here and have a cup of tea with us." So the monks went and invited Thera to join them, and the Buddha said, "I hear you like to live alone. How do you live on your own? Please tell me." And Thera said, "Lord Buddha, I sit in meditation alone, I eat on my own, I wash my clothes on my own, I go into the village for alms on my own." And the Buddha said, "Oh, that is true, then you really do live alone. But maybe the way you live alone is not the best way to live alone, there is a better way to live alone." And then the Buddha recited a gatha: "If you live without being imprisoned by the past, not being pulled away by the future, not being carried away by the forms and images of the present moment, living each moment of your life deeply, that is the true way of living alone." When Thera heard this he knew that he had been living alone just as an outer form, and there was a deeper way to live alone.
The sutra where this story is told is called the Theranama Sutra, it is in the Samyutta Nikaya, and there is also an equivalent sutra in the Samyukta Agama, it is Number 71 in the Samyukta Agama. The essence of the sutra is a poem. The Buddha wrote poems, but the poems of the Buddha were more designed to show us how to practice. The gatha which talks about the art of living alone is called the Bhaddekaratta gatha, Bhaddekaratta means "the best way to live alone." Many people have mistranslated this title: One master translated it as "practicing for one night." There’s also another master who translated this title as "being present." The correct translation is to say "The better way to practice living alone." This poem says:
Do not pursue the past.
All of the essence of the Buddha’s teachings lies in these words. We know that stability and freedom are the two characteristics of nirvana, and that is the aim of our practice. The aim of our practice is that every moment of our daily life we can produce stability and freedom: walking, lying down, sitting, standing, we produce freedom and stability. Nirvana is something we can touch right in the present moment, not only with our mind, but also with our body. When our feet are walking in a leisurely way, solid and free, then our feet are touching nirvana. As soon as we have stability and freedom, nirvana is there. The level of freedom and stability tells us whether we have been able to touch nirvana deeply. Do not pursue the past. There are people who are tired of the present and think that the past was more beautiful, and that life was more beautiful before. They always think the past was more beautiful. Therefore, they cannot see the happiness of the present. Many of us are caught in this way of thinking. The past is no longer there, and we compare it with the present, and we say that the past was more beautiful than the present; but even when we had those moments in the past we didn’t really value them at the time, because in the past we were not able to live in the present moment.
We were always running after the future,
and now if we were taken back to the past, we would do the same. At
that time life was more beautiful, the sun was brighter, the moon was
brighter--those are words from a French song. There are people who
pursue the past, not because they think the past was beautiful, but
because the past has made them suffer, the past was a trauma, a heavy
wound for them. We have suffered, we have been wounded, we have died
in the past, and those heavy wounds are calling us back to the past,
crying, "Come back here, come back to the past. I am the subject, you cannot
escape me." That is what the past says to us. We are like sheep running
back to the past, to enclose us, to imprison us, to make us suffer. The past
is also a very great prison. We hear the words of the past, and we run back to
the past, we refuse to live our life in the present moment, we are always going
back to the past. So the Buddha says, "Don’t pursue the past."
We can kneel, we can close our eyes, join our palms, and visualize this moment with the water of compassion falling on our head, and we can see ourselves being born anew. Our teacher and the Sangha are transmitting to us our precepts body, and we have the duty to allow our teacher and the Sangha to lead us step by step on this new path. We see we are protected, we are secure, with security from the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and the precepts; and never before in our life have we felt as we feel at this moment. If we allow the Sangha to wake us up, if we allow our teacher to wake us up, we will see that we are in a state of security we have never been in before. If we live like that every day, our feelings of anxiety, of fear, will disappear. We will be able to dwell happily in the present moment, and each step will take us into happiness in the present moment, into freedom. That is our daily practice. "Do not pursue the past" is what this means. Sometimes we don’t want to go back into the past, but the past grabs hold of us and pulls us back, so we have to organize things carefully, and we have to base our organization on the support of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We have to look directly into the past and smile at it, and say, "You can no longer oppress me. I am free of you." Only the energy of mindfulness, the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, have enough power and strength to help us to be free of the past. We see that the past is just a ghost. We know that the past is a ghost, but we allow the ghost to imprison us. Therefore a practitioner should know how to take hold of the present with the help of the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha and the precepts, in order to come back to the present, and not allow the ghosts of the past to pull us back into the past. "Do not pursue the past," can you hear the Buddha saying that to you?
