Students, friends, and teachers I had in China often encouraged me gently to adjust to what comes without judging, to do my best and not worry about outcomes in a world where cause and effect are not linear. These skills seemed to help them "be happy" somehow. I wondered if they were things I could learn.
Even if I accept the unAmerican notion that we are not in control of what happens around us, how can I follow my Master's advice to "Be happy!" in the face of the Chinese farmer's "Who knows?" How do I learn to be good at living, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests?
Both Buddhism and Daoism teach that feelings are transient. (Actually, they tell us everything is transient, including our precious selves. This is clearly true, but I grew up in a nation that spends a lot of energy trying to distract us from that thought, so. . . . Feelings are easier.) Feelings are like television shows, Thich Nhat Hanh says—if we don't like what's on, we can change the channel. Everything alternates, said the Chinese Master, then he told two stories about his time in prison.
In the Cultural Revolution, he was jailed and put on heavy work details with many others. To entertain themselves, the prisoners used to save grains of rice from their scant meals, put them on the floor of their cells, and bet on which ant would get to their grain first. (Be happy whatever comes, I guess.) In one of his cells, the floor was covered with water during the rainy season so, every night for a month, he allowed each foot to dry by lifting a knee and standing on one leg for half an hour, then switching.
He survived, he said, because he was optimistic. He accepted alternating yin and yang and tried to be happy and healthy. On our balcony, he settled into a meditative posture in his chair.
"When you go very, very deep in stillness," he said with his eyes closed, "then you begin to dance." He sat quiet, then slowly moved his limbs until he was up and waltzing around the balcony.
"When you are at the height of dancing, then you start to be still." He slowed himself down again and sat in the chair, closing his eyes. Then his eyes popped open, and he looked around the group with a smile.
"Life has many things," he said. "When you are strong, be firm like a rock. When you are weak, be flexible like air. Be happy for everything. Move with life."
It's a practice. Every day every day for fifteen years be grateful for being alive. Turn the channel on my thoughts out of impatience into mindful breathing and a smile. Notice the beauties and opportunities life brings. Move with life.
That's a lot to ask of a deep-steeped individualist perfectionist. It's a lot to practice, but maybe a statewide order to shelter in place gives me a little time.
In case you also have a little time, here are some interesting references:
How, I asked, watching my buoyant Chinese gongfu teacher,
how can I learn to "move with life"?
In this second part of the essay "Practice," I try to understand some old Chinese and Vietnamese principles.
We American teachers focused on planning our classes and rewarding individual excellence. We operated on a timeline, sighting along chains of cause and effect, trying to predict and control what happened. We were not skilled at seeing circles and communities, at trying to accommodate what was happening around us. We kept our eyes on the prize. We did not check to see if each class was a harmonious whole, whatever the outcomes.
"We are very good at preparing to live," wrote the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh of modern Western life, "but not very good at living."
Like my Chinese gongfu teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about choosing to feel peaceful in the present from a deep well of terrible experience. He helped set up rural schools and health clinics while some of his colleagues protested the Vietnam War by setting themselves on fire. He helped rebuild villages that had been bombed in the war and wrote letters trying to find homes for orphan children. Yet he insists, "Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it." How did these Masters learn to get in touch with inner peace in the face of fear?
Some lessons lie in stories they grew up with. When I got frustrated or depressed in China, more than once I was told the story of the farmer who lost a horse.
A farmer had a valuable horse that ran away. "What bad luck!" cried his neighbors. "Who knows?" said the farmer. Soon after, the horse returned, bringing a wild herd with him. "What good luck!" cried the neighbors. "Who knows?" said the farmer. His son was working to gentle one of the horses and fell off, breaking his leg. "Bad luck!" cried the neighbors. "Who knows?" said the farmer. A warlord stormed into town and drafted all able- bodied young men, leaving the injured son behind. "Good luck!" said the neighbors.
"Who knows?" said the farmer.
"Why do they find this story reassuring?" I thought at first, but eventually I saw how it worked for them. My students did not think they had much control in their lives. When elaborate plans for a speech contest were disrupted at the last minute because a visiting dignitary wanted the hall, or all my students disappeared for community service during the week I had scheduled a mid-term, they mentioned the farmer who lost a horse. "Who knows?" they implied.
