BootsnAll Travel Network

Another Buddhist encounter

Thanks to friend & fellow traveler Lari for another response to my Buddhist Doubt. Lari sent me this:

Is easier to claim
Than Something.
She who claims Zen travels light.

Another young woman is ordaining tomorrow as a nun in SuCo Thich Dieu Thien’s order. To celebrate the occasion, a thirty-something English-speaking Vietnamese monk from Michigan has arrived. He, like SuCo, feels his way of teaching is “much faster” and “more useful” than that of Thich Nhat Hanh and “Mindfulness,” which, they say, “only takes you half the way.”

The Michigan-monk lived at the center for several months while I was practicing there in 2005. He sent me, via Kate, an invitation to come to the center for tea and conversation. I figured I was strong enough to handle whatever he wanted to dish out, so I went. When I arrived, he and SuCo were seated at a picnic table visible from the front entryway, so I walked over and joined them.

The Michigan-monk began with the question Buddhist teachers often ask: “How is your practice?” Wary of traps (this is a teacher who, by my perception, loves to teach by humiliation) I answered carefully, “My practice is regular and gentle.”

“What mean, gentle?”

“I practice being present for whatever arises,” I answered, “and in this moment, the world is beautiful.” I gestured to the spectacular blue Texas sky, the gentle flutter of rust-colored leaves, the ambient temperatures in the low 70s.

“But what is your purpose?”

“To be fully present, fully alive.”

“Nah,” he said, waving both hands at me dismissively. “Useless. You are alive. How can you be less than fully alive?”

“By living in a state of distraction,” I answered, “by being here in body while the mind is wandering somewhere else, missing out on everything.”

“Why you distracted?”

“Habit–” I started, and once again he waved his hands.

“No! Waste of time. You distracted because you choose. You choose to run away from suffering. So you distract yourself. Why you want to be fully present?”

Oh boy, I thought, here we go again with the suffering. But I was willing to play along, maybe get some clarity for myself, maybe find out something I need to know. “Because I want to be here for my life. I don’t want to miss it.”


“Because I’m happier when I’m present, when I’m here now, and…”

He clapped his hands, “Yes! Because you happy! You want to be happy, yes?”

“Yes,” I smiled, “I want to be happy, and I want others to be happy.”

“You want to do no harm, right?” he asked, nodding at me.

“Yes. I want to do no harm.”

“You want to help others? You still want to work with prison, yes?” Clearly Pho Nguyen had reported to him on our coversation a few days ago. Right on cue, she appeared with a pot of tea and then drifted off again.

“Yes,” I said, “I want to do no harm and to help others if I can.”

“But you have seed of suffering inside you,” he said, now clearly taking the road he wanted in this conversation and nodding to SuCo, who sat silently smiling, watching him work. “If you don’t know the root of your suffering, you do harm to others. You have to watch out! You go in ignorance, you do harm, even you don’t want to do harm. So what is your purpose?”

I took a sip of bitter melon tea. First time I’d tasted that in over a year. I smiled. Pho Nguyen knows I dislike bitter melon tea. This was all carefully planned. Swallowing and smiling, I answered, “I can say that my purpose is to do no harm and to alleviate suffering, my own and other people’s, when I can. But life is full of much more than suffering. It’s full of love, beauty, kindness, and many other things. I want to experience all of that, too. I don’t want to just know my suffering and close my eyes to everything else.”

He bounced on the bench and clapped his hands again. “Oh!” he said. “That’s the problem you’re having. You make a mistake! We don’t say you can’t experience beauty and all of that. That’s what we’re here for! We love to be happy.” He opened his arms to the sky, and he and SuCo laughed.

This reminded me of George W. Bush saying, the week before the election, “We’ve never been stay-the-course.” It’s what I wanted to hear, and I’m glad to hear it, but for a moment my head whistles from feedback. I let it go, but I know I didn’t imagine the part of the teaching I found least resonant with my own experience. “Me too,” I nodded. “That’s why I don’t want to spend all my time searching for the root of my suffering. I want to be present for all that life brings.”

“Good!” he said, reaching over to shake my hand. “We on same page! And all we try to teach you,” he nodded at SuCo, and she nodded back, “Is that if suffering comes up, you look at it, look deeply into it, and have the intention to know the root, so you can be of use to others.”

