“You Are That Person”

A student asked Soen Nakagawa
During a meditation retreat:
“I am very discouraged. What should I do?”
Soen replied, “Encourage others.”

At the beginning of this year, I read Kazuaki Tanahashi’s autobiography, Painting Peace: Art in a Time of Global Crisis. He dedicated it to his dharma sister Mayumi Oda. Recently, I’ve read her books, and the experience reminded me of first becoming acquainted with her in the late 1980s and early 90s. Parallax Press out of Berkeley had begun publishing works by Thich Nhat Hanh such as Being Peace, Touching Peace, and Interbeing; Mayumi contributed her drawings to these now classic books.

Given the tsuris [Yiddish, translated by Allen Ginsberg as “serious difficulty”] in recent weeks, I returned to Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace in search of a passage I read decades ago. It’s from a talk he gave to peace activists and meditators, and while the issues and references of the mid-80s may seem distant to us, I hope his words speak to your heart….

“Many of us worry about the world situation. We don’t know when the bombs will explode. We feel that we are on the edge of time. As individuals, we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is so dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is so close. In this kind of situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.

I like to use the example of a small boat crossing the Gulf of Siam. In Vietnam, there are many people, called boat people, who leave the country in small boats. Often the boats are caught in rough seas or storms, the people may panic, and boats can sink. But if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression–face, voice–communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many.

Our world is something like a small boat. Compared with the cosmos, our planet is a very small boat. We are about to panic because our situation is no better than the situation of the small boat in the sea. You know that we have more than 5o,ooo nuclear weapons. Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.”

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