“In the ultimate I dwell.” There are two dimensions to reality. One is called the historical dimension, and the other is called the ultimate dimension. Suppose we are looking at the ocean. On the surface we see waves rising and falling. From the point of view of the waves, there is birth and death, high and low, rising and falling. There are distinctions between waves.
But each wave is made of a substance called water. It is a wave, but at the same time, it is water. Concepts such as birth and death, higher and lower, rising and falling apply only to the waves, not to the water itself. So the waves represent the historical dimension, and the water represent the ultimate dimension.
When we look deeply at our own nature, we can get in touch with its ultimate reality. This ultimate nature is free of birth, free of death, free from any notion such as high, low, this, that, and so forth. In Buddhism, we call this nirvana, or “suchness.” Nirvana is the extinction of all concepts, such as existence, nonexistence, death, and birth.
This is true for for time, too. The present is made up of material called the past and the future, and the past and future are here in what we call the present.
The Buddha said that we should not be afraid of the past; but he did warn us not to lose ourselves in it, either. We should not feed regret or pain over the past, and we should not get carried away by the past. We do need to study and understand the past, however, because by looking deeply into the past we learn a lot of the things that can benefit the present and the future. The past is an object of our study, of our meditation, but the way to study it or meditate on it is by remaining anchored int eh present moment.
We may say that the past is dead, but ultimately the truth is deeper than that. The past is still here in the form of the present. We may think that there isn’t anything we can do about the past anymore, but there is. The past is here; and if we get deeply in touch with the present, we can touch the past as well, and transforming it.
Transforming the past is possible, thanks to meditation practice.
Excerpt from “You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment”, Thich Nhat Hanh & Sherab Chodzin