Retreating with Thich Nhat Hanh

Early in the summer of 2003 my Friend Tina learned that Thich Nhat Hanh was going to lead a one-day retreat in Boulder, Colorado, that September. Thich Nhat Hanh: Vietnamese monk, well-known writer, scholar, spiritual leader, peace activist, Engaged Buddhist. "You want to go with me if I decide to go?"

"Sure. Anyhow, I’m interested."

Like a good many other Quakers. As believers who think of ourselves as open-minded, many of us are interested in Buddhism. Some of us ultimately are led to make the change. So, yes, like Tina, I wanted to experience being with a company of Buddhists in meditation, to feel out what differences if any there are between us and them, how they do it in contrast to how we do it. Late in August we decided we’d go.

Neither of us came to this retreat completely naive. Tina had read a good deal in Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, I, a little, and I had long ago heard him speak—a faraway voice in a stadium in Berkeley.

Moreover, I had once before attended a Buddhist retreat. Therefore I knew to expect a dharma talk, some silent worship in meditation, perhaps a walk in natural surroundings. I did not expect to be converted or even encouraged toward conversion. At my time of life, I feel gratitude for what is. What I vaguely wanted was a chance to learn something and to engage with others in praise.

So we drove the 440 miles from Albuquerque to Denver and made our way to Boulder the next morning. Though we arrived wearied from the drive, we were looking forward to sharing in the peace of worship with Thich Nhat Hanh and several hundred of the many Buddhists who join him in what he calls the practice of "Engaged Buddhism," my take on which is that it is pretty much like walking "cheerfully over the Earth" and helping out where you can.

We settled into the comfortable chairs of the banked pit, fairly close to the stage. A good many other people were sitting cross-legged on their cushions all across the polished floor of the basketball court. We entered the silence.

What there was of it.

As everyone was finding a place, someone spoke from the stage, getting things in order, announcing the program, encouraging meditation against a background of noise. I respond unsympathetically to noise. My failing. Already I was feeling resistance. I couldn’t help it. I tried to brush it away.

And then the good monk came forward to tell us how to approach the walking meditation which was to follow. Meditate, Thich Nhat Hanh advised, on these things as you walk: "I have arrived. I am at home." "I am here in the here and now." "I am solid. I am free." "In the ultimate I dwell." He explained what these recognitions meant, relating them to the practice of conscious breathing and of being acutely aware of what one is experiencing. "And," he said, "smile." I loved that last advice. Walk cheerfully.
Okay. Got it.

All of us from every corner of the stadium rose and slowly climbed the stairs to walk outside under a pearly-clouded sky, following the brown-robed monks and nuns as they paced slowly along the sidewalk, going up the small, grassy hillside bordering the stadium, walking across and finally downhill again and inside.

"I have arrived. I am at home. I am here in the here and now." How beautiful it was—the great slabs of rock on the green surrounding mountains, the vistas stretching far into the distance, the shrubbery, the trees, the tiny flowers close by in the grass. "I am solid. I am free." I remembered to pay attention to the motion of my feet, ankles, and legs as I took each slow step forward, looking up and smiling toward the mountains and the clouded sky. But, unless forever is present in the moment, I never got to the ultimate.

"And smile," he had said. I turned to smile on (not at) my companions on the walk. And lo! As far as I could tell, I was the only person smiling. Hey, guys, I thought, we’re supposed to be enjoying this, we’re doing happy. Where are those smiles we heard about? Well, never mind. I’m a Quaker. Even during worship, if happiness or humor strikes me, I smile. So I smiled.

Yet I understood this was a serious, and for some, a demanding activity. Even the one-legged man on crutches was following the upward moving queue, though the person in the wheelchair couldn’t manage it. A lame woman, helped by a friend, was struggling uphill. I kept smiling. Or, when a sad thought struck me and I was reminded of a city I had loved, tears came to my eyes. I noticed them. I had become serious-minded as we turned back inside and found our seats.

