Start Small

In The Art of Living class, we just finished considering Chan Khong’s classic work of engaged Buddhism, Learning True Love. I shared with my friends at the beginning of the course, “The Rules” of the Immaculate Heart College Art Department, one of which is, “General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.” The following is what I pulled out of this Vietnamese Buddhist teacher’s autobiography.

A living example often can have a stronger effect than thousands of theoretical teachings and rules.

I told my fellow students that there were two kinds of politics: partisan politics to gain power and fame for ourselves, and the politics of reconciliation to bring peace and happiness to the country. We should avoid the former, but how could we ignore the poor soldiers who had been drafted into the army to kill or be killed? Even at the risk of arrest or torture, we had to work for peace.

At mealtimes, the prisoners received only old rice and rotten, salted fish. I dreamed of hot, tender white rice and boiled vegetables dipped in soy sauce with a few drops of fragrant lemon, and slices of green and red peppers.  Eating had been something I did only to be of some use to others, but now I realized that if given a chance to go home, I would eat very mindfully, enjoying each taste of tender rice and every morsel of delicious vegetable.

What is important is that we practice the precepts as guidelines lighting our path of service and helping us transform our negative tendencies, like fanaticism, narrow-mindedness, anger, and hatred. 

Since the age of fourteen, buying dinner for street children and sharing my earnings with poor high school students has given me more peace and joy than any efforts towards “enlightenment.”

I had no hatred for these men, even though they had caused so much suffering. I knew they were victims of their own wrong concepts about the reality of Vietnam, and I only wished that from then on, the sacrifices of the nonviolent Buddhists in Vietnam would illuminate the way for those governing the country. 

The monks and nuns told us to release our anger, for example, “because life is an illusion,” but they never told us how to do it. For me, life was not an illusion—the injustices and suffering of life in the slums were very real, and I wanted to learn how to cope with these realities, not deny them.

In my pilgrimage for peace, I carried with me only photos of Nhat Chi Mai and of the suffering children of Vietnam.  I knew I had to live and die with these images, working for the day when all the children of the world would be able to sing and play in peace. 

My tour of  Switzerland took place just three weeks before Christmas, and the peace, wealth, and luxury of this country at such a beautiful time of year made me feel overwhelmingly sad. How could the world be so unfair? Vietnamese peasants would not need much to be happy—just some moonlight, fresh air, songs, and the smells of a new harvest. Our aspirations were simple, but the bombs continued to drop on our desperate land, while I was traveling in some fairyland.

When you have a big pain you don’t know how to resolve, go back to your breath.

In Buddhism, the word ‘emptiness’ is a translation of the Sanskrit sunyata.  It means ‘empty of a separate self.’  It is not a negative or despairing term.  It is a celebration of interconnectedness, of interbeing.  It means nothing can exist by itself alone, that everything is inextricably interconnected with everything else.  I know that I must always work to remember that I am empty of a separate self and full of the many wonders of this universe, including the generosity of my grandparents and parents, the many friends and teachers who have helped and supported me along the path, and you dear readers, without whom this book could not exist.  We inter-are, and therefore we are empty of an identity that is separate from our interconnectedness.

Thây Nhat Hanh emphasizes that any teachings must be born from one’s own experience, not just by repeating the words of the Buddha or some other authority.  Thay shares with us only his own experience, and because it is true, it touches people deeply.  To be authentic, our own teaching must also be the fruit of our own looking deeply, not someone else’s.

I had seen many friends who, after getting married, became caught in endless family obligations, and I knew that my life was not for the effort of bringing happiness to one person, but to thousands.

When I learned the news, it shocked me deeply.  I felt as though she and her husband had died on my behalf.  ‘Dear David and Thien Huong, I loved you.  Please know that I am living for you.  Your work will continue in me.’  Looking deeply, I can see that David and Thien Huong will never die.  David’s work for prisoners is continuing beautifully by his colleagues everywhere in the world, and his work for hungry children is continuing too.  I can see him smiling gently to me even as I write these lines.  These days, there are many wonderful, devoted persons like David in Amnesty International.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But I try to work one day at a time. If we just worry about the big picture, we are powerless. So my secret is to start right away doing whatever little work I can do. I try to give joy to one person in the morning, and remove the suffering of one person in the afternoon. That’s enough.  When you see you can do that, you continue, and you give two little joys, and you remove two little sufferings, then three, and then four. If you and your friends do not despise the small work, a million people will remove a lot of suffering. That is the secret. Start right now.

If tonight my heart ceases to beat, you will see me in all these sisters and brothers.  There are those who continue my work for hungry children, others who enjoy my work of listening to the suffering of people in order to help them be healed.  You can see my smile in their look and my voice in their words.  But you will not see my shortcomings in them.  The samsara of my shortcomings will end the day this body is transformed into ash and then becomes a flower again.

Dear readers, I thank you for your patience in reading all of these pages.  I am with you just as you have been with me, and we encourage each other to realize our deepest love, caring, and generosity.  Together on the path of love, we can try to make a small difference in someone’s life.  What else is there to do?

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