“Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.
Into the light of the dark black night.”
The last thing I expected to hear while I was walking by the open door of the tea room in a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery was one of my favorite Beatles songs. But Brother Phap Lai (aka “Brother Ben”) is British, and he was learning to play the guitar.
I stopped and stood in the doorway, hesitating because there were no women inside.
“We need a singer,” I heard one of the lay practitioners say. “None of us can sing, so that makes it hard for Phap Lai to play the song right.”
“I’m a singer,” I said, kind of surprised by how quickly I responded. “Blackbird is one of my favorite songs.”
The small group of men who were gathered there all looked up at once, surprised to see that someone had been standing there listening.
“Please, join us,” one of the lay brothers said.
I was relieved when he extended the invitation. The protocol of the monastery was still unfamiliar to me, and I wasn’t sure yet where I did and did not belong.
I removed my shoes and left them outside the door before entering the small room. A quick glance around the room revealed to me that the only available place to sit was on the couch, near Brother Phap Lai. I wasn’t sure how appropriate it was for me to sit next to a Buddhist monk, even a Western one. So, I tucked myself awkwardly into the crack between the cushion and the arm of the couch, trying to make myself as small and unobtrusive as I could.
It wasn’t unusual for me to try to shrink myself into small crevices in those days. Large abysses might actually have been a more accurate description of the spaces I felt my body, mind, and spirit inhabited most of the time. That kind of despair feels like a very distant memory from my current vantage point, but at the time I felt trapped in suffering I thought would never end.
I had just returned to the U.S. after spending a year in Occupied Palestine. For a year, I crossed through Israeli checkpoints and watched my friends being detained by Israeli soldiers and heard stories of daily house raids and demolitions by Israeli tanks. When I closed my eyes, images of Uzis and armored vehicles and green army uniforms still fluttered like an old movie reel behind my eyelids. And that was after only one year of living there. During a period of relative “peace.”
Before I left for Palestine, a friend of mine had given me a book called Anger, written by one of my favorite authors, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. It was the only book I took with me to Palestine, and it offered me a great deal of spiritual comfort while I navigated my way through the daily challenges of living under occupation.
On the back cover, Thich Nhat Hanh mentioned his practice center in France called Plum Village, where he lived with a community of monks, nuns, and lay practitioners. After reading the description of life in Plum Village, the idea of living there as a lay practitioner appealed to me, but I hadn’t thought much about it as a real possibility until my friend Neta Golan told me that she had lived there for six months a few years before.
I became friends with Neta while I was in Palestine. Neta is an Israeli activist who co-founded the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine. She is also a Buddhist practitioner who follows the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. She told me that he had recently opened a practice center called Deer Park in Escondido, near San Diego. With her encouragement, I decided to go spend a few months there, learning to meditate.
“Look for a monk named Brother Phap Lai,” she said. “He was in Plum Village when I was there, but he’s at Deer Park now. He helped me a lot when I was in one of my darkest times. Tell him you know me. He’ll help you heal.”
At that point in time I had never meditated. Intellectually, I loved the principles of Buddhism I read and heard about, but I had never “practiced” before.
I arrived at Deer Park Monastery for a Thanksgiving Weekend Retreat, intending to stay for three months. I spent the first few days following the retreat practice schedule: morning sitting meditation, walking meditation, dharma talks and discussions. Through these practices, I was starting to feel the slightest glimpse into a possibility of finding a path toward peace in my heart. But, when I stood face to face with the monks and nuns who had been practicing Buddhist techniques for years, the disparity between their inner light and what I experienced as my internal muck made my first steps toward freedom seem like a very steep climb.
After the other retreatants had gone on Sunday afternoon, I stayed. On Monday, which they referred to as “Lazy Day,” there was no formal practice schedule, which was why Brother Phap Lai happened to be playing guitar in the tea room with the lay brothers.
The moment I sat next to Brother Phap Lai, I knew he was the monk Neta had told me about. I waited for someone to say his name to be sure. Then, after we finished singing Blackbird a few times and everyone started to disperse, I said,
“You know my friend Neta.”
Phap Lai seemed taken off guard, as if I had conjured a cherished memory that had long been out of his thoughts.
“You know Neta?” he asked.
“I met her in Palestine,” I said. “I just got back from there a few weeks ago.”
Brother Phap Lai looked at me for a few moments. I felt as if he could not only see my suffering in that moment, but that he could scan my soul to get a read of every moment of suffering I had ever experienced. Time stretched out in a way that I would become quite familiar with over the course of the next three months. At that moment, however, the contrast between his slow steadiness and my overwhelming anxiety felt excruciating.
