Thich Nhat Hanh: Awakening from the Illusion of Separation

Thich Nhat Hanh: Awakening from the Illusion of Separation
The Interdependence of All Things

We are here to awaken from the illusion of separateness. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

The following is a short excerpt from a 1998 Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, entitled The Island of Self: The Three Dharma Seals. Here he explains how awareness of the interdependence of all things in the universe can provide us with deeper insight into the Buddha’s teachings on non-self, emptiness, and impermanence. 

“What is non-self, Anatta? It means impermanence. If things are impermanent, they don’t remain the same things forever. You of this moment are no longer you of a minute ago. There is no permanent entity within us, there is only a stream of being.

There is always a lot of input and output. The input and the output happen in every second, and we should learn how to look at life as streams of being, and not as separate entities. This is a very profound teaching of the Buddha.

Inter-Being with the World

For instance, looking into a flower, you can see that the flower is made of many elements that we can call non-flower elements. When you touch the flower, you touch the cloud. You cannot remove the cloud from the flower, because if you could remove the cloud from the flower, the flower would collapse right away.

You don’t have to be a poet in order to see a cloud floating in the flower, but you know very well that without the clouds there would be no rain and no water for the flower to grow.

So cloud is part of flower, and if you send the element cloud back to the sky, there will be no flower. Cloud is a non-flower element. And the sunshine…you can touch the sunshine here. If you send back the element sunshine, the flower will vanish. And sunshine is another non-flower element.

And earth, and gardener … if you continue, you will see a multitude of non-flower elements in the flower. In fact, a flower is made only with non-flower elements. It does not have a separate self.

When you touch the flower, you touch the cloudWhen you touch the flower, you touch the cloud. Image: Anthony Delanoix

So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no-self.

A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to ‘inter-be’ with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word ‘to be.’ You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else.

The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

Looking into the Nature of Your Non-Self

So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos.

It’s the same thing. So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos.

So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you.

Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.”

~ by Thich Nhat Hanh, The Island of Self

“All in One, One in All. The All melts into a single whole. There are no divisions in the totality of reality … It views the cosmos as holy, as “one bright pearl,” the universal reality of the Buddha.” The view of inter-being and interpenetration is central to the Huayan School of Buddhism.

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Orion Foxwood
2 years ago

Your words echo the exact words of our wisdom tradition

3 years ago

I can now prove that we are ‘vibrational illusions of self’.

3 years ago

We simply don’t exist and therefore there is no separation in this dream world.Thats what Buddha tried to teach.

Gary R. Smith
6 years ago

Thank you for a beautiful article.

Because of your passion for the subject, may I share from a Whole Human blog post, ‘Dispel the Illusion with a Greeting!”

Dispelling the illusion is about effectively dis-empowering the spell of the ‘illusion of separation’ by thinking, feeling and acting upon four words which can also be used as a greeting.

While ‘the illusion of separation’ is a commonly heard term, do we know what it is ‘really’ hiding? In this case, ‘the illusion of separation’ has been hiding the actuality that ‘we are one being.’ O.B. is my familiar term for the One Being.

The great illusion is not referring just to our living separated (in our minds) from our source and each other. The illusion has distanced our human awareness from knowing the one true self and identity of every human and that ‘we’ have never been separated. Revealing the actuality veiled by the illusion of separation, that O.B. is the True Self of all that is, answers a big question for every person, ‘who am I really?’

It also can answer, ‘why am I here?’ for every person who accepts that everything exists to be the vehicle of O.B.’s expression. For me, that translates to knowing my deepest purpose is to unfold the unique center of awareness designed by my original blueprint, to be O.B. in the Gary expression. The fullness of unfolding is to consciously be the defined human and the undefined totality in the same moment.

‘We are one being’ means much more than being inter-connected. It means more than ‘we are one people’ or ‘we are one family,’ or ‘the brotherhood of Man.’ The illusion of separation which has kept us from knowing we are one being has prevented us from knowing who we really are and what we are capable of manifesting as human beings.

May you prosper.


7 years ago

What a beautiful & elegant article…thank you.

7 years ago

Thanks for this article 🙂 I’m a loyal reader of your website!
I made a video exactly about this topic too:

Michelle Rene
7 years ago

Some complex ideas here demanding a level of education and intellect unavailable to the majority….

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