Shambhala Sun | January 2014
The tears I shed yesterday have become rain
War and violence, loss and exile—no one knows more than
Thich Nhat Hanh how we all suffer. Yet, he teaches, every single one of us has
the capacity to transform our suffering. At Blue Cliff Monastery in the Catskills, ANDREA MILLER joins Thich Nhat Hanh and his students to practice for peace and happiness—for themselves and for the world.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has a soft, feathery voice. It
is, we are informed, twenty decibels lower than average, so even when he’s
using a microphone, we must be perfectly quiet in order to hear him.
“It was fifty years ago on this very day,” he nearly
whispers, “that Martin Luther King gave a famous speech with the title ‘I Have
a Dream.’” Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay, as he is affectionately known, pauses.
“From time to time,” he says with a smile, “I have a nice
This is the beginning of today’s dharma talk, and the
beginning is always my favorite. It’s addressed especially to the children.
From the toddler who likes to yodel during silent meals to the woman sitting in
front of me with the pure-gray ponytail, there are more than eight hundred
people on this six-day retreat. We are at Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush,
New York, and the theme we’re exploring is “Transformation at the Base: The Art
of Suffering.” In other words, it’s the very essence of the Buddhist path.
Suffering is the inevitable common denominator of life. Buddhist practice
transforms it into happiness and liberation.
“I’ll tell you one of my dreams,” Thay continues. “I had it
about twenty years ago, when I was very young.” The eighty-six-year-old monk
smiles at the quiet joke he’s cracking. “I was something like sixty-six. Very
Yet in his dream, he was even younger, maybe twenty-one or
twenty-two, and he was overjoyed because he’d been accepted into the class of
his university’s best professor, a man who everyone said was exceptionally wise
and kind. But on his way to the classroom for the first time, Thay saw a young
man who looked exactly like him. He knew this young man was no other than
himself and he wondered if the other him had also been accepted into the
prestigious class. He stopped in to the administration office to ask.
“No, no, not him,” declared the lady in the office. “You,
yes, but not him.”
Thay left the office confused and grew more so when he
learned that the illustrious professor was a professor of music. Not being a
music student, Thay couldn’t understand why he’d been accepted into this
advanced class. Then he opened the classroom door, and inside there were over a
thousand students, and the view through the window looked like Tusita
Heaven—all waterfalls and mountain peaks covered with snow.
Surprise after surprise, Thay was informed that he had to
give a music presentation as soon as the professor arrived. What was he going
to do? Looking around for a solution, he put his hand in his pocket and felt
the bowl of a small bell. Because he was a monk, the bell was the one
instrument he was a master of, so with a happy heart, he waited for the
professor’s arrival. “He’s coming, he’s coming,” Thay was told, but he never
did get a glimpse of the professor. In that moment, Thay woke up.
“I stayed very still in my bed,” he tells the Blue Cliff
retreatants, “and I tried to figure out what the dream meant.” Thay realized
that the young man who looked exactly like him was a self that he had left
“Because I’d made efforts to practice,” he says, “I overtook
myself. That is why I was accepted, and he was not. In the process of practice,
you become your better self with more freedom, more happiness.”
The music class, according to Thay, symbolized an assembly
of advanced Buddhist practitioners, while the professor symbolized the Buddha
himself. “I regret that I did not have a few more minutes in the dream,” Thay
quips. “If I had, then I would have seen the Buddha in person.”