A LETTER TO MY TEACHER – A RESPONSE TO THE BAT NHA KOAN
Dear Respected Teacher,
This is a moment of happiness.
I am sitting with a stick of incense, a pot of tea, sunlight, silence and ease. There are more than enough conditions for my happiness.
I have been through storms in the last few months; storms of doubt, fears, anxiety and despair, or rather disappointment. I think that sometimes I profoundly disappoint myself – I am not able to live up to my highest ideal, and failing to live up to my expectations, or the expectations I feel from others, I sink even lower – I give up on myself, I let go of my principles. I think this is what happened to those policemen, to certain members of the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, and to certain politicians, East and West. A small betrayal leads to a bigger one, and so it goes on.
It is heartbreaking to know what is the right thing to do and then to not do it. At the time the only way to justify this failure, this disappointment, is to say to oneself, well, I didn’t have any choice, my habits are too strong – I will change them later when conditions are more favourable; I am weak. There is a kind of bitter irony in knowing that and not doing anything about it – I tell myself that there was no choice, I was just doing what everyone else was doing – I can’t go against the system, that would be foolish and idealistic – I have to live in the real world. It’s just a dream to think that I can change – I know I’m fundamentally flawed and will never really change. The system is flawed, humanity is flawed, there is nothing really worthy to be called an ideal for my life and who am I to think I can change things? I should just keep my head down and continue business as usual – I have to be practical, reasonable, realistic; later, when more people support me and agree with me I will act. For now I’ll just grit my teeth and look after my own interests – just survive. And when the pain of the inner contradiction is too great I can turn on the TV or eat something. It would probably hurt more to uphold my ideal anyway – because I would only be disappointed. Isn’t that what politicians say about themselves? That the only thing they can guarantee is disappointment.
These thoughts have been strong in me and the thoughts too that there were things about me that would not change; that I was lazy, greedy, pushed around by my desires; that I liked to escape from reality – before I ordained as a monk I could erase entire days and weeks by losing myself in escapist novels or films – and well, there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it, and so many times I just gave up trying.
The most amazing thing is that there are people who seem to have confidence in me – who seem to trust me, who trust me more than I do myself. Maybe it’s because they’re foolish and they don’t really know me – if they knew what I was really like they would not trust me at all, they would know I am not worthy of their trust. But somehow they don’t seem to be foolish, in fact, quite the opposite, they seem to be the wisest people I’ve ever encountered – and they seem to know me better than I do myself – they seem to see in me something beautiful, something strong. Could they actually be right? Could it be true that there is actually an energy in me that just wants all beings to be liberated from suffering? – that this energy may actually be stronger than all the others, and that they can see it in me even when I can’t. How could it be? They show such confidence in me, they never hesitate to water the seed of aspiration in me – in fact that is all they do – and strangely, I find myself getting stronger, more able to say no, happier, more determined and more energetic in helping others.
What is this thing they see in me that gives them such confidence? Don’t they see how confused I am and how I am controlled by my desire? – my desire for recognition, for love. Sometimes it seems as if my teachers are looking at me from beyond space and time, from a place of radiant stillness, untouched by coming and going, success and failure, increase or decrease. How can it be that they don’t blame me and are not angry with me? Have they already forgiven me for not being able to live up to my highest ideal? How can I deserve this extraordinary gift of compassion?
I think the attackers of Bat Nha monastery must have felt something similar when they looked into the eyes of the young monks and nuns. One man cut his hand as he was smashing the windows of the monastery and a sister immediately came to him and cleaned and bandaged his wound. How did he feel in that moment? They say he withdrew and stood silently, shaken and wondering. What about the policeman who sat down in a lull, tired and alone, after participating in the violent attack on the brothers, and was then approached by one of those very brothers, who sat down next to him and offered to share with him his small morsel of food? How did the policemen feel, when after having interrogated that brother for six hours straight, he treated them as friends, listening to their difficulties and offering them ways to deal better with the contradictions in their lives?
I have often wondered if I could have been as strong as that brother. What would I have done in the same situation? Would I have been able to maintain my peace and my compassion as the blows were raining down on me? Would I have been cowardly? Would I have been aggressive? Would I have tried to be heroic?
Now I see the real question, which is: how can I continue to nourish the seed of great compassion which is already in my heart? How can I let go of the mind of comparison and see that I am that monk, looking up with steady calm and compassion, thinking only of the safety of my brothers, as the fist fell towards my face. And I am also looking down as I launched my fist at him, my eyes meeting his and seeing no fear, no blame; hesitating suddenly as compassion bloomed in my heart and I pulled the punch, unable to strike. And I am there in Paris, refusing to give up, not resting until I had done everything I could think of to get the press to pay attention, not willing to stop until every avenue had been exhausted, every number called, every favour cashed in. I am also the sister who night after night stayed up writing emails to politicians who would not reply, not sleeping, not thinking of herself, driven only by the deep desire to help. I am the Thai diplomat whose professional calm suddenly broke and who cried simple tears of compassion upon hearing Thay Trung Hai speak of the courage of his young brothers and sisters.
