Sunday, October 05, 2008

Mindfully happy - Thich Nhat Hanh in Delhi

Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh is an 83 year old Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, author, and one of the most popular Buddhist teachers in the West. On October 4, a sizable audience in Delhi treated him with great respect and dignity, attentively listening to his joyous speech on the spiritual practice of mindfulness.

The content of his talk was a mixture of Buddhist philosophy and contemporary stories from the lives of ordinary people he knew. Major themes included being present in the moment, happiness, and bringing out the goodness and compassion that already exists in people. He spoke with such joy and reverence for life, that by the time he came to tell his stories, many audience members were visibly moved.

The audience listens
The audience listens

One story that touched many in the audience was his description of a failing marriage that was revived by the wife rediscovering love letters her husband had written decades before. He said that people should keep their love letters, so that they can be read later in life. It stuck me that it was through sharing ideas like this that he was able to convey his deep respect for the audience's lives, reassuring them that despite he being a celibate monk, he understood them.

Cooling down
As Thich Nhat Hanh was on stage with his fellow monks, one of the elderly audience members felt a little hot, and placed an brochure from the event down his neck to cool down. It seemed even at the back of the room, Thich Nhat Hanh was keeping an eye on things!

Later in the day, some of his monks led further teachings on mindfulness. One young monk, a delicately built Asian woman, sang "Breathing In":

Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am blooming as a flower
I am as fresh as the dew

Her confident, calm voice conveyed genuine love for what she was singing.

I am as solid as a mountain
I am firm as the earth
I am free.

She sang not as a performer projecting herself onto her audience, but as someone immersed in the meaning of what she was singing. She embodied it and radiated it.

Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am water reflecting
What is real, what is true
And I feel there is space
Deep inside of me

Till this point in the song, she had sung slowly and reverently. For the last three lines of the song, she picked up the pace dramatically.

I am free
I am free
I am free

Her song rang true in the depths of the hearts of her listeners, and all were uplifted.

Soon afterward a monk led an "apple meditation", by which he meant the practice of eating an apple with complete attention to the act. He encouraged us to truly smell the apple's fragrance, to feel the juice running down one's face, to imagine who had produced the apple, and to be aware of the sunlight that had nurtured it. He told us to be completely in the moment and be happy. As he said this, we all slowly ate an apple, including him. He asked for reactions from the audience. One woman admitted she'd never smelled an apple before. Another spoke of the appreciation for the workers who transported the apples from farms near the Himalayas.

I had a different reaction. I also allowed my senses to appreciate the apple. But soon my mind was occupied by the idea that I was eating it, and that life eats other forms of life. I reflected on the supreme mystery of that simple fact: life consumes life. As I did so, I was reminded of the fact that everything is destroyed. When the sun runs out of energy, life will be extinguished on planet earth. In the fullness of time, everything as we know it will cease to exist. There will be no apples, no Buddhist teachings, and no life. I was overawed by the mystery of that, but also afraid, because I knew the answer to the question of "why" this is so will always remain elusive. In the face of the ceasing of existence, mere happiness didn't have much meaning for me.

In the question and answer session that concluded the day, I tried to share my reaction and asked for a comment. I probably didn't do a good job of communicating what I felt, because in response, a monk briefly talked about the duality of suffering and happiness. Again the focus was on being happy.

I'm not one to argue against being happy and living a life of radiant joy. The wife of Sri Ramakrishna once said "I never saw the Master sad. He was joyous in the company of everyone, whether a boy of five or an old man. I never saw him morose, my child. Ah, what happy days those were!" Thich Nhat Hanh and his fellow monks reflected the spiritual power found in living a life of joy.

But in the face of the destruction of all existence, there is a limit to how satisfying happiness will leave us. Faced with death, as we all are, the immanent prospect of the destruction of our bodies is a powerful motivating force to transcend limited notions of who we really are.

I reflected on the famous moment in time when the "father of the atomic bomb", J. Robert Oppenheimer, witnessed the first explosion of a nuclear weapon, and repeated to himself a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." There is clearly something very deep that can occur when we truly reflect on death and destruction, whether it be our own or someone else. That can be lost if we merely focus on the here and now of being happy, without awareness of what the full range of the Buddha's teachings were.

Although I don't have much direct experience with the particular ways in which Thich Nhat Hanh presents Buddhism, given his vast experience and his stature as a great teacher, I can imagine he has a whole variety of methods to get his devotees to reflect on life in all its dimensions. I'm interested to know what some of them are.

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