Touching the Blue Sky

The Story of Thay Phap An

By Thay Phap An

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Before I became a monk, I suffered from depression but did not know it. This created a deep need within me to look for something, although I did not know exactly what I was looking for. All I knew was that I wanted to search for some direction, some path. This longing began early in my childhood and it became dominant when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.

I looked for meditation books and pursued different types of practice, beginning in the ninth grade, and continuing after I escaped from Vietnam to live in a refugee camp and then in America. I was a very good student, but there was this sense of sadness deep within me. Often it lasted for days, and it paralyzed me, so that I could not feel the joy of life. However everything seemed very normal to me. Sometimes we suffer and we are not aware of our suffering, so we perceive it as something normal.

“Who Am I?”

When I graduated from college at age twenty-three, I felt a strong wish to become a monk. But my parents did not want this; they encouraged me to continue my studies. So I did. After graduate school, I began to work as a mathematical researcher for an oil company. At that time, I took up the practice of koans very seriously. A koan is a set of practices in which you raise your question and allow it to go deep into your consciousness. You do not look for an answer; any answer that comes to you may not be valid, because it comes from your intellect. It may be merely a set of perceived ideas, a projection. Later on, when the conditions are sufficient, your consciousness will offer its answer to you.

I practiced the koan, “Who am I?” Whenever I moved my hand, I asked, “Who is moving my hand?” Whenever I walked, I asked, “Who is walking?” Whenever I was about to go to sleep, I would ask, “Who is sleeping?” I continued to ask the question, “Who am I?” This question began to work very deeply in me and started to interfere with my work. When I asked the question, “Who is thinking?” my thinking disappeared. This created a problem. I had to think in order to solve problems for people and earn a living.

I fell into a very deep spiritual crisis. I did not know what the best path for my life was, but I knew that I wished to become a monk. However, I loved my family very much, and wanted to respect their wishes, so I could not yet take that step. I stopped working for the oil company and took a post-doctorate position in order have more time to practice meditation and look deeply into what direction I wanted to take for my life.

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I shared with my post-doc advisor my long-time wish to become a monk. He advised me, “For once in your life, you have to listen to your heart. Otherwise you will regret it.” He kindly offered me the option to try out being a monk, and if I didn’t like it I could return to the university and he would still have a job for me. Even now, when I talk about him, I feel very moved and grateful to him for giving me this advice. I collected all my belongings and sent them back home. On March 26, 1992, I left the U.S. to become a monk. I didn’t realize at that time what a shock and source of suffering this was for my family.

When I came to Plum Village, I practiced but did not have much joy. I listened to Thay’s teaching about the present moment, about cultivating joy and happiness, but a deep sense of sadness still hung over me. I tried my best to live in the present moment, in the here and now, and to cultivate happiness. But I could not touch the reality of happiness.

After practicing for three years, I began to lead retreats around the world. I invited people to practice being happy in the present moment. But I was aware that a block of sadness in the back of my mind prevented me from being truly happy. One time, I went to Russia to lead a retreat. A young woman served as my assistant. A few years later, she traveled to Plum Village before she returned home to Vietnam. She became a very close friend who shared openly with me. I remember one time she shared with me, “I have to be very honest with you. You gave a very good Dharma talk about happiness and being in the present moment. But it really puzzles me that you do not look very happy. You look sad all the time.” She meant to ask whether my practice was effective. I offered the teaching to cultivate happiness and live in the present moment, but I still had this block of sadness within me. That was six or seven years after I became a monk.

I had a lot of questions about everything in life. Did our lives have any meaning? Was there something called reality out there that I had to touch? Whenever I had an opportunity, I would ask Thay a question. Whenever there was a question and answer session, I would ask a question right away.

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Thay tried to help me to get in touch with the beauty of life around me. When I was attending Thay, he would say, “Look! Phap An! Don’t you see the beautiful blue sky?” He would pour tea for me when I was about to ask another question, and invite me to enjoy a cup of tea. During our walking meditation together, he would stop, point out a flower and teach me, “Look! Phap An! The flower is very beautiful.” Or he would point to a cloud and ask, “Don’t you see the cloud is beautiful?” He had a lot of compassion. He didn’t give me a jumble of thoughts or theories. He pointed me directly to the source of happiness and joy, because he wanted me to taste it for myself.