How many times has this seed of compassion bloomed, only to be crushed again by the machinery of bureaucracy and pragmatism? How many times have I lifted my eyes in hope, only to turn them away again in shame at my own actions? By what miracle have I come to a place where this little seed of compassion can be so nourished that I start to trust again? – that I see again that nothing has been lost and that none of my actions, none of my disappointments has even in the least bit tarnished this pure source of compassion in my heart.
As my eyes open again to the wonderful reality all around me, I feel the tension drop from my shoulders. Maybe I can gently begin to deposit my burden – the burden I have carried for so long and added to without knowing – maybe I can start to put it down. Maybe there is such a thing as peace – not peace in the future but peace now.
I was struggling before. I wanted to convince everyone in the West that this tragedy had occurred – I wanted to convince the politicians that it was indeed a tragedy, that our happiness and wellbeing as westerners is somehow connected to that of a group of monks and nuns in Vietnam, that they needed to act. I wanted to awaken their humanity, to touch their compassion – for them to be moved. I was prepared to do anything to try to convince them of the truth of what we were saying. I was sure that if we marshalled the correct arguments – if we could gather enough witness testimonies, photos, videos, arguments, explanations and press-coverage, then the politicians would have to accept the truth of what we were saying – that no-one would anymore be able to suggest that we were lying or exaggerating, that no-one would be able to believe the lies and propaganda of the Vietnamese government, that everyone would see through the corrosive phrase “an internal conflict between two Buddhist factions”, that the truth would overrule this oft-repeated lie and banish it for good from peoples’ minds. And I was so upset and even angry when at times it seemed that it wasn’t working – that the Party line was winning and that we were beginning to hear it from European politicians and from other Buddhist organizations; that this insidious but oh so believable lie was worming its way into the hearts of members of our own community and that I even heard it from my own father.
I became desperate. I thought if only we could get one more witness testimony, if only we could meet in person with the French officials, if only they looked into the eyes of the brothers who were dragged down flights of concrete stairs and beaten with sticks – the brothers who fearlessly put their heads under the wheels of the cars to stop them from leaving, who were trampled and abused and treated like animals (though I would not wish animals to be treated like that either); maybe if they saw them they would be convinced. But my teacher saw my confusion and said this: “I think the French politicians are like the Vietnamese – they know the truth, but they want to continue doing business.” And later the realization ripened in me – that all my striving was in vain, that it would never be enough just to present the truth in the most convincing way, but that there had to be the conditions for the truth to be received – that it was not because I had failed in my task of presenting the facts of the case, but that there were other elements which meant that certain people did not want to see the truth because that truth was inconvenient.
When I can see that they are not ready to receive the truth then I can relax – I do not need to strive – there is no failure or success – there is just great peace. I will continue to play my role of course, if I am asked to speak I will speak and I will do my best to speak the truth in a way that can bring about reconciliation and healing, without anger or blame; and to do that I will continue to cultivate mindfulness in order to transform the anger and blame that is still in my heart. I will put all my energy into my mindful steps and breaths – because to do so is happiness; and because when I can touch happiness, then I know I am ready to act in the most effective and compassionate way. I know that in the future I may encounter many difficult situations – situations of injustice, intolerance, war, famine, drought, displacement of populations, and perhaps the death of millions of people – but I also know that the indestructible seed of awakening has begun to stir, the seed of compassion has started to germinate in my heart and I have nothing more to fear.
I think my aspiration before had a quality of desperation, of struggle. When we would chant the names of the Bodhisattvas at the end of formal meals and send energy to those who were suffering, I used to send energy with a kind of suffering compassion – a pained longing for others to be well and at peace – there was tension and struggle in my compassion. But now I feel something different, I have touched the peaceful aspect of my aspiration. I have touched the understanding that the only peace and happiness I can ever offer are my peace and happiness in this moment. Of course Thay has always taught us this – but the conditions were not yet right for me to receive this truth. How much more must that be so for everything else Thay teaches us? If I cannot realize the truth of what Thay is saying, it must be because there is something in me I am not prepared to release, to give up. But that is OK too.
Let me rest for a while –
Let me enjoy the cold and the sunlight,
The soft falling oak leaves
And the blue-white sky
I have struggled so long,
Let me rest a while –
I have struggled so long
To prove myself to myself,
Myself to others, to try
To be worthy of their love –
To try to prove I loved them.
Now I start to see
That I am neither lacking nor complete
And I let the burden of ages,
of generations softly down;
I put it down with all my love –
We did not know we were carrying it –
We did not catch the haunted look in the mirror –
We did not understand why we had no peace –
And it is only as I start to put it down,
To let it go,
That I see it for what it is;
I have been running for a long time –
Now I allow myself to stop and enjoy.