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Lions Roar : January 2014
Z EN MASTER THICH NHAT HANH has a soft, feathery voice. It is, we are informed, twenty decibels lower than average, so even when he’s using a microphone, we must be perfectly quiet in order to hear him. “It was fifty years ago on this very day,” he nearly whispers, “that Martin Luther King gave a famous speech with the title ‘I Have a Dream.’ ” Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, as he is affectionately known, pauses. “From time to time,” he says with a smile, “I have a nice dream also.” This is the beginning of today’s dharma talk, and the beginning is always my favor- ite. It’s addressed especially to the children. From the toddler who likes to yodel during silent meals to the woman sitting in front of me with the pure-gray ponytail, there are more than eight hundred people on this six-day retreat. We are at Blue Cliff Monas- tery in Pine Bush, New York, and the theme we’re exploring is “Transformation at the Base: The Art of Suffering.” In other words, it’s the very essence of the Buddhist path. Suffering is the inevitable common denom- inator of life. Buddhist practice transforms it into happiness and liberation. “I’ll tell you one of my dreams,” Thay continues. “I had it about twenty years ago, when I was very young.” The eighty- six-year-old monk smiles at the quiet joke he’s cracking. “I was something like sixty- six. Very young.” Yet in his dream, he was even younger, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, and he was overjoyed because he’d been accepted into the class of his university’s best pro- fessor, a man who everyone said was exceptionally wise and kind. But on his way to the classroom for the first time, Thay saw a young man who looked exactly like him. He knew this young man was no other than himself and he wondered if the other him had also been accepted into the prestigious class. He stopped in to the administration office to ask. “No, no, not him,” declared the lady in the office. “You, yes, but not him.” Thay left the office confused and grew more so when he learned that the illustri- ous professor was a professor of music. Not being a music student, Thay couldn’t understand why he’d been accepted into this advanced class. Then he opened the classroom door, and inside there were over a thousand students, and the view through the window looked like Tusita Heaven—all waterfalls and mountain peaks covered with snow. Surprise after surprise, Thay was informed that he had to give a music pre- sentation as soon as the professor arrived. What was he going to do? Looking around for a solution, he put his hand in his pocket and felt the bowl of a small bell. Because he was a monk, the bell was the one instru- ment he was a master of, so with a happy heart, he waited for the professor’s arrival. “He’s coming, he’s coming,” Thay was told, but he never did get a glimpse of the pro- fessor. In that moment, Thay woke up. “I stayed very still in my bed,” he tells the Blue Cliff retreatants, “and I tried to figure out what the dream meant.” Thay realized that the young man who looked exactly like him was a self that he had left behind. PHOTOBYSTEFANBAUMAN Above: Retreatants at Blue Cliff celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech by mindfully ringing bells and remembering that we still have a dream to realize. Right: Thay leading walking meditation in the Catskills. In his words, “People say that walking on water is a miracle, but to me, walking peacefully on the Earth is the real miracle.” Previous page: Thich Nhat Hanh shows the re- treatants one of his calligraphies. “The tears I shed yesterday have become rain” is his poetic way of saying that we can transform our suffering into happiness. PHOTOBYANGELAHARNISH 52 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2014