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Lions Roar : January 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2012 40 the porch, she told me once, and she felt like she was washing him down the drain. On the wall opposite me hangs the gym’s scoreboard, flanked by the stylized heads of two thunderbirds. I close my eyes to them and let my tears drip to the pink foaminess of my yoga mat. Then Sister Chan Khong tells us to think of our father. OVER BREAKFAST WHEN I was eleven, I asked my dad if he believed in ghosts. “See this coffeepot,” he said, holding it up to the morning light. “I believe in this coffeepot because I can see it. I don’t believe in what I can’t see.” I bit into a corner of toast with jam. “So you think that when we die, that’s it?” “Not at all,” he said. “We live on through our children.” I squinted at my father, still in his bathrobe, and decided that living on through our children was just a fancy-schmancy way of saying that when you’re dead, you’re dead. This was a no-frills belief I couldn’t share, because I believed in most everything else—heaven and God, reincarnation and astral plains, ghosts, astrology, and psychic powers. With its many mysterious lay- ers, my eleven-year-old world was both thrilling and terrifying. Attics held untold possibility; I slept with blankets over my head; I went to fortune-tellers. Be it palm readings, tea leaves, or tarot cards, witchy middle-aged women in slippers predicted great things for me. What they never predicted was doubt. Yet after I left eleven behind—after years had gone by—my beliefs came to look more and more like Dad’s. Pragmatic. Evi- dence-based. I was my father’s daughter. “You cannot take your father out of you; you cannot take your mother out of you,” Thich Nhat Hanh says during a dharma talk in the War Memorial Gym. “You are a continuation of your father; you are a continuation of your mother. In fact, your father is both inside and outside. The father inside is younger, and you carry the inside father into the future.” Thich Nhat Hanh (known affectionately as Thay) is up on the stage, along with pots of orchids. This, the first part of his talk, is dedicated to the children who are on the retreat, and they’re sitting on the floor directly in front of the stage. I’m on the floor too, but further back, and behind me there are people on chairs. “Bring a grain of corn home, plant it in a small pot, and remember to water it every day.” Thich Nhat Hanh says. “Then when the grain of corn has become a young plant of corn of two or three leaves, ask the plant this question: My dear little plant of corn, do you remember the time when you were a tiny seed?” Thay’s smile is wide as he gives the children these instruc- tions, and this gets everyone else smiling too—both children and adults. “If you listen very carefully, you can hear the answer,” he says. “The young plant of corn will say something like: ‘Me? A tiny seed? I don’t believe it!’” A brown-robed Zen master crack- ing a silly joke—this gets people giggling. “The young plant of corn has been there for only two weeks,” says Thay, “but it has already forgotten that it was a seed, a tiny seed of corn, so you have to help the plant to remember. Tell it something like this: ‘My dear little plant of corn, it’s me who planted the grain of corn in this pot and who has watered it every day. You came from that seed.’ Maybe in the beginning the plant doesn’t believe you, but be patient and it will accept that it was once a seed.” I am already familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s grain of corn teaching—I’ve read it in his books—but it sounds fresh right now. He is delivering it as if he’s never delivered it before, and I’m hear- ing it that way. Thay says that practitioners of meditation can see the grain of corn when they look at the plant—meditation allows them to do this. So maybe it is this retreat, with its meditation and mindfulness practices, which is allowing me to see more layers and live differently. Lots of little things feel different since the retreat started. Last night, for instance when I went back to my dorm, I unwrapped the vegan chocolate peanut butter brownie that I’d been too full to eat at lunch. I sat on my bed and just ate, concen- Thich Nhat Hanh gives a dharma talk