By Kate Atchley Touching Peace" was the theme of a deeply moving four-day retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh, along with ten nuns and monks from Plum Village, in late March at Stourbridge, near Birmingham. The retreat was held in Old Swinford Hospital, whose grounds lent themselves well to walking meditation and provided superb evening viewing of the Hale-Bopp comet. Some 400 retreatants attended, including children of all ages.
For me, the retreat brought an unexpected awakening: I touched within myself a deeply reverential student. Throughout my 52 years, I have tussled with authority, sought to debunk teachers and parents, and treated all who held themselves out to know best with varying degrees of skepticism. I came to the retreat with some knowledge of Buddhism and Thay's teachings, but when I sat close to him, I felt he spoke directly to me. I experienced an openness of heart and mind I had not known before and fulfilled a great longing in myself to feel love and admiration for a teacher. In all the hours of listening intently to his words, I heard nothing to which I did not say yes.
Thay spoke about the everyday suffering caused by unskillful communication, anger, greed, pride, and fear. He spoke with the immediacy and accuracy of someone who himself has been enmeshed in the difficulties we encounter in our families, work, and with our loved ones. "Love can be turned into hate," said Thay, "and hate can be turned into love." The first part of this equation is painfully familiar and raw in me. "The positive is us, the negative is us; we must not allow war within us," Thay taught. If I can stop my war within, peace with others will be possible. If my pride does not rise up, disguised in all manner of innocent garb, it will not block my listening and my compassion.
Using the poetic image of a tree blown by a fierce wind, Thay taught us how to handle strong emotion. The upper branches look close to breaking as they sway and swirl, but as you look lower down the tree, you know that it is firmly rooted in the ground. So it can be for us. In the face of a strong emotion, we should meditate and breathe in and out. We can practise "belly breathing" and move our centre of gravity down from our minds to beneath our abdomen and stay there, in our trunk. "Be a mountain, solid," said Thay. "An emotion is only an emotion." He added. "When your house is on fire, you should go home and put out the fire, not run after the person you think is the arsonist."
Thay wove into his teachings the Christian theme of Easter, death, and resurrection, and spoke of Jesus and the meaning of his life. On Maundy Thursday. Thay spoke of the happiness of breathing in and breathing out: "It reminds me I am alive ... you touch the miracle of being alive." It is the practice of resurrection, he said. We know, again, that we live, and we remember not to throw our life away.
On Good Friday, Thay said, "Something has to die in order that something be born. Our wrong perceptions, our grasping, have to die to allow the new being to arise." Jesus pretended to die, Thay told us. Those of us from Christian traditions listened intently as he explained. Jesus existed in the historical dimension as the Son of God, made man, and in the ultimate dimension, as the Son of God. In the historical dimension there is birth and death, and so as a man, Jesus died. But in the ultimate dimension, there is no such thing as birth and death. As the Son of God, Jesus only pretended to die. The true nature of Jesus, as of a wave, is no-birth and no-death. "To touch the ultimate is to touch God and to be without fear of death."
On a sparkling spring Easter Sunday, Thay told us. "You are already of the Kingdom of God. You are already what you want to become. Your loneliness is only an illusion. The entire cosmos is in you. The entire lineage of your ancestors is in you." Fifteen children received the Two Promises, 84 adults took the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and four members of the UK Community were received into the Order of Interbeing. Thay's saffron robes and those of the nuns and monks, along with the great bunches of yellow daffodils before us, were bathed in pure, bright light, a golden celebration of our four days together.
Kate Atchley is a member of the London Sangha. She is a mother and businesswoman and has been practicing Buddhism for three years.