On “The End of Suffering” by Thích Nhất Hạnh

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An arresting meditation by Thích Nhất Hạnh came back to me the other day. I first posted it seven years ago. If you don’t know it, I encourage you to listen to it again or for the first time.

The End of Suffering

May the sound of this bell penetrate deep into the cosmos
Even in the darkest spots living beings are able to hear it clearly
So that all suffering in them cease, understanding come to their heart
And they transcend the path of sorrow and death.

The universal dharma door is already open
The sound of the rising tide is heard clearly
The miracle happens
A beautiful child appears in the heart of the lotus flower
One single drop of this compassionate water is enough
to bring back the refreshing spring to our mountains and rivers.

Listening to the bell I feel the afflictions in me begin to dissolve
My mind calm, my body relaxed
A smile is born on my lips
Following the sound of the bell, my breath brings me back
to the safe island of mindfulness
In the garden of my heart, the flowers of peace bloom beautifully.

You can find this meditation in this book and CD, a series of meditations and prayers devoted to facilitating the passage from life to death.

As I listened this time around, the context seemed to have changed, or perhaps I’ve just gotten older!

What does he mean by “this bell”? The bell in the recording that I am hearing with my outer ears or the bell I hear with “inner” ears? And these dark spots where there are living beings? Where are they? I thought of people I know who are in dark spots: the administrator who unexpectedly lost her husband of many years, the doctor who has a heart attack of his own, the friends whose marriage blew up seemingly without warning, the accomplished, super-bright client struggling with self-worth at work. All these events, these dark places, and more. How, indeed, can we “transcend the path of sorrow and death”?

Something unfolds in me like an old envelope. There’s a message in this meditation that for all the exterior suffering we see around us and personally come to know, there’s so much that we cause to ourselves. The bell says “Realize” and “See into” and “Hear what cannot be explained.” Do you know what “understanding” it is that comes to their hearts?

I am talking to one of my favorite people about this and we explore together what can be done to stop the part of the suffering in our lives that we own as self-caused. She mentions how when she doesn’t feel understood by another, this triggers painful self-examination; painful to the point of internal erosion of her spirit, a depression, one that doesn’t make any sense. She loses a boundary, buys a ticket for a doom loop, sometimes shallow, sometimes deep. Some of us buy a ticket to blame others for what pain we experience and consider it justified. Some buy one to feast on themselves. Either way, there are costs. The ticket takes us down a path of sorrow caused to themselves and others. Blaming, questioning, doubting, all these things can fade if the bell “penetrates” deep enough into our cosmos.

Perhaps that bell is just this: a decision to transcend, to not take the bait, to refrain from that path of suffering time and again as we find that decision in ourselves, leaving all the rest to the inevitable workings of karma. One does not escape karma (even the bell suffers, I suspect) but there is the understanding, wordless and inexplicable as it may be so that — transcending — “a beautiful child appears in the heart of the lotus flower” and “in the garden of my heart, the flowers of peace bloom beautifully.”

Looked at in this way, the world may be full of sorrow and suffering, and much more than we imagine shows itself as the product of our human choices to go down wrong paths, day after day, blaming others or ourselves, explaining these bad choices, unaware of any safe islands at all waiting for us. After all, it does seem to be a time when whole societies are headed for dark places. Perhaps, hearing the bell, as we climb out on that little island, feeling a strange comfort we never expected to feel, we’ll see for the first time the real depth of the flood that surrounds us and experience the greater compassion that is our birthright and that is needed now more than ever.

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