Thich Nhat Hanh appeared again on stage. We all rose to greet him, then reseated ourselves for the hour and a half dharma talk preceding lunch. Essentially he described the peaceableness within the self and awareness of what is present in one’s outward experience as a balanced fullness of being: To be present in the here and now, not to dwell on regret for the past or hope for the future, to live in what is. It was not so much what he said as it was the man himself who was the wonder. His voice and his smile emanated peace and goodness. I received a gentle lightening of spirit in his presence. I felt happy to have come. Though the talk was long, I didn’t feel rushed or compelled in any way. I even felt easy enough in my mind to get up and walk around for a few minutes.

Lunch, which, like many fellow attendees, Tina and I had brought with us, was eaten in silence. But there were a few whispers and a whole lot of bustle of getting up and moving about by people who preferred to buy food from the booths near the entrances.

That done, we were invited to experience relaxation and silence, to lie down shoeless on the basketball court, as many of us as would fit. Each of us found a place to stretch out.

In silence? Not on your life.

First we were guided through relaxation for the next half hour by a sweet-voiced, gentle-mannered nun. Ordinarily I refuse to have any of my meditation guided, since I do not tend to submit to control. But I was here to learn. I tried to give over my prejudice, duly relaxing my nose, eyebrows, lips, neck, and all the way down to my toenails. When we were granted permission—even encouraged—to fall asleep, Tina did so. I did not, because the sweetly singing voice continued. The words of a lovely song kept coming. I kept listening. Words always engage my attention. I can fall asleep to music, but not to words.

I discovered myself resisting again even though I realized I was imposing my own limiting expectations on what was probably perfectly natural to everyone else. My problem, not theirs. Still, I couldn’t help myself, even though I told myself, "I am here in the here and now. So go for it. Smile." I just kept resisting.

Our post-prandial relaxation done, we were invited to sit up and return to our seats. The singing continued. We were asked to join the nun in repeating the words. The tune stayed in my mind for weeks: "I am happy when I go to the kitchen . . . I am happy when I go to the living room . . . I am happy when I go to the library . . . I am happy when I go to the restroom . . ." She laughed, and we laughed with her. Her song was simple and happy, and she had a sense of humor. Her soft voice was altogether lovely.

Song was followed by two nuns talking for an hour with us and with each other about the "Practice of Beginning Anew": how to express one’s feelings freely and truly to another person, not to hold hurts inside, to communicate amiably by talking past barriers—thus avoiding misunderstanding and learning how to be sensitive to one another. It was nothing new, but it was pleasantly, personally, and sweetly told.

Finally, the crown of the afternoon: Thich Nhat Hanh invited any of us as individuals with problems to come to the stage and, sitting in a nearby chair, to ask questions, or to ask for advice or for personal help. The questions themselves were thoughtful, the answers both careful and wise:

"My name is John. I am entering a time of transition in my life. How shall I reconcile my desires for the future with my feelings of loss and regret for what is past?"

"I have trouble all the time with my little sister." (This was a young teenager.) "We annoy each other and both of us get angry. But when I try to practice peacefulness and talk quietly to her, she goes right on being angry and fighting with me. What can I do?"

"When I try to respond to someone who has asked for a healing exchange in order to lead to peaceful understanding, and that person goes on talking and talking, and I am given no chance to say anything, I get irritated and angry. What can I do to maintain a balance?"

My sense of Thich Nhat Hanh’s responses was that he was completely present to each question and questioner, listened carefully, and replied with kindness, affection, and wisdom. A calm came over me as he answered. His very gestures in their natural ease bespoke an inner peace. A wise, good man. And he was still answering when Tina and I left at 5, aware of the long drive ahead of us.

"So, what was your impression?"

"Too much noise." Tina laughed when I said that. I said, "I always thought of Buddhist monasteries as silent. Of course, this was a retreat, not a monastery. My trouble was I didn’t have enough space to assimilate what was happening. I listened attentively and thoughtfully, but there was no silence between messages, no time to take in what was said. I’m accustomed to something different. I think I resisted too much to receive the full benefit of what was going on."

Retreating with Thich Nhat Hanh had unfolded to me my need for the natural silence I find in meeting for worship, the silence in which I can listen to the voice of the spirit of God; the silence into which Friends’ messages fall; the silence that, during times of stress, encourages the exercise of the very patience and balance the Buddhists endorse. Silence is at the heart of my faith. It is central to my having chosen to be a Friend. My choice was right for me.

