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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Thích Nhất Hạnh, Việt Nam, & my very first Buddhist ~

When I was a young child, I knew very little about the lines drawn by religions to set themselves apart. It all seemed one universe, one Divine Plan, as accessible as my hands & toes. I made bargains w/ the gods I thought ruled it all — bartering my behaviour for the crises common to childhood: a ribbon at the horse show, a win in the spelling bee. Even in Việt Nam, my belief in what started everything was fairly simple. Like a fish, I swam in the wide sea of my believing. I was 10 or 11 before I began to realise there were differences.

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The first Buddhists I recognised as separate from my own life weren’t the monks who came daily, to the iron gate at the end of the drive. Chi Tám, our cook, would take out their morning alms of breakfast, bowing as she handed them rice in round blue & white bowls. The monks, even robed in saffron as they were, didn’t seem a lot different than the frocked priests at Jeannie Adams’s Catholic catechism class, or the collared pastor at the ecumenical church we attended Sundays. Or even the rabbi at Sydney Maynard’s synagogue on Saturday service. After all, Aunt Lois was a 7th Day Adventist, and they kept Sabbath on Saturday. Already a child of a polycultural life, what people wore to serve divinity seemed pretty irrelevant to the child me. (Still does :).)

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The first Buddhist I knew was not distinguished by his dress, or even his faith, but by his actions. He was completely different from any religious believer I had ever encountered. His name was Thích Quảng Đức (born Lâm Văn Tức), and he burned himself to death, just three blocks from our house.

I was young, but I heard about it anyway. We all did. And the idea that someone would burn himself up — quietly, w/ dignity and grace — in protest of the war my own father and his colleagues were enmeshed within… I couldn’t fathom it.  This revered religious figure sat down in a circle of his friends and colleagues, and poured gasoline over himself. And then he put a match to it all…And he sat there, immobile, the bystanders said. While his body and his life went up in scarlet flame and thick black smoke

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The thought of Thích Quảng Đức’s conscious sacrifice ignited something inside of me — some tiny but similar flame that said war has to be wrong, if a man would do this, out of his faith. For peace.

Earlier encounters with Buddhism were far less dramatic, although equally profound. I’ve written elsewhere about the temple in the banyan tree, and later visits to temples in Bangkok, where I graduated from high school.

But Thích Nhất Hạnh has a special hold on me. For one, he’s Việtnamese. This has always been important to me. I spent almost 5 years of my childhood — formative years — in Saigon, and Thích Nhất Hạnhwas from the beginning a connection to that time and place. He also was anti-war, in the quietly powerful fashion of a monk who inherited the legacy of Thích Quảng Đức.

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Thích Nhất Hạnh’s also a gifted poet, something that became increasingly significant as I found my way into the craft and art of poetics. Poets see things differently, and to know that he too sees with the kaledeiscope eyes of the poet meant much as I learned my craft. When asked about his 39 years of exile from his home country of Việt Nam, he replies to Oprah: I was like a bee taken out of the beehive…

And finally, Thích Nhất Hạnh loves tea. Watch his face light up in this excerpt from the upcoming Oprah interview.

This Sunday you can watch Oprah’s complete interview with this very special man on OWN, Oprah’s TV network. It airs at11 a.m. Eastern Time.

 

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Other paths: Thích Nhất Hạnh speaks with Oprah about possible lives ~

Yesterday I wrote a bit about  Oprah’s upcoming Sunday  interview  w/Thích Nhất Hạnh. In the excerpt, she asks him if he has regrets — if the Nobel-nominated, quiet Buddhist monk ever contemplates a path that might have held a wife, children. And the answer reassured me:

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Yes, he answered. Walking once, he saw a beautiful young woman, w/ a lovely child, and thought for a moment — if I were not a monk, I might have had a wife and child like that.

I found this simple admission profoundly comforting. Here’s Thích Nhất Hạnh — Nobel Prize nominee, major influence on so many lives, resister of a horrific war… And he sometimes has 2nd thoughts. The difference, of course, is that (as he told Oprah), “I don’t get lost in that kind of deviation …. I recognize it and I overcome it very quickly.” In other words? He doesn’t dwell on things. Just goes on w/ his life, knowing that “the intention is so strong that it can protect and keep you alive.”

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Hmmm… It doesn’t work quite the same for this far more flawed vessel. But at least I realise — once again — how hard this work we set for ourselves is. If Thích Nhất Hạnh has questioned the choices he made — even if only once, in a park in France, then it’s hard. And like meditation teaches us, it’s not putting thoughts ‘out’ of our heads and hearts. It’s the coming back to this point, this practice. It’s the stepping back from those other, possible lives (air castles, fictions, distracting thoughts of nevermore…) that constitutes the practice.