Touching Images from the Past

I struggled very much with my depression. There were moments during sitting meditation when I would invite my sadness to come up and embrace it. Looking at the sunshine through the window, tears would fall from my eyes. Sadness simply overwhelmed me. When I embraced my suffering, memories slowly surfaced and the roots of my sadness began to reveal themselves. One image led to another. In the midst of this stream of my past experiences, I continued to go back to my breathing and stay aware of my body. The wave of sadness returned, over and over, until it slowly calmed down. I continued to go back to the emotion, embrace it, and observe it. I saw many different images from my past.

I discovered that I had been wounded as a child in the war in Vietnam. I was born in a rural part of Central Vietnam. There, the war was very intense. Every night I heard bombing in the distance. There were people who lived around me who became mentally ill; the pressure of the war became too much for them. There were soldiers who took off their clothes and ran around naked. I remember a woman who screamed and cried every night. She lived next to our house. As I lay down to sleep, I listened to her moaning and screaming all night long in the dark. I felt a lot of love for her and also a lot of fear.

We lived next to an air force base, and fighter jets flew by in the middle of the night. They flew above the roof of our house as they took off. The sound was very loud, and my brother who slept next to me would sit up and scream along with the jets, in his sleep. He didn’t wake up. He simply sat up in the bed and screamed. I was one year older than him. I woke up because of the noise. Every night, when he sat up screaming, I gently pushed him back down to sleep. It happened almost every night.

I lived with a lot of fear and uncertainty. Once or twice a year, the communists would attack our village. Houses burnt down. We had to get out. One time, during an attack, my father was standing. Something fell to the ground; he bent down. Just as he bent down, a bullet hit the box behind him. If he had been standing, he would have been killed. Luckily the bullet missed him and broke the box behind him. In just one single moment he would have been killed.

From time to time, South Vietnamese soldiers would come to our parents’ pharmacy and shoot into the shelves of medicine. They held up a grenade and threatened to throw it if we didn’t leave. Then they broke into the cash register and took whatever medicines they wanted. There was no law around, so they came very often, to take money and medicine. They used harsh language. They shot anywhere they liked.

Slowly but surely, I went back to the past to touch all these images as I sat in meditation. Then I saw the image of myself as a little boy. I think that I was only four or five years old. I was hiding myself in a medicine cabinet. Looking out, I could see military men in the front of our house—Americans and South Vietnamese in camouflage uniforms. They were carrying all kinds of equipment, with many weapons of war, and setting up camp in the twilight and drizzling rain. As I looked out, I felt so scared.

In my meditation, I had a clear memory that that little boy said to himself, “There’s no future for my life and I don’t want to grow up. What’s the point? If I grow up, I’ll be like these men who carry guns around, and either I will kill someone or be killed by someone.” As I looked back, I asked myself: how could I have such a thought when I was so young, only four or five? This incident continued to affect me without my knowing it.

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At the age of seven or eight, I began to draw human faces. I would spend a lot of time in my room, looking at magazines and drawing the beautiful faces I saw in them. I drew like this for about five years, until the war was over. Deep within the mind of that little boy was the belief that humans were cruel and ugly. I sensed the dark side of human beings, so I drew beautiful human faces as a defense mechanism. I accumulated several books of drawings of faces, but because of the war we fled to the South and I lost all of them.

When I was in the fifth and sixth grade, every day at about sunset, from about five to six o’clock in the afternoon, I experienced a pain in my forehead, which I now understand was a migraine. I couldn’t stand it and my father took me to the hospital, but the doctor couldn’t figure out the reason for my chronic headaches. When the war ended, the migraines went away. Thanks to my meditation, I now understand what was happening. Around sunset, the military men came and camped in front of our house. That was also the first time I had the thought that my life had no future, that life had no meaning, and that I didn’t want to grow up. Whenever the sun set, this feeling was re-activated. My depression was triggered by the sunset.

A New Perception

I worked on this block of sadness and the tendency to withdraw for many years. Sometimes, it seemed there was no hope. Many times Thay told me that the sky was very beautiful, and the blue sky was indeed very beautiful, but I could not touch that blue sky. Many other young brothers and sisters came to Plum Village and lived without much difficulty. They could be happy and play with each other. But I could never taste such joy. Therefore, I felt quite lonely in the community. I was in that state of loneliness, with my own struggle, but I tried to embrace my sadness whenever I had a chance.

I learned to go straight to this primary perception. The sadness was due to the perception that there was no future, no point to growing up because life was very ugly. It was very difficult to embrace the sadness. At first I didn’t understand how to do it, but gradually, I learned. I had to balance my mind with the energy of joy and happiness before I could embrace this pain. Over the years, I have been trying my best to embrace my emotion and I have learned that it is inseparable from the perception that I had as a little boy, that there was no future for my life. After many years of practice, I have been able to purify and transform this emotion and am cultivating a new and more positive perception of life.

In Upper Hamlet, there is a walking meditation path, from which we can see the sunset. Many times when the sun set this sense of sadness would come up. I practiced walking meditation along this path in the middle of sunset, and tears would come. With each of my steps, I would tell myself, “This is truly beautiful. This is truly beautiful.” I would say, “I’m really happy now. I’m really happy now.” I trained myself like that. This exercise does not do violence to ourselves; instead, it is a training that tries to cultivate a new kind of perception. I tried to look at each flower on the road, to look at each stone, and say, “I’m really happy now. The war is over. I’m not living in a time of war anymore. It’s okay. It’s safe. There’s life. There’s a meaning to life. It’s very beautiful now.” I practiced this often, for many years. I tried to build a new perception to balance the child who saw no future.

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We have to train ourselves to develop a new perception. At the beginning, this new perception is weak. It’s just a skinny bone, a skeleton; there’s no flesh to it. Over the years we have to build new flesh, to build a thicker layer around our new perception. As I cultivated this new perception, I built new flesh around it. As I said to myself, “This is truly beautiful,” I tried to feel beauty and happiness. I continued to build layers of flesh so that I could balance the block of pain and suffering that I had gone through. Over the years, bit by bit, it worked.

In addition to transforming my perceiving, I also changed my way of eating. I noticed that around five or six o’clock in the evening, at sunset, I had trouble with my colon. I couldn’t digest food, and suffered from a lot of gas. It became very disturbing. My depression had come into my body and embedded itself into my colon. I decided to stop eating dinner. I did this for two to three years. Amazingly, as the colon healed, the depression also healed.

This transformation has to do with both the body and the mind. We cannot focus on the mind alone, because our sadness and depression have turned into a part of our body. We have to purify our body in order to purify our mental difficulties. It took me a long time, but I was able to transform this block of sadness and depression within me by looking deeply into my food, taking good care of myself, fasting, exercising, and building a new perception.

I Could Feel the Blue Sky

After seven or eight years of practice, during the springtime, I was in Thay’s hermitage. He organized a picnic day for the monastics; the brothers and sisters were playing volleyball, cooking, and having a barbecue. I was standing at the veranda, looking at my brothers and sisters playing joyfully. I didn’t join them but I stood near them. Then I looked at the poplar trees, with no leaves, standing against the blue sky in spring. I followed my breathing and practiced the mantra Thay taught us. “I’m here for you. Breathing in, I am aware that the poplar tree is there, that the blue sky is there. Breathing out, I’m really here for you.”

I followed my breathing for a long time, and remained in touch with the poplar and the blue sky. Suddenly, for the first time, I could feel the blue sky. Tears ran down my face. I just stood there crying. I was able to touch that moment with such deep joy and happiness, from the depths within me. The blue sky was so beautiful that day. The poplar tree was so beautiful. After seven or eight years of practice, I was finally able to touch all that.

