Letter to Thay

Letter to Thay

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My sincerest hope is that someone will read this to Thich Nhat Hanh. I hope that my teacher will have a chance to know how he changed my life. This was originally written just after Thay’s stroke.

Years ago as part of my own search for health I started practicing yoga. Along with my Thai massage practice I grew more interested in meditation and Buddhism. Combing through the shelves at the local library I ran across many of your books and thumbed through them as a novice.

Being a westerner Buddhism was new to me. I was more familiar with the stories of Jesus from the New Testament but I was drawn into your way of writing and sharing your spiritual life for the benefit of others. I read more slowly, focused more on your words and slowly things became more clear. You my brother, could see. Your words were not prose, they were poetry in the form of prose. You prodded me to look deeper at life, to live fully and learn to love everyone starting with myself.

I was in a place of great anger. I’d been hit by a drunk driver and had very bad pain. The legal and medical establishment did little to help me and that’s how I stumbled into yoga then meditation to begin with. I was angry at the world, angry at society, angry about war, angry that so much wealth accumulated at the top while people starved at the bottom.

As my practice continued and deepened I grew calm. My clarity increased and my mental focus sharpened. The anger though was still present. I’d not overcome it. If anything it grew. I was confused without teachers to show me the way. The more clear I became internally the more askew the world seemed. My days were spent breathing, doing Thai massage, yoga, fasting and cleanses, open mic standup comedy (to deal with anger) and volunteering with hospice. I did my best just to experience what was going on without judgement. As long as I did not harm others or encourage bad karma I had to process my own stuff. The only way out was through.

I knew from your books and talks that you could see. You hadn’t turned away from the darkness. You stared at it and smiled. You honored the darkness within yourself and integrated it. I’d always been interested in the Vietnam war. Once while giving a report on it in school I was asked by a fellow student if it was actually a war. Puzzled, I answered yes that it was a war and my teacher corrected me and announced that Congress must declare war for it to be a war in the United States. I felt very sad for all those who perished and were injured on either side for what was not considered a war.

I’d seen footage from My Lai. I’d seen the photo of a small girl running naked through the street because she’d been burned by napalm that my government used tax dollars to produce. I’d seen the footage of the monk, lighting himself on fire in protest. All of that, I knew you’d seen it. I knew that you had not closed your eyes, had not hardened your heart and chose the side of humanity rather than the division of north or south Vietnam. You saw all of it deeply and allowed the sadness to push you further into your practice, into meditation and to love all deeply.

Knowing all of that I remember reading one of you books and encountering this idea, “The world is perfect just as it is.” I read this. I backed up and read it again. I knew you’d seen all I’ve previously mentioned. Could it be? I grew angry. I became furious at you for writing such a thing in your book. I do not recall what book it was since I read so many but I was so angry with you.

Thay, I wanted to fight you. I wanted to roll up my fists and punch you to make you take it all back. “The world is perfect just as it is.” How could you say such a thing? That’s horrible! How could you see all that darkness and declare that things were perfect just as they are? I was so angry. It took me weeks of thinking, pondering, yoga and meditation to relax and not be so upset with you.

I tell people that you are a miltant pacifist. I tell them that you were fiercely neutral during the war and aided any you could by rebuilding homes and easing their suffering. This man who’d dedicated his life to peace and compassion became someone I was so angry with I wanted to be violent. In the midst of all of that I saw you smile. No matter how angry I became, how much I protested you smiled. You put that in your book for a reason. You are a good teacher and you see, you broke me. You broke me of my error. You shined a mirror up to me and my own predicament.

All I could see was that smile. At first in my mind it was mocking, teasing due to my error in judgment. Over time I realized it was clear, calm and full of compassion for my situation. You see, a monk doesn’t write an entire book about anger without experiencing his own first. You hadn’t just been writing words. You shared your experience. Your experience led you through the same darkness time and again and you found a way out. A way that led to more calm, more mindfulness and more love.

In a sense when you said, “The world is perfect just as it is” you didn’t mean that what happens is good. You didn’t say anyone deserved it. You just said that it’s perfect as it is. I’d spent so much time with my energy focused outward. I was angry at them out there! I was angry at those people. I’d spent all of my time being angry about the outside to the exclusion of spending more time looking within.

If the world is perfect as it is who do I complain to? Who do I attack? Where do I put my energy to then make the world a better place? How do I correct it? All of these things sat on me heavily for weeks. What was I to do? You’d left me in an uncomfortable teaching that shook me deeply albeit from the kind wise words of a smiling monk. I’d grow angry then see you smile. I’d want to continue being angry but all I could see what your smile and vision that would not waver.

What I realized is that you were forcing me to look at myself then asking me if I was going continue the endless cycle of pain and suffering or choose to end it in myself. Attacking those others over there just covers up the anger and creates ceaseless duality that leads to dukkha itself.

When you said the world is perfect just as it is it was a strong mirror. You see. I believed you. I trusted you as a teacher to shed light. The light you shed was almost too much for me to bear. It took time but I understood that you were pushing me back inside myself. You pushed me back into meditation. You pushed me to uncover the darkness within myself, then I could go help others adequately. I’d spent my time being angry at the outside instead of balancing the inner and outer. You’ve no issue with my inner anger at injustice but what will I choose to do with it? There lies the teaching. The world is experiencing dukkha. What will you not do about it? That was the teaching. You presented a choice. I chose.

Over time I grew in my practice, integrated your teachings and wasn’t as angry. I understood your teaching and cherished the fact that a militant pacifist, a man so dedicated to peace and harmony that I was sure flowers must sprout out of your footsteps made me want to fight. I feel so honored to have shared our world with you and hope that this letter finds you well. My hope is that someone will read this to you and share what you’ve done for me. I hope that it makes you smile.

You’ve encouraged me to heal and confront my own inconsistencies, my own imbalance and strive to help others live good lives. I honor you brother for all that you’ve shared and wanted to wish you well.

When I found out about your recent sickness I went to my wife and with sadness and with a crestfallen demeanor told her you’d had a brain hemorrhage. Near tears she consoled me and let me talk about you. I wanted to write you to make sure you had a chance to know what you and your life have meant to me. I honor your teaching and thank you for sharing with me to crack me open. That crack let all the light in.

Thank you so much teacher. I shall honor you always. I’m very happy that a monk of small physical stature taught me most of what I know about love. Thank you brother.


Robert 🙂

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