Last week, in the woods of the Plum Village Meditation Practice Center in France, a 45-year-old western monastic took his life. He left behind no note, and no indication to those near to him that he was in distress during the days before his passing.
When I received the news, hot salty tears burned my eyes. My entire being cried. I do not remember meeting Brother Christopher, Phap Kinh, but I know we were together in Hanoi in Vietnam with Thây (Thich Nhat Hahn) in 2007. The tears came because I immediately, viscerally, intimately felt his pain. Not that I knew exactly his conditions or how he felt before or when he took his life. Thây told the community that some of the ancestral seeds (passed down from generations) of Phap Kinh’s suffering tended to become more active around Christmas and New Year.
The pain I felt was the pain I myself experienced over the last year of working at my former job. At times the pain and depression were so intense that I would have gladly accepted dying. It had been only a year earlier that I had experienced an extreme aortic dissection and emergency open-heart surgery with less than a 25% chance of survival. By the time I was put under anesthesia for the surgery, I had made peace with death. Since then, the thought of dying has changed for me. Not so scary. But the pain I carried from those interactions at work drained my body of life, left me weak, aching, devoid of much capacity to think, eat, function, or really give much love.
But here I was able to take in my brother’s pain and hold it tenderly within a heart that has healed a lot over the past months. There was great sadness in me that this person must have felt alone and isolated even in the midst of a large, strong community of people practicing mindfulness, healing suffering and nourishing happiness. I also felt some fear, realizing that maybe there is not a community anywhere that is large enough or strong enough to hold all of the suffering. For any of us. Thây told the community that the foundation of solidity is in being able to take care of oneself, and he introduced the mantra: “I am there for me.” The Buddha said much the same: “Be a lamp unto yourself.”
As I work through my own healing, I have come to believe that ultimately we are alone on the path to wholeness. We are interconnected, yes. We have family, friends, community, even therapists to help us on the way. And I am sooooo grateful for them. But the real work of transformation and healing comes from somewhere within us. From a deep, mysterious, unconditioned loving source that works its way through our pain, our sadness, our suffering. And we have to go to those deep, dark, wet places to meet it.
Thây told the community that the Buddha would have suffered, just like Thây was now suffering. He explained that the Buddha practiced for a reason, because “if there’s no suffering, why practice?” That suffering and happiness, the mud and the lotus flower, inter-are, because suffering is the source, the fuel, for our happiness. The practice is the work of doing this transformation.
The sorrow, the mud, of Brother Phap Kinh’s difficulties is also the mud of my difficulties. Being deeply in touch with that, and with the sorrow of his passing, puts me in touch with a mysterious, intimate knowing, and generates in me the energies of compassion and overwhelming, tender empathy. We are one with the mud, one with the suffering. And we are one with the lotus flower, which grows from that dark place where we meet the suffering head-on.
Peace be with you, dear Brother Phap Kinh. May the merits of our practice release your suffering. May you rest in the deepest peace.