Brother Phap Luu, a monastic at Plum Village, grew up in Newtown, Connecticut. He has written an amazing, heartfelt letter to shooter Adam Lanza, that you can read here:
Saturday, 15th of December, 2012 Dharma Cloud Temple Plum Village
Let me start by saying that I wish for you to find peace. It would be easy just to call you a monster and condemn you for evermore, but I don't think that would help either of us. Given what you have done, I realize that peace may not be easy to find. In a fit of rage, delusion and fear—yes, above all else, I think, fear—you thought that killing was a way out. It was clearly a powerful emotion that drove you from your mother's dead body to massacre children and staff of Sandy Hook School and to turn the gun in the end on yourself. You decided that the game was over.
But the game is not over, though you are dead. You didn't find a way out of your anger and loneliness. You live on in other forms, in the torn families and their despair, in the violation of their trust, in the gaping wound in a community, and in the countless articles and news reports spilling across the country and the world—yes, you live on even in me. I was also a young boy who grew up in Newtown. Now I am a Zen Buddhist monk. I see you quite clearly in me now, continued in the legacy of your actions, and I see that in death you have not become free.
You know, I used to play soccer on the school field outside the room where you died, when I was the age of the children you killed. Our team was the Eagles, and we won our division that year. My mom still keeps the trophy stashed in a box. To be honest, I was and am not much of a soccer player. I've known winning, but I've also known losing, and being picked last for a spot on the team. I think you've known this too—the pain of rejection, isolation and loneliness. Loneliness too strong to bear.
You are not alone in feeling this. When loneliness comes up it is so easy to seek refuge in a virtual world of computers and films, but do these really help or only increase our isolation? In our drive to be more connected, have we lost our true connection?
I want to know what you did with your loneliness. Did you ever, like me, cope by walking in the forests that cover our town? I know well the slope that cuts from that school to the stream, shrouded by beech and white pine. It makes up the landscape of my mind. I remember well the thrill of heading out alone on a path winding its way—to Treadwell Park! At that time it felt like a magical path, one of many secrets I discovered throughout those forests, some still hidden. Did you ever lean your face on the rough furrows of an oak's bark, feeling its solid heartwood and tranquil vibrancy? Did you ever play in the course of a stream, making pools with the stones as if of this stretch you were king? Did you ever experience the healing, connection and peace that comes with such moments, like I often did?
Or did your loneliness know only screens, with dancing figures of light at the bid of your will? How many false lives have you lived, how many shots fired, bombs exploded and lives lost in video games and movies?
By killing yourself at the age of 20, you never gave yourself the chance to grow up and experience a sense of how life's wonders can bring happiness. I know at your age I hadn't yet seen how to do this.
I am 37 now, about the age my teacher, the Buddha, realized there was a way out of suffering. I am not enlightened. This morning, when I heard the news, and read the words of my shocked classmates, within minutes a wave of sorrow arose, and I wept. Then I walked a bit further, into the woods skirting our monastery, and in the wet, winter cold of France, beside the laurel, I cried again. I cried for the children, for the teachers, for their families. But I also cried for you, Adam, because I think that I know you, though I know we have never met. I think that I know the landscape of your mind, because it is the landscape of my mind.
I don't think you hated those children, or that you even hated your mother. I think you hated your loneliness.
I cried because I have failed you. I have failed to show you how to cry. I have failed to sit and listen to you without judging or reacting. Like many of my peers, I left Newtown at seventeen, brimming with confidence and purpose, with the congratulations of friends and the approbation of my elders. I was one of the many young people who left, and in leaving we left others, including you, just born, behind. In that sense I am a part of the culture that failed you. I didn't know yet what a community was, or that I was a part of one, until I no longer had it, and so desperately needed it.
I have failed to be one of the ones who could have been there to sit and listen to you. I was not there to help you to breathe and become aware of your strong emotions, to help you to see that you are more than just an emotion.
But I am also certain that others in the community cared for you, loved you. Did you know it?
In eighth grade I lived in terror of a classmate and his anger. It was the first time I knew aggression. No computer screen or television gave a way out, but my imagination and books. I dreamt myself a great wizard, blasting fireballs down the school corridor, so he would fear and respect me. Did you dream like this too?
The way out of being a victim is not to become the destroyer. No matter how great your loneliness, how heavy your despair, you, like each one of us, still have the capacity to be awake, to be free, to be happy, without being the cause of anyone's sorrow. You didn't know that, or couldn't see that, and so you chose to destroy. We were not skillful enough to help you see a way out.
With this terrible act you have let us know. Now I am listening, we are all listening, to you crying out from the hell of your misunderstanding. You are not alone, and you are not gone. And you may not be at peace until we can stop all our busyness, our quest for power, money or sex, our lives of fear and worry, and really listen to you, Adam, to be a friend, a brother, to you. With a good friend like that your loneliness might not have overwhelmed you.