“Let’s go find something to eat,” he said. “We’re on our own for meals on Lazy Day.”
I followed the small group that had formed in the tea room. They led me to the kitchen, where they pulled Thanksgiving leftovers out of the refrigerator and placed them on one of the long white plastic tables in the dining hall. One of the lay brothers was particularly delighted to discover a large mixing bowl that contained the remainder of the chocolate frosting that had been used to make a cake for the Thanksgiving meal. We sat there together, in the quiet emptiness of that Lazy Monday evening, talking about Buddhism, and eating chocolate frosting out of a bowl with chopsticks.
I felt strangely at home and painfully out of place. I listened to the back and forth between the men about what they do when they practice sitting meditation, whether they sit in Lotus or Half Lotus position; whether they struggle more with sitting at the 5 a.m. meditation or the 5 p.m. meditation; whether they actively watch their breath or just sit and try to clear their minds.
I had nothing to contribute, really; I had come to the monastery with far more questions than answers.
After listening to the conversation for a while, Phap Lai turned to me and said, “How are you feeling since you got back from Palestine?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question. I really didn’t know how I was feeling. “Like I’m free-falling into a giant abyss,” I said.
“That’s not surprising,” he said.
“Brother Phap Lai,” I said quietly, “can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” he said.
I hesitated before I spoke. I assumed that he was used to receiving pained, existential questions from lay people, asking for guidance. But, it was such a strange thing for me to ask.
“Why do it?” I finally said. “The whole thing. Why?”
He didn’t speak right away. It seemed he was listening to the silence that remained after my last word was uttered.
“Instead of what?” he asked.
“Instead of…not, I guess.”
Again, he didn’t respond for a few moments. At first I wondered if he was judging me, if he was frightened or annoyed by me, if he was unsure of what to say. But, I was beginning to understand that this slowing down of everything is what you are cultivating when you spend day after day removed from “the outside world,” sitting, walking, eating, sleeping, and speaking in mindfulness. I certainly possessed none of that capacity at the time, but at least I was starting to recognize it for what it was.
“You mean why exist at all,” he said. “Is that what you mean? Or do you mean, why not end it?”
“Well, both,” I said. “But, I’m here now, so, I guess the latter.”
“Are you talking about suicide?” he asked gently. Everything he said and did was gentle.
I shrugged, feeling ashamed. “I guess so,” I said. “Not in any personally real or intentional or active sense. Just in the sense of, why keep going?” I was afraid I might start to cry.
“Why suicide?” he asked. “Because it would end the suffering?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “If you cease to exist, you end the suffering.”
He nodded a few times. Paused. Then he said, “Are you sure?”
“Well, yes,” I said. “Of course. If you cease to exist, how can you continue to suffer?”
In the silence that followed, I contemplated what each of us had just said. Was I sure? Nobody knows for sure what happens to us after we cease to exist in our physical form. How could I know that our souls or spirits don’t just carry our untransformed suffering beyond this life? After all, the suffering I was referring to was a manifestation of the mind, which cannot be localized to a physical point in the body. We don’t know, precisely, where the mind exists. So how can I know that annihilating the body would annihilate the mind? What if the suffering just continues? And, even worse, what if the condition of being in a human body is necessary to transform our suffering, so that transitioning out of this physical plane without healing our suffering first just means that we will wander in some sort of torturous purgatory for eternity?
Contemplating Phap Lai’s words left me in a place from which I saw no way out. No way out meant I had no choice but to stay in. But, in those moments, because the path in is not obvious, a path out seems to be a reasonable thing to consider.
In that moment, I started to understand something about spiritual practice and my time here on earth: whether I like it or not, there is nothing for me to do with my suffering, except to transform it. And there is nowhere for me to be right now, except here.
Over time, I came to see that an individual’s momentary desire for non-existence is really the desire for the cessation of suffering. It’s about wanting to annihilate the false self, to make space for what is true and holy to come forth. This perceived desire for self-annihilation is actually a reflection of an intensely deep desire to exist—to be present. Here. Now. On this earth. In this physical form. Living, in peace.
It is only from a starting point that is rooted fully within this physical realm that I can transcend the physical to experience more of the spiritual. Living in peace comes from the transformation of pain; not from the absence of all pain from the beginning. I carried that phrase, Are you sure, as my koan, and I spent a great deal of time meditating on it.
From that moment, with my chopsticks poised over a bowl of chocolate icing in the silence that eclipsed my words, I began to cultivate my practice.