The LA Times recently published an interview with the great Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, in the Southland to lead two week-long mindfulness retreats. Mindfulness is the Buddhist meditative practice of being calm and attentive in the present moment, as opposed to holding onto past memories or worrying incessantly about the future. The Times article, written by Teresa Watanabe, began by discussing Nhat Hahn's ongoing desire to revisit his homeland of Vietnam, which he left some 30 years ago in exile for antiwar activities. At that time, his country was divided in half and involved in a devastating war with the U.S.
Now, Nhat Hahn desires to return to help people in his homeland, many of whom are suffering. "People don't have anything to believe in," he said. "The economic situation is very bad and now social ills are increasing. How can the country have any chance of success if they don't allow the rebuilding of the spirit?" However, despite his outspoken criticism of the Vietnamese government--a key problem holding up his visit--he stated that his only goal is to help his people. "I won't suffer terribly if I don't go home, because I have a transcendent frontier," he said. "But people want my physical presence. There are so many spiritual needs in Vietnam."
The Times article also covered his talk at the Santa Barbara retreat and examined the appeal of his Mindfulness teaching for Americans. As one American participant, a former Christian attending the retreat from Colorado said, "It's simple. It's not heavily laden with a lot of theology. It speaks to people's immediate concerns. It emphasizes the here and now. The problem with Christianity is that it always looks back 2,000 years or forward to some future state, but somehow the here and now gets slid over."
Accessing the "here and now" through Mindfulness meditation was the focus of Nhat Hahn's talk also. He began by humbly bowing to his Sangha, which numbered nearly 1,000 participants. They of course, also bowed to him. Leading the group in a meditative practice, he said, "Breathing in, I feel calm with myself. Breathing out, I feel ease with myself." Meditation, Nhat Hahn reminded, isn't just for monks and nuns, but for anyone, anywhere, anytime, whether at work, at home or waiting in line at the bank. The purpose of meditation is to simply recognize things as they are, without being judgmental or letting the attention wander. Focusing attention on one's own breathing naturally unites body and mind, fostering a healing inner harmony.
Finally, Nhat Hahn also spoke about the Buddhist perspective of dealing with suffering in our lives. Although it might at first seem paradoxical to many Americans, he suggested that, rather than our normal practice of "running away from our pain and sorrow, or covering it up with consumption," a Buddhist understands that "suffering must be recognized and embraced in order to alleviate it...Dear friends, let us embrace our pain and sorrow with tenderness to find out what is the deep source. Then comes the insight that will liberate you from suffering."
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