Preserving Hope and Compassion

Blooming for the first time in twenty-five years! Photo by Mitchell Ratner.

Preserving Hope and Compassion

Discussion date: Thu, Apr 29, 2021 at our weekly Thursday evening practice
April 29, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Silver Spring, Maryland, community online on Thursday evening
April 30, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all online on Friday evening
Dear Still Water Friends,

In 2013 at the Blue Cliff Monastery retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) was asked, “What is the hardest thing you have to practice?” Thay thought for a few moments before saying:

Not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by despair — that is the hardest thing. Because when you are overwhelmed by despair, that is the worst thing that can happen to you.

He went on to talk about the despair he felt during the Vietnam War when villages and towns were bombed again and again and it seemed to many the war would never end. Young people came to him looking for encouragement so they could continue to offer aid to those who suffered. As Thay remembered:

The young people came and asked: “Dear Thay, do you think that the war will end soon?” It is very difficult to answer. Because you have not seen the light at the end of the tunnel. But if you say: “I don’t know,” then you water the seed of despair in them. …

So the hardest thing is not to lose your hope, not to give up, to despair. That is the hardest thing. We have gone through two wars like that. We saw French soldiers come, kill, and get killed. We saw young Americans come, kill, and get killed. Fifty thousand young Americans were killed in Vietnam. Hundred of thousands of them were wounded and many had to be cared for by psychotherapist and others. In a situation of utmost suffering like that, if we don’t have a practice we cannot survive. We practice in such a way that we can preserve our hope and our compassion.

Thay also talked about traveling to America in 1966 to talk about the suffering in Vietnam. On one occasion there was a very angry young American who stood up and shouted: “You should not be here. You should go back and fight American imperialism in Vietnam. You have to kill the American soldiers there.”

Thay’s reply was:

I thought that the root of the war is here. It is not in Vietnam. The young Americans who came in Vietnam they are just victims. So I had to come here and tell the American people that this war is not helping Vietnam at all.

Without understanding and compassion, you will lose yourself in anger and hate. You will not be able to say things like that and help the American people understand and change the policy. There was a peace movement in America opposing the war in Vietnam. As people demanded peace and did not get it, they got very angry. So there was a lot of anger in the peace movement. … If you have a lot of anger in you you cannot touch the peace. You have to be peace before you can do peace. Understanding is very important. You need to know how to write a love letter to your president, to your Congress, and tell them that you don’t support the war. If you write a strong, angry letter, they will not read it.” … Understanding suffering helps compassion to be born in you. You will be free from despair, from anger, and you can help the cause of peace.

In our community, in the U.S., and in the world, this past year has been a tough year. The combination of personal challenges and a growing awareness of societal injustices has destabilized many of us, sometimes pushing us into despair and languishment, sometimes into anger and resentment.

As I reflected on this week on Thay’s answer, I realized that for me despair often has to do with my expectations:

This should have already happened. Why is it taking so long?
Why can’t people see that _____.
Why are so many people still doing _____?
Why am I still doing _____?

Despair and frustration arise when I insist that something must change on my schedule, rather than taking however long it takes. This week a small cactus reminded me how little I know about cycles of change. After sitting quietly by a window for 25 years, the cactus blossomed for the first time.

I believe we can all benefit from watching a short video of Thay talking about how he practices with despair.

You are invited to join us this Thursday and Friday evenings. We will begin our Dharma sharing with these questions:

  • What have I learned about working with despair?
  • How do I nourish hope and what destroys it?
  • How has my mindfulness practice helped me?

If you are not able to be with us, you can watch Thay’s answer on YouTube.  A related excerpt on “clearing the sky of despair” by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Special Still Water Invitation:Still Water MPC has endorsed May We Gather, A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors, to be livestreamed on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, 7:00 – 8:00 pm EDT.

“May We Gather is the first national Buddhist memorial service in response to anti-Asian violence. The ceremony will be livestreamed from Higashi Honganji Temple in Los Angeles, which was vandalized earlier this year. The event will be freely broadcast online and will bring together Asian American Buddhists and their allies to heal in community together.”

You are invited to share this information with your Sangha members and friends. More information is at

Blue Sky Above the Clouds
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through

In our society, there is so much fear, suffering, violence, despair, and confusion. But there is also, at the same time, the beautiful blue sky. Sometimes the blue of the sky reveals itself to us entirely. Sometimes it reveals half of itself, sometimes just a little bit of blue peeks through, and sometimes none at all. Storms, clouds, and fog hide the blue sky. The kingdom of heaven can be hidden by a cloud of ignorance or by a tempest of anger, violence, and fear. But if we practice mindfulness, it’s possible to be aware that even if the weather is very foggy, cloudy, or stormy, the blue sky is always there for us above the clouds. Remembering this keeps us from sinking into despair.

While preaching in the wilderness of Judea, John the Baptist urged people to repent because “the kingdom of God is at hand.” I understand to repent as to stop. He wanted us to stop engaging in acts of violence, craving, and hatred. To repent means to wake up and be aware that our fear, anger, and craving are covering up the blue sky.

To repent means to begin anew. We admit our transgressions, and we bathe ourselves in the clear waters of the spiritual teaching to love our neighbors as ourselves. We commit to letting go of our resentment, hatred, and pride. We start over with a fresh mind, a fresh heart determined to do better. After being baptized by John, Jesus taught the same thing. This teaching goes perfectly with the teaching of Buddhism.

If we know how to transform our despair, violence, and fear, the vast blue sky will reveal itself to us and to those around us. Everything we are looking for can be found in the present moment, including the Pure Land, the kingdom of God, and our Buddha nature. It is possible for us to touch the kingdom of God right here with our eyes, our feet, our arms, and our mind. When you are concentrated, when your mind and body become one, you need only make one step and there you are in the kingdom of heaven. When you are mindful, when you are free, anything you touch, whether it is oak leaves or snow, is in the kingdom of heaven. Everything you hear, the sound of the birds or the whistling wind, all belong to the kingdom of heaven.

The basic condition for touching the kingdom of God is freedom from fear, despair, anger, and craving. Mindfulness practice allows us to recognize the presence of the cloud, the fog, and the storms. But it also helps us recognize the blue sky behind it all. We have enough intelligence, courage, and stability to help the blue sky reveal itself again.

People ask me, “What can I do to help the kingdom of heaven reveal itself?” This is a very practical question. It is the same as asking, “What can I do to reduce the violence and fear that are overwhelming my community and our society?” This is something that many of us have asked.

When you take a step with stability, solidity, and freedom, you help clear the sky of despair. When hundreds of people walk mindfully together, producing the energy of solidity, stability, freedom, and joy, we help our society. When we know how to look at another person with compassionate eyes, when we know how to smile at him with the spirit of understanding, we are helping the kingdom of heaven reveal itself. When we breathe in and out mindfully, we help the Pure Land reveal itself. In our daily lives, every single moment we can do something to help the kingdom of God reveal itself. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by despair. You can make good use of every minute and every hour of your daily life.

When we act as a community of practitioners, infused with the energy of mindfulness and compassion, we are powerful. When we are part of a spiritual community, we have a lot of joy and can better resist the temptation to be overwhelmed by despair. Despair is a great temptation in our century. Alone, we are vulnerable and afraid. If we try to go to the ocean as a single drop of water, we will evaporate before we ever arrive. But if we go as a river, if we go as a community, we are sure to arrive at the ocean. With a community to walk with us, support us, and always remind us of the blue sky, we’ll never lose our faith, and our fear dissolves. Whether we are political or business leaders, social workers, teachers, or parents, we can all use a reminder that the blue sky is still there with us. We all need a community, a sangha, to prevent us from sinking in the swamp of despair.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Apr 29, 2021