On the first night of my seven-year-old daughter Alexandra’s first Buddhist retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh smiled and looked into her eyes as few adults ever look at children. Although he sat very still on a stage, the Vietnamese teacher seemed to bow to her inwardly, offering her his full presence and inviting her to be who she really is.
Alexandra threw her jacket over her head.
“Children look like flowers,” said the man who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967. His voice was soft and bittersweet. “Their faces look like flowers, their eyes, their ears . . .”
Surrounded by scores of monks and nuns who had traveled with him from Plum Village, the French monastic community that has been his home since his peace activism caused his exile from Vietnam, he lifted his eyes from the little flower who was huddled, hiding her face, in the front row. Before him sat 1,200 people who had gathered in a vast white tent on the wooded campus of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in upstate New York. Thay, as he is affectionately known, had convened us for a five-day retreat dedicated to cultivating mindfulness through practices such as sitting meditation, walking, and sharing silent meals.
As the Master talked about the “freshness,” or openness and sensitivity of children, I couldn’t help but be struck by the way Alexandra was ducking for cover. He extolled freshness as one of the qualities that each of us possesses in our essence, our Buddha-nature. Alexandra, shrouded in nylon, was reminding me that true freshness isn’t limited to those moments when we feel happily and playfully open. It often means feeling raw and vulnerable. I wondered if it had been a mistake to bring her here, to risk exposing her to the way we really are.
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