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The Monks and Me
How 40 Days in Thich Nhat Hanh's Monastery Guided Me Home
By Mary Paterson

A Conversation with Author Mary Paterson

What was it like being in the presence of the world-famous Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh?

The first time I saw the Zen master close up I was sitting on the floor at the front of the Buddha Hall with the kind of anticipation I often feel before a famous rock star walks onto a stage. But in the monastery, in that "substitute" stadium, I was much closer to the Buddhist heavyweight than I was to, say, Chris Martin of Coldplay earlier that year. I was sitting on a navy blue cushion in the second row of the Buddha hall. Behind me were rows upon rows of monks and nuns, men and women, all sitting on their own blue cushions. To my right was the door through which Thich Nhat Hanh was to enter.

The room went quiet. In the next moment, like magic, a deceptively diminutive figure in a long brown robe melted into the room without a sound. The intuitive being slipped out of his shoes while removing a brown toque which he then handed to an attending monk. The 86-year-old Zen master had large, wise-looking ears that appeared like two magnificent sculptures framing the insightful doorway that was the monk's face. Thich Nhat Hanh looked as if he had seen things—things that not many of us have seen. Thây also appeared perhaps fifteen years younger than his age. I wondered if I could call an 84-year-old Vietnamese monk cute. The transcendent face before me had that childlike quality. Was that the look of enlightenment? Thây didn't expressly survey the group of many hundreds of people there, but that changed when he began to speak. As Thây uttered his first phrase, in an instant, I felt as if he was talking directly to me.

What is the Buddhist practice of "mindfulness"?

Mindfulness, in the Buddhist sense, is the practice of touching life deeply in every moment. When you are able to be fully present to reality as it is, compassion arises, wounds heal, and you become rooted in courage, strength and wisdom. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls, taking refuge in the self. Mindful awareness of the breath unites your body and mind, and this generates insight. You experience breakthroughs into the nature of reality, and you recognize your interconnection with all life. And then your strong, enlightened self is capable of transforming. And you have a real chance to contribute to the healing of all the beings of the world.

How can difficult emotions be transformed through the practice of mindfulness?

While at the monastery, I had some trouble with a fellow pilgrim—that is we didn't like each other, plain and simple. Just seeing this woman triggered upsetting emotions. Near the end of my journey, however, I found myself able to apply the Buddhist practice of mindfulness to transform my negative feelings toward my innocent meditation comrade. On one day, I had seen the pilgrim across the field, and for a moment the sight of her agitated me. But there she was, walking amongst my loyal friends, the trees. I looked purposely over toward her. Resentment was instantly there but I let that emotion stay. I breathe and embrace that awful feeling with a kind of awareness. I did not push it away. And I started to have what I would describe as an enhanced perception of my resentment.