Sometimes I wonder if I could be Buddhist. Not convert to Buddhism, but become a Christian who also practices Buddhism. One of my favorite courses at Harvard Divinity School was taught by Charles Hallisey, a Roman Catholic who had fallen in love with the study of Theravada Buddhism, and his love rubbed off on his students.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master, has impacted me greatly over the past almost 30 years. I read his “Being Peace” while I was at Harvard. Later on, “Living Buddha, Living Christ” helped me imagine how someone might remain committed to their own tradition while seriously engaging with another.
“Thay” died on January 22 this year. I’m grieving him, as I’m sure so many of us are. I feel special compassion for his close disciples. It reminds me of the Gospel of John where Jesus takes a long time, several chapters, saying goodbye to his disciples. He comforts them, encourages them, and gives them new intentions to focus on.
I love the story about Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master, who picked up a water drinking glass and said, “You see this goblet? For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.” (Version by Mark Epstein)
The glass is already broken. There are places in Christianity that touch upon this truth. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Why do you worry about your life? … consider the lilies of the field … here today and tomorrow gathered and burned … God will care for you.” At the end of Matthew, Jesus says, “Heaven and earth shall pass away … but my Word shall not.”
In a book compiled by his disciples and published last year, “Zen and the Art of Saving the World,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “You have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may one day disappear.” When I read this, I both feel sad because I am rather attached to the idea that humans, especially those closest to me, will endure. On the other hand, I feel compassion for humanity and for the earth and all its creatures, for we are the already broken glass, precious and worthy of enjoyment and care.
I think it is a mistake to interpret Jesus or Achaan Chai or Thay’s words to mean that the material world doesn’t matter. It matters immensely because here is where we are in relationship. The broken glass is “precious.” The lilies are “splendid” in God’s sight. Humans are vessels of eternity. With me, try practicing seeing the world in this way, from the close friend to the distant stranger, from the fleeting flower to the solid mountain, from the tiny taste bud to the planet itself.