In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests an unorthodox way of interpreting the Christian story of the last supper and the service of holy communion. According to Hanh, when Christ breaks the bread and shares it with his disciples saying, ‘Eat this. This is my flesh’, he is saying if you eat one piece of bread in mindfulness you will have real life. If you eat bread in a state of mindlessness or forgetfulness, the bread is not bread, it is only a ghost of bread. Just as we are only pale ghosts of ourselves if we are not awake and mindful. Hanh argues that Christ was trying to wake up his disciples. Maybe we can interpret the changing of water into wine in a similar way. If we really taste the water, noticing its flavour and texture, and if we are fully present when we hold it in our mouths and swallow it – the water becomes as rich, tasty and enjoyable as wine.
The word, love
The English word love has many meanings and uses. We speak of loving our parents and our children; there is the love we have for our partner, our lover, our husband or wife; sometimes we speak of love of country or of a particular place; we talk of love of food or of art or of poetry. Love can refer to an emotion or feeling issuing from the ego-self, or arising from the relational self or Buddha-mind. The former is the product and generator of attachment and desire, while the latter is a product and generator of non-attachment grounded in relatedness and interdependence.
Henepola Gunaratana, a teacher in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, writes about the Pali word, metta, which is usually translated as ‘loving-kindness’. In his earlier book, Mindfulness in Plain English, Gunaratana uses this translation, but in a later book, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, he translates metta as, ‘loving-friendliness’. If we consult a dictionary, metta is defined as: friendliness, benevolence, amity, goodwill, kindness, close union with, interest in welfare of others. This line of interpretation avoids the romantic, desire-based connotations of love and loving-kindness, instead associating metta with feelings of kinship, care, concern, compassion and connectedness.
Remembering a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh
What can I remember of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching at a recent retreat? He emphasised the cardinal importance of this moment – the past has gone, the future has yet to come, only now is real. He reminded us that times of non-thinking are important – a time to let go of past and future, our hopes and fears, our plans and obsessions – a time to ‘come home’ to our bodies. From mindfulness and attention to our own experience, compassion flows – compassion towards ourselves, our nearest and dearest, and towards those people and other beings with whom we share this very special planet.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s school of Zen, reference is made to ‘inviting the bell to sound’ (not striking the bell or ringing it) and the sound of the bell is an invitation to stop, to attend, to listen, look and to be here in the moment. When eating meals in mindful silence we can find the ‘kingdom of God’ in a small piece of carrot – a morsel that nourishes our body and mind. Hanh urges us to attend to the pain of existence – birth, death, evanescence, the coming and going of phenomena and the sense of change and loss that arises in our day-to-day existence – but not to add to this pain by clinging, passing judgement or adding a commentary. Our tendency to react with habitual responses and to add layers of words, thoughts and feelings to the initial pain only increases our suffering and clouds our experience. Buddhism is about seeing things as they are, not as they are wrapped in our emotions, reactions and habits of thought, feeling and behaviour.