Home is a feeling, not a place

Gemma was embracing her spiritual side over the past week and is encouraging others to do the same in this week's Good Life column...

I know very little about Buddhism. In secondary school when studying world religions, my teacher opted to teach us about Islam. I will never forget her passion. At the time, the word Muslim was automatically associated with terrorism. She wanted to teach us about the values associated with Islam in the hope we could form our own opinions. That she did, bringing with it a new understanding about how other people live their lives.

I remember studying the fascinating pilgrimage of Ramadan, where Muslim people fast in order to cleanse themselves and solely focus on their religion. I looked forward to this class, found it easy to study for exams and performed well in them.

Fast forward a few years living outside of Ireland, it’s nice to know a thing or two about other people’s belief systems. Even though you may not practise the same rituals, I think knowing what a person is doing and why they are doing it can really help you to show some respect.

In one discussion with a friend here in Malta, he relayed to me how he was seriously considering converting to Buddhism. Why? He was intrigued by the simple way of life, being at one with yourself, practising mindfulness and appreciating our lives for what they are, not what we want them to be but living in the moment.

He presented me with Thich Nhat Hanh’s book ‘At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life.’ I cannot say I could not put it down or that I was up until all hours of the morning reading it, but it was enjoyable. The book consists of stories, each one about two pages long. After each story, I had to put the book down and think. This is a book of life lessons, which demands your attention and consideration.

For a book, which shows us how we can slow down and appreciate our lives, I think it’s very fitting that reading it also demands this of you.

Thich Naht Hanh is a monk who served to promote peace and justice among people around the world. He was born in Nguyen Xuan Bao, Vietnam in 1926. Sixteen-year-old Thich became deeply unsettled by the French colonial occupation happening around him and was drawn to Buddhism. This decision led to a life of teaching others how they can use Buddhist practices to live a more fulfilled life.

The title of the book derived from Naht Hanh’s experience of being exiled from his birth country when travelling to inform the people of the United States of the plight and devastation Vietnamese people were experiencing as a result of the war. When the government of South Vietnam got wind of his activities, Naht Hanh was exiled to France. It is during this time that he learned that home is a feeling, not a particular place. One of my favourite quotes from the book, which reinforces this, is: “There is no way home, home is the way.”

One of my favourite stories within the book is called ‘A French Soldier.’ it was 1947 during The Indochina War. Thich was in the Vietnamese city of Hue where the French army had set up their base camp at the time. While walking to the Bao Quoc Temple, Thich was stopped by a French soldier whom we later learn is 21 years old, just out of high school and is holding pictures of his

mother and younger siblings. He is young, we are told, with a thin and handsome face. He doesn't want to cause any disruption; he wants to learn. He asks Thich if he can speak to him for a while and explains something peculiar he witnessed a few days before. He and his comrades in battle had been ordered to go to the temple and arrest and kill Viet Minh (Vietnamese resistors) who were

said to be hiding there. Upon arrival, they stamped their feet loudly in announcement. Nothing. Entering the temple, around sixty monks sat in pure silence in the light of the soldier’s torches. Not one stirred. Practising evening meditation, they focused on their breath. At that moment, they didn't care that they may be killed. A bell sounded and life resumed as normal, a monk approached and asked them inside. The soldiers took their leave.

The French soldier explained how he had been sent to Vietnam to kill. He and the other soldiers are scared, they miss their families, and they don't know why they are killing. Thich tells him a story of a Vietnamese friend who couldn’t bring himself to kill two French soldiers because they too were human, with parents, siblings and lives ahead of them. My favourite lines are “he was becoming

more aware of the absurdity of the killing, the calamity of war, and the suffering of so many young people dying in an unjust and heart breaking way.”

The moment of silence witnessed by the French soldier changed his outlook.

Thich notes: “He allowed the lives of all living beings to fill his heart, and he saw the senselessness and destructiveness of war. What made it all possible was that moment of complete and total stopping and opening to the powerful, healing, miraculous ocean called silence.”

My phone is filled with pictures of extracts of this book. Lessons that I can read and reread, drawing new meaning each time. I cannot recommend it enough.

* Gemma Good is from Killeshandra and a third year journalism student in University of Limerick


An alternative St Patrick’s weekend