The Sun’s Andrea Miller attends a transformational six-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh.
The War Memorial Gym is a sea of eight hundred prone people. When I finally find an empty patch of floor, I unfurl my yoga mat. Then I lie down on top of it, covering myself with the itchy yellow blanket I carted here from my dorm room.
This is the evening of the first full day of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Awakening the Heart Retreat, held in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia. According to the schedule, we’ll be practicing total relaxation and touching the earth. I don’t know what touching the earth is, but I don’t give it much thought. My mind has latched onto the pleasant promise of total relaxation. And it is pleasant. Sister Chan Khong, who has worked closely with Thich Nhat Hanh for over fifty years, assures us that if we feel like sleeping, we don’t need to resist. Instead, we can enjoy drifting off and later waking up refreshed. She guides us in breathing, releasing, and taking notice of the wonders of our bodies—the hard work of our hearts, livers, intestines. Then she breaks into soothing song.
When the bell finally rings and Sister Chan Khong moves on to touching the earth, I am deeply relaxed. She explains that we all have three roots: blood (or genetic) ancestors, environment (or land) ancestors, and spiritual ancestors. They are the sources of our strength and goodness, but they also plant the seeds of our pain and negative patterns. We’re going to concentrate on the good seeds that are in us from each of our roots, then we’re going to acknowledge the negative seeds. Then we’re going to touch the earth by touching the floor with our forehead, and we’re going to let this negativity go—let it go into the earth. Sister Chan Khong also explains that she is going to talk about different situations and maybe they won’t all apply to us, but we can use what she’s saying as a jumping off point to think about our own lives.
We begin with our blood ancestors—first our mother. My own relationship with my mom is remarkably uncomplicated; she is a true friend and has been supportive of me all my life. So I don’t relate when Sister Chan Khong talks about the challenges of having a critical, complaining mother. But when she tells us to imagine our mother when she was young, and to think about her vulnerability and her pain, I start crying instantly. It’s like Sister Chan Khong has pressed a button I didn’t know I had. I’m picturing my mother at age fourteen, when she lost her little brother in an accident. She washed his blood off the porch, she told me once, and she felt like she was washing him down the drain.
On the wall opposite me hangs the gym’s scoreboard, flanked by the stylized heads of two thunderbirds. I close my eyes to them and let my tears drip to the pink foaminess of my yoga mat.
Then Sister Chan Khong tells us to think of our father.
Over breakfast when I was eleven, I asked my dad if he believed in ghosts. “See this coffeepot,” he said, holding it up to the morning light. “I believe in this coffeepot because I can see it. I don’t believe in what I can’t see.”
I bit into a corner of toast with jam. “So you think that when we die, that’s it?”
“Not at all,” he said. “We live on through our children.”
I squinted at my father, still in his bathrobe, and decided that living on through our children was just a fancy-schmancy way of saying that when you’re dead, you’re dead. This was a no-frills belief I couldn’t share, because I believed in most everything else—heaven and God, reincarnation and astral plains, ghosts, astrology, and psychic powers. With its many mysterious layers, my eleven-year-old world was both thrilling and terrifying. Attics held untold possibility; I slept with blankets over my head; I went to fortune-tellers. Be it palm readings, tea leaves, or tarot cards, witchy middle-aged women in slippers predicted great things for me. What they never predicted was doubt.
Yet after I left eleven behind — after years had gone by — my beliefs came to look more and more like Dad’s. Pragmatic. Evidence-based. I was my father’s daughter.
“You cannot take your father out of you; you cannot take your mother out of you,” Thich Nhat Hanh says during a dharma talk in the War Memorial Gym. “You are a continuation of your father; you are a continuation of your mother. In fact, your father is both inside and outside. The father inside is younger, and you carry the inside father into the future.”
Thich Nhat Hanh (known affectionately as Thay) is up on the stage, along with pots of orchids. This, the first part of his talk, is dedicated to the children who are on the retreat, and they’re sitting on the floor directly in front of the stage. I’m on the floor too, but further back, and behind me there are people on chairs.
“Bring a grain of corn home, plant it in a small pot, and remember to water it every day.” Thich Nhat Hanh says. “Then when the grain of corn has become a young plant of corn of two or three leaves, ask the plant this question: My dear little plant of corn, do you remember the time when you were a tiny seed?”
Thay’s smile is wide as he gives the children these instructions, and this gets everyone else smiling too—both children and adults. “If you listen very carefully, you can hear the answer,” he says. “The young plant of corn will say something like: ‘Me? A tiny seed? I don’t believe it!’” A brown-robed Zen master cracking a silly joke—this gets people giggling.
The young plant of corn has been there for only two weeks,” says Thay, “but it has already forgotten that it was a seed, a tiny seed of corn, so you have to help the plant to remember. Tell it something like this: ‘My dear little plant of corn, it’s me who planted the grain of corn in this pot and who has watered it every day. You came from that seed.’ Maybe in the beginning the plant doesn’t believe you, but be patient and it will accept that it was once a seed.”
