By Alberto Annicchiarico After an absence of three years, Thich Nhat Hanh was given a very hearty welcome during his March visit to Italy. On the evening of March 18, more than 600 people gathered in the ancient, beautiful church of San Gregorio al Celio in Rome to listen to his public talk. The next day, 340 people followed Thay on the "Joyful Path"—the name given to the four-day retreat which had been beautifully organized by the Sangha of Rome. The retreat took place at the "Mondo Migliore (A Better World)," a Catholic institute on Lake Castelgandolfo.
The "Our Father," one of the most important prayers of the Christian tradition, was the wonderful final topic of the incredibly touching retreat. Thay spoke about nirvana, the historical dimension, the ultimate dimension, the Kingdom of God, and the Holy Spirit. Many people were surprised and amazed to hear such clear, deep, and mystical explanations of their own tradition from a Buddhist master, right in front of a Catholic altar and a cross.
Thay gave teachings on sitting, walking, and eating mindfully. He also underlined the importance of knowing how to deal with everyday emotions, difficulties, and worries. In his Dharma talks, Thay focused on the Four Mantras of Love, which, he explained, we should practice in our families and with our beloved ones. He reminded us that if the person who makes us suffer is somebody we care about, the pain which comes from being wounded is even bigger—that's why we need to practice the Four Mantras.
Thay asked the children, "Do your teachers teach you what to do and what not to do when somebody makes you angry? Do you know how to behave while your parents argue or tell you off?" The answer was negative. He explained to both the children and the grown-ups how to embrace anger when it arises. Thay invited those present to practice the second mantra, "I know you are there, that's why I'm happy." It was very touching to see children teaching their parents to look deeply in their eyes, say the second mantra in silence, and then hug them tenderly. It was a moment of great intensity and many people were moved to tears.
Sister Chan Khong sweetly guided the practice of "Touching the Earth," and one evening was dedicated to the Five Precepts. Those who were considering receiving the precepts were encouraged by five people who spoke about their own way of practicing the precepts.
During the Dharma discussions, the emphasis was on the importance of putting the teachings into practice, free from ideas and notions, and from an attitude of self-pity. Some shared their fear and skepticism about keeping a stable practice in every situation. A facilitator reminded us that there were no miracles to wait for. "Maybe," he noted, "the only magic is the sound of the bell. Inviting the bell to sound in order to come back to our true home has the power to create a real miracle." One woman spoke about facing her daughter's death. She said, "For more than 50 years, I have lived and traveled in adventure and excitement. But in the last four years, when I decided to stop and started to practice meditation, I experienced intense emotions. Thanks to Buddhist meditation, I have found the courage to go on living and, after a few years, to take back the pictures of my daughter."
The Five Precepts Transmission Ceremony was held on the last morning of the retreat. Many people decided to receive the precepts, and the church, temporarily being used as a zendo, was literally divided in two by the long queue of the ordinees. While it looked like a massive "conversion" in Catholic Italy, Thay encouraged all the ordinees to discover the jewel in their own religion and to stay in touch with their spiritual roots. He said, "That is what should be done for peace, reconciliation, and the happiness of future generations."
Thay's Italian visit concluded in Venice on March 25 with a lecture organized by the Maitreya Foundation. A few weeks later, we received the good news that Living Buddha, Living Christ had been published in Italian. The "Joyful Path" is now brighter and we can go through it with more awareness.
Alberto Annicchiarico practices with the Sangha of Milano.