She is made of the “non-she” elements that came from the stream of my life, from even before I was born. My ancestors had already met her. My “first” love has always been there. She has no beginning.
The more we admire and respect a spiritual teacher, the easier it is to forget that he or she is of the same species as ourselves, subject, as we are, to arthritis, insect bites and falling in love. In Cultivating the Mind of Love, Thich Nhat Hanh draws us all close to give us an unusual dharma teaching: the story of his own first love. There is no gap between us. I am Thich Nhat Hanh. I am Buddha.
Thây says, “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?”
And struck is the right word here. When Thây was a monk of twenty-four, devoted to the dharma and to working for peace and justice in Vietnam, he fell in love—at first sight—with a nun of twenty. The love struck him like lightning. He couldn’t sleep; he stayed up all night writing poetry. In this gem-like book (just 124 pages long), chapters telling the love story alternate with chapters on relevant, basic Buddhist teachings. For example, the chapter in which Thich Nhat Hanh says goodbye to the nun for the last time is followed by the chapter on the Three Dharma Seals of impermanence, non-self and extinction. This reader confesses to an impulse to read the love story chapters and skip the dharma chapters, but she overcame it. Whether it was because she was going to review the book I cannot say, but the whole book turned out to be worth reading.
I’m grateful to Thây for his openness. In his youthful romanticism I see myself, and you, I’m sure, will see yourself. He says that one day, soon after they met, he spoke to the nun of his hopes and dreams: “…I continued to talk until my throat became sore. Seeing that, she went to her room and brought me some cough drops. I still remember the trademark on the box, Pâtes des Vosges. If the abbot had given me that box of cough drops, I don’t think I would still remember the name.” Reading this I know he really was in love.
Thây circles back several times to his central point: “Your first love is still present, always here, continuing to shape your life.” The whole book is an extended guided meditation on 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.”
Now that you asked, Thây, his name was Edouard—he was a French exchange student. We were both sixteen, and we were spending the summer at a Quaker work camp in North Dakota, working with Mandan Indians to build a traditional earth lodge on a reservation. I couldn’t sleep for longing. He stayed up all night writing me sonnets. I loved how soulful he looked with cigarette smoke drifting out of his flared nostrils. We shared our dreams of living in harmony with all people.
I found him over twenty years later, when my children and I were in Europe. I brought my family to visit him and his wife and children; he had become a hospital administrator and a serious stamp collector. I was disappointed to find him an ordinary person. He was no longer writing sonnets, or even smoking cigarettes. That was about fifteen years ago.
I lost touch with him. I never think about him. I have no idea what’s become of him. But now, reading this book, I ask myself: Where did the love go that I felt for him? Do I still love him? And with Thây’s help, I recapture the love I felt as a girl, a love that goes beyond sentimental nostalgia. I remember now how he called forth love from me. Falling in love with him, I loved everyone. I loved Mandan Indians and French people. I loved everyone who wrote poetry, everyone who looked at the northern lights, who liked a Softee on a hot summer night, everyone who wanted to help somebody else, everyone who was different from me, and yet who was really the same. It was all us and no them when I first fell in love.
I love Edouard this very minute. He is watching the northern lights with me right now, as I sit at my computer. He is helping me see that I am Buddha. He is Buddha, too, over there in France, perhaps laid off due to a budget crunch, worrying about his grown children, corresponding with other stamp collectors, eating his wife’s good cooking, extending himself to somebody somehow, because I know he was full of love then, for me and all the people we knew together that summer, and he couldn’t have stopped loving. I guess he even still loves me (right, Thây?), whether he knows it or not.
Cultivating the Mind of Love reminded me that I am Thich Nhat Hanh and he is me. But one part of the story had almost the opposite effect on me. After they met and fell in love, the nun moved to a temple near where Thich Nhat Hanh lived. The two young people studied together, lingering over their lessons. Over a period of weeks, they became more and more attached. Thây saw that their attachment was becoming problematical and he suggested to the nun that she go to study in a temple at the other end of the country. He says:
I was overwhelmed by sadness. In me, there was the element of attachment, but there was also the voice of wisdom recognizing that for us to continue to be ourselves, to succeed in our attempt to search and to realize, this was the only way.
I remember the moment we parted. . . . She, too, seemed overwhelmed by despair. She . . . came close to me, took my head in her arms, and drew me close to her in a very natural way. . . . It was the first and last time we had any physical contact. Then we bowed and separated.
That is what I can’t identify with. I can admire it, and I can see its logic, but I can’t imagine myself doing what he did. And I notice: it wasn’t the nun who suggested they part. I can more easily imagine being the nun, in despair but leaving because he tells me to. A little voice in my head wonders if maybe she wanted to take off her robes and get married.
Thây doesn’t say what happened to the nun—perhaps he doesn’t know—but he did find out later that she hadn’t received some of his letters, and that she became discouraged and left the order. A sad story. And the fact that he tells this part, too, makes the whole thing real.
I understand that for the purposes of this dharma teaching it’s not so important what happened to her. It’s not so important what happens to him, either, Thây says. If he dies, others will carry on, doing the work that needs to be done.
You may ask, “What happened next?” What happened next is up to you. If you ask, “What is her name? Where is she now?”, you might as well ask, “Who is Thây? What has happened to him?” This story is happening to you and to me right now.