This is a fictional story about Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, activist, and writer (Deer Park). Some quotes in this story are attributed to him, but whom he said them to in reality is not known or came from the Shambhala Sun in March 2006 (Hanh).
Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy… So please smile. Smile with your eyes, not just with your lips. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh (Inspiration)
In 1926, Thich Nhat Hanh, also called Thay by friends and students, was born in Vietnam and begun an extraordinary life with a long journey (Deer Park). Along the way, he met many people and saw much beauty in the world. He became a monk who contributed to and enhanced the lives of many. His religion was not only Buddhism, but also a way of life and the things he said reflected that life and philosophy. Even so, if he had to choose between Buddhism and peace he would choose peace (Wikiquote).
One day, while Thay was walking through the park he saw a blonde-headed little girl sitting on a park bench looking very sad and refusing to play with the other children as she cried large tears of hurt and pain. He felt compassion for this young girl and wanted to understand why she was so sad.
“What saddens you, young lady?”
The little girl looked up to see a man in a yellow robe and sobbed, “You look like a sunflower.”
“Well maybe this flower can bring a little sunshine into your life,” he replied without taking any insult to the girl’s comment, “and help to put an end to your suffering.”
“My mommy said not to talk to strangers.”
“Oh she is very right. You shouldn’t talk to strangers,” he replied. “I’m Thich Nhat Hanh, but my friends call me Thay, which means teacher. I’m from Vietnam.”
“Why do you wear a funny dress?”
“It’s not a dress. It’s a robe, a Buddhist monk robe. May I sit beside you?”
She looked at him for a moment as she studied his peaceful features. “I guess.”
“Thank you. So what’s your name?”
“Oh that’s a pretty name.”
“What’s a monk? And what is a Buddhist?”
“Well… What is it you call a religious teacher in America?”
“You’re a preacher?”
“Oh no!” he laughed. “Not a preacher. A teacher. See, Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, but I do not preach it. I live it. I do not believe you should adopt my views either, but maybe I can help you at least to smile. I like smiles because they bring about peace and… sunshine.”
“Why?” she said angrily and pouted, “I don’t want to smile. The other kids, including my big brother who was supposed to take care of me, called me mean names and don’t want me to play with them.”
“Oh, but smiling is very important. If we are not able to smile, then the world will not have peace.”
“I don’t feel like making peace. I hate those kids, especially my brother,” she said with a frown.
“Oh you must not hate. How does that make you feel to hate?”
“I don’t know,” she said forlornly. “Sad. Mad. Besides, what if it’s true that I’m just a stupid, ugly… what else did they say?” she thought for a moment to remember everything they said. “Oh yes. I look like Yoda.”
Thay laughed. “Who or what is this Yoda?”
She laughed. “Haven’t you seen Star Wars? He’s a cool little guy with a bald head, dressed in a gray robe, who goes around saying things like, “And help you I will.” She drew back a bit and squinted to study him. “Sort of like you. Are you Yoda dressed as a sunflower?”
Thay chuckled again. “I am not sure who this Yoda is, but it sounds like I could be and to be honest, he sounds something like a monk, possibly the Buddha.”
“Oh yes. He was a great teacher, who lived many, many, many years ago, but back to your problem. You know I have a saying, which you might not understand, but it goes like this: Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your hatred (14 Precepts).”
She looked puzzled. “Penetrate? Transform? Mister, you use big words.”
“I’ll try to make it as simple as I can. Do not stay angry or continue to hate. It will only eat you up inside.”
“Eat me?” she said frightened.
“Hate and anger can be like a monster. It starts out like a seed and grows; only it is not a pretty flower. It is like an ugly weed.”
“Well, sometimes what mommy calls a weed is pretty. At least to me.”
“Yes, but some can choke and strangle other plants. This is not pretty, because they kill the plants you want.”
“Mommy said something like that once when she was telling me why she was pulling the weeds from her garden.”
“Yes and to her those were ugly, because they were, as you say, mean to the other plants.”
“Like those kids over there who don’t want to play with me and call me names.”
“And what did you do? Besides leave them to sit over here.”
“I called them stupid.”
“Ah, that was a mistake, for it does not plant seeds of peace, happiness, and joy. We must not say words that make people angry, just because they make us angry.”
“But they hurt me!” she cried.
“Yes, but maybe showing some compassion to them, instead of declaring war.”
“Calling them names back is not war. That’s what that man mommy calls ‘the Shrub’ does. He makes war with people somewhere over there. What’s it call. Irock?”
He smiled. “Iraq. I assume she means your president, Mr. Bush?”
“She’s right. Mr. Bush, as she says, makes war, but he alone doesn’t do it. No. It takes many people, but one person can start a war. A different war. What you and the other children had was a war of words. You were the victim and they imposed great suffering on you.”
“Made you sad and mad.”
“You declared war on them, but lost.”
“What if they are right?”
“Ah, there is where you lost.”
“You started to question what they said, thinking they were right.”
“What if they are?”
“Buddhists believe in what we call ‘right thinking, right action, and right speech’. That’s only part of Buddhism, but it applies here.”
“I did something bad?” she started to look sad again.
“Well, in a way. You started to mistreat yourself.” He noticed her confused look. “You started to think what they were saying was true. This was not nice to yourself and in order to spread seeds of kindness and peace; you have to plant them in yourself first.”
“I can’t plant seeds in myself. That’s silly!”
“In a sense yes. I tell you a story. OK?”
“OK. I like stories.”
“It is about sunflowers.”
No, real sunflowers. In April, we cannot see sunflowers in France (Wikiquote).”
“We can’t see them here either.”
“This is true and we might think they don’t exist (Ibid).”
“They don’t. Not in April.”