Thinking of the retreat again after several months had passed, however, I began to recognize with humility how limited and self-referential my experience had been. I began to understand that as open-hearted as I like to think of myself as being, I’m just not. I projected my private need for silence upon a group that did not seem to be as needful of it, and this interfered seriously with my ability to offer whole-hearted sympathy. Recognition of my resistance to some aspects of the retreat told me how proud and self-congratulatory I was about who I am and what I have chosen. So I see the long-time effect of the retreat as positive.

Tina had another take on our time with Engaged Buddhism. She said that in her readings about their practice, she had not found a place for passion. Though at this particular retreat there was less emphasis on nonattachment than in the Buddhism with which she was familiar, there seemed to be less opportunity to open oneself to deeply felt emotion than there is in our Quaker meetings. We give way to the strength of our feelings as the spirit is lifted from within, especially during worship. It is not for nothing that we are called Quakers: inwardly shaken, trembling outwardly, when we are seized by the intensity of feeling that accompanies the sound of the still, small voice of the spirit of God. Thich Nhat Hanh’s message seemed, rather, to be that we can change suffering into happiness and can achieve a healthy balance of mind through the exercise of patience and of calm, attentive breathing. The result of this practice is an inward peace. What Tina spoke of struck me as a true difference between our two forms of worship. Yet, though the forms seem different, it is likely that both we and the Buddhists ultimately discover ourselves to be intensely human in the here and now.

A second observation Tina made also struck a chord with me: that she was uneasy about a feeling she sometimes had during the retreat of submitting to a leader, especially a famous leader, even if he was—as he clearly is—good, humble, and wise. Me, too. The resistance I experienced now and again that day could also have had to do with the star power of the head monk. The very air seemed to glitter with a sense that we should think ourselves lucky to have tickets to a sort of major presentation courtesy of his U.S. sponsors—though not for the quaver of an instant did he or any of those who accompanied him to this country give that impression. Well, nobody can control the enthusiasms of one’s loyal partisans. As for me, though I sincerely tried to give myself over to guidance during the retreat, I am uneasy under control of any sort. I’m too much my American independent female self to let anybody else, no matter how wise and kindly intentioned, lead my mind and being where they’d like them to go, even for my own good, and even if it’s Thich Nhat Hanh. Probably again I should call this my pride and self-centeredness.

In meeting for worship, I never feel that I am following anybody, unless it is the voice of God within. I think the closest we Quakers get to such submission is our sensing the overwhelming unity of a gathered meeting, the living presence of the spirit of God, even in—or, maybe, especially in—a meeting during which no single word is spoken. At this retreat I did not even briefly experience a sense of gatheredness such as I find in a gathered meeting, sometimes even in a very large gathered meeting. But I was not in my own backyard. Perhaps the Buddhists did experience it.

In addition to increased self-understanding, I gratefully took into my being the memory of that wise, humble, peaceful, brown-robed, famous monk: a man whom we would gladly welcome in our meetings for worship. He would find a restful place there. Fame, that last infirmity of noble mind, seems not to have disturbed Thich Nhat Hanh’s essential virtue. Still, I think that in many monthly meetings we can find some good person who, following a different practice, is his Quaker equivalent. In Albquerque, for example, we have Dorie Bunting: tall, mild, and strong in spirit and deed, who, for a good majority of 80 years, has been deeply engaged in bringing about justice and peace in our state and for our country. Like Thich Nhat Hanh, she is both dearly loved and greatly respected.

Even though this retreat clarified for Tina and me certain differences between concerned Quakers and engaged Buddhists, I come away with the feeling that at the heart of our daily practice—ours and theirs—we are very like one another.

Phyllis Hoge

Phyllis Hoge is a member of Albuquerque (N. Mex.) Meeting. She has published some books of poetry, most recently Letters from Jian Hui, and last year published her first prose book, The Painted Clock: Memoirs of a New Mexican Ghost Town Bride.