Friday, January 19, 2007

Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story

Azalea & Bath Paint
Originally uploaded by Seeking Tao.
The other night I heard an interview of Thich Nhat Hanh on the radio. By way of introduction they explained that during the Viet Nam War, he participated in the Paris Peace talks. After the war he was expelled from his home country- because he had firmly refused to choose a side, and so he came to live in France, establishing Plum Village.

“Thay” as his students call him, is over eighty now. I did not know that.
I did not know that Martin Luther King had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
I did not know what Thich Nhat Hanh really teaches.

I did know that I love to listen to his voice. So soft, so gentle, so very much at peace, and so very filled with kindness.

So, I went online to find some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. They do exist there.
But what I’d like to share is this simple story that I found.
Through it, I hope you’ll have the opportunity to simply hear his voice.

No heady lesson here. This is a chance for the learning that goes straight to the heart bypassing intellect, as Thich Nhat Hanh is “being peace.”

The Beginning of a Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France.

Today is the 28th of July 1998, and we are in the Upper Hamlet. We are going to speak English today.

When I was a small boy, at the age of seven or eight, I happened to see a drawing of the Buddha on the cover of a Buddhist magazine. The Buddha was sitting on the grass, very peacefully, very beautifully, and I was very impressed. The artist must have had a lot of peace within himself, so that when he drew the Buddha, the Buddha was so peaceful. Looking at the drawing of the Buddha made me happy, because around me people were not very calm, or very happy. When I saw the drawing of the Buddha I was very impressed, and I suddenly had the idea that I wanted to become someone like him, someone who could sit very still and peacefully. I think that was the moment that I first wanted to become a monk, but I did not know that. I wanted to be like the Buddha.

You know that the Buddha is not a god, the Buddha was just a human being like all of us, and he suffered very much as a teenager. He saw the suffering in his kingdom, he saw how his father King Suddhodana was trying hard to make the suffering less, but he seemed to be helpless. So the political way did not seem to him to be a very effective one. As a teenager the young Siddhartha was trying to find a way out of the situation of suffering. He was always searching and searching for the way. I think that today many young people also do as the young Siddhartha did: you look around yourselves, you don’t see anything really beautiful, really good, and really true, so you are confused. You are searching, looking very hard to see whether there is something really beautiful, really good or really true to embrace and follow.

I was very young, and yet I did have that kind of feeling in me. That is why, when I saw the drawing of the Buddha, I was so happy. I just wanted to be like him. And I was told that if you practice well, you can be like a Buddha. The Buddha is not a god; the Buddha is just a human being like us. Anyone that is peaceful, loving and understanding can be called a Buddha. There were many Buddhas in the past, there are Buddhas in the present moment, and there will be many Buddhas in the future. Buddha is not the name of someone; Buddha is just a common name, to designate someone who has a high degree of peace, who has a high degree of understanding and compassion.

When I was about eleven, I went for a picnic on the mountain of Na Son, together with several hundred boys and girls from my school. I was very excited about that picnic, because I learned that we were going to climb the mountain Na Son, and on the top was a monk, who lived there as a hermit and practiced in order to become a Buddha. I had had picnics before, but this one was so special, because I knew that if I climbed to the top of the mountain I would see the hermit, see someone who was practicing in order to become like a Buddha. So that was my secret hope, to be able to meet with the hermit. A hermit is someone who practices alone, who does not want to be disturbed, and who wants to devote all of his time to the practice.

At that time I did not know anything about the practice of mindful breathing, or mindful walking; I did not know what walking meditation was. We organized in teams of five boys, and we brought with us a few bottles of boiled water, and rice balls. We squeezed cooked rice into the shape of bread, and it was so compact that you could cut the rice into slices, and you would eat your rice with sesame seeds, crushed roast peanuts, and a little bit of salt. I think that in Plum Village you’ll have to organize that kind of picnic some day--just a slice of rice, eaten with sesame seeds—it’s very delicious. Since I did not know how to practice walking meditation, we tried to climb as quickly as possible. We got very tired. We had hardly come halfway up the mountain before we were exhausted, and the worse thing was that we had drunk all our water. We got very thirsty. So we tried our best, and when we had climbed to the top, we were completely exhausted, and thirsty; and we were given the order to prepare our picnic.

