A Cloud Never Dies
from a talk by David Zeman
“What Happens When We are Alive and What Happens When We Die?” This was the theme of a retreat with Thay at Plum Village that I attended a few years ago, and the life cycle of a cloud was one of the metaphors Thay used to explain the idea of no birth and no death. He made the provocative statement that there is a cloud in the room with us right now: namely, the warm water vapor we expel into the environment with every breath we take.
Because we can’t see this water vapor in the form of a cloud, we may say that it doesn’t exist. The water vapor needs to connect with colder temperatures for us to see it. So on a cold winter’s day we say we can “see our breath” as the warm vapor turns into a small, momentary cloud. While we may think the cloud only exists when we can see it, the cloud is always there.
On a larger scale, a mass of this warm vapor moving across an area of land may come to a mountain range. As the vapor ascends the mountain and the atmosphere cools, clouds appear at the higher elevations. Now we see clouds and we say they exist. Then, when the correct atmospheric conditions manifest, the cloud will release moisture and its visible form may be rain, snow, hail, or sleet.
As rain falls, for example, we say that rain exists, but the rain always existed in the form of the cloud. Thay: as the cloud feels itself change into raindrops, it is not afraid of this change, but rather it may be delighted at this next phase of its existence. Let’s say that one third of the cloud changes form into rain. The other two thirds may look down at the part of itself that has changed form and see its continuation.
It sees the rain fall on the ground, run into a stream or lake and eventually into the ocean. The remaining cloud can see that even though part of itself has changed form, it still continues. This is the cloud’s “continuation body”. The cloud may move out of our direct awareness. Perhaps the cloud and its water vapor have rained until the cloud is gone. It has turned to rain which has run into a river, then to the ocean where evaporation turns it back into a cloud again.
Thay has said that he is delighted that he has the present awareness to see his continuation body before his human body dies. How will Thay continue to live? In us. His daily meditation practice is in us. His instructions to stop, come back to our breath and be in the present moment are in us. His ethical teachings of the Five Mindfulness Trainings are part of our core being. We probably use them on a daily basis without even consciously thinking about them. We are Thay’s continuation body. He says, “Thay is in you. Please take good care of the Thay in you.”
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