“Oh but they do. The local farmers have already planted thousands of seeds, and when they look at the bare hills, they may be able to see the sunflowers already (Ibid).”
“That’s silly! The seeds are in the ground. There isn’t any sunflowers. They’re seeds in the ground.”
“Ah, but they do! They lack only the conditions of the sun, heat, rain, and July. Just because we cannot see them does not mean they do not exist (Ibid).”
“I don’t get it. That’s a story?”
This child would probably try the patience of many an adult, but Thay continue patiently, “If you love yourself then you can love others, even if they call you names, but first you must be compassionate and loving to yourself. This means you cannot think of yourself as stupid or ugly.”
“What about Yoda?”
“Yoda maybe OK,” he smiled. “At least the way you describe him.”
“Mmmm…” she moaned questioningly.
“Well, if he is a monk, then he’s OK. Does he teach love?”
“That wasn’t in the movie, but the force was,” she finally smiled excitedly.
“Not sure what ‘the force’ is, but maybe you can relate to this: When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being lovable (Hanh).”
“You mean, if those kids say mean things, I shouldn’t say mean things back or start believing what they say?”
“Yes, that’s right. You see, love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself- if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself- it is very difficult to take care of another person. In the Buddhist teaching, it’s clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is a practice. Love is truly a practice (Hanh).”
“I’m not sure I understand,” she stated with a frown.
“If you can love yourself and not allow their words to get to you, then the seeds for loving yourself will grow and in return, you can love others, no matter what they say to you. In this way, you maybe able to plant seeds of peace in others. Then maybe they will stop calling you names.”
“Love is practice? I don’t have to practice loving my mommy. I just do.”
“That is a start, but when you understand, maybe you can spread more seeds of love and peace.”
“Is this what you are doing now?”
“Yes, the essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves “inside the skin” of the other. We “go inside” their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the subject of our observation. When we are in contact with another’s suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, “to suffer with (Hanh).”
“I’m lost. You make no sense,” said the young mind as she shook her head.
He nodded. “You are young. Remember when I saw you crying and began to speak to you?”
“I felt your suffering. I knew you were sad about something and felt sad with you. I wanted to help you smile again. I did not think of myself or of what other people might think. I thought about how sad you looked and hoped to help you feel better. This is compassion and love for another person.”
“Help you I will!” she mocked the fictional character and laughed. “You must be Yoda.”
Thay laughed too.
“You’re not mad that I called you Yoda?”
“No, I’m not. You do not mean it in a hateful manner, there is a difference, and when you say it, you not only smile with your lips, but you also smile with your eyes and show great joy. You bring me great joy now that you are smiling again. You are the sun that makes the sunflower grow.”
Lydia smiled and then she saw her mommy approaching them, jumped off the bench, and ran to her mother.
“Hi, Mommy! I want you to meet my new friend,” she said as she dragged her mother by the hand to where Thay sat.
Her mother looked Thay over as her daughter introduced them.
“Mommy, this is Thick… Um… How do you say your real name again, Thay?”
“Thich Nhat Hanh. Pleased to meet you,” he bowed slightly, “But you can call me Thay too, if you like.”
“He’s a sunflower Buddha monk.”
“Buddhist monk, Lydia, and it’s not nice to call him a sunflower.”
“It’s alright, Mrs?”
“Carolyn is fine.”
“Carolyn,” he repeated.
“Doesn’t he look like Yoda in a yellow robe instead of a gray one?”
“Lydia stop! That’s rude.”
“No, I like how she described the character. He sounds like a very wise character, almost like Buddha,” he replied as he smiled at Lydia.
“Thay taught me how to think, act, and um… Oh yeah, speak right, so I can love others, no matter how mean they are.”
The mother looked at him with confusion and concern.
“She was hurting because of what other children said and did to her, so I hoped to make her smile. She did and this is very important, because it brings peace to her, others, and the world. Because of her smile, she makes life more beautiful (Think Exist).”
“He talks funny, but I like him, Mommy. Can he come to our house for lunch?”
“Well, I don’t know,” she replied a bit uncomfortable, but wanted to return his kindness somehow. “Thich Nhat Hanh? I think I have heard of you.”
“You may have.”
“Can he come for lunch?”
“Maybe we can take him to lunch and you two can tell me all of what you talked about. That is, if you have time, Thay?”
“I would be honoured, as well as grateful to share a meal with you two, and yes, I do have time.”
“Can we go to McDonalds?” Lydia asked with glee.
“No, dear,” said her mother, “I think he might prefer something different, but we’ll think of something. Not sure where though, but we will think of something. Can monks even go out for lunch?” she asked Thay with curiosity.
“I can make a concession because it is your way of…” he paused to find the right words. “Of saying ‘thank you’, I’m sure.”
“Yes, I appreciate that you went out of your way for my daughter when you did not have too,” Carolyn replied.
“It is my duty and was no problem. Teaching young people about compassion is one of the most important things we can do for them, according to the Dalai Lama, and for the future of humanity (Shambhala Sun). I consider it an honour and privilege to teach young people.
“Well, in order to teach another young person such concept, I have to find him first. My son was supposed to watch Lydia,” she stated with a hint of anger in her voice.
“How old is the boy?”
“He’s fourteen and should know better to do what he did.”
“Don’t be too hard on him. Maybe he wants or needs something from you, and thinks this is how to get it, or maybe he wants to fit in with the others. Find out why he did what he did to his sister and then go from there.”
“I know you mean well,” Carolyn stated, “But he knew better.”
“Yes, he probably did,” Thay replied. “We will talk over lunch. OK?”
The mother was not sure what to think, but the three went to find the older child so they could go to lunch.