I did not care a lot about eating. I wanted to go and look for the hermit. But it was very disappointing—someone told me that the hermit was not there. Imagine my disappointment! A hermit is someone who wants to be alone in his hut. Imagine…he learned that three or four hundred children were coming! So he must have gone somewhere and hidden himself. I believed that the hermit was still somewhere there in the woods, and that if I ventured into the woods I might have a chance to see him and talk to him. So I left my friends, my copains, there, and I went alone into the forest. The forest was large, and there was not much chance of meeting someone who wanted to hide himself in it.

A few minutes after I went into the forest, I began to hear the sound of dripping water. The sound was so clear, so nice--like the sound of a piano. It was so interesting that I tried to go in the direction of the sound. Very soon after that I discovered a very beautiful natural well, made of blocks of stone. The water was very high, and when I saw the water, so clear, so refreshing, I was so happy, because I was extremely thirsty. To see the water was something wonderful. So I came close to the well, I looked down, and I could see every detail at the bottom of the well. The water was so limpid. I used my hand to cup the water and I drank it. It was so delicious, I cannot describe to you how delicious it was. I had never drunk anything like that. Believe me, it was much better than Coca-Cola, even Coca-Cola with ice.

After having drunk the water from the well, I felt completely satisfied. At that time I could not describe my feeling, but now I think I can describe my feeling: it was the feeling of being completely satisfied, when you don’t have any more desire, even the desire to meet the hermit. Very strange—why? Because in that moment, as a small boy, I believed that the hermit had transformed himself into a well so that I could meet him privately, in a kind of private audience with the hermit. You know, I had been reading a lot of fairy tales, so I really believed that the hermit had transformed himself into a well so that I could meet him personally. So I felt very privileged; I felt that I was the only one who could have that wonderful opportunity of meeting the hermit. Then I sat very close to the stones, and I lay down and looked at the sky. The sky was very blue. I remember also seeing a few leaves of a branch that was close by, hanging across the sky. Just a minute later, I fell into a very deep sleep.

I don’t know how long I slept, but the sleep must have been very deep, because when I woke up I did not know where I was. I had to look around to realize that I was on the top of the Na Son Mountain The space was so special, the circumstances so special: I alone was allowed into that space to have that wonderful encounter with the hermit in the form of a well. I did not want to leave the well. I wanted to stay up there, but I remembered that my friends must have been waiting for me. I had just suddenly disappeared, and that could have made them very worried. So I had to leave the natural well with a lot of regret. On my way down, suddenly a sentence came to my head, not in Vietnamese, but in French: "I have tasted the most wonderful water in the world." That water may symbolize a kind of spiritual experience.

When I arrived, my friends asked me where I had been. I did not say anything—I did not tell them anything. I don’t know why. It seems that I wanted to keep the event as something sacred, I did not want to share. I had the impression that if I told them about that, I would lose something. That is why I was not talkative at all, that afternoon. You know, my first experience with a Buddha was seeing the drawing on the cover of a Buddhist magazine, of someone sitting on the grass, very peacefully. My second encounter with the Buddha was when I was on the top of the Mountain Na-Son, and drinking the water from that natural well. Later on, when I was twelve, I made the determination that I would ask permission of my mother and father to become a monk, and I kept that secret for many years. It was when I was about sixteen that I formally made a request, and it was very fortunate that my parents agreed.

I have met my hermit in the form of a well. You may have met your hermit also, but you might not have recognized it. Your hermit may have been in the form of a tree, a rock, or a person. I think the moment when we meet the hermit of our life we are transformed, we know where to go. That was my case--when I met my hermit, I knew where I had to go. That is why I asked my parents to allow me to become a monk. Becoming a monk is just one way; there are many other ways that are equally beautiful. So I wish that every one of you here would be able to meet your hermit very soon. And you must be very attentive in order not to miss him, because you might meet him, and yet not recognize him. The hermit can appear to you at any time. But if you are mindful, if you are attentive, when your hermit appears, you will be able to recognize him at once. It would be a joy for me if, someday when you meet the hermit, you will write me a letter, saying "Thay, today I have met my hermit, and I’m very happy, I know where to go now." Don’t forget to do that.