The Diamond of Interchanging Mirrors
by Efrat Ben-Yehuda Levin
Hukuk Retreat, Sukkot 2018 with the Dharma Teacher Chan Hao (translation from Hebrew by Gali Erlichman)
The first impression that was revealed to me – modesty, simplicity, not taking up place. Ego free. A presence enabling the surroundings to be expressed. Offering space for those around her.
“If we bring your mind to our senses, this means that we are in the present moment”, says Chan Hao in the first Dharma Talk. Sitting on a small raised platform. Her words are simple, easy to understand, straight and to the point, spoken from the heart and entering the heart, no going around and around, no twists and turns. As she says, in this life, in our complicated era, of never having enough time, of excessive discourse, I will hand you the wisdom of simplicity. As she says, contrary to what is familiar and accepted today, I come to you. This is the first time that I meet Chan Hao. I notice that my mind is busy with all kinds of things, not just listening to her. I’m looking at her clothes. Her movements. Trying to wonder – who is this teacher. I notice the people in the room. Who is sitting, where they are sitting. Slowly the mind calms down and I listen. The quietness and the concentration intensify, I am drinking it all in. Chan Hao says, “Being in one moment, one hundred percent, is being fully within that moment and then one shines”. Yes, it’s true – when I’m just listening to her words, without slipping into other thoughts, I am in joy. I’m in the here and now.
Early early in the morning. Night is ending. Practicing mindful movements together. Chan Hao transmits the practice. I’m standing in a big circle with the participants of the retreat. Practicing the movements. Chan Hao accompanies each movement with a verbal explanation. Hands behind our back, these are our blind spots; hands moving forward, insight, discovery, progress come; hands moving backward in a circle, new blind spots come up again; moving forward again, new insights come. And so on. How true. This is the journey of life. Continuous learning. Revelations that open our minds and our souls, more points that I was unaware of are revealed. Another exercise – giving and receiving, the palms of our hands spread out in front of our chest, the body tilted backwards – this is giving, giving without losing ourselves. Receiving, on the other hand, our weight is shifted forwards, hands forward, receiving while standing up straight, shamelessly, without apology, without dwarfing ourselves. The combination of movement and explanation is original and inspiring. Chen Hao has beautiful, clear and light movements. The beauty comes from her moving with full presence, in a complete and rounded present. The sun has risen, daylight washes over our circle. These morning exercises are also a lesson in wisdom. At the end of the lesson, Chan Hao stands with her legs slightly apart, eyes closed, her hands rising and falling slowly, in a circular form at the side of her body toward the sky. She repeats this simple movement three times. Breathing in and breathing out. While she is doing that she reminds us of the nature all around us, the trees, the bushes, the earth, the birds, the sky, the clouds. Slowly a smile covers her face. Every morning, every day, at the end of these exercises, her face shines with a huge smile of love for the world. A deep, genuine smile. Those who have not seen this smile have not seen what a connection to the universe is.
Sea of sky. All the retreat participants are gathered on the lawn. Chan Hao talks a little about the ancient nature and the majesty around us. Mountains of basalt and wild landscapes. We go on a walk. At the beginning of the walk, I see the stem of a cypress tree dribbling golden drops of resin, a mingling of weeping and beauty. On the road, there are many dry thorns, dust; the sound of our footsteps, feet locked within sandals or hiking boots rubbing against the small stones and the gravel. Within minutes we reach an open landscape, mountains, rocks and a sea of sky. I remember a sentence that Chen Hao said during her Dharma talk, “you can pull out weeds your entire life, but you also have to plant something”. I am happy with this sentence and I see myself in it, weeding and weeding but also planting and growing. All of us, all the participants of the retreat are growing, within this circle of dried thorns, the flowers and the green trees we grow too.
A clear mind. One of the mindful movement exercises expresses balance. Between the right and the left, the east or the west, the good or the bad, different sides, opposing opinions. Our bodies are upright, legs close together, hands straight and close together above our heads, leaning to the right, rising to the center and leaning to the left. Chan Hao accompanies the movement and says, “we have to maintain balance, always, with a clear mind, in the middle way. To hear both sides but always remain firm and stable, connected to the heart”, and she continues “we listen, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, we understand and then our actions become clear. We must open ourselves to listening to extremists, the extremists cause suffering. Sometimes we act softly and sometimes we have to act sharply and harshly, but always from the heart and with a clear mind” at this point our palms are pressed together like a Namaste gesture, our hands moving at shoulder-height, diagonally downwards, from right to left as quickly as a knife, a sword or a sickle, harvesting the air and back, from left to right. Chan Hao accompanies the movement with a quick whistling sound, her facial expression shows concentration, sharpness. When she performs these movements, I see her strong, tough, sharp side. I am happy to see that people who live and practice Buddhism know how to be tough and unequivocal when necessary and not just open, tolerant, and peaceful. The access to these emotional places indicates a balance. At the same time, the toughness and sharpness always comes from the heart, that’s the challenge. What a challenge.