“Don’t run away,” she said. “Stay with it.”

“Right,” I agreed. “I do stay with it when it comes up. I see suffering when it arises, I watch it, and I see that it arises and comes to a peak, and then it lets go. I can let go of it. I have grown much better at this by meditating. I just don’t see the point in looking at nothing BUT suffering, or–” and here it was my turn to nod at SuCo, “artificial suffering. Life gives us enough as it is.” She knew exactly what I was talking about–that trip to Mexico when we practiced morning meditation sitting on concrete with the cushions two feet away, when we walked for hours in the sun, when she wouldn’t let us use the toilet when we wanted to, or drink water, or do anything she didn’t approve. She smiled, “I help you to see suffering in small thing, so you have practice for when big suffering comes. Different student need different thing.”

I continued, “But you said we should not enjoy the beauty, SuCo. You said it’s all illusion.”

“Only because you use illusion to distract yourself from your suffering. Illusion not important. Important is not to distract, not to run away. Important to stay with the suffering till you know the root. What is cause of the suffering?”

I knew there was no point in answering. That question comes again and again, and no matter what a student says, the answer is always wrong. Some of my wrong answers from the past: Craving and aversion. Wrong. Habit of desiring to be comfortable. Wrong. Attachment. Wrong. Ideas about how things should be. Wrong. Expectation. Wrong. Cherishing self. Wrong. Ego. Wrong. Thinking self is separate from other. Wrong. So instead of trying one of these old wrong answers, I said what I knew would be right: “I don’t yet know the root of my suffering.”

“Yes,” the monk said, smiling broadly. “Just have the intention to know. Don’t think about it. Don’t try to answer. Don’t use mind. The intention to know will take you there. Watch the suffering, and have the intention to know root of suffering. That is all we are teaching here. Because we want to be happy. We want to serve others. We want to be FREE! Can’t be free till we know the root. When we know the root, we can pull out the seed of suffering, and then we never do harm to another person. Can you do harm when you happy?”

“Well, yeah,” I said, a little puzzled. “I could hurt someone’s feelings unintentionally. I could step on an ant. Most of the harm I have ever done was unintentional, and sometimes I was happy when I did it.”

“How you know?” he asked, slapping his hands down on the table. “Until you take out the seed of suffering, you cannot be truly happy. Once you truly happy, you walk on the earth like this,” and he smiled, lifted his arms, and suggested with his upper body a kind of floating or levitating walk. “You do no more harm. You only help others to be happy. Like SuCo.”

My face probably betrayed my misgivings about SuCo being a model of kindness. “You have same seed like SuCo. I sure about that,” he said.

“You think so?” I was definitely dubious. “I sure. You have same seed. You have capacity. You want to help others. But you have to know your purpose. So now. What your purpose?”

Ever the good student but determined to keep my own integrity, I answered, “To do no harm, to relieve suffering, and to be present for everything that arises, including beauty, kindness, love, and suffering.”

“And look for the root,” he added.

“Yeah. And look for the root,” I repeated, making peace. So we all shook hands, nodded at each other, bowed, and parted, I think, on good terms. As we stood up he said, “And remember this your home. This center. Right here.” I’m certain that Kate has told them I’m planning to spend this coming summer visiting Buddhist communities in search of a new home. SuCo added, “Come any time.” We all bowed to each other again.

I wonder if it is true that we do harm to others if we haven’t found the root of our own suffering, and that the root of suffering is not any of those things I have named. This teaching is not difficult to follow. Watch everything that arises. When suffering arises, have the intention to see the root. I can do that. I don’t feel like returning to their center to practice, but I am interested in the inquiry. I can have that intention. Immediately I start thinking about what the “root” is, and immediately I hear him saying, “Don’t think about it.” I let go of the thought, wondering how in hell I will ever know anything if I don’t think about it, but that is the same gerbil wheel I ran in for a whole year at that center, so I just step out of it for now. I’m grateful to Thay and SuCo for calling me in, for clarifying their teaching. I’m still in a bit of a fog, but I think it was a good encounter. What I took away that is new (and I think this is a change in their teaching methods of 2005), is that they don’t say we must ignore the beauty of the world. I think they have decided that it’s OK to be grateful for good things when they arise, so long as we don’t use beauty to distract ourselves from the purpose of knowing the root of suffering. I will just sit with that for a while.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *