By Aparna Pallavi
Each word touched my hurting heart like a tender dewdrop. My whole being ached with the desire to see the writer of these beautiful words—to see the radiant smile on the back cover of his book, Teachings on Love. It was the middle of the night. Unable to remain in bed, I got up, turned on my computer and opened the Plum Village website. And it hit my chest like a hammer, knocking my breath out entirely. Thich Nhat Hanh was coming to India! And to Nagpur, the city of my residence! Had ever a human wish been fulfilled so dramatically!
On October 9, 2008, in the huge marquee at Nagaloka Buddha Vihar, something beautiful happened even before I saw Thay. Sister Chan Khong, leading a team of monastics, was approaching the marquee. My daughter, then barely eleven, cried, “Mom, look what that beautiful grandma is doing!”
Through some misunderstanding, the women posted at the entrance to perform traditional Indian welcome rituals were trying to put flowers on the old lady’s feet instead of scattering them in her path, as is customary. It was a clumsy gesture, but the tiny old woman magically transformed it by bending down to receive the flowers in her hands and putting them on her head in a spontaneous, childlike gesture of joy and gratitude. I’d never seen a simple gesture radiate so much visible, felt beauty before.
When Thay appeared, I found myself leaving my seat and following him to the dais, pulled like a child to an ice cream cart. I stood within feet of Thay, my elbows on the dais, hoping the camera in my hand would help me look less foolish to the sedate audience.
A serene song of piercing loveliness, which I’d never heard before, started playing in my heart the moment I saw Thay. But coiled with it was a terrible, aching sense that this would be over, and soon. My practiced hands were feverishly snapping pictures. A part of me was madly determined to capture this moment for eternity. But the song was still strong, and when the monastics started chanting sutras, the melodies blended effortlessly.
For a long moment during the chanting, Thay very deliberately turned his gaze full on me, where I stood. My heart leapt, but at the same moment my hands, as if on cue, rose and poked the old camera at him. And just then, the camera folded up right under his gaze, its batteries exhausted. I was torn between intense ecstasy and intense anxiety, and now, in addition, an urgent sense of utter stupidity. Camera gone, there was nothing to do but to gather the blessing of that gaze, which miraculously stayed on me for another long moment, looking into my fragile human eyes, so inadequate to the task.
Then the disappointments began. When Thay spoke, I recognized the words from the books I had read. During the two-day workshop, I could hardly see or hear Thay through a throng of more than a thousand people. His translator, whom I knew, laughed at my request for a five-minute talk with Thay. On the last day, I cried in the bus back home.
I rationalised that it was stupid and sentimental to have hankered for a flesh-and-blood encounter with someone as busy as Thay, like a teenager for a movie star. It’s stupid to go to a guru at all. The truth is all in the books, so why bother? But a tender, trusting part of me was deeply ashamed and confused. Had my yearning been sentimental and stupid? What intangible quality had I been looking for in Thay’s presence? What had caused this tangible feeling of let-down that was eating away at me?
For weeks, a child inside me cried inconsolably.
For many months, I continued to read Thay’s books, and tried to practice walking, sitting, and eating meditation, and mindfulness. But given the old habits of my mind, progress was slow. I was frustrated that I had no master or Sangha to help me. I was torn between the desire to seek help and the fear of further hurt. If contact with a living master had failed to help me, how could I trust lesser mortals?
A Rare State of Being
Almost a year and a half after Thay’s visit, I chanced upon a book by a contemporary seeker, which described his efforts to be with his guru, not seeking his attention, but just absorbing his radiance from a distance. The book inspired me to confront my pain directly. Had I gone to Thay with the wrong expectations? What had I expected the brief encounter to achieve? The only time in my life I desired something with my whole being, my wish was fulfilled with near-miraculousness. And yet I was so full of secret misery.
The more I tried to look deeply into these questions, the more the memory of that ethereal song knocked at my heart, the clearer my beautiful vision of Sister Chan Khong putting flowers on her head became. I was surprised at how fresh and flower-like these memories still were. I allowed myself to look at my memories full in the face, and one afternoon realization burst upon me. These memories had been the whole point of my yearning—the music that had throbbed through my entire being in the presence of Thay, the radiance of Sister Chan Khong’s simplicity that had touched my eyes like a benediction. In these moments, I’d been given the most precious gift. I’d had an opportunity to share the being of these two precious people. I’d been allowed a glimpse of a rare state of being, to see, to know for myself, beyond all doubt, that such a state is possible.
And how I’d fought against the gift! I’d nearly missed Thay’s living presence due to my preconceptions, my egoistic clinging. The only moment I’d been fully alive to the magic of his presence was the moment when my camera failed and I looked into his eyes. But for that, I’d have missed it altogether.
When this simple realization came, it was as if a huge block of stone embedded in my heart had been removed. Practice and life are much more serene and smooth when you wholeheartedly trust something than when you are carrying a pinprick of doubt. Once I allowed myself to fully trust that day’s memories, it became easier not to get carried away by the mechanical habits of my mind.
My progress is still slow, but steadier, as if my energies are flowing together instead of fighting each other. There are times when, in moments of deep calm, the memory of Thay’s penetrating look or Sister Chan Khong’s beautiful gesture (the latter framed in a kind of sunlit halo) come back to me, refreshing me, strengthening me, touching me with a benediction as fresh, as fragrant as the day when they really happened—perhaps even more so now, when I am fully present. My conflict about whether or not to seek a Sangha has been resolved in an unexpected manner. It has disappeared altogether, taking both the “to be” and the “not to be” with it. I am neither seeking nor not seeking. I am just practicing, as Thay puts it, with a rock, with a flower ….