Under the Bodhi Tree with Thich Nhat Hanh
Bodhgaya – October 21-22
Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) looked amazingly refreshed on the heels of a 7 hour bus ride from Banaras to Bodhgaya, site of the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha sat until he had achieved his long sought enlightenment. Accompanied by a delegation of monks, nuns, and lay practitioners numbering almost 300 people, the 84 year old Thay walked mindfully in procession toward the Mahabodhi Temple on this crisp sunny morning. His path was adorned by lines of various monks and school children bearing flowers, and above them large banners bidding a warm welcome… a scene almost suggesting the arrival of a spiritual rockstar. As Thay walked gracefully and slowly ahead, the lines of followers behind him closed in fast with various enthusiasts running to catch up with him. Some slight jockeying for better positioning subtly ensued.
After a formal welcoming from the Sri Lankan delegation of monastics, Thay and his group circumambulated the Temple and the surprisingly green and healthy looking Bodhi Tree, and took their seats in preparation for the morning Dharma Talk. Additional guests at the event included about 50 young students from the Antioch College Buddhist Studies Program led by Robert Pryor since 1979, and other students who are studying Tibetan Buddhism at the nearby Root Institute.
Thay began to speak in his gentle and yet commanding way, curiously blending his obvious intellectual rigor with a softness and pleasantness of tone that communicates nearly as much as his words do. He offered some basic techniques for relaxing and opening oneself to the concentrated energy of the Sangha (the community of monks and nuns). “You don’t have to do anything,” Thay reassured the crowd, “you have only to allow the energy of mindfulness to penetrate you.”
Thay reminded his listeners that Buddhist practice must be joyful to be working. While everyone has regrets about the past and concerns about the future circulating in their minds, Thay pointed out that it is still possible to live happily in the present moment. Indeed, our “appointnent with life” exists only in the present moment, and missing it can be very serious. When we worry about the past, or fret about the future we can not be in touch deeply with the wonders of life- the Bodhi tree we are sitting under, the sun that is shining on us.
Thay suggested everyone take a deep breath in, and out, and try to remain aware of when they were taking an in or out breath. “Say to yourself, I have arrived. I have arrived in the here and in the now.” This is the address of life: the present moment. When you say that you have arrived, it means that you can finally stop running and chasing after happiness, or satisfaction, or pleasure. It means that you understand that your happiness is only available to you in this very moment, as is your liberation and your peace of mind. He counseled the group to invest themselves fully in the act of stopping their minds and bodies– stopping to experience the present moment.
“If you have stopped, you will know it, and if you have not fully stopped you will also know it,” advised Thay, “so stay in your position until you have fully arrived. Smile, when you have fully arrived and tell yourself that you are home. Use walking meditation to practice arriving, and remember to celebrate life with each step.” Thay warned that the habit energy of running is very strong in all of us, but that the reward for stopping and arriving in the present moment is to be fully in touch with the joy of life.
Contradicting the well established example of the ubiquitousness of suffering– particularly in the face of one’s inevitable aging and dying–Thay shared a secret with us: “Don’t believe it! If you are mindful and have understanding, you can happily grow old, and experience joy even as you die.”
Thay closed his talk by repeating his often quoted mantra, that “the miracle is not to walk on water… the miracle is to walk on the beautiful green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
Next and final stop on this Path of Awakening Journey in India is Rajgir, home of the Vulture Peak, where the Buddha gave many important teachings, and Nalanda, the site of a great Buddhist university dating back to the 5th century and one of the first institutions of higher learning in the world.
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