Saturday, May 14, 2022

Making Peace In the Moment We Are Alive

        It is a custom to offer reflections of gratitude for a Buddhist teacher on the 100 day commemoration of their death. May 1 marked this continuation for the Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (teacher), and this is my belated offering of gratitude. 

"Right in the Moment We are Alive”

       In the early 2000s, I was a pastor in rural Missouri. In addition to the familiar challenges, our communities were reeling from the emerging methamphetamine crisis.  By 2004, Missouri led the nation in meth lab busts, with most of the drugs being produced in home labs. There was a great deal of shame around the problems, too. I remember one woman confidentially asking for help, looking for support for her granddaughter. She was waiting for me outside of my office on a crisp evening in October. We cried together as she told their story, the wind stinging our faces as evening fell. I shared as many resources as I could and recommended some treatment options. But this was too much; she recoiled and stammered, “Nobody can know about this; it would devastate the family!” 

She was not alone; secrecy was usually the default response. But the shame could be hidden only so long, as our community’s needs quickly outpaced the resources available in our little towns. Overwhelmed and uncertain, many people seemed to find it more comforting to avoid the problems than address them, pretending the suffering did not exist. And my work in the community flew in the face of that avoidance. In hindsight, it was probably not surprising that I found myself increasingly at odds with others in leadership. One Sunday, the treasurer cornered me in the copy room. The whir of the Xerox machine buzzed behind us as she emphatically told me that things had to change. “The people you bring to church cost more money than they give!” We were both bewildered, and I learned in a new way that cultivating compassion is an ongoing practice, and not always an easy one, even for people who might otherwise be kind. 

Still, my ongoing work, focused on family conflict, abuse and addiction recovery, and spiritual care for marginalized folx in the community, continued to be both vitally necessary and surprisingly controversial. We did our best to work together, as needs continued to grow. But I could feel my own wellbeing getting stretched thin, and the spiritual disciplines that had sustained me throughout my life to that time were failing me. The most pressing question was increasingly becoming: how can I practice in such a way that I can engage with suffering (inside and around me) with honesty, openness, compassion, and wisdom, without succumbing to apathy, rage, or despair? I felt increasingly frustrated at those who did not support the community programming and decreasingly hopeful that our efforts would make a difference. 

        My spouse Holly and I were foster parents at the time, and we frequently visited a little thrift store in town to pick up household items and toys. This particular shop was a bit cluttered, with rows of display shelves loosely organized by type and crowded with old kitchen utensils, hotel style art, and trash bags overflowing with stuffed animals. It was as if all the odds and ends of the town’s garage sales were unceremoniously deposited in a single storefront, so it was difficult to look for anything specific. Instead, we would give a quick glimpse to see if something useful caught the eye. I had the habit of checking out the bookshelves, too, just in case something of interest had been donated. 

It was late 2005 when I happened upon a thin volume on those shelves, Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh. I was vaguely familiar with the author’s name, and the title certainly caught my attention. The back of the book told me that the author was active in peace work and was also a friend of Thomas Merton and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which were all good signs. The excerpt spoke directly to my heart:  

“Every day we do things, we are things, that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our lifestyle, our way of consuming, our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment we are alive.” 

"If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace."

The sticker on the cover assured me that this was a small risk worth taking. For fifty cents, I left the thrift store with a hidden gem. Reading Being Peace, I felt myself entirely at home. Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach and experience spoke directly to my condition. His expression of Engaged Buddhism answered my queries about how to cultivate a spiritual practice that could heal and transform suffering (inside and around me) with honesty, openness, compassion, and wisdom, without succumbing to apathy, rage, or despair. “There are so many things that make me want to withdraw, to go back to myself,” he wrote. “But my practice helps me remain in society, because I am aware that if I leave society, I will not be able to help change it.” (50) The Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings became my daily companions, and I began a habit of reciting a training each day to help train and encourage my mind, a practice I continue even now. 

