Shambhala Sun | January 2014
This Laughing, Hurting, Busy World
On retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery, a teenager got up in
front of the eight-hundred-plus retreatants and posed this question to Thich
Nhat Hanh: “What is the hardest thing that you practice?”
As he always does before speaking, the Zen master paused.
“That is,” he finally said, “not being overwhelmed by despair.”
During the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh, known to his
students as Thay, founded the School of Youth for Social Service, a volunteer
organization that aided victims of the violence. One village located near the
demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam was bombed, so Thay and
his young social workers helped rebuild it. Shortly after, the village was
again bombed by the United States, and again rebuilt. This happened four times.
“If we gave up, that would have created a feeling of
despair,” Thay explained to the Blue Cliff retreatants. “That is why we kept
When people have given in to despair, they can be driven to
do desperate and dangerous things. So it’s important, Thay said, never to feed
the seeds of despair in others. That does not mean that you should lie about
dire situations, but you should think carefully about your words and frame what
you say in a constructive manner.
Young Vietnamese frequently asked Thich Nhat Hanh if he
thought the war would end soon. The truth was he could not see the light
at the end of the tunnel; the fighting had been going on for so long that it
seemed like it would continue forever. Yet Thay did not say that to the young
people. “Dear friends,” he told them, “the Buddha said that everything is
impermanent. The war is impermanent also—it should end someday. Let us continue
to work for peace.”
In this issue of the Shambhala Sun, you will find the
story of my retreat experience with Thay at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush,
New York. During the course of this retreat, I got to explore concrete tools
for working with despair and other unhelpful emotions, and what I took away
with me is this: for transforming suffering, mindfulness practice is key but a
community is necessary to support that practice.
“In order to produce the powerful energy of enlightenment,
compassion, understanding, you need a sangha, a community,” Thich Nhat Hanh
says in my interview with him on page 58. “You build a sangha and together you
help each other nourish the buddha and the dharma in you.”
In “Before He Melts Away,” also in this issue, we get an
intimate step-by-step look at how one practitioner used meditation and
mindfulness to work with his despair, grief, and fear. James Hanmer finds
himself in the middle of a nightmare: his toddler son is diagnosed with a
life-threatening form of cancer. There is no silver bullet that’s going to make
this situation disappear, but meditation gives Hanmer insight, strength, and a
measure of equanimity. He realizes that even in his darkest hour, he’s
fortunate. He is, after all, alive and can put his whole heart into easing the
suffering of his family. Though I’ve read this story again and again, I choke
up each time. Be prepared to be moved, but also be prepared for a happy ending.
On my way home from Blue Cliff Monastery, I went to the Earl
of Sandwich in Newark Airport and had my own small experience with the insight
brought about by mindfulness. A week prior, I’d have thought that the noise and
busyness of the restaurant were just ordinary life. But post-retreat I was
experiencing everything through the surreal lens of reverse culture shock—the
cranked-up pop music, the frenetic clink of cutlery, the
laughing-shrieking-talking tableful of women eating nachos.
My sandwich came and I chewed slowly without picking up my
book or cell phone. I contemplated how many beings had worked to make this meal
possible for me. The cows and factory workers. The farmers and truck drivers.
The cooks, waiters, and dishwashers. After six days of practicing with a
sangha, I was open to connecting with my world this way, bite by bite.
I looked around the restaurant and saw a little girl with a
zebra-print suitcase and a solitary man lost in his Kindle. The people around
me were tired and stressed, bored and excited, slightly irritated and slightly
drunk. They reminded me of other people I knew; they reminded me of me. Then
suddenly, if just for a moment, I saw clearly. This whole laughing, hurting,
busy world—it is all my sangha.
—Andrea Miller, Deputy Editor