The secret was to approach all of life like meditation – including the bits we think of as boring or unpleasant. “Every act is a rite,” he says at one point.
“While washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. If while washing dishes we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes”. What’s more we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realising the miracle of life while standing at the sink.
“If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and incapable of actually living one minute of life.”
This was more like it: washing dishes, and drinking tea, were a lot easier to get my head round. I read that book in one sitting, then read it again, then went out and bought several others.
(He’s published a lot.)
But I sometimes wonder whether Buddhism is really a religion at all.
You don’t need to believe in God, for instance.
Perhaps it’s more like a school of psychology: modern, “scientific” disciplines like cognitive behavioural therapy, and life coaching, appear to have lifted a huge amount from the ancient teachings.
A professor of psychology once taught me to expel tension by imagining that my outbreath was coloured red, and would gradually fade as I relaxed.
It seemed to work – and that’s no surprise, because Buddhists have used this kind of visualisation for 25 centuries.
From another Buddhist writer, Pema Chodron, I learned to spread “loving-kindness” by imagining as I breathe that I’m inhaling black clouds from deep inside somebody I know to be suffering – then to breathe back at them a healing stream of clear light.
It felt a bit contrived to begin with, but I soon got the hang of it.
I realise that the practice mostly benefits the person doing it – like praying for someone, come to think of it – but if it won’t do any harm to the person I’m thinking of, why not?
(Given a moment of quiet, the technique fairly quickly reconciles me to my wife after she’s given me a wigging for something or other, so it can’t be all bad.)
I’ve even come to some kind of accommodation with the idea of reincarnation, which previously seemed impossibly potty.
And without using that word, I appear to have passed on my understanding of it to my young daughter. At a party recently she told a relative cheerfully that when I die she will bury me so that I become a worm. And when the worm is captured, I’ll become a bird. And so on. Which is fine by me.
When I tell people about this, they often ask if I’m a Buddhist.
Since I’ve never joined anything – not even a meditation class – I’m not sure that I can be. But I’m a big fan of Thich Nhat Hanh – and very grateful to have met Richard Gere.
Update: And, later, to have seen the Dalai Lama at an event hosted by people I know a little.