So thank you yet again, inimitable monk. Thank you for reminding me that to be human is to have to return, over & over & over, to the business at hand ~

 

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Coming up: Oprah’s interview with Buddhist monk & Nobel Prize nominee Thích Nhất Hạnh

Once, when my life was going very badly, and I was so angry every moment that it was like a white-hot inferno raging inside of me, Thích Nhất Hạnh soothed me. Actually, he probably saved me. At the very least he made it possible for me to live the life I have now, (relatively) peaceful. In a cooler, calmer place.

His Taming the Tiger Within lay beside my bed, on my night table, for weeks, as I read and reread each chapter. I’d read the monk from Việt Nam’s other books. I’d even done walking meditation for awhile. But the Nobel Prize nominee’s words on anger were powerful, a kind of healing cool against the incandescence of anger.

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But even as I read his books, his poetry, practiced as he recommended, I wasn’t particularly curious about the man behind the monk. Or perhaps, more accurately, the man who is also the monk. So I’m looking forward to Oprah’s Sunday interview w/Thích Nhất Hạnh, to hear him speak of his life, his practice, the impact this quiet monk has had on so many hundreds of thousands of people.

Join me Sunday as I tune in. Here’s an excerpt, just to pique your interest. :)

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death, not taxes ~

I am working on my death. Well, actually, it’s more like I’m working on my life up to my death. But I’m trying to hold that singularly discomforting goal in mind — the one event no one avoids.

My friends are dropping around me. Like petals from a perfect white Iceberg rose, they drift into fatal diseases, into disability, into such thick depression that medication becomes impossible. While I work hard to remain some kind of calm centre for them. Somewhere they can park, for a moment, and know they’re loved and safe.

When I think about it that way, it seems like it shouldn’t be so difficult. Shouldn’t take all I can muster, at a moment, to hug a dear friend diagnosed with absence epilepsy and crack the dumb jokes she needs to distract her. To let her know my love for hasn’t changed, even though so much of her life has.

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But if I call it like it feels, then I’m preparing for my death — learning how to live so that when death arrives black milk  of morning we drink you at dusktime we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night  — I can greet it. Not back up, not hide.

When I read poetry like Celan’s, above, I wonder how the Jews & Romanys and gays and disabled and the college professors and the intellectuals and artists — all rounded up by Hitler’s gangs — lived from day to day. I wonder how the men and women (and the children… the rare and precious children who survived) faced nightfall. What they dreamed, if they did, given the physical deprivation, the exhaustion. The desperation. And I wonder how they lived. Within the minutes of each hour. How they managed to draw breath, in the face of such relentless pain and sorrow.

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Buddhism isn’t clear about the after life. Although some Buddhists believe in reincarnation — many, in fact — another large number of us don’t know. I have no idea what (if anything) comes after death. I don’t believe that I’ll see my mother, my father, my old ladies whom I miss more each year. Or my beloved father-in-law, whom I wish I could tell about his two amazing grandsons. His amazing granddaughter-in-law. Nothing really helps with missing the dead. At least not for me. I just have to breathe through it. Turn my quiet grief to good use through tonglen.

Since I don’t believe I’m going to heaven — or hell, for that matter :) — there’s neither a carrot nor a stick to shape my living behaviour. I could do just what I wanted, if I weren’t a Buddhist. If I weren’t a Unitarian, as well.  Neither of  these belief systems offers carte blanche just because they don’t proffer dogma. Buddhism offer lists — the Four Noble Truths, the EightFold Path, the Three States of Existence, the Three Refuges, the Five Precepts… There are more! Unitarian Universalists eschew dogma, also turning to a list — the Seven Principles.

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Both Buddhists & Unitarians like guidelines, but not moral dictates. Even when there are strong suggestions — the Buddhist Precept that says don’t kill any living creature, for instance, is seen as a call for vegetarianism, by most Buddhists — not all Buddhists follow them. A lot of Buddhists  eat meat, up to & including the Dalai Lama, I once read. So neither of my spiritual belief systems is much on absolutes. :)

But death? They’re both pretty clear on the biology of that one. So here I am: trying hard to figure out how to live a good life, as I clear the hill that’s middle age. May Sarton wrote Plant Dreaming Deep  before she was 60, talking about her ‘middle years.’ Mine are upon me.

Buddhism is all about the here & now. So that’s where I’m trying to live. Here. Now. In this middle space. Hoping like hell the pale horse takes his time ~

 

 

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