I am already familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s grain of corn teaching—I’ve read it in his books—but it sounds fresh right now. He is delivering it as if he’s never delivered it before, and I’m hearing it that way. Thay says that practitioners of meditation can see the grain of corn when they look at the plant—meditation allows them to do this. So maybe it is this retreat, with its meditation and mindfulness practices, which is allowing me to see more layers and live differently. Lots of little things feel different since the retreat started. Last night, for instance when I went back to my dorm, I unwrapped the vegan chocolate peanut butter brownie that I’d been too full to eat at lunch. I sat on my bed and just ate, concentrating on the soft, sweet frosting, the chewy nuttiness. Back in the non-retreat world, I never just eat; I’m in too much of a hurry for that. I read at the same time, or else I talk or tidy the kitchen. This slowed down life feels a lot better. It tastes better too.
“The grain of corn has not died,” Thay continues. “You can no longer see the grain of corn, but you know that it has not died. If it had died, there would be no plant of corn. You cannot take the grain of corn out of the plant of corn.
“We are the continuation of our father and our mother, like the plant of corn is the continuation of the seed of corn,” Thay told the children. “In the beginning, every one of us was much smaller even than the seed of corn. But we don’t remember, so we need a friend in the dharma to remind us that we were once this very tiny seed in our mother’s womb—half of the seed from our father and the other half from our mother. Your father is in every cell of your body; your mother is in every cell of your body. So when your father dies, he doesn’t really die. He lives on in you, and you bring him into the future.”
In October 2008, I had just fallen asleep at my grandmother’s house when my aunt Peggy shook me awake. “No,” I said, sitting bolt upright. “Yes,” she said. “Quick.”
I was already dressed, so I threw off the covers and ran down the dark stairs after her. But I didn’t understand: If yes, why this rush? Wasn’t it over? Didn’t death look like falling into sleep? I imagined the transition being like a kite disappearing into the sky. The kite would go higher and higher—deeper and deeper into dreams—then the cord tying it to earth would release, all the kite colors peacefully swallowed up in blue.
But no kites, no open sky—in the TV room turned hospice, my father was gasping, struggling to find air for his body swollen with cancer. There were five women gathered on and around his hospital bed—me, my two aunts, my grandmother, and my father’s third wife—and each of us was shouting last minute messages to him. “Let go, Stephen,” my aunt Valerie urged, making it sound like “push” in a delivery room. “There’s nothing to worry about here.” The gasps got further and further apart and his eyes glazed. Aunt Peggy checked his pulse. “He’s gone,” she said.
It wasn’t yet dawn; we had hours before the people from the funeral home would come with their black bag. So I stayed sitting on the hospital bed—between the wall and my father slowly going cold. I wanted to sob, but held back because I didn’t want to make this more painful for my grandmother or the others. My grandmother, I was pretty sure, also wanted to sob, but held back for me and the others. Maybe this is how families always support each other; individuals keeping themselves glued together for the benefit of all. I talked quietly with cousins, aunts, and uncles.
“The people from the home will be here in half an hour,” my aunt Peggy finally said, and my heart contracted. Sobbing I could do later, alone. What could only happen now was wedging myself into the crook of my father’s arm. I tried to pull his elbow to the side, and it was like ice water in my face when I realized I couldn’t—he’d gone stiff. Still I crawled between his arm and his chest—that small, rigid space just as it was—and there I breathed for both of us, following the breath.
This was a rare moment in my life—I had my father all to myself for half an hour.
“Some young people are angry with their father,” Thich Nhat Hanh says. “They cannot talk to their father. There is hate.” Then Thay tells us in his soft, accented voice about a young man he once knew who was so angry at his father that he wanted nothing to do with him.
The children, with their tiny, bare feet, are still in the gymnasium turned dharma hall with the adults, and I’m surprised by how quiet and attentive they are. Sitting by one of the loudspeakers is Alison, my retreat roommate, her hand on her baby-round belly.
“If you look deeply into the young man,” continues Thay, “you will see that his father is fully present in every cell of his body and he cannot take his father out of him. So when you get angry with your father, you get angry with yourself. Suppose the plant of corn got angry at the grain of corn.”
I’ve never been like the young man that Thay knew. My father and I were always on good terms, but—though I never told him this—it touched off seeds of anger in me when he got sick.
My father left when I was four. One day, my mother and I came home and there was a note on the kitchen table. There was also a plate with sandwich crusts on it—the leftovers of the lunch he’d eaten before getting on a plane to Calgary, a faraway city where a woman was waiting for him. I didn’t see my father for two years. After that, I saw him for a couple of weeks every summer when I’d visit him and his new family. The nanny would feed me and my half siblings dinner and then I’d get sent to bed at the same time as them. They were seven and nine years younger than me, so bedtime would come when it was still light and I’d stare at the ceiling, sleepless. Later, after Dad and his second wife started having problems, he stopped buying me plane tickets to Calgary. He visited instead, and we played Trivial Pursuit and he took me out to practice my driving. I didn’t feel, though, that he really came to see me. He stayed at his mother’s place and spent most of the time drinking wine and moonshine with his siblings and cousins.