"Did you do your best?" they asked when I complained about some aborted project. If I said Yes, they assured me, "You can do no more."
This is not how I was raised, but I see the value in it. Don't worry too much about outcomes? Not a very mainstream American message. My people tend to look at what we do, at what's been accomplished to judge success or failure. My Chinese friends were suggesting I adjust to what comes without judging. Do my best in a world where cause and effect are not linear. Also that I consider the value of intention. My mother did often tell me about gifts, "It's the thought that counts."
* * *
(continued in "Practice" part three)
On March 23, 2020, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued an order asking citizens of the State to shelter in place — that is, to stay home except for essential activities. Soon after, the Hoffman Center for the Arts on the Oregon Coast created a web page at hoffmanarts.org called "Creating in Place." The project invited musicians, videographers, visual artists, and writers to post their work as a way to share whatever was coming up or hanging around during this time. I posted an essay called "Practice" on the page. It follows here, in three parts because is it long.
"Why are you crying?" my martial arts teacher asked through the translator.
"Because it's so beautiful. Because I will never be able to do your family's gongfu like that."
We were on a balcony with a small group of USAmerican teachers hired to help Chinese medical students learn English. When I had mentioned I wanted to learn a martial art, a Chinese colleague found a Heritage Master of an ancient practice to teach us. She and I studied with him together and she translated. The crew at the Foreign Teacher house had invited her and the Master to lunch so my housemates could see what we were learning.
Watching him was like seeing Baryshnikov do a 10-minute ballet from five feet away—perfect control and grace flowing through space. I was moved to tears.
My teacher leaned forward and spoke firmly. My Chinese colleague translated.
"'How long you do my family gongfu?' he's asking."
"He says, 'I play this gongfu fifteen years. You practice fifteen years every day every day, be like me.'"
Then he jumped up and spread his arms. "Do not be so serious. Be happy!" The sudden shift made everyone laugh. He gestured over the balcony, over the whole company.
"We are rich! We enjoy the sun now, the good feeling of a full stomach," he put his hand on his belly as my colleague translated. "When we are poor, we enjoy cool dark, the good feeling of light and empty—both are good."
He was not just mouthing platitudes, I knew. This buoyant teacher was born and raised in Chinese high society. His grandmother learned a secret marital art in Beijing when she was part of the Last Emperor's court and passed it on within the family. His grandfather was a general in the Chinese National Army. Then Mao Zedong's Communists took over mainland China, and the family was stripped of its wealth. When my teacher refused to stop practicing the martial arts he knew, he was tortured and imprisoned during Mao's Cultural Revolution.
"Human life—," said my teacher in English on the balcony, flipping his palm up, then down and saying a Chinese word to the translator.
"Alternates," she said.
"Yes," said my teacher. "Human life alternates. When there is no alternates, we die."
"This is Old China teaching," he continued through the translator. "Life has many things. Yang and yin. Full and empty. Be happy for everything. Move with life."
* * *
It sounds good, doesn't it? Move with life. But I did not grow up learning how to do this. I'm an individualist, perfectionist, lucky USAmerican. I know how to set goals and plan. I try to keep my promises and work hard to get the job done. Our Chinese students often commented on that. "Americans work very hard," they said, but I'm not sure it was a compliment.
(continued in "Practice" part two)
This month's Explorations blog has featured only one comment—VS's observation on post 2A that international agreements like the Shengen Agreement in Europe can help create peaceful borders. I agree. And I believe such agreements are essentially large versions of the kinds of conversation and cooperation that need to happen on any level to promote peace.
I suspect that few people have only one definition of peace, though they may have one that springs to mind most readily. Maybe this is a memory or dream of a quiet meadow by a stream or a sunny glade in some forest. For some, peace might be the elation of racing down a ski slope or the serenity referred to by R.J. Rummel in post 2C. These are internal, personal moments of feeling a sense of peace—often rare, welcome when they come.
Many cultures also place a high value on what the International Alert website (in post 2C) describes as "communities living together, side by side, and resolving their differences without resorting to violence." This value is called "living in harmony," and it does not happen unless people work at it.