“With Those In the Places of Greatest Suffering”

     Having found Being Peace so helpful, I began listening to talks and reading more books by Thich Nhat Hanh. This was not as easy to do in rural Missouri circa 2005, and I was grateful for whatever resources I could find. One opportunity came during a rare vacation. Knowing how stressful our circumstances were, Holly’s parents gifted us with a vacation to Grand Teton National Park. Such a trip inevitably included browsing whatever used bookstores we happened across, and this is where I picked up a copy of Fragrant Palm Leaves, a collection of Thich Nhat Hanh’s journals (1962-1966). 

Before reading this book, I had only an academic understanding of the role and importance of the bodhisattvas in the Mahayana traditions. Thich Nhat Hanh helped me understand their power and beauty.  Kshitigarbha especially spoke to me, with his “vow to be with those who are in the places of greatest suffering.” His presence made it possible for flowers to bloom even “in the depths of hell.” Thich Nhat Hanh assured us that “No one sees the existence of suffering more deeply than a bodhisattva, yet no one maintains as refreshing and unwavering a smile.” (111) In reading these words, my heart, which had been heavy by so much suffering in and around me, opened again. 

        I never met Venerable Thay in person, but I have spent a lot of time with him, and his teachings and practices live within me. He had lived a courageous life in the midst of difficult and often terrifying circumstances: trying to transform a conservative religious hierarchy; engaging in social work in the midst of war; advocating for peace as an exile; aiding fellow refugees fleeing violence; supporting the Civil Rights movement when he lived in the United States; doing healing work with veterans and survivors; and more. For those who only know him for his gentle voice and meditation instructions, it may be difficult to understand that he was also a controversial figure that was considered dangerous by many people. Yet, even in the face of opposition, he continued his simple, loving practices for decades, meeting new issues with wisdom and compassion. In all of this, Thich Nhat Hanh’s life was consistent with the Buddhist understanding that if one is liberated from suffering, all are liberated. And if all are liberated, then each one is liberated. Or as Fannie Lou Hamer taught us, "Nobody's free until everybody's free."

The Care We Give to One Another

       This aspect of community, even and especially community in the midst of hardship, has figured prominently in my reflections of Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing.  Two familiar texts keep coming to my mind. In the 10 Subjects for Frequent Recollection, we recite: “‘Could my spiritual companions find fault with my conduct?’ This should be reflected upon again and again by one who has gone forth.” And from the Karaniya Metta Sutta, we remember that the boundless heart is: “Peaceful and calm and wise and skillful, / Not proud or demanding in nature. / Let them not do the slightest thing / That the wise would later reprove.” 

It is significant that both teachings put our lives in the context of community. But getting this right, too, is a practice. In my experience, people (at least in the West) often approach these questions with a rather binary focus on what is right/wrong (good/evil), to the neglect of a more relational and reflective approach. When I teach about meditation, for example, the most common question I’ve been asked over the years is, “am I doing this right?” But meditation practice is a relational practice; it is about our relationship with our experiences, our bodies, our hearts and minds, and even with each other and the earth. “Am I doing this the right way?” is usually not a helpful way to get to those relationships. So we work instead with another set of questions: what happens when I do it this way? Does this lead to more suffering, in myself, others, or the earth? If so, the practice is in letting go. Does this lead to compassion, wisdom, and insight – to more wellbeing in myself, others or the earth? If so, the practice is to encourage and maintain those skillful qualities. We call to mind our human and natural communities, understanding that there is no wellbeing for “me” that excludes the wellbeing of others. Our wellbeing is connected, and this is what moves us to refrain from doing “the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove.” 

        When this is the case, our self-restraint is not out of a sense of shame, guilt, or self-consciousness, but out of the care we give to one another. And while varying religious and cultural traditions may have its own definitions of who is wise, we hold in common a sense of trust in those who have demonstrated wisdom and compassion. Hopefully, this includes - or grows to include - ourselves, as our spiritual and reflective practices bear fruit in our lives. The wise, compassionate heart guides us, and we grow to trust that wisdom, and with it the ability to notice and let go when there is something unskillful. 

