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Lions Roar : September 2007
HE’S TALLER THAN you’d expect—especially for a Vietnamese man—and thinner. He has big ears and huge eyes set deep into his face that give the impression that he is watching you very closely but from very far way. And he speaks so softly that you have to pay exquisite attention or miss his point entirely. Maybe that’s his ploy. A dharma teacher friend of mine calls his brand Buddhism Lite. And I tended to agree when I first saw Thich Nhat Hanh ad- dress a packed auditorium at Berkeley High School in California in 1988. His simple message and his demure persona, especially in comparison to the personas of those who were traveling the North American Buddhism circuit at the time, convinced me that this guy was never going to catch on in the West. Little did I know. Many people already knew he had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-Vietnam War activities, speeches, and writings. Many more knew of Vietnamese monks whose acts in demonstration against that war had galvanized anyone with a sentient heart at the time. The image of Thich Quang Duc in 1963—sitting in full lotus, sitting as still as if he were in deep meditation before a statue of the Buddha but in fact fully en- gulfed in flames in a Saigon plaza—was burned into our collec- tive consciences. We were both riveted and repulsed each time we saw it on TV, in newspapers, and in magazines. The thing was, though, to do such a thing was unimaginable, no matter how committed we were to ending the war. Although there seemed something inherently hypocritical for someone from a tradition whose operating paradigm was to harm no living thing to kill himself or herself in the name of peace, we all still could identify with a frustration that made us feel as if we would implode. Thay, as he is commonly called, which means “teacher,” was a lecturer at Columbia University when he saw that image with the rest of us. He rushed home, realizing that the conflagration was about to rage out of control in the country he so dearly loved. He set harder to work. In 1965, he established the School of Youth Suppose you live with someone you appreciate very much. That person has goodness, talent, and kindness, and you feel very lucky to be able to live with such a person. You recognize him or her as someone wonderful. And yet sometimes you don’t cherish her presence or his presence. Some- times you say something rude or impatient. And sometimes you want to be alone, far away from this person. And yet deep inside you, you know that if that person died or went away, you would suffer tremendously. We all have that tendency to neglect and forget. Every time I turn on the water tap, I practice mindfulness and I see that the water that flows through my fingers is a miracle. It has come from deep down in the earth or high in the mountains, and it has arrived in my bathroom. And because of mindfulness I know that there are areas on earth where water is very rare, and families have to travel three or five kilometers to get a bucket of water to bring home so they can cook and wash. Although part of us recognizes that the water is precious, another part of us tends to neglect that. We call it forgetfulness, the opposite of mindful- ness. Forgetfulness is the other side of ourselves. We have both mindfulness and forgetfulness at the same time. And sometimes forgetfulness gets the upper hand and you lose your happiness. You are capable of being grateful, and when you feel grate- ful, you’re happy. But sometimes you just forget, you don’t feel grateful anymore, and every time you don’t feel grateful, you suffer. We all have that tendency to be ungrateful, just as we all have gratefulness within. We are made of these con- flicts. We are made of flowers and compost at the same time, because we are a garden. When we are learning something for the first time, before our mind is filled with preconcep- tions, we pay full attention. We are in our be- ginner’s mind and we have our full mindfulness available. If we practice diligently and creatively, we can keep our practice fresh and our beginner’s mind intact. ♦ © Unified Buddhist Church. Used with permission of Parallax Press. 62 SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2007 Politics of a Still Mind PERRY GARFINKEL offers an appreciation of the deep personal realization behind Thich Nhat Hanh’s philosophy of Engaged Buddhism. SEPT 58-65.indd 62 SEPT 58-65.indd 62 6/25/07 5:04:57 PM 6/25/07 5:04:57 PM