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young people are angry with their father,” Thich Nhat Hanh says. “They
cannot talk to their father. There is hate.” Then Thay tells us in his
soft, accented voice about a young man he once knew who was so angry at
his father that he wanted nothing to do with him.
children, with their tiny, bare feet, are still in the gymnasium turned
dharma hall with the adults, and I’m surprised by how quiet and
attentive they are. Sitting by one of the loudspeakers is Alison, my
retreat roommate, her hand on her baby-round belly.
you look deeply into the young man,” continues Thay, “you will see that
his father is fully present in every cell of his body and he cannot
take his father out of him. So when you get angry with your father, you
get angry with yourself. Suppose the plant of corn got angry at the
grain of corn.”
never been like the young man that Thay knew. My father and I were
always on good terms, but—though I never told him this—it touched off
seeds of anger in me when he got sick.
father left when I was four. One day, my mother and I came home and
there was a note on the kitchen table. There was also a plate with
sandwich crusts on it—the leftovers of the lunch he’d eaten before
getting on a plane to Calgary, a faraway city where a woman was waiting
for him. I didn’t see my father for two years. After that, I saw him for
a couple of weeks every summer when I’d visit him and his new family.
The nanny would feed me and my half siblings dinner and then I’d get
sent to bed at the same time as them. They were seven and nine years
younger than me, so bedtime would come when it was still light and I’d
stare at the ceiling, sleepless. Later, after Dad and his second wife
started having problems, he stopped buying me plane tickets to Calgary.
He visited instead, and we played Trivial Pursuit and he took me out to
practice my driving. I didn’t feel, though, that he really came to see
me. He stayed at his mother’s place and spent most of the time drinking
wine and moonshine with his siblings and cousins.
I grew up, I inherited my father’s skepticism but not the other pillar
of his philosophy—the belief that we continue through our children. With
a gulf so wide between us, I couldn’t see myself as a continuation of
him. Of course, I wasn’t denying biology; I understood that fifty
percent of my genetic information came from him. But so what? Genetics
could explain my cleft chin, not who I was. After all, my father had
another three children with his second wife and one more with his third,
and all of us progeny were uniquely ourselves. One of my half-sisters
was so angry with Dad that she refused to have contact with him.
to Thay, if we’re angry with our father or mother, we have to breathe
in and out, and find reconciliation. This is the only path to happiness,
and if we can live a happy, beautiful life, our father and mother in us
will be more beautiful also. “During sitting meditation,” says Thay, “I
like to talk to my father inside. One day I told him, ‘Daddy, we have
succeeded.’ That morning, when I practiced, I felt that I was so free,
so light, I did not have any desire, any craving. I wanted to share that
with my father, so I talked to my father inside: ‘Daddy, we are free.’”
also talk to my mother,” continues Thay, “because I know that my mother
has not really died—she continues on in me. When I practiced walking
meditation in India with a group of a few thousand people on the largest
boulevard of New Delhi, I invited my mother to walk with me. I said,
‘Mommy, let’s walk together. Use my feet, but also yours. My feet are
the continuation of your feet.’ So, mother and son, we enjoyed walking
in New Delhi. I invited also my father to walk with me. Then later on, I
invited my brother and my grandmother and the Buddha and my teacher.
The walk was so wonderful.”
university gym has a blue glow—blue floor, blue seats in the bleachers,
closed blue curtains filtering the morning light. Thay has a glow too—a
warm smile. “When we make a happy step, all our ancestors enjoy walking
and making happy steps,” he says. “If you walk in the Kingdom of God,
all of them walk in the Kingdom of God. If you walk in Hell—in despair
and anger and hate—your ancestors have to join you. Let us choose to
walk in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.”
this is Thich Nhat Hanh’s term for dependent origination, a key concept
in Buddhism, which states that all phenomena arise together in a
mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. In traditional Buddhist
literature, this is a doctrine that can come across as philosophical
and cerebral. Thich Nhat Hanh, however, has a gift for presenting
Buddhist teachings in very human, very personal terms. At the retreat,
he uses the orchids on the stage to explain interbeing. To exist a
flower needs sun, clouds, rain, earth, minerals, and a gardener. Many
non-flower elements come together to help the flower manifest and if we
remove these non-flower elements, there is no flower left.
a similar way, so-called opposites always manifest together,
inseparably. There is no darkness without light, no left without right,
no above without below, no parent without child. “Before the son or
daughter manifests, you cannot call the father a father,” Thay explains.
“Of whom would he be the father?” In other words, my father and I
inter-are. We all inter-are.
used to believe that my father had no excuse for his behavior — his
chronic infidelities, his willingness to jump ship. After all, his own
father, Buddy, wasn’t like that. Perhaps Buddy had never heard of Rev.
Theodore M. Hesburgh, the longtime president of Notre Dame. Yet he lived
Hesburgh’s well-known quote: “The most important thing that a father
can do for his children is to love their mother.” The Awakening the
Heart retreat is helping me to look more deeply into things. To see the
rain in the flower or the piece of paper. To see that my father was a
product of many causes and conditions.
me, like all of us, my father was wounded. I don’t know the source of
his suffering and maybe I never will. But I understand suffering. My
father was trying to fill himself up with busyness, women, and booze. No
one does that unless they hurt.
If Thich Nhat Hanh is right and my father is indeed in me, then I can heal
his wounds. When I heal my wounds, it heals his, and it heals the
wounds of future generations. With my suffering transformed, I won’t
pass it along. The cycle stops.
Touching the earth is the last activity of the evening, so afterward I fall into noble silence along with the other retreatants and I file out of the gym. It’s a special feeling to walk without words with hundreds of people. Little sounds take on new texture. There’s the sound of feet on hard concrete, then the sound of feet on softer earth, rustling through grass. Thich Nhat Hanh has taught us to do walking meditation at a normal clip. In this way, we can do it always, anywhere. Inhale, I take three steps; exhale, five. Inhale. Exhale.
The Douglas firs tower darkly above me, and a weeping silver linden gives off its perfume. Roots, branches, leaves—I feel my connection to these trees, the way that they take in my breath and the breath of all of us, and then give it back to us as oxygen. I feel connected to the other retreatants, too, united in our practice, in our inhalations and exhalations. And I feel connected to my father. I have a debt to him—a debt for this life. I used to believe my father left me twice—once to be with his second wife and once to die.
But he didn’t leave at all. Thay’s right—my father is walking with me now.