        In contrast, blame and guilt are usually unhelpful. More than that, they are usually inaccurate. They oversimplify the situation and lead to misunderstanding, since our lives are interdependent. Compassion and encouragement in wise action are helpful, for they help us make good choices that bear good fruit. We can take responsibility for our unskillful, harmful actions, ask forgiveness, make amends where possible, and begin anew. We can celebrate what is done well and encourage one another in skillful practice. We can be compassionate to those in need, even when they are victims of their own consequences. And we can hold out the possibility that life can change, in this present moment, wonderful moment. In doing so, we practice like a bodhisattva, for the liberation and wellbeing of all. 

This is beautiful and lovely. This is also training the mind - hard work! But it is possible. A friend and I were talking along these lines recently: take care of the practice, and the practice will take care of you. If we all practice in this way, then we can also say with confidence: take care of the community, and the community will take care of you. I am sure you have felt this, and also felt that it is easy to restrain ourselves from harmful actions when we are motivated by that care. The boundless heart, we find, knows how to let go. So we ask, “‘Could my spiritual companions find fault with my conduct?’ This should be reflected upon again and again by one who has gone forth.” We do this "Again and again," because it is a practice. By simply calling to mind the memory and presence of our caring community, we gain a sense of our shared wisdom and the support we need to stay on the path. 

A Possibility

        I believe this is also one of the important reasons why people all over the world felt the loss of the Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh so strongly. For so many, they encountered the teachings of Venerable Thay at a time in their life when they were hurting, angry, or confused. They learned to trust his gentle presence. And when the teachings opened an awareness of their unskillful, harmful actions of body, speech, and mind, it was done in a compassionate way that brought, not guilt, but insight toward wellbeing and an experience of care. We have at least glimpsed this in our relationships with each other and in our spiritual communities, too. We grow to know and trust what we can offer to one another, and this is the art of cultivating community. 

Yet anyone who has been involved in building community, especially amidst injustice and oppression, knows that it is hard work. Looking backwards, we can get a glimpse of how uncertain life is, including a lot of things that feel inevitable now. It is easy to remember Thich Nhat Hanh as an internationally known teacher and author; a founder of monastic and practice communities around the world; an accomplished scholar; a poet and artist; and an activist who combined all of this into an expression of socially engaged spirituality. But his life was also filled with tender and fragile moments, as when he described the moment when Sister Chan Khong brought him back from the edge of exhaustion and burnout during their efforts to work for peace during the Vietnam War. “It was in 1966,” he shared, “when the war in Vietnam had become unbearable, and I was so absorbed in working to end the war it was hard for me to swallow my food.” Sister Chan Khong was mindfully preparing herbs with noodles. Her simple question, “Thay, can you identify these fines herbes?”, became a bell of mindfulness, and Thich Nhat Hanh was able to find his balance again. Beautifully, this was a lesson he never outgrew. He wrote: 

“Years later, a friend from America asked me, ‘Thay, why do you waste your time planting lettuce? Wouldn’t it be better to use the time to write poems? Anyone can plant lettuce, but few people can write such beautiful poetry.’ I smiled and said, ‘My dear friend, if I do not plant this lettuce, I will not be able to write poetry.’” (Foreword, Learning True Love)

This was the message I needed to hear when I was also exhausted by the suffering in my community, and I stumbled upon that little paperback in 2005. I had studied Buddhism academically for years, but Thich Nhat Hanh opened the door of practice to me. I’m grateful for the wonderful teachers I’ve had since then; I’ve studied a lot, and I’ve practiced a lot more. But, looking back, I see that I also have not outgrown the wisdom I first encountered in the teachings and example of the Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. With gratitude, I listen again to the words I first read in that little thrift store in rural Missouri: 

“Every day we do things, we are things, that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our lifestyle, our way of consuming, our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment we are alive.”