Do not imagine things and lose yourself in the future. What is the future? Is the future with ghost number two? Why are we so afraid of the future? What is fear? Is fear our plans about things which will happen tomorrow? Or is our fear our projections we have of the future, tomorrow? Maybe this will happen, or that will happen…we project it like that. And that is what makes us afraid. Fear does not naturally come about, fear comes from our thinking. Our thinking that this will happen tomorrow, that will happen tomorrow. Notice the future is something that is not yet there. Because the future is never there--once it’s there it’s the present. But the future is a ghost. A very big ghost, which sucks us up, and our fear arises from our projections that tomorrow this will happen, or tomorrow I will be like that. "What will become of me tomorrow?" Our fear is based on that. And the ghosts of the past and the ghosts of the future are two ghosts with great responsibility for taking away our freedom. We are slaves of these two ghosts. What is Mara? Who is Mara? Mara is the past, Mara is the future, those two Maras follow us and condition our life, order us about. We should not allow this to happen, we should not lie under the influence of these two ghosts. We have to have a way of dealing with these two ghosts, and the method is the better way to live alone, the way of living each moment in the present moment, not pursuing the past and not running after the future.
"The past is no longer there. The future has not yet come." That is just logic. We all know the past is just a ghost, why should we be so attached to it? And the future is just a ghost, why do we have to be so afraid of it? There’s only one thing, that is the present, but we don’t know how to live the present moment, and we allow the past and the future to drown us, to overwhelm us. "The past is no longer there. The future has not yet come." Are there any words in the sutra which are more precise, more concise? No word too many. You should live your daily moments deeply, as they occur: live and know that you are living. Like a flower, you know that it is alive, and you can look at it deeply and you can live with it deeply, and you can see the deep levels of the flower. You live with a smile, you live with the sunshine. All these things become the objects of your looking deeply. They are your friends in the practice.
The practitioner dwells in stability and freedom, and "dwell" means to live peacefully. The practitioner means someone who has wisdom, it doesn’t mean somebody who has just got a degree, or been to the university. Here it means someone who has wisdom, that is, someone who is not carried away by the ghosts of the past, who is not grasped at by the ghosts of the future, someone who knows how to live in a peaceful and joyful way, right in the present moment. That person can sit still, walk at peace, and that person has the essence of peace and freedom within him or her, and that is a wise person. Another way of translating this line is: "the wise person dwells in peace with solidity and freedom." All the teachings of the Buddha that have been given, the Dharma, and the Sangha, are there to help us to live in the present moment. When a monk takes a step, the monk has to practice dwelling peacefully. Each step the monk takes should be solid and free, and the monk is taking steps like the Buddha. When a nun sits down, she should sit solidly, like a mountain, sitting in mindfulness. We are always being carried away by the past and the future, but in the Sangha, everybody is training to practice living in the present moment, so when we live in a Sangha we have the opportunity to do this, to sit solidly. When we eat, we really eat. We have forty-five minutes or an hour to eat, and those are forty-five minutes or an hour of happiness, because we are really there. We are washing our clothes, and that is our practice. Sweeping the floor is our practice, cleaning the toilet is our practice. The main thing about the practice is that we are really there to do these things, and we have the Sangha there supporting us.
"We must be diligent today, to wait until tomorrow is too late." There is only today, let us do the best we can do today. People have given us all the conditions for practicing mindfulness, and yet we don’t do it, we say we’ll do it tomorrow, we needn’t do it today. But tomorrow’s too late, because of impermanence. "Death comes unexpectedly, how can we bargain with it?" Then you say to death, "Oh, I haven’t had time to practice properly, give me another couple of days." However, we can’t bargain like that with death, we cannot make a deal with death. Therefore death becomes something which stimulates us, motivates us, to help us live in solidity and freedom. So when the doctor says, "You have six months left," we can say, "Okay, then I will live that six months properly." And the doctor should say, "I will do the same," because the doctor also does not know how long he will live. So the fact of having to die helps the practitioner know that the days that are left have to be lived properly, solidly, in freedom, with happiness. That is the best way of laying the future for your descendants.
When the doctor
says that you have six months left to live, that is a bell of mindfulness
for you. We all have six months left to live, or seven months, or ten
years, and the Buddha says, "Be diligent today, to wait until tomorrow
is too late. Death comes unexpectedly." The person who knows how to live
in mindfulness day and night the Buddha calls "the one who knows the better
way to live alone." Here they call the Buddha the great muni. So the way
to live alone is to live dwelling in mindfulness night and day.
The ghosts of the past and future, although they are bad ghosts,
if we know how to deal with them, we will never fall under their influence,
we only have to smile at them, we only need to breathe and come back
to our mindfulness, and the energy of mindfulness helps us to smile
and say "Oh, I know you are
a ghost", and they can’t do anything to hurt us, because in that smile there
is the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The reason we are caught by the ghosts
of the past and the future is that we don’t know that they’re ghosts, and the
smile to them is the smile of enlightenment. It has mindfulness in it, so we
should practice smiling at the ghost of the past, and say, "I know you are
the ghost of the past, and that is all you are." And then you are free.
