“What was your face before your parents were born?”

Today is Thich Nhat Hanh’s 90th birthday. Many people around the world who revere him are contemplating a question posed by Thay himself: how are we being Thay’s continuation?

Thay says birthdays should really be called continuations: “The day of our birth was only a day of continuation. Instead of singing, ‘Happy Birthday’ every year, we should sing, ‘Happy Continuation.'”

What he means is based in the insights of no birth, no death, nonself and interbeing. The last one, which is also called interdependent co-arising, is the realisation that everything is both cause and effect of every other thing, including every thing and person who has ever been born and every thing and person who is yet to be born; everything that ever was and ever will be is arising, all of a piece, in this moment.

Following is a particularly beautiful passage from Thay. May his love and compassion touch your heart. Happy Continuation, Thay!

“When you look at this sheet of paper, you think it belongs to the realm of being. There was a time that it came into existence, a moment in the factory it became a sheet of paper. But before the sheet of paper was born, was it nothing? Can nothing become something? Before it was recognisable as a sheet of paper, it must have been something else – a tree, a branch, sunshine, clouds, the earth. In its former life, the sheet of paper was all these things. If you ask the sheet of paper, ‘Tell me about all your adventures,’ she will tell you, ‘Talk to a flower, a tree, or a cloud and listen to their stories.’

The paper’s story is much like our own. We, too, have many wonderful things to tell. Before we were born, we were also already in our mother, our father, and our ancestors … We usually think we did not exist before the time of our parents, that we only began to exist at the moment of our birth. But we were already here in many forms.

‘Nothing is born, nothing dies’ was a statement made by French scientist Lavoisier. He was not a Buddhist. He did not know the Heart Sutra. But his words are exactly the same. If I burn this sheet of paper, will I reduce it to nonbeing? No, it will just be transformed into smoke, heat, and ash. If we put the ‘continuation’ of this sheet of paper into the garden, later, while practising walking meditation, we may see a little flower and recognise it as the rebirth of the sheet of paper. The smoke will become part of a cloud in the sky, also to continue the adventure. After tomorrow, a little rain may fall on your head, and you will recognise the sheet of paper saying, ‘Hello’ …”

~ From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh

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