The First Realization

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I appreciate the opportunity to have a dialogue with you during the next several sessions on the Eight Realizations of The Great Beings. I’ll illustrate the First Realization through my life experience to make it more personal. I request that you also share your experience so that this would be a learning experience for all of us.

Brothers and sisters,

This is the First Realization. Please listen to it carefully:

THE FIRST REALIZATION is the awareness that the world is impermanent. All political regimes are subject to fall; all things composed of the four elements are empty and contain the seed of suffering. Human beings are composed of the five skhandas, aggregates, and are without a separate self. They are always in the process of change – constantly being born and constantly dying. They are empty of self – without sovereignty. The mind is the source of all confusion, and the body is the forest of all impure actions. If we meditate on these facts, we can gradually be released from samsara, the round of birth and death.”


I was born in a village in North Vietnam. My father, an Army second lieutenant, died from the wounds suffered in a battle with the communist forces during the Indo-China war. I was six years old. My youngest sister was an infant. The war raged on. Whenever we heard the airplanes screaming overhead, or the thudding sound of a mortar, we rushed for the family underground bunker. When the communist guerillas became active in the village, the French legionnaires – comprised of Vietnamese, French and other Europeans, and Africans – conducted sweeps. The guerillas always melted away before the soldiers arrived. The legionnaires put fear in the villagers once they got there. They raped men and women. They burned house, and infirmaries. They stole chickens, and ducks for meals. The same year my father passed away, they burned the village school to the ground. My eldest sister and I went to board with people in a nearby village so that we could continue our education. I didn’t know this family, had no friends, and was very lonely. One night, we were awakened by gunshots of all kinds from all directions. Flares lit up the sky. We ducked under the bed. After a couple of hours that lasted like eternity, we heard footsteps getting louder and closer in our direction. We held each other’s hands, and pressed our faces against the floor. I wondered who were coming, were they government or communist soldiers? Would they break into the house? I could hear a man moaning softly outside “water, water…” There was noise near the outdoor water container and another voice urging gently “Hurry up, drink it…” I was relieved as the footsteps gradually faded into the darkness. The next morning, I followed the crowd to the nearby government outpost which had been under attack during the night. The guard tower had been destroyed, and bodies of half a dozen of communist soldiers were scattered among pools of blood in the front courtyard. The building was shot to pieces, but the defending soldiers drove the attackers away. The dead soldiers met impermanence violently that night.

When I was eight years old, the Geneva Armistice was signed, and the country was divided in halves. The communists controlled North Vietnam and the nationalists controlled South Vietnam. My family escaped to the South the following year. We lost everything except the clothes on our backs. We stayed in three refugee camps for several months before settling in an impoverished part of Saigon to rebuild our life.

I lived in North Vietnam for nine years, and another nine years in South Vietnam before leaving for Canada to study engineering thanks to a generous scholarship from the Canadian government. During the last semester, I married my wife. We had been pen pals for almost nine years – a friendship that started when I was an 8th grader in Saigon. We moved to Texas, her home state, after my graduation in 1969.

Texas has been my home for the last 46 years. I’m pleased to say I’m a happy and grateful naturalized Texan. My wife and I started a family. We have three children plus two grandchildren. My work took me to 11 countries, although health issues abruptly ended my 30-year, rewarding career in the engineering-construction industry 15 years ago.


My life story is not unique except in the specifics: the individual, the places, and the time. The core of each of my experiences is repeated everyday across the world. It bears witness to the fact that no conditioned existence is permanent and that impermanence can be as close as the next breath. One day I had a father, the next day he was taken away. It hurt for a long time until I learned that my sisters and I are his continuation. He continues to exist within us, our children, and grandchildren. I was living comfortably in my village after the French Indo-China war. Suddenly, I faced miserable living conditions under the tents of refugee camps, one of which was set up in the middle of a cemetery not too far from the Cambodian border. It was exhilarating to go to Canada, but it was sad to leave the family at the age of 18 for a distant land knowing that there would be no home visits. As it turned out that I wouldn’t see my mother until 16 years later. It broke my heart when Saigon fell in 1974 and the family couldn’t get out.

On a global level, climate changes, tsunamis and droughts bring disasters, mountains erode, glaciers melt, and volcanoes erupt; young people grow up, grow old, get sick, and die. These are the external phenomena that we can observe. Inside our bodies, millions of cells are created, destroyed, or modified daily. The rises and falls of civilizations, dynasties, ideologies, and political regimes is the manifestation of impermanence. The lesson to be derived is to enjoy what’s enjoyable at the present moment; when it ends, let go. If we get hooked on it, we’ll struggle as a fish dangling at the end of a rod. Impermanence has its upside. Without impermanence, there wouldn’t be advances in sciences and technologies. Our civilization would remain stagnant. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy the better quality of life that enables us to live longer and in more physical comfort today. Without impermanence, I wouldn’t have been welcomed back in Vietnam when I visited Hanoi in mid 1990s to discuss with government officials the development of the first refinery project in the country. Police officials tried to invite me to visit my village. The chief of my province and his two deputies had dinners with me. Cognitively, without impermanence, we wouldn’t be able to transform our destructive emotions either.