Nowadays, I am more stable. My anger, my temper, my sadness and depression have transformed to a large extent. This year marks my eighteenth year of practice as a monk, and I have changed a lot. I have healed my body and healed my mind, for the most part. I do not get caught by anger much. I do not get trapped by my sadness and depression much. It is very important to identify the very beginning of a negative perception before it turns itself into a mental loop, a block of strong emotion. We can learn to embrace and understand it before it begins to affect our life and our relationships.

mb57-Touching6Thich Chan Phap An, True Dharma Seal, was born in 1963 in Vietnam. He was ordained into monkhood in 1992 and received Transmission of the Lamp of Wisdom in 1999. Since 2008, he has served as the Director and Dean of Studies at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

This article is an excerpt from a Dharma talk given on January 29, 2010. It was edited by Thay Phap An, Sister Chau Nghiem, Charles Wheeler, and Natascha Bruckner.

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Dharma Talk: Cultivating Our Deepest Desire

By Thich Nhat Hanh

When a woman becomes pregnant, something happens in her body, mind, and heart. The presence of the baby in her transforms her life, and a new energy arises that allows her to do things she normally could not do. She smiles and trusts humanity and the world more, and she becomes a source of joy and hope for many others. Even when she experiences morning sickness or other adversi­ties, deep within her, an inner peace, a deep source of satisfaction, has been awakened.

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We who practice meditation also need to become “pregnant”—pregnant with the desire for enlightenment. A seed that has been buried in us for many years, under layers of suffering, sorrow, and forgetfulness, needs to be touched, and when it is, transformation occurs right away. In Mahayana Buddhism, this seed is called “the mind of enlightenment,” bodhicitta, the capacity to become a buddha. The moment we get in touch with this capacity, people will see joy, energy, and hope in us, and everything we do or say will manifest its presence.

We have many desires—the desire to be happy, to be enlightened, to discover, to understand, and to bring happiness to other people. Desire has very much to do with our practice. We want something, we aspire to it. If you smoke, you know what I mean. When you need a cigarette, you feel it. First of all, you know you lack something, but you don’t know what it is. This is a desire, but not the deepest kind. When you find out what it is—”I need a cigarette. I will not be really happy until I have one”—it is a kind of enlightenment, although a shallow one. When we are motivated by the desire to awaken our deepest understanding, we become a bodhisattva right away, and everything we do or say will be an expression of that desire.

The seed of our deepest desire lies in the depths of our consciousness. We may not be aware of it in the upper level of our consciousness, because it is still buried in the lower part, the “store consciousness,” and we have not been able to touch it. But when someone—a friend, a lover, a teacher, an aunt—provokes in us the possibility that we can become pregnant with bodhicitta, we are motivated to get in touch with it. The words “conviction,” “resolve,” and “determination” mean that we are motivated to find out what we really want, not just on the surface but deep down. Deep down we have the need to love, to be loved, to make people happy, and to understand the reality of life inside us and all around us. For the practitioner, especially in the Mahayana tradition, the first task is to find out what is our deepest desire.

How can we know and get in touch with it? We may need the help of a sangha or a teacher. We may think other things are important, but our true love, our deepest desire, is always the most important. If we find out how to touch it, it will be there with us all the time. We will only need to feed and nourish it, like a baby. When we are pregnant, we know our baby is there, and everything we eat and do nourishes our baby. Motivated by our deepest desire, we do it effortlessly. When we see a dharma brother or sister who is in touch with his or her deepest desire, we see great joy, energy, and happiness, even if that person is only a beginner in the practice.

When we are not in touch with our motivation, even if we struggle to make a lot of effort, even if we torture ourselves and make ourselves suffer, concentration will not come easily. It is much better not to fight, but to touch our deepest desire and concentrate on that. When that desire is strong in us, the concentration needed to realize real awakening arises effortlessly. Whether we are eating, drinking, walking, or washing dishes, even when we think we are not very concentrated, we are concentrated. Scientists and philosophers who are concentrated on their special subjects also have this kind of desire. One philosopher named Diogenes was so absorbed in his topic of concentration that when he went out during the day, he wasn’t aware it was day and he lit his lamp as if it were night. He was very much one with his subject, although at that moment he was not very mindful of his own body. When we touch our deepest desire, concentration will come easily and stay with us for a long time. We will be in constant concentration, not only in the meditation hall, but in the bathroom, the backyard, the kitchen, while shopping, and so on. Otherwise the concentration we acquire during practice will be shallow, and we will have to struggle for even that.