But we needed your help too, Adam. You needed to let us know that you were suffering, and that is not easy to do. It means overcoming pride, and that takes courage and humility. Because you were unable to do this, you have left a heavy legacy for generations to come. If we cannot learn how to connect with you and understand the loneliness, rage and despair you felt—which also lie deep and sometimes hidden within each one of us—not by connecting through Facebook or Twitter or email or telephone, but by really sitting with you and opening our hearts to you, your rage will manifest again in yet unforeseen forms.
Now we know you are there. You are not random, or an aberration. Let your action move us to find a path out of the loneliness within each one of us. I have learned to use awareness of my breath to recognize and transform these overwhelming emotions, but I hope that every man, woman or child does not need to go halfway across the world to become a monk to learn how to do this. As a community we need to sit down and learn how to cherish life, not with gun-checks and security, but by being fully present for one another, by being truly there for one another. For me, this is the way to restore harmony to our communion.
Douglas Bachman (Br. Phap Luu) who grew up at 22 Lake Rd. in Newtown, CT., is a Buddhist monk and student of the Vietnamese Zen Master and monk Thich Nhat Hanh. As part of an international community, he teaches Applied Ethics and the art of mindful living to students and school teachers. He lives in Plum Village Monastery, in Thenac, France.
Home is the Way - A Christmas message from Thầy
Christmas time is a time for the family, when family members return to their home. Wherever we may be, we try to find a way home to be with our family. It is like the Tết holiday in the Vietnamese culture. We decorate our house and find ways to make our home warm and cozy. We all yearn to have a home that is warm and loving; where we feel that we do not need to go anywhere, or to do or to pursue anything anymore. It is what we can call our ‘true home’. We all have this yearning, this deep desire to be in our true home.
Searching for our home
Jesus, as soon as he was born, had to be on the run right away and to be a refugee, a runaway without a home. When he grew up and became a young man, it was the same; he was still a wanderer with no real home to return to. In one of his discourses, he protested that even the birds have their nests to return to or the rabbits and squirrels have their burrows; but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head, no place to call home.
Siddhartha, as an adult, found himself in a similar situation. He was born into a royal family that was wealthy and privileged. He could have anything he desired. He had a beautiful wife and a good son. He had a bright future ahead of him; destined to be king and ruler of a great empire. But still, he did not feel comfortable even with all this. He did not feel at home. He was not at peace. Therefore, one day, he decided to leave his family in search of his true home, in search of inner peace.
Both Jesus and Siddhartha were searching for their true home. They wanted to find a warm abode where they would not have to search for anything anymore and where they would feel truly at home and at peace. Western people have a saying, “There is no place like home” that expresses the feeling that there is nothing like coming home after being away. Yet still, some of us do not feel at home, do not feel that we have a home to return to, even in our own families. It is because in our families, there is not enough warmth, not enough love, ease, peace or happiness.
Some of us have a homeland, living in the country where we were born, yet we still want to escape and go somewhere else. We feel like we do not have a homeland. Some Jewish people feel that they still do not have a homeland. They have been wandering and searching for a homeland for thousands of years – for a place, a piece of land to call home. Even to this day they have yet to find their homeland. And we – the French, the Americans, the British, and the Vietnamese – we all have a country to call our homeland, but still, we do not feel contented and some of us want to leave. This is because we have not found our true home in our heart. This season, even if we buy a Christmas tree to decorate our home, this does not necessarily mean that we have found our true home or that we are at ease living in our homeland. For our home to be true, there needs to be love, warmth, and fulfillment.
Our True Home
In the end, Jesus found his true home in his heart. He found the light in his heart. He taught his disciples that they too have their own light and he taught them to bring that light out for others to see. Siddhartha taught that one’s true home can be found in the present moment. He developed practices for his disciples so that they too could find their true home. He taught that we each have an island within that is safe and secure. If we know how to return to this island, we can be in touch with our blood and spiritual ancestors, with the wonders of life, and with our own self. In the island of our true self, we can find peace and fulfillment.
Siddhartha found his true home and wanted everyone to be able to find their true home. When the Buddha was in his 80th year and knew that he would soon pass from this life, he felt a lot of compassion for his disciples and friends because he saw that many of them had not found their true home. He knew that when the time came for their teacher to pass away, they would feel abandoned and at a loss. At that time, he was practicing the Rains Retreat, residing outside of the city of Vaishali, north of the Ganges. He became very sick during that season. The Buddha’s attendant, Venerable Ananda thought his teacher would soon pass away, so he went into the forest behind some trees to weep. But the Buddha used his power of concentration to slow the progress of his illness and to find the strength to live for a few more weeks, so that he could return to his homeland, Kapilavastu, and pass away peacefully.
