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."
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(continued in "Practice" part three)
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!