Embracing impermanence has made me a better person. I’ve become more compassionate toward myself and my family. Without chronic illnesses, I would have been too busy working to fully realize the extent of sacrifice that my wife made in taking care of me so that I could focus on work while she was raising our three children. Had I not suffered the tragedy of war, I would not be able to empathize with the heart broken feelings of an orphan who has lost her parent(s), the pain of a soldier’s widow, or the agony of military parents who lost their sons or daughters. Had my family not lost everything during our escape to South Vietnam in 1955, I would not have experienced poverty and might not have studied diligently enough to qualify for the Canadian scholarship (though, to be frank, luck had a lot to do with being selected). It was the only venue for higher education and a safety net for me without which I would have been stuck in Vietnam during the war. I would have been drafted into the Army and joined the fates of my classmates in re-education camps after Saigon fell.

Our natural tendency is to resist impermanence when it pushes us out of the comfort zone. A more resilient strategy would be to embrace the change and look for the seeds of happiness within suffering, and cultivate the conditions for success in the reversal process. In my experience, growing up poor can be a blessing. It builds mental fortitude, diligence, determination, and imagination for break- through performance later in life. Wisdom grows slowly with age in my case, and I’ve enjoyed sharing it with our little grandson who lives with us.


Neuroscientists have demonstrated through MRI imaging studies of the brain that there is not a separate and independent self – a single entity or a mechanism alone – in our brain that determines and gives order for the rest of the neural circuits to act. Rather, it’s the synchronous firings of the neurons to convey their messages jointly.

None of us exists alone. This is equally true for the hermit living in a cave in the wilderness. Regardless whether he receives direct food supply from other human beings, he survives thanks to the fact that they have not polluted the air he breathes, poisoned the water he drinks, contaminated the earth on which he dwells, or destroyed the animals, vegetables, plants, and minerals that he intakes. We depend on one another for our well being. We’re interconnected.

Although I’m Vietnamese by birth, I’ve non-Vietnamese elements in me. When I was growing up in South Vietnam, I drank the water originating from Tibet that found its way through India, Thailand, and Laos to feed the Mekong Delta. This river also brought nutrients to the rice fields and produced an abundance of fish that I ate. Thus, part of my being is Tibetan. The Canadian people sustained me for five years in their country while I was trained to be an engineer. It follows that part of my being is Canadian. I’ve been living on American soil, eating American food, and breathing American air for 46 years. How can I deny that part of my being is American? We‘re interconnected not only with other human beings, but also with non-human being elements for our survival: the sky, the earth, the oceans, rivers, and streams; the animals, vegetables, plants, and minerals on which we depend for our daily survival.

When the Buddha says there is no-self, it doesn’t mean that I don’t exist. He teaches that I do exist, not on my own as a separate an independent self, but my existence is dependent on other human and non-human elements. The above examples demonstrate his point. This interconnectedness is the ultimate truth in human to human relations, and between human and the environment. No-self is discussed fully in the Mahaprajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Since we depend on each other for our survival, we must cooperate; nobody wants to suffer. Our happiness is others’ happiness and their happiness is ours. We must also protect the environment. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh compares the denial of climate change and failure to protect the environment to committing theft against future generations. We’ll go into further detail when we discuss living in simplicity and sustainability of the earth in the next session.


Our body has an outward beauty. It is a source of sensual pleasure. Below the skin, the body excretes impurities from the digestive, and respiratory systems, etc. If it’s not for the availability of water, soap, and air conditioning we’ll not adore it as much after only a couple of days. The Buddha exhorts us to meditate on the essence of the 32 parts of the body and their impurities as an antidote to its sensual attractiveness. According to Buddhist teachings, there are four types of nutrients. Their impacts on the body and mind are discussed under the Second Realization. Whatever impact the body impact the mind. Unwholesome feed lead to unwholesome deed. The delusions of our untrained mind regarding impermanence and no-self, physically and emotionally, bring about suffering to ourselves and to others. The first pair in the Dhammapada addresses this dynamic (1):

Mind is the forerunner of all actions

All delusions led by mind, deluded by mind

If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind, suffering follows

As the wheel follows the hoof of an ox pulling a cart


Mind is the forerunner of all actions

All delusions led by mind, deluded by mind

If one speaks or acts with a serene mind, happiness follows

As surely as one’s shadow

(1) The Dhammapada, Ananda Maitreya and Thich Nhat Hanh,

Parallax Press.

Mindfulness is the energy that keeps us from being carried away by the nutrients and the deluded mind.


In summary, the world is impermanent. All phenomena are empty of an independent and separate self. If we try to grasp to impermanence or a self we will suffer. Impermanence is not necessarily negative. We’re interconnected with other human beings and the environment. We owe our survival to them and we cannot deny their rightful existence. We must cooperate. The path that the Boddhisattvas practice to bring beings to the shore of compassion, joy, and liberation is contained in the six paramitas.

Since no-self is the ultimate truth, to understand no-self is to practice giving which will be covered during the last session. The following wise words from his H.H. the Dalai Lama will guide us in our meditation in preparation for this session:

“We have the capacity to think several centuries into the future.  Start the task, even if it will not be fulfilled in your lifetime.  This generation has a responsibility to reshape the world… We must ask ourselves about how we lead our life, in the service of what exactly are we using whatever talents we may have? …To check our motivation we must ask:

Is it just for me, or for others?
For the benefit of the few, or the many?
For now, or for the future?”