In The Heart of Understanding, Thich Nhat Hanh’s uses simple but powerful words and real world examples to illustrate the profound Buddhist philosophy from the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, an important representative of Mahayana Buddhist literature. The Mahayana school of Buddhist teachings emphasizes the doctrine of Sunyata- emptiness. The doctrine of emptiness, one of the most important Mahayana innovations, focuses on the relational aspect of existence. Thich Nhat Hanh coins and introduces a new word- interbeing to explain the state of emptiness. This idea of interbeing not only illustrates emptiness well but also provides understanding of other fundamental Buddhist ideas such as No-Self, impermanence and non-duality.
The word interbeing explains the concept of emptiness through the idea of changeable and interdependent existence. The prefix “inter-” defines the changeable and interdependent nature of things and the verb “to be or being” means existence. According to the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” Emptiness does not mean that things do not exist but rather it means that things cannot exist by themselves alone. Thich Nhat Hanh uses an interesting example of paper to explain changeable and interdependent existence of things. Paper cannot exist without the trees from which it is made. Trees cannot exist or grow without rainwater which comes from clouds. Every aspect of existence is interrelated to each other. Paper and trees, trees and rain, rain and clouds are all manifestations of interbeing with each other.
“Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form” can be understood as being empty of a separate and independent self. In addition, Thich Nhat Hanh puts a positive spin on emptiness. According to him, being empty does not mean being nonexistent. Emptiness should be viewed as a positive nature of things. Being empty of “something” should be considered as being full of everything in the world. One can see the trees, rain, clouds and even the whole universe in a single sheet of paper though it is “empty.” Emptiness is the foundation of everything.
The notion of interbing echoes the early Buddhist concept of Anatmen- “No-Self.” According to the early teachings of the Buddha, self is made of the five aggregates: form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. There is no permanent substance existing as self. Selfhood is constituted of “non-self elements” and cannot exist by itself alone. It has to inter-be with the five aggregates. None of the five aggregates is permanent or independent. The five aggregates have to inter-be with each other. Although selfhood is empty of “self”, it is full of the fiver aggregates, full of everything and full of life.
Interbeing, the changeable nature of existence, is closely related to the Buddhist idea of impermanence. Just as the moon is constantly waxing and waning, everything is constantly changing in the world. From Thich Nhat Hanh’s...