Amazing. Many of the participants that came to the retreat were having their first encounter with meditation. In the course of every activity, Chan Hao’s instructions, the work of the teachers from Israel, the sharing sessions in small “families”, the walks in nature, eating in silence, I think to myself that throughout my life I always thought that people fall into different groups. Experienced and inexperienced, advanced and beginners, men, women, Jerusalemites, northern, younger, older. How can it be that in the same place and at the same time, such experienced practitioners and such new ones find interest and novelty…? They all mix together, receive and grow, entering further and further into a space of silence and joy, giving and balance. How does it work? I can’t explain it to myself. It’s amazing.
What do we practice meditation for? Chan Hao asks during a Dharma talk. I can think of many answers – to achieve balance, stability, serenity, control our chatty mind. Chan Hao replies, “we practice meditation so we can become better. To ourselves”. Her answer fills me with emotion. The simplest and most profound words. To be good to myself, not everyone understands what that means. As a daughter and as a wife I’ve had to give to others, to take care and be sensitive to those around me. And here there is a suggestion, first be good to myself. It immediately corresponds to the words of our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, “Peace Begins in Yourself”. You can’t be good to others without taking care of yourself. Yes … I remember periods in my life when I gave to others, I gave and gave, I wasn’t aware of myself and I was drained and even bitter. Now, through the practice, things are different. I’m more balanced. I learned to listen to myself. When I’m doing things for other people, I do them from a place of strength, I don’t disregard my own self, I don’t do it at my own expense. I hope that my family has noticed this and that they are learning the right way to take care of themselves and of others.
A human being. In her Dharma talks, Chan Hao incorporates stories from her personal life and her past. From her childhood in Vietnam. A story about a romantic relationship that she was in. About the emotional and moral conflict that she had with her mother. Yes, she had made mistakes too, she faced great dilemmas too, she suffered too, she had been washed away in the river of thoughts, confusion and pain too. “The practice is not to stop the thoughts from coming, but to connect to the breath, the river of thoughts is constantly flowing. It is our nature. We shouldn’t go against our nature, it creates agitation. We breathe with our thoughts, we connect to the breath within the storm. Thoughts come and go. And we cling to something we love – to the breath. It slows down the river of thoughts”. Her openness is moving to me. She doesn’t try to present herself as elevated, as super-human, as an omnipotent teacher. Later, the candor connected to a lecture that she gave in Jerusalem to women who are active in social change, activists. There she said that every division brings about suffering. Beautiful, ugly, high, low, good, bad, right, left. Judgment leads to categories and separate camps. When I look at Chan Hao’s presence, I see how she is completely disinterested in getting special treatment, being distinguished, being set apart. She is not interested in honor or status. As much as possible, she eliminates any excess focus and attention. Her revelations about herself fulfilled the phrase “practice what you preach”, when she spoke of her crises, her dilemmas throughout her life, she broke the categories of teacher and students, of separate classes.
A hawk. During the Dharma talk, Chan Hao in the lotus position, her body upright, relaxed, her face quiet, her gaze touches everyone in the room, a light energy hovering over all of the participants sitting opposite her on their cushions and chairs. Her words are directed at all of us, each and every one of us. At the end of the Dharma talk, we had time for questions, for sharing. One practitioner asks a question. He shares his experiences with the practice. I look at her as she is listening to him. In front of my astonished eyes, I see how her whole physical presence, the expressions of her face, are changing. Like in the Matrix movies, her whole being is transformed. She’s alert, her face is concentrated, her eyes are focused like an arrow, like a hawk on the practitioner that is speaking to her. She is dwelling within his words, entirely with him. Throughout the retreat I saw this change happening again and again before my eyes. This is a deep listening.
Sukkah. It’s Friday. In the evening, during kabbalat shabbat, the holiday and the practice melt into each other, Judaism and Buddhism. All the participants of the retreat come to the sukkah. Two participants, brothers, play and sing Shabbat and holiday songs. The rhythm is rising. The joy diffuses softly. Suddenly a practitioner gets up with a friend and they start to dance. A minute later, Chen Hao and another participant joins in the dancing. Chan Hao dances effortlessly, happily and with ease. Responding to the sounds, a big smile shines on her face. A teacher? Severe? Not her. A simple, uncontrolled joy springs from her. Even in this situation, where she doesn’t know the music, the Jewish tradition, with her dancing she eliminates the separation between the different roles, expectations, customs or religions. More participants get up to join the dancing. I saw this as an invitation to be spontaneous, authentic. To listen to myself, and get out of my comfort zone or embarrassment. Those moments brought up questions about the place of joy within the practice. How important it is and how worthwhile it is to find and allow these places to live.
Privilege. A few days after the retreat, I travelled to comfort a dear friend who was sitting Shiva for her father. On the way, I listened to a lecture. The speaker said, “I do not know if you ever got to meet a great person. To be in the presence of a special, unique person…” And I said to myself “Yes. I have had that privilege”. What an important lesson. What joy. Chan Hao, a woman in one single body with many facets. The Diamond of Interchanging Mirrors.