Skills and attitudes that help build harmony and peace among people—whether they live together in a house, on a street, in a village, or some larger grouping—need to be learned then developed. Anyone can learn and practice them. One such skill is described by Thich Nhat Hanh in post 2B: Learning to see beauty as well as suffering. This is what people call a "practice," meaning it is a skill which can be practiced and deepened every moment.
Another skill that can be learned to help build harmony is openness to other ways of seeing and doing. People have different personalities, different ways of seeing and learning, different abilities. To be open to such differences, we can recognize them and be respectfully curious about them. When we are politely open to others, we learn new things. We do not need to adopt other ways, necessarily, but we can come to understand them better. If two people want to work together and their ways are very different, they might be able to invent a third way of doing something that works for both.
Openness and learning to see the beauty which is all around can help us live more peacefully day-to-day with ourselves and with those nearby. These are some of the skills which help pave paths toward peace.
Next month's topic will start on December 1st with a singing raven.
Years ago, I heard a lecture by a professor who asked men and women to define peace. She found that their meanings for this idea were generally quite different. It got me thinking.
Is peace the presence of something? Or is the absence of something?
Is it something people have together or when they are alone?
Is peace different for each person? Different from one culture to another?
Here is how International Alert, an activist peace group, talks about peace:
"Peace is just as much about communities living together, side by side, and resolving their differences without resorting to violence as it is about people signing a treaty or laying down their arms.
"Our mission is to build a more peaceful world by:
1. Working with people directly affected by conflict to find peaceful solutions
2. Shaping policies and practices to support peace
3. Collaborating with all those striving for peace to strengthen our collective voice and impact"
This group defines peace very comprehensively, including in it physical safety, social justice, and access to what humans need for wellbeing, such as food, water, education, and healthcare.
In a very different vein, here is how R.J. Rummel, a conflict resolution scholar, writes about peace:
Peace has always been among humanity's highest values--for some, supreme. Consider: "Peace at any price."1 "The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war."2 "Peace is more important than all justice."3 "I prefer the most unjust peace to the justest war that was ever waged."4 "There never was a good war or a bad peace."5
Yet, we agree little on what is peace. Perhaps the most popular (Western) view is as an absence of dissension, violence, or war, a meaning found in the New Testament and possibly an original meaning of the Greek word for peace, Irene. Pacifists have adopted this interpretation, for to them all violence is bad. This meaning is . . . the primary dictionary definition.
Peace, however, is also seen as concord, or harmony and tranquility. It is viewed as peace of mind or serenity, especially in the East. It is defined as a state of law or civil government, a state of justice or goodness, a balance or equilibrium of Powers.
Such meanings of peace function at different levels. Peace may be opposed to or an opposite of antagonistic conflict, violence, or war. It may refer to an internal state (of mind or of nations) or to external relations. Or it may be narrow in conception, referring to specific relations in a particular situation (like a peace treaty), or overarching, covering a whole society (as in a world peace). Peace may be a dichotomy (it exists or it does not) or continuous. . . . Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist will see peace differently, as will pacifist or internationalist. Socialist, fascist, and libertarian have different perspectives.
1. Alphonse de Lamartine, Meditations Poetiques (1820). 2. Desiderius Erasmus, Adagio. 3. Martin Luther, On Marriage (1530). 4. Cicero, Letters to Atticus. 5. Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Josiah Quincy (September 11, 1773). 6. Irenology = the scientific study of peace.
How do you think and feel about peace?
When you describe something as peaceful, what is it like?
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk now based in Plum Village, France. Both in Vietnam and around the world he has seen great suffering, and still he finds ways to feel peaceful in the present.
"Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.
"If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love. If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace. . . . Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing. We don't need to go to China to enjoy the blue sky. We don't have to travel into the future to enjoy our breathing. We can be in touch with these things right now. It would be a pity if we were only aware of suffering.
"If a child smiles, if an adult smiles, that is very important. If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work."
pp. 3-5 in Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh
(Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1987, 1996)
What do you think about the idea that we can be peaceful
and smiling at the same time we are aware of suffering?
As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!