The God Squad: ‘Thay’ has died and he has not died
I try and mostly I fail to cast a large enough net over the God Squad. Sadly, I fear that one could read the God Squad every week and come to the mistaken belief that the world of religious folks is populated mainly by Jews and Catholics. That is my fault. I studied Buddhism deeply and learned from Hindu and Muslim teachers. Despite real differences, their tremendous similarities are powerful proof that there is a core of spiritual and moral teaching linking us all together and that the ways we are different are so much less important than the ways we are all the same. My belief and the belief of my dearly departed friend Father Tom Hartman was that all the wisdom traditions of the earth are like different paths up the same mountain. Our sacred task in interfaith dialogue is to learn from all the other climbers.
This past week a great spiritual climber died at the age of 95. He was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, but his friends called him “Thay”. I would like to honor him by trying to lift some of the teachings of his version of Mahayana Zen Buddhism. These teachings can be most helpful to all of us who climb on the Western side of the mountain.
There is a tendency in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to focus on the past and the future but in doing so we neglect living fully in the present. Perhaps this is because our sacred texts are about historical events in the past and the hope for salvation in the future. Buddhism is focused on the present moment, and this is a spiritually valuable lesson for all of us in the West.
Mindfulness and meditation are specific techniques that help us to let go of anxiety about what might be, or regret about what has already happened. Most of these techniques involve concentrating on breathing — slow, rhythmic breathings. When I first learned this Buddhist teaching, I thought it was — well — silly. I understood the point of breathing (I do it constantly), but I did not understand the value of thinking about breathing. Then I encountered breathing techniques in Lamaze birthing classes with Betty where rhythmic breathing helps reduce the pain of labor. I have seen mediation and breathing used by sports psychologists to reduce tension in pro athletes. The point is that we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by all the irrelevant predations of modern life. We must not shut them out, but we must defang them and the best way to do this is to concentrate on our human breath and its life-giving simplicity and blessing.
Thay taught, “To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation.”
In addition to helping us to remove the stresses of life in the modern world, mindfulness also gives us a good path to true happiness.
Thay taught, “Mindfulness is the energy that helps us recognize the conditions of happiness that are already present in our lives. You don’t have to wait ten years to experience this happiness. It is present in every moment of your daily life. There are those of us who are alive but don’t know it. But when you breathe in, and you are aware of your in-breath, you touch the miracle of being alive. That is why mindfulness is a source of happiness and joy.”
Mindfulness also helps us to drastically lower the number of words we use every day. As a writer and a rabbi, I know how word drunk my life can become. Many of us use too many words to try to explain everything. We use too many words to try to convince people of something they must come to wordlessly. Our avalanche of words also buries our true selves and prevents us from deep listening. Talking is not the source of wisdom. Listening is the source of wisdom and listening is a big part of mindfulness
Thay taught, “During the time you are practicing mindfulness, you stop talking — not only the talking outside, but the talking inside. The talking inside is the thinking, the mental discourse that goes on and on and on inside. Real silence is the cessation of talking — of both the mouth and the mind. This is not the kind of silence that oppresses us. It is a very elegant kind of silence, a very powerful kind of silence. It is the silence that heals and nourishes us.”
May we all learn from this magnificent climber.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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