In the Zen tradition, the teacher’s role is to help the student touch his or her deepest desire. To do that, the teacher must understand the student. After observing the student for one, two, or three years, the teacher may propose a kung an (koan), and if the teacher and student succeed, after the transmission of the kung an, the student becomes really pregnant of that kung an. But successes like this do not happen every day. Both teacher and student need the right opportunity and also enough luck.

The teacher has to practice looking deeply in order to understand the student. Out of that kind of relationship, one day he may be able to give a kung an that is suitable for the student. Then the student has something to work with, a baby within him or herself. When the student is pregnant with his kung an, his practice is only to nourish that kung an—nothing else. In daily life, when he practices sweeping the floor or washing the dishes, these things have the power of nourishing the kung an. When he hears the bell of mindfulness, he practices breathing in and out, concentrating on the bell. He appears not to be concentrating on the kung an at all, just the sound of the bell and breathing in and out. But that is a dualistic way of seeing things. When the student practices listening to the bell deeply, the concentration that is generated penetrates into his store consciousness, bringing energy and support to nourish the kung an. Not only while listening to the bell, but while doing any­thing, he or she will practice motivating the best seeds in the store consciousness to come and nourish the baby.

The object of concentration while you practice listening to the bell is the sound of the bell, the in-breath, and the out-breath. But, at the same time, it is also the kung an within yourself. Without listening deeply to the bell, you will find that your kung an has no chance to grow. Whether proposed by a teacher or discovered by the student directly, the kung an needs to grow and develop in the store consciousness. It is the duty of the student to bury the kung an deep in the store conscious­ness. Mind consciousness needs to let the kung an reach store consciousness and not just play with it. Mind consciousness is the gardener; store consciousness is the garden that brings forth the flower of understanding. Entrust your kung an to your store consciousness. You have to have faith in your store consciousness.

If the kung an is a real one, it will touch the deepest level of your being, and you won’t need to make any additional effort for it to be to object of your concentra­tion, just as a mother-to-be does not need to make a special effort to be aware of the presence of the baby in her. Waking up in the morning, she knows she is pregnant, and she smiles to her baby. If you are strug­gling to be mindful, it is because you are not one with the object of your concentration, your kung an. Be pregnant with a wonderful baby, and you will know what to do. The deep desire to understand, love, and be loved is bodhicitta, the mind of the highest understanding. When you have that within you, you are a Bodhisattva, filled with energy to understand and to help. Mindful­ness is energy. A Zen student who is practicing with a true, living kung an is very concentrated, mindful of his kung an twenty-four hours a day, even while sleeping. Then one morning when he wakes up, the fruit of practice may be there, offered up by his store conscious­ness.

When you are pregnant, you trust your body. You know it has the power of healing, of nourishing your baby. Your mind consciousness is the gardener that has to bury the kung an deep in the soil of the store con­sciousness. After that, you take care and do everything in your power to help bring about a healthy birth. You practice concentration twenty-four hours a day. Breath­ing, walking, eating, drinking, or hugging—everything is to nourish the kung an within you.

When someone you love comes to visit, you are so happy. You try your best to keep her with you—one or two hours, or longer—because you know that with her there you are truly happy. But when your love is bodhicitta, your true kung an, you don’t have to detain her. She will stay with you wherever you go. True mindfulness is present twenty-four hours a day. Even if people come and talk to you, you are still concentrated. When a book is interesting, you don’t need to make an effort to pay attention. But if it is not interesting, concentration is difficult. When you are interested in something, when it is important to you, everything becomes interesting—a leaf, a pebble, a cloud, a pond, a child. You feel eager to look deeply into all of these things, to find out their true nature. When concentration  becomes easy and natural, it is true, effortless concentra­tion.

So if you want to succeed in the practice, make it interesting. If you are interested enough in the object of your practice, concentration will be easy, and it can touch the deepest level of your consciousness. Under­standing is a fruit of mindfulness and concentration. If you are not interested in something, you can never understand it. If you are not interested in someone, you can never understand that person. If you are interested in her deeply, you will be mindful and concentrated, and it will be easy to find out all about her.

