Receiving Spiritual Practice in Ireland
By Paul Lavender
As I stepped off the plane and into Dublin on a wet and windy April Tuesday to hear Thay’s public talk, “Cooling the Flames,” I was somewhat curious how a teetotal pacifist Buddhist monk would be received in a hard-drinking, strongly Christian culture just beginning to get over years of bloodshed. Well, the answer to my question—at least if the sell-out crowd of two thousand people was anything to go by—was: very well indeed.
Following a calming meditation, Thay clearly and gently explained how the happiness we seek is a direct result of generating understanding and compassion. Moreover, as everyone has the seed of understanding and compassion, everyone has the potential to be happy. However, this seed needs to be watered by people who have first watered it in themselves. This gives our life a spiritual dimension.
For Happiness, Embrace Suffering
Thay went on to explain that nations, not only individuals, need such a spiritual dimension. After all, as the great Irish writer James Joyce put it: “Nations have their ego, just like individuals.” For a nation, the first step in this practice is the same as for an individual: to embrace one’s own suffering. Without doing this, it’s impossible to understand the suffering of others.
Thay explained that he was in New York during 9/11. His advice to a nation bound tightly by immense pain and in deep shock was clear: first, calm the overwhelming fear and anger that had taken hold. Without doing this, both the individuals and the nation would engage in destructive actions. I glanced at a leaflet a lady had pressed into my hand outside the building barely an hour earlier that read: “One day’s war in Afghanistan could fund 100,000 nurses in the UK.” I’m sure a lot of politicians who failed to hear or heed that warning were regretting it now.
Once the mind is calm, Thay explained, the process of deep listening begins. Here, we just listen, attempt to understand, and say nothing. Even if the person has distorted ideas, we say nothing until we have understood their view. I was instantly reminded of another of Ireland’s great literary sons, Oscar Wilde, who said, “If one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, society here would be quite civilized.” I wondered if he’d be happy to know the second part was currently underway.
Thay, seemingly aware that embracing one’s own suffering may not sound like the most fun to have on an evening in Dublin, clearly explained how this practice is both pleasant and easy. Understanding comes from being aware or mindful. If we’re mindful of the causes of our suffering, we’re also aware of the conditions for our happiness that are present: our eyes, our healthy heart, or simply having enough food for breakfast. When we get hurt, mindfulness protects us by stopping our own conceptions that exaggerate the pain. Mindfulness allows us to see that the causes of our happiness greatly outweigh the causes of our suffering, and we naturally become happy and appreciative. Thay pointed out that when one experiences this, then it’s impossible to view fame, wealth, and so forth as causes of happiness. Looking at the beaming and peaceful monks and nuns on the stage, it was hard to argue.
Towards the end of the talk, Thay described his studies of the gospels, and how he saw Jesus as a teacher of mindfulness. He lamented that the view of Jesus as a teacher offering practical advice is sometimes lost. This struck me particularly hard. Thay had perfectly laid out the need for a spiritual path in the lives of nations and individuals, but instead of pulling out a new, ready-made spiritual path like some television chef, he showed how these qualities are present in the religion already here.
And how did this go down with the audience? Well, I never thought I’d witness a rush on Zen calligraphy in my life, but the one I saw after that talk would have shamed hordes of old ladies on sales day. Everybody wanted, as Sister Chan Khong put it, to “take a piece of Thay home” with them. As if by way of confirmation, at breakfast the next morning I was greeted by a large picture of Thay looking serene on the front page of The Irish Times.
All Potential Buddhas
It was clear to me that the baggage I’d arrived with was not merely the suitcases. I’d brought a whole bunch of stereotypes that led me to see contradictions between the archetypal Irish and archetypal Zen practitioner. Thay had blown those out of the water, and now, in the warmth of an Irish bar, I wondered what else my preconceptions had caused me to miss. What are the parts of Irish culture entwined with understanding and compassion?
I glanced around the bar at the people enjoying themselves and the singer clearly loving his job, and realized places like these are probably Ireland’s most successful export. Irish bars spring up over the world like mushrooms. But why? I hardly know anyone outside of the UK who would order Guinness, so it’s not for the beer. Then, it hit me—the craic (pronounced “crack”)! A word so associated with Ireland that there’s no translation to English. It means the easygoing, constant laughter and chatter. The next person through the door is welcome, wherever they come from. Ireland has basically exported places where you can go, enjoy companionship, and if you’ve had a bad day, hopefully get some understanding and compassion.
Then, like dominoes, the pieces started to fall: surely there is almost no greater example of reconciliation and deep listening than the Northern Ireland peace process. A four-hundred-year-old bloody conflict over governance was laid to rest through the power of diplomacy. When Thay described how America could practice deep listening with the perpetrators of 9/11, I intellectually understood and agreed. Simultaneously, I physically felt my anger towards those people. I don’t know if I could sit opposite one of them and remain calm. But that’s exactly what had happened here. Each group had infinite amounts of “righteous anger” to direct at the other, but they put this aside for peace. Gerry Adams, leader of Republican Sinn Fein, recognized at the conclusion of the peace talks that all conflicts can be solved by dialogue.
I’ve heard Thay speak in four countries, and I’ve never seen him change his style to meet the local culture. At first I found this odd, but reasoned that he teaches universal truths, which don’t change. In Ireland, as I watched him smile at two thousand people with the opening “Dear friends,” I realized the truth is more profound. I believe he sees potential Buddhas—some speak a different language, some live farther away, some have differently colored skin—and they are all the same in their potential to develop understanding and compassion.
The stereotypes I’d brought with me were amusing and not entirely subjective (I come from Wales—an equally beer- and rugby-obsessed nation with an accent no one understands), and they probably held a grain of truth. Nevertheless, they’d also caused me to doubt whether mindfulness practice could take hold in a country that’s already shown the best examples of how to practice openness and deep listening in good times and bad. These stereotypes were more dangerous than I realized! I wondered how many times I’d been guilty of stereotyping others rather than focusing on their accomplishments and potential. Perhaps even more damaging, how many times had I done that to myself?
It seems to me that on that evening in Dublin, a nation and an individual each received a spiritual practice. To practice, you need opportunities. Ireland has them aplenty: with the appalling handling of the Euro crisis and recent revelations about widespread child abuse, righteous anger seems, well, right. On a smaller scale, my limiting beliefs about myself, others, and entire nations seem, well, unlimited. I like to take to heart Thay’s advice that the practice should be fun, or as the Irish would say, “to enjoy the craic.” And to remember Oscar Wilde’s words: “Every saint has a past. Every sinner has a future.”
Paul Lavender left Wales around ten years ago to go traveling and never made it back. He now lives in Switzerland with his wife and baby daughter. He’s attended talks by Thay in several countries and a three-week Summer Retreat in Plum Village. Paul is also a volunteer copy editor for the Mindfulness Bell.