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“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.

From the January 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.



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