The ghost of the future is the same. When we are afraid of the future, we know
that the ghost of the future is there. We have to look at that fear, and we have
to say, "I know that you’re only a ghost." Mara appears many times
in our daily life. Every time Mara appears, we have to say, "I know you’re
Mara." And the Buddha smiles and says that when he sees Mara. In the sutras,
Mara is always appearing and all the practitioner needs to do is to smile and
say, "I recognize you, I know you are Mara." So whoever knows the practice,
knows that the smile of mindfulness towards the Mara of the past or the Mara
of the future is the only way to deal with it, and when we smile like that, it
shows we have love for ourselves, and we don’t make the past or the future an
enemy. The past and the future are not our enemies.
I heard these words of the Buddha one time when the Lord was staying at the monastery in the Jeta Grove, in the town of Sravasti. He called all the monks to him and instructed them, "bhikkhus!" And the bhikkhus replied, "We are here." The Blessed One taught: "I will teach you what is meant by knowing the better way to live alone. I will begin with an outline of the teaching, and then I will give a detailed explanation. bhikkhus, please listen carefully." "Blessed One, we are listening."
The Buddha taught:
"Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘pursuing the past?’ When someone thinks about the way his body was in the past, the way his feelings were in the past, the way his perceptions were in the past, the way his mental factors were in the past, the way his consciousness was in the past; when he thinks about these things, and his mind is burdened by and attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person is pursuing the past".
Who is that person? That person is all of us. We have all been the victims of the past. We have been wounded in the past. Our body has been treated badly in the past, our feelings have been destroyed in the past, our perceptions have been darkened in the past, our mental factors have been full of sadness and sorrow in the past, and our consciousness has been covered in ignorance in the past. In short, in the past, a person that has form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, ourselves in the past, has suffered and these experiences, these impressions have been carefully hidden away in the depths of our unconscious mind. And although we don’t want to pursue them, we don’t want to remember them, because every time we remember them we suffer, we feel sad, we worry. We think that if the past was like that, how will the future be? So when the ghost of the past comes--it is closely linked to the ghost of the future--we’re afraid of the future because our past has been like that. And because our experiences of the past are so sad, we know that if they were revived we would suffer and we would not be able to bear it, so we grit our teeth to get through and do our best to bury all our past experiences deep in our unconscious. Sometimes when we are sleeping they stir around while we are dreaming and come up, and the more we try to repress them the more they try to come up. We have a defense mechanism, which does its best to hide our suffering from us, and to bring about some kind of peace and joy in a superficial way. That is how we manage to continue living. We know there is a bomb, explosives, deep down in our consciousness, but they are covered over by many layers. We have buried them, pushed them down, and in our daily life, although we don’t want to think about these things, these things secretly move around and they instruct us in what we should do, force us to do things. When we speak, we want to say something sweet, but we don’t say something sweet because something is ordering us from deep down to say something unkind. We want to open our hearts to people, but we can’t do it, because we are being ordered around by the sufferings we have concealed deep in our consciousness. So, in the past our body was like that, our feelings like that, our perceptions like that, our mental formations like that, our consciousness like that. When we think about these things, and our mind is burdened by and attached to these things which belong to the past, then we are pursuing the past. Whether a person consciously or unconsciously goes back to the past, that person is still pursuing the past.
First of all, we are wounded by the past, and secondly, whether they
are very beautiful experiences or wounds from the past, those things
pull us back into the past. Therefore, we have to be aware that if
we don’t practice we will always be a victim of the Mara of the past.
Buddha doesn’t mean we have to forget the past, or bury the past, or
pretend that the past never happened. That is not what the Buddha means.
Why? Because the past has become the present, and if we can live deeply
in the present we can transform the past. In the present we have habit
energies, very clear habit energies in the present, and when we can
recognize those habit energies, and smile at those habit energies,
we can free ourselves from those habit energies and transform them.
Let me remind you again, we can return to the past in two ways. One
is consciously, expressly, and the other is unconsciously, with a ghost
pulling us back into the past. At the same time, the method of practice
we use, called "dwelling peacefully in the present
moment," is not to hide the fact that we are influenced by the past, because
all the suffering of the past, all the ignorance and infatuation of the past,
is present in this moment. It’s present in the form of the present, the way we
behave, the way we speak, the way we walk, those things are conditioned by what
happened in the past. Therefore we have to live the present moment in order to
see clearly what is happening in the present, and when we see that clearly, we
can smile at it, and we can transform it.
"Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘not pursuing the past?’ When someone thinks about the way his body was in the past, his feelings were in the past, his perceptions were in the past, his mental factors were in the past, his consciousness was in the past…" it means that we can think about the past, but we should not allow the past to take hold of us. The Buddha never says we can’t think about the past—we have a right to think about the past, to think that in the past that happened to me, my body was like that, my mind was like that, we can think about it, but don’t let these things pull you around, or imprison you.
"If he thinks about the way these things were in the past, but his mind
is not enslaved by nor attached to these things which belong to the past, then
that person is not pursuing the past." Some people think that dwelling peacefully
in the present moment means they can only think about the present, they cannot
think about the past, but that is not true. If we are able to establish ourselves
solidly in the present, we can look deeply at the past and we can be liberated
from the past. For example, we tell a story of something that happened to us
in the past. There are two ways of telling the story: one, we tell it in such
a way that we are wholly taken up, we are held by that story in the past, and
we cry like rain falling down and then we cannot help ourselves to escape from
that. The other way is that we establish ourselves solidly in the present moment
with a brother or sister beside us, and we tell the story of our past for them
to hear, and we tell exactly what happened, but we tell it in a very even way,
the past does not pull us away so that we cry, tears falling.
"Bhikkhus, what is meant by ‘losing yourself in the future?’ When someone
thinks about the way his body will be in the future, the way his feelings will
be in the future, the way his perceptions will be in the future, the way his
mental factors will be in the future, the way his consciousness will be in the
future; when he thinks about these things and his mind is burdened by and daydreaming
about these things which belong to the future, then that person is losing himself
in the future." And so it is a kind of fear. All these things are Mara,
and if Mara of the past or Mara of the future takes hold of you, you are no longer
really able to live the present moment. You should know that the Pure Land, the
Sukhavati, the Paradise, are only in the present moment, and we lose the Pure
Land or Paradise because the ghosts of the past and the future pull us away from
the present. An arhat is someone who is able to destroy the Mara of the past
and the future. Sadness and fear are names of Mara, of two ghosts, two large
We have read other sutras.
We know that sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, the Vajracchedika Sutra,
talk about the lifespan of the Buddha as being limitless. The idea
of a lifespan--that I was born at that particular moment, that I will
die at that particular moment, and my life between those two moments
is my lifespan--that is because we don’t know how to live solidly and
freely in the present moment. If we live solidly and freely in the
present moment and look at life deeply, we will discover that our lifespan
is limitless, like the lifespan of the Buddha. And the thing which
is called birth cannot touch our lives, and death cannot touch our
lifespan. We see that there isn’t life, birth and death—there are manifestation
and latency. We can be in touch with no-birth and no-death, and after
six months or sixty years, it doesn’t make any difference. When we
can be in touch with the birthless and deathless nature, birth and
death cannot oppress us anymore. This is what Tue Trung Thuong si said: "The idea of birth and death have
oppressed us, but now they cannot touch us any more." And when the doctor
says we have six months left to live, or whether he says it’s one month or thirty
years, it doesn’t make any difference, because we are going to live our time
with peace and solidity and freedom. And if we can do that we may live longer
than the doctor. The doctor may die before we do, because the doctor lives without
mindfulness, without peace, without joy, without a Sangha, but we have been woken
up by the sound of this bell, and we have decided to live our life with peace,
with joy and this life of peace and joy may help us to live longer than the doctor
The Fifth Remembrance is "My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand." In the sutra we see clearly that living in the present moment does not preclude our thinking about the past or the future, but we must dwell in the present moment so that whenever we look deeply into the past or the future, we are free and we are able to overcome our fears and our sadness concerning these things. Because in the teachings of interbeing, interpenetration, the past makes the future, and the future is made out of the past. Therefore, being in touch with the present, we are already being in touch with the past and the future, but we are not being carried away by the Maras of the past and the future.
Let us read more: "Bhikkhus, what is meant by being swept away by the present?
When someone does not study, or learn anything about the Awakened One, or the
teachings of love and understanding, or the community that lives in harmony and
awareness; when that person knows nothing about the noble teachers and their
teachings, and thinks, ‘This body is myself; I am this body. These feelings are
myself; I am these feelings. This perception is myself; I am this perception.
This mental factor is myself; I am this mental factor. This consciousness is
myself; I am this consciousness.’ Then that person is being swept away by the
present." This section is very clear, it is said to explain very clearly
what is meant by the two lines:
"Bhikkhus, I have presented the outline and a detailed explanation of knowing
the better way to live alone." Thus the Buddha taught, and the Bhikkhus
were delighted to put his teachings into practice."
© Thich Nhat Hanh -- Dharma
talk from Plum