As I grew up, I inherited my father’s skepticism but not the other pillar of his philosophy—the belief that we continue through our children. With a gulf so wide between us, I couldn’t see myself as a continuation of him. Of course, I wasn’t denying biology; I understood that fifty percent of my genetic information came from him. But so what? Genetics could explain my cleft chin, not who I was. After all, my father had another three children with his second wife and one more with his third, and all of us progeny were uniquely ourselves. One of my half-sisters was so angry with Dad that she refused to have contact with him.
According to Thay, if we’re angry with our father or mother, we have to breathe in and out, and find reconciliation. This is the only path to happiness, and if we can live a happy, beautiful life, our father and mother in us will be more beautiful also. “During sitting meditation,” says Thay, “I like to talk to my father inside. One day I told him, ‘Daddy, we have succeeded.’ That morning, when I practiced, I felt that I was so free, so light, I did not have any desire, any craving. I wanted to share that with my father, so I talked to my father inside: ‘Daddy, we are free.’”
“I also talk to my mother,” continues Thay, “because I know that my mother has not really died—she continues on in me. When I practiced walking meditation in India with a group of a few thousand people on the largest boulevard of New Delhi, I invited my mother to walk with me. I said, ‘Mommy, let’s walk together. Use my feet, but also yours. My feet are the continuation of your feet.’ So, mother and son, we enjoyed walking in New Delhi. I invited also my father to walk with me. Then later on, I invited my brother and my grandmother and the Buddha and my teacher. The walk was so wonderful.”
The university gym has a blue glow—blue floor, blue seats in the bleachers, closed blue curtains filtering the morning light. Thay has a glow too—a warm smile. “When we make a happy step, all our ancestors enjoy walking and making happy steps,” he says. “If you walk in the Kingdom of God, all of them walk in the Kingdom of God. If you walk in Hell—in despair and anger and hate—your ancestors have to join you. Let us choose to walk in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.”
Interbeing: this is Thich Nhat Hanh’s term for dependent origination, a key concept in Buddhism, which states that all phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. In traditional Buddhist literature, this is a doctrine that can come across as philosophical and cerebral. Thich Nhat Hanh, however, has a gift for presenting Buddhist teachings in very human, very personal terms. At the retreat, he uses the orchids on the stage to explain interbeing. To exist a flower needs sun, clouds, rain, earth, minerals, and a gardener. Many non-flower elements come together to help the flower manifest and if we remove these non-flower elements, there is no flower left.
In a similar way, so-called opposites always manifest together, inseparably. There is no darkness without light, no left without right, no above without below, no parent without child. “Before the son or daughter manifests, you cannot call the father a father,” Thay explains. “Of whom would he be the father?” In other words, my father and I inter-are. We all inter-are.
I used to believe that my father had no excuse for his behavior — his chronic infidelities, his willingness to jump ship. After all, his own father, Buddy, wasn’t like that. Perhaps Buddy had never heard of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the longtime president of Notre Dame. Yet he lived Hesburgh’s well-known quote: “The most important thing that a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” The Awakening the Heart retreat is helping me to look more deeply into things. To see the rain in the flower or the piece of paper. To see that my father was a product of many causes and conditions.
Like me, like all of us, my father was wounded. I don’t know the source of his suffering and maybe I never will. But I understand suffering. My father was trying to fill himself up with busyness, women, and booze. No one does that unless they hurt.
If Thich Nhat Hanh is right and my father is indeed in me, then I can heal his wounds. When I heal my wounds, it heals his, and it heals the wounds of future generations. With my suffering transformed, I won’t pass it along. The cycle stops.
Touching the earth is the last activity of the evening, so afterward I fall into noble silence along with the other retreatants and I file out of the gym. It’s a special feeling to walk without words with hundreds of people. Little sounds take on new texture. There’s the sound of feet on hard concrete, then the sound of feet on softer earth, rustling through grass. Thich Nhat Hanh has taught us to do walking meditation at a normal clip. In this way, we can do it always, anywhere. Inhale, I take three steps; exhale, five. Inhale. Exhale.
The Douglas firs tower darkly above me, and a weeping silver linden gives off its perfume. Roots, branches, leaves—I feel my connection to these trees, the way that they take in my breath and the breath of all of us, and then give it back to us as oxygen. I feel connected to the other retreatants, too, united in our practice, in our inhalations and exhalations. And I feel connected to my father. I have a debt to him—a debt for this life. I used to believe my father left me twice—once to be with his second wife and once to die.
But he didn’t leave at all. Thay’s right—my father is walking with me now.