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Caught by Love

Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Cultivating the Mind of Love, alternates teachings on mahayana sutras with the moving story of the deep love between he and a nun in his native Vietnam. The novelist Natalie Goldberg attended the series of talks on which this book is based, and says in her introduction, "I will never forget how I felt listening to him. Here was a Zen master, committed to mindfulness, examining the nature of love. What is it? How do we handle it? Who are we in this state?… In the Dharma Nectar Hall in Plum Village, I listened to Thich Nhat Hanh, who stood steady in love's torrential waves, scrutinized it, and grounded it in deep practice. Hearing Thay, I felt for the first time that sanity had entered the realm of love."

Please think about your own first love. Do it slowly, picturing how it came about, where it took place, what brought you to that moment. Recall that experience and look at it calmly and deeply, with compassion and understanding. You will discover many things you did not notice at the time.

There is a kung an in the Zen tradition, "What was your face before your parents were born?" This is an invitation to go on a journey and discover your true self, your true face.

Look deeply into your "first love" and try to see its true face. When you do, you will see that your "first love" may not really be the first, that your face when you were born may not have been your original face. If you look deeply, you will be able to see your true, original face, and your true first love. Your first love is still present, always here, continuing to shape your life. This is a subject for meditation.

When I met her, it was not exactly the first time we had met. Otherwise, how could it have happened so easily? If I had not seen the image of the Buddha on the magazine, our meeting would not have been possible. If she had not been a nun, I would not have loved her.

There was a great peace in her, the fruit of sincere practice that was not present in others. She had been practicing in her nunnery in Hue, and she appeared as peaceful as the Buddha sitting on the grass. My visit to the hermit, tasting the pure water of his well, was also part of our first meeting. The moment I saw her, I recognized in her everything I cherished.

She was in the highlands visiting her family, but as a nun she preferred to stay at the temple. She had heard about the course on basic Buddhism I had taught, so she expected to meet me, but I had not heard about her. When I got to the top of the stairs, I bowed and asked her name. We went inside to become acquainted.

In every temple, there is a special seat for the abbot, and I had to sit there, because the abbot was away for a few days and had asked me to serve in his stead. I invited her to sit in front of me, but she sat off to the side. Members of the community never sit in front of the abbot. It is just the form. To see each other's faces, we had to turn our heads.

Her behavior as a nun was perfect—the way she moved, the way she looked, the way she spoke. She was quiet. She never said anything unless she was spoken to. She just looked down in front of her. I was shy, too. I never dared look at her for more than a second or two, and then I lowered my eyes again. After a few minutes, I said good-bye and went to my room. I didn't know what had happened, but I knew my peace had been disturbed. I tried writing a poem, but I couldn't compose even one line! So I began to read the poetry of others, hoping that would calm me down.

I read several poems by Nguyen Binh. He was longing for his mother and sister, and I felt the same way. When you become a monk at a young age, you miss your family. In Vietnam, before reading this type of poetry, you burn incense, light candles, and then chant the poem. I remember that I had a few tears in my eyes when I chanted this in classical Chinese:

Night is here.
The wind and the rain announce the news
that spring is coming.
Still I sleep alone, my dream not yet realized.

Then I chanted the rest of the poem:

Flower petals falling
seem to understand my dreams and aspirations.
They touch the ground of spring
in perfect silence.

I continued to recite poetry all afternoon and evening. I thought about my family and chanted aloud, trying to relieve the feelings in me that I could not understand. At six o'clock, a student from the class I had taught knocked on my door and invited me to supper. Before leaving, the abbot had asked her to come every day to prepare lunch and dinner.

The young nun and I ate in silence, and then we shared a pot of tea and spoke quietly together. She told me how she had become a nun, where she trained before entering the Buddhist Institute in Hue, and what she was studying. She continued to look down, looking up only when I asked her a question. She looked like Kwan Yin—calm, compassionate, and beautiful. From time to time, I looked at her, but for not long. If she saw me looking at her like that, it would have been impolite. After ten or fifteen minutes, I excused myself and went into the Buddha Hall to practice sitting meditation and chanting.

The next morning, I went into the hall again for sitting and chanting, and, after a few minutes, I heard her voice beside me. After we finished chanting, we left the hall and had another conversation before breakfast. That morning, she went to see her family, and I was alone in the temple. In the afternoon, I went to the village to help the young people rehearse their play.

When I returned, climbing up the steps, I saw her again standing in front of the temple, looking out at the tea plantation on the hillside. We had dinner together, and afterwards, I read her some of my poetry. Then I went to my room and read poetry alone. Nothing had changed from the day before, but inside I understood. I knew that I loved her. I only wanted to be with her—to sit near her and contemplate her.

I didn't sleep much that night. The next morning after sitting and chanting, I proposed that we go to the kitchen and build a fire. It was cold and she agreed. We had a cup of tea together, and I tried my best to tell her that I loved her. I said many things, but I couldn't say that. I spoke about other things, hoping she would understand. She listened intently, with compassion, and then she whispered, "I don't understand a word you've said."

But the next day she told me she understood. It was difficult for me, but much more difficult for her. My love was like a storm, and she was being caught and carried away by the energy of the storm. She had tried to resist, but couldn't, and she finally accepted. We both needed compassion. We were young, and we were being swept away. We had the deepest desire to be a monk and a nun—to carry forward what we had been cherishing for a long time—yet we were caught by love.

That night I wrote a poem:

Spring comes slowly and quietly
to allow winter to withdraw
slowly and quietly.
The color of the mountain this afternoon
is tinged with nostalgia.
The terrible war flower
has left her footprints—
countless petals of separation and death
in white and violet.
Very tenderly, the wound opens itself in the
depths of my heart.
Its color is the color of blood,
its nature the nature of separation.

The beauty of spring blocks my way.
How could I find another path up the

I suffer so. My soul is frozen.
My heart vibrates like the fragile string of a lute
left out in a stormy night.
Yes, it is there. Spring has really come.
But the mourning is heard clearly, unmistakably,
in the wonderful sounds of the birds.
The morning mist is already born.
The breeze of spring in its song
expresses both my love and despair.
The cosmos is so indifferent. Why?
To the harbor, I came alone,
and now I leave alone.

There are so many paths leading to the
They all talk to me in silence. I invoke the

Spring has come
to every corner of the ten directions.
Its song, alas, is only the song
of departure.

I wrote this poem for relief. How could we continue as a monk and a nun and still preserve this precious love?

Monks do not usually share stories like this, but I think it is important to do so. Otherwise, how will the younger generation know what to do when they are struck? As a monk, you are not supposed to fall in love, but sometimes love is stronger than your determination. This story is about precepts, mindfulness, sangha, bodhicitta, and transformation.

From Cultivating the Mind of Love: The Practice of Looking Deeply in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition. ©Thich Nhat Hanh, 1996. Published by Parallax Press.


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