Suffering, Joy, and Thich Nhat Hanh

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Silver Spring, Maryland, Community Online on Thursday Evening
April 2nd, 7:00 to 8:45 pm

Open to all Online on Friday Evening
April 3rd, 7:00 to 8:45 pm


Dear Still Water Friends,

Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) teachings on suffering and joy seem especially relevant now, as  the covid-19 virus, and the efforts to “flatten the curve” bring dislocation and hardships into all our lives, and stories of individual and collective anguish fill the news media and our minds. Thay begins his book, Being Peace, with encouragement not to be pulled under by our difficulties:

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.

I was reminded this week that Thay’s recommendation to be “in touch with the wonders of life” was directed to himself as well as to his students. During the recently completed In the Footsteps of Thich Nhat Hanh online retreat, Jack Kornfield reflected on a poignant teaching he received from Thay:

I had an experience being with a small group of teachers who had gathered to study the dharma with him. He was teaching about smiling and bringing joy into meditation. At times I had imagined that this was a little bit lightweight, to sit and smile the half-smile of the Buddha, when there is so much suffering in the world, of hunger, continuing warfare, racism, poverty and all the things that we know. I thought it was a little bit like pasting a smiley-face on top of something deeper that our hearts need to open to, if we are to be liberated in this moment and at this time—if we are to open the great heart of compassion.

As he was teaching joy and smiling I had the strange experience of feeling sadder and more filled with tears and grief than I could have imagined or expected. I couldn’t understand it. Was it something in my own history I was touching, of my own trauma and pain? When I sat next to him at lunch I asked him quite frankly, “Thay, when you were sitting there and teaching smiling and joy, I became very sad and felt a lot of grief. But I don’t understand, was it mine or was it yours?”

He sat quietly for a moment and then looked back and he said, “Oh I have so much grief for what I have seen. That is why I teach joy.”

This Thursday and Friday evenings during our online gatherings, we will watch together a part of Jack Kornfield’s talk and then share our reflections on suffering and joy. We will begin our Dharma sharing exploring whether our experience is similar or different to that of Thay, and of William Blake who wrote in 1803 (in the Augeries of Innocence):

It is right it should be so
Man was made for joy and woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the world we safely go
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

You are invited to join us.

In order to retain the sense of community, the Thursday evening online program is offered to those who have  participated on a Thursday evening. If you have been a Thursday evening participant and have not received an invite, please email Jane at

The Friday evening online program is open to all at 7:00 to 8:45 pm, Eastern US time. The theme and format will be the same format as the Thursday evening gathering. The Zoom link is: (Meeting ID: 415 227 823). A more detailed Zoom link is on the Still Water website).

Additionally, Still Water is now offering “The Art of Mindful Living – An interactive online introduction to mindfulness” on  the1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month, 7pm – 8pm. The classes are facilitated by Rachel Phillips-Anderson and Eliza King. The link is:  (The class description and a more detailed Zoom link is on the Still Water website).Simple instruction for joining a Zoom group are on our website:

Continued below are a brief note on “Dana and the Still Water community,” a related excerpt by Thay from No Mud, No Lotus is below, and an updated list, “Still Water Coronavirus Changes by Location.”

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Dana and the Still Water Community

Dana is a gift given from the heart.
It brings joy and benefit to both the giver and the receiver.

Since its inception in 1999, the Still Water MPC has been guided by an ancient Buddhist principle known as Dana or Generosity. What this has meant in practice is that most of our activities and programs have no required fee. When there are fees, such as for retreats and classes, provisions are made so that those with limited financial resources can still attend.
The other side of Dana, which has supported the teaching of mindfulness for thousands of years, is that people who come to activities, or simply appreciate what is done, make donations so that the teaching can continue. Donations of time, expertise, and financial resources make it possible for Still Water to continue to offer programs and activities.  It is an economy of gifts — in which everyone gives freely from their hearts.

During this time of the coronavirus, when practitioners cannot meet in person, Still Water is continuing to offer sittings and classes online. Although we cannot put out a dana basket for contributions, as we usually do at our sittings,​ there are other ways people can contribute. For more information about Dana and how to contribute, please go to

Suffering and Happiness are Not Separate
By Thich Nhat Hanh from No Mud, No Lotus

When we suffer, we tend to think that suffering is all there is at that moment, and happiness belongs to some other time or place. People often ask, “Why do I have to suffer?” Thinking we should be able to have a life without any suffering is as deluded as thinking we should be able to have a left side without a right side. The same is true of thinking we have a life in which no happiness whatsoever is to be found. If the left says, “Right, you have to go away. I don’t want you. I only want the left”—that’s nonsense, because then the left would have to stop existing as well. If there’s no right, then there’s no left. Where there is no suffering, there can be no happiness either, and vice versa.

If we can learn to see and skillfully engage with both the presence of happiness and the presence of suffering, we will go in the direction of enjoying life more. Every day we go a little farther in that direction, and eventually we realize that suffering and happiness are not two separate things.

Cold air can be painful if you aren’t wearing enough warm clothes. But when you’re feeling overheated or you’re walking outside with proper clothing, the bracing sensation of cold air can be a source of feeling joy and aliveness. Suffering isn’t some kind of external, objective source of oppression and pain. There might be things that cause you to suffer, such as loud music or bright lights, which may bring other people joy. There are things that bring you joy that annoy other people. The rainy day that ruins your plans for a picnic is a boon for the farmer whose field is parched.

Happiness is possible right now, today—but happiness cannot be without suffering. Some people think that in order to be happy they must avoid all suffering, and so they are constantly vigilant, constantly worrying. They end up sacrificing all their spontaneity, freedom, and joy. This isn’t correct. If you can recognize and accept your pain without running away from it, you will discover that although pain is there, joy can also be there at the same time.

Some say that suffering is only an illusion or that to live wisely we have to “transcend” both suffering and joy. I say the opposite. The way to suffer well and be happy is to stay in touch with what is actually going on; in doing so, you will gain liberating insights into the true nature of suffering and of joy.

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