The Island Within
At the end of that Rains Retreat season, the Buddha went into the city of Vaishali to visit his disciples, the monks and nuns and the lay friends in the Sangha. Wherever he visited, he would give a short talk for about 5-7 minutes - a mini dharma talk. These mini talks were usually centered on the topic of ‘true home’. He felt that after he had passed on, there would be many disciples who would be at a loss. The Buddha taught them that they all had a place of refuge to return to and that they should take refuge only there. We too, should return and take refuge in that abode and not take refuge in any other person or thing. That abode of refuge is the ‘Island of Self’; it is the Dharma, and there, one can find peace and protection; one can find our ancestors and our roots. This is our true home – our inner island where there is the light of the true Dharma. Returning there, one finds light, one finds peace and safety, and one is protected from the darkness. The ‘Island of Self’ is a safe place of refuge from the turbulent waves that can otherwise sweep us away. Taking refuge in this island within is a very important practice. We have a song in Plum Village titled, ‘Being an Island unto Oneself’. This song is about the practice of taking refuge in oneself. If we still feel that we have not found our true home, that we do not have a place to call home, that we have not truly come home, that we still want to look for a homeland, or that we still feel lonely and at a loss; then this practice is for us. This song can remind us to return and take refuge in the island within.
Our Refuge of Practice
Around the 4th or 5th century, when these mini talks were translated into Chinese, the monks translated the ‘Island of Self’ as ‘tự châu’ (tự is self and châu is island). “Dear monks, practice being islands unto yourselves, knowing how to take refuge in yourselves.” Those were the words the Buddha uttered just one month before he had passed away. If we consider ourselves to be soul mates of the Buddha, to be real students of the Buddha, we should take his advice and not go looking for our homeland, our true home, in time and space. We should look for this true home right within our own self, within our own heart; where there is everything we are searching for. There, we can touch our ancestors, blood and spiritual, and touch our roots, our heritage. There, we can find peace and stability. There, we can find the light of wisdom. Let us take refuge in our own island – in the island of the Dharma. We do not take refuge in any other person or thing, even Thầy. The Buddha’s love is immense. He knew that there would be many students who would feel lost after he had gone, so he reminded them that his body was not something permanent and eternal. He taught them that that which was most worthy for them to take refuge in, was their own island of self. We know that it is always there for us. We do not have to take the plane or the bus or the train to go there, but with our mindful breathing and mindful steps, we can be there right away. Our island within is our true refuge. It is our practice of the Dharma.
This Christmas, if you buy and bring home a Christmas tree to decorate, remember that your ‘True Home’ is not found outside yourself, but it is right in your own heart. We do not need to bring home anything for us to feel fulfilled. We have everything we need right in our heart. We do not need to practice for many years or to travel far to arrive at our true home. If we know how to generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration, then with each breath, with each step, we arrive at our true home. Our true home is not a place far removed from us in space and time. It is not something that we can buy. Our true home is present right in the here and now; if only we know how to return and to be truly present to it.
Home in the Present Moment
The other day, Thầy was reflecting on what message to send to his friends and students abroad so that they can practice, so that they can be like Jesus or be like the Buddha. Thầy then wrote this calligraphy: “There is no way home, Home is the way.”
The means and the ends are not two separate things. There is no way to return to our home. Our home is the way. Once we take a step on that path home, we are home right in that moment. This is true to the practice of Plum Village. There is no way to happiness, Happiness is the way. Recently, Thầy also shared in his Dharma Talk that, There is no way to nirvana, Nirvana is the way. Every breath and every step has the capacity to bring us right back to our true home, right in the here and now. This is the fundamental practice of Plum Village. This is the message that Thầy wants to send to his friends and students during this Christmas season. If you want to send a Holiday greeting to your friends and loved ones, you can also send this message. If you can practice it truly, then sending it will have a deep meaning; but if you do not practice it, then the message will have little substance.
Let us all enjoy our practice of coming home this Holiday season. Let us truly be at home within, and so become a home for our loved ones and all our friends.
With trust and love, Thầy
A message of Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh at the International Vesak 2011
We congratulate the Buddhist Supreme Sangha Council and all the participants and organizers of the 8th UNDV conference, for gathering as a community to celebrate and enjoy our togetherness and to build brotherhood and sisterhood. It is our conviction that the Buddhist teachings and practices can make a major contribution towards a global spirituality and ethic that can guide humanity in this critical moment.
As we contemplate the great number of people who have died in this tragedy, we may feel very strongly that we ourselves, in some part or manner, also have died.
The pain of one part of humankind is the pain of the whole of humankind. And the human species and the planet Earth are one body. What happens to one part of the body happens to the whole body.
An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what's most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died: we can live in such a way that they continue, beautifully, in us.
Here in France and at our practice centers all over the world, our brothers and sisters will continue to chant for you, sending you the energy of peace, healing and protection. Our prayers are with you.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Bat Nha: A Koan
"The koan “Bat Nha” is everyone’s koan; it is the koan of every individual and every community. The koan can be practiced by a Bat Nha monastic, by a monk or nun studying at a Buddhist Institute in Vietnam, a Venerable in the Buddhist Church of Vietnam, a police officer, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a Politburo member, a member of the Central Committee, a newspaper or magazine editor, an intellectual, an artist, a businessman, a teacher, a journalist, an abbot or abbess, an international political leader or ambassador. Bat Nha is an opportunity, because Bat Nha can help you see clearly what you couldn't – or didn't want – to see before."