In light of the practice in Mahayana Buddhism, the first thing to do is to produce the mind of enlightenment. Enlightenment means both understanding and love. In fact, love and understanding are the same thing, because if you don’t understand, the love in you is not true love. When your love is true love, you know it is made of understanding. When the Bodhisattva produces the mind of understanding, the deepest desire in her or him to understand is touched. It means love. A good teacher, a good dharma brother or sister, is someone who can help us touch that. If someone has been able to help us do that, we should be very grateful to her.

I was nine years old the first time I was really touched by something in that way. I saw on the cover of a magazine an image of the Buddha sitting on kusha grass, very calm and relaxed. I was impressed to see someone sitting that way, looking as if he had nothing else to do. He seemed to be entirely himself. I wanted to be calm, relaxed, and happy like that, able to inspire confidence and joy in those around me. That drawing was a dharma talk for me, a dharma talk without words. The seed of peace—the desire to be peaceful, relaxed, and happy in order to be able to help others be peaceful, relaxed, and happy—was touched in me.

There is a seed like that in every little boy and girl. It is important to show children beautiful images of the Buddha. An eight or nine-year-old boy or girl can be struck by such an image and motivated to practice deeply and help people. If you have young children, you can touch that desire within your child. I remember a series of articles in that magazine on “Buddhism in the World,” about practicing in society and in the family, not just in temples. Reading articles like that sparked in me the desire for awakening.

Two years later, when I was eleven, five of us—three brothers and two friends—discussed what we wanted to be in the future. One boy said, “I want to be a doctor.” Another said, “I want to become a lawyer.” We talked about choices like these. Then my big brother said, “I want to become a monk.” This was original and new. I don’t know why, but all five of us came to the conclu­sion that we wanted to be monks. For me it was easy, because I had already fallen in love with the Buddha. During our discussion, it was clear that some strong aspiration was already there in me. I did not know what it meant—being a monk was a vague idea, something about following the path of the Buddha—but I knew inside that it was what I wanted.

Six months later, our school went on a trip to Na Shun Mountain, in the northernmost province of central Vietnam. Each of us brought rice balls with sesame seeds for a picnic lunch. I had heard that there was a hermit on that mountain, and I really wanted to see him. I had met Buddhist priests, but I had never seen a hermit. I felt some affinity for him.

We walked seven miles to get to the foot of the mountain, and then we climbed up quite far. When we arrived, tired and thirsty, the hermit wasn’t there. I was disappointed. I didn’t understand that being a hermit meant you did not want to see too many people. So when the class stopped to eat lunch, I went off to search for the monk. I found a narrow rocky path and I tried to find the place where the hermit was hiding. I climbed for a few minutes, and suddenly, I heard water dripping. I fol­lowed the sound and discovered a beautiful, natural wellspring, clear and fresh, lined with stones. I felt so happy! When I looked into the well, I saw every detail at the bottom. I kneeled down and drank the water. It was cool and delicious. That spot was so quiet and wonderful that I felt I was meeting the hermit. I was completely satisfied; I did not need anything else. Then I lay down by the well and fell asleep. I slept for just a few minutes, but when I woke up, I didn’t know where I was. It must have been a very deep sleep. Then I remembered my friends, and I began walking down. On my way, this sentence appeared in my mind, not in Vietnamese, but in French: “I have just tasted the best kind of water.”

My friends had been searching for me, and they were very happy when I returned. But, during my lunch, while the other boys talked a lot, I was absorbed with the image of the well. I knew I had found the best kind of water to quench my thirst.

Nhu, my big brother, became a monk first. It was difficult for him, because our parents did not want him to do so. They thought that the life of a monk was very hard. So, although I too had that desire in me, I waited until the right moment before telling my parents. The seed continued to grow steadily in me, and four years later, thanks to my brother who did everything to help me, I became a novice at the beautiful temple Tu Hiau Temple in Central Vietnam, near the imperial city of Hue.

This essay is drawn from Thich Nhat Hanh’ s first lectures of the June 1992 retreat at Plum Village on “Looking Deeply in the Mahayana Tradition.” A book, Cultivating the Mind of Love, based on the complete lecture series, will be published by Parallax Press in 1994.

Photo by Karen Hagen Liste.

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