The Monks and Me: A Conversation with Mary Paterson

Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
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.

I understood why I felt disturbed. I fully accepted that emotion. In the next moment, a compassionate feeling for my Self arose, and I softened. I had embraced and wrapped my mindfulness around my difficult emotions. The tension broke down—in my mind and then in my body. As I breathed mindfully and accepted my difficult feelings, compassion flowed for my Self. And then, without difficulty, I expanded outwards. I wondered what kind of life my fellow pilgrim had had. My compassion turned toward her and moved out from me, like two long arms of light reaching across the field to envelope darkness. I thought of the famous saying by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." And my difficult feelings toward my fellow pilgrim vanished.

Was it difficult to follow all of the disciplines of monastery living, for example, getting up before dawn every day, and long periods of silence?

A radio journalist recently asked me what I thought was more difficult, getting up early, or following what's known in Buddhist terms as "noble silence." Hands down, I found it much more difficult to rise before dawn than shut my mouth! I have hermit-like tendencies to begin with, so refraining from speaking is a kind of wonderful relief for me. Buddhists have long practiced the tradition of engaging in periods of quietude. The Buddha was known to remain silent if a question was posed to him from someone who was not in a position to understand the answer, or if the question itself was wrongly put in the first place.