I sat and squirmed. It is always odd to be in the ritzy Pasadena Civic Auditorium with 5,000 mindful, meditative Zen devotees. And they do seem unusually devoted to the charismatic Thay in a world of inauthenticity that is so often out of integrity.
I browsed the brochure and relaxed. It told me to. To take notes or try to achieve anything would be to make myself like hard earth the rain could not penetrate. But to soften like a flower with rain in its face, my roots would soon be refreshed.
I exhaled. This year Thay really seemed to be saying something. The last time Wisdom Quarterly was here, we laughed at his bag of meditation rocks for kids and how he stretched that into a talk to a crowd that was all about the feeling and nothing about the intellectual content.
No Pain or No Suffering?
But this time, to my surprise, there was a point. An arrow strikes. It hurts. How would it feel if another arrow struck the very same spot? It would hurt hundreds of times worse. This is exactly what happens when we are injured (by harsh words or circumstances or failures). The second arrow is our own condemnation, our going over and over what happened, what we suffered. Someone abused us, and now we abuse ourselves with those painful words.
Pain may be necessary in life; suffering is strictly optional. Pain is sensation we regard as unpleasant. "Suffering" is the mental reaction, the rejection, the denial...the resistance. Why do we resist reality when we can acknowledge, accept, and heal instead?
It's not fair! It's not right! It should be that way not this way! And so on we go catastrophizing everyday events. Pain should be experienced mindfully rather than reactively. In this way, it is not very painful at all. The pain is much worse in the mind -- the fear, the worry, the bracing and contracting. But if we open, it comes and it passes.
"No Mud, No Lotus"
The flower metaphor was apt. I was a blossom, and it was raining. And the rain felt good on my face and soaked into my thirsty roots. "A lotus is made entirely of non-lotus elements," Thay explained. There are clouds, rain, mud, nutriments... All of these go toward making a fragrant flower, but none is the flower.
In just the same way, non-suffering is made entirely of suffering elements. Suffering made our character, gave us our compassion, brought us to where we are. It was not out of extreme pleasure that one ended up in a luxurious auditorium in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles desperately seeking enlightenment and Zen satori.
It was the sense of disappointment with materialism, the sense of lack in affluence, the emptiness of worldly pursuits that brought us around to a search for meaning. We are not getting younger, not growing happier with more stuff, not finding the answers we thought would come on their own. So we search.
Our quest is our response to the suffering (unsatisfactoriness and disappointment) we experience in the midst of our hedonism and sensual indulgences. We are rich and the poorest of all. And we see the poor on TV, at the nonprofit, at the shelter, homeless on the street, and sometimes they seem far happier. Is this the ghostworld (preta-loka) of Asian lore? Or is this the Great Western Paradise (Pureland) of Mahayana cosmology?
It is what we make it. Suffering and nonsuffering intermingle here. Would "heaven" be better for its utter lack of suffering, or would we be cloyed. Thay, who mixes in an uncomfortable number of Christian/Catholic references (perhaps due to Vietnam's French Catholic colonial past or the belief that he is forever addressing closet Christians) defined God and light and breath with uniquely Buddhist acceptance.
And God said, "Let there be light!" But light said "no."
"No!?" God asked.
"No, not until there's dark," light answered.
Nonsuffering without suffering? What would that even mean, or how would it be comprehensible. Granted, it is a trite insight from Religious Studies 101. But it points out something silly about us: Why do we crave for perfect painlessness when we can experience, accept, and even benefit from disappointment, discomfort, distress, and that thing the Buddha never failed to mention as central to life: dukkha?
Deer Park, California
It might have ended there. But it was the long Labor Day weekend. And Gary from ATS told me Thay would be at a free day at Deer Park Monastery near San Diego. But it would crowded. And we would have to leave very early if we were to have any hope of finding a parking spot or cushion space. Thay only visits rarely, and many come to see him.
Seeing him there up close was even more comforting and satisfying than visiting with him on tour. Would I have time? Would there be space? Was it worth the drive from Los Angeles? The watches on sale in the lobby were the answer I needed.
What time is it? It's always the same time of course!
- PHOTOS: All unlinked photos by Wisdom Quarterly: Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion by Emeraldsrain (flickr.com); Thay surrounded by monastics at Deer Park (WQ); Thay teaching in the enormous barn-like Deer Park meditation hall (WQ); Thai "inviting" the singing bowl surrounded by children (WQ); total body relaxation for hundreds of visitors, 75 percent of them women, led by Thay's elderly French singing nun (WQ); God (baloscartoonblog.blogspot.com); Thich Nhat Hanh invites small bell to sing (hometown-pasadena.com); the Now Watch (bluecliffmonastery.org); after the yoga, there were three-breath-full-bodied hugs for the 21 who attended (photo by Yogi Seven, WQ).