Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh
“The Little Buffalo in Pursuit of the Sun” originally published in the book Call me by my true names: the collected poems of Thich Nhat Hanh
by Parallax Press (1999)
Somewhere among the Clouds
This time, the young novice truly did not know where his master had gone. He was certain of one thing: Early this morning, his master had gone far up the mountain to gather medicinal plants. Or maybe he was gathering a few strips of clouds hanging from the top of young pine saplings.
“Novice, why don’t you invite your visitor inside your hut and offer him a nice cup of hot tea?”
“Illustrious visitor, my master left for the mountain to gather some medicinal herbs. Perhaps he will soon return … “
“While waiting for your master to return, invite your visitor to have a cup of tea. Why have you left him at your door for such a long time? There is so much mist that his robe is already completely wet. Can’t you see it?”
“Sir, if this is urgent, let me go up the mountain to look for him. The clouds are thick, but if I cup my hands around my mouth, I can call to him: ‘Master, where are you? I’m looking for you. A visitor is waiting for you.”‘
“Well, novice, don’t worry. If you allow me, I’ll make myself at home. I simply wish to sit here, drink a cup of tea, contemplate the mountain and the forest enveloped by mist. Don’t disturb your master. Let him return when he wishes. Waiting doesn’t bother me.”
Two giant pines marked the entrance to the path leading to the hut. The visitor was deep in thought: “Is this Cuu Lung Mountain of the Four Valleys? I told myself this morning that I wouldn’t climb all the way up to this hut to see the master, but start searching for myself instead. I am a stubborn child who has wandered for thousands of lives in the cycle of birth and death. Now, I wish to go back to my parents. Full of anger and self-pity, my heart has wept for so many lifetimes. This morning, dear novice, your eyes seem to give my heart some respite. I was hesitant, but your soft and courageous eyes have filled me with light.”
The visitor prostrated; his forehead touched the floor of the main sanctuary where the stone was cool.
“Here I am,” he said, “I have returned. I am no longer the prodigal son. I no longer want to cling to this world of struggles and hatred. Today, I am reborn. This is the day of my rebirth. The multitude of flowers and leaves are my witnesses. I have returned. I am profoundly grateful to you, for the infinite blessing of your love. There are many clouds here, but it is in this very place that I shall see your face and my own face.”
The hut hangs from the side of the mountain; behind it are many little paths. High up, nestled in the clouds, the peak has towered over the mountain since the beginning of time, guarding and protecting. Every afternoon, clouds come to crown the mountain top and wrap themselves warmly around its base. The hut sleeps in the heart of the clouds.
When the Flowers and Leaves Listen Attentively
Where is Phuong Bai, the Monastery of Fragrant Palm Leaves? Right here. Phuong Bai is a forest surrounded by tea plantations, which perfume the air from early morning. Five people are walking to the foot of the hill in order to taste a young tea plant, bitter and fragrant, sharp and refreshing. The little path is welcoming. On either side, the leaves listen attentively. Each leaf, each flower, is an ear. Crimson foxgloves stand tall to listen and understand. Each leaf is also a hand outstretched. What are you listening to so attentively? To these passersby who speak like poets? They express deep feelings that have remained unchanged for thousands of lifetimes.
The breeze that caresses the hill, the fresh grass of April, the murmur of the stream in summer, the halo of clouds around the mountain top, the twittering of birds, the song of the reeds, have they all shared the same language? The green reed and yellow flower are reflections of the soul. The moon half hidden in the white clouds is also a wonderful manifestation.
Dear friends, pay attention, listen. These passersby talk to themselves, just as you do, standing between earth and sky, in this sublime reality. Let us be their witness. There are five or six or nine people walking together. Sometimes, there is only one. They have passed by here, caressing us with their hands. Their eyes shone with a thousand sparks when they noticed our presence. We are not illusions in a dream: lavender, green; straight lines, curved lines; paths, near and far; masses of stars of five different colors; small bouquets of rosy sunshine; the long, pale pink fingers.
We have welcomed, greeted, and accepted them in our midst. We remain peacefully in the palms of their hands, that have cherished us and lavished so much attention and care on us. My dear older sister eucalyptus, stretch out your long branches loaded with leaves right to their tips. My dear little sister lily, young bud, smile! Life is full. Nothing is wasted, nothing is superfluous in the kingdom this morning. Our dear sun is still here. This afternoon, perhaps I will depart; tomorrow, my children will bloom. The flowers and leaves of tomorrow will forever be present, therefore I will always be present. Let us support them together. They have made the great vow. No sooner do I receive the message than I transmit it. It will pass from leaf to leaf, from branch to branch.
The Clouds on the Mountain Top
The message reached the mountain top, and the white clouds heard it. The branches and leaves high up on the mountain waved their hands. The great vow inscribed on a page of the great book of life changed into a script of moon and stars and unfurled into a magnificent cloud. Droplets of water flew up high. Who has the power to capture a net of dew pearls?
Tomorrow, the clouds will thicken and fall down as rain. The message will penetrate the five continents and the four oceans. This morning, it will touch its native land of Phuong Boi, the Monastery of Fragrant Palm Leaves, in the Dai Lao forest, the forest of the great age, and the little children playing in the tender green meadow; it will touch the Medford forest in a summer shower; the hermit’s well on Mount Na; the rock on Mount Yen Tu, where the great master of the Bamboo Forest still dwells; it will be everywhere.
A Twilight of Perfect Clarity
Is this twilight the only thing in existence of such awesome beauty? Here are the mist, the clouds, the rivers, the water, the maple at the river’s edge, the flickering light of an oil lamp on a fishing boat, yet I do not feel homesick for my country.
Lying down in the heart of my homeland, I watch the mountain through the clouds and the clouds through the mountain. Stretched out on the side of the hill, my gaze turns toward the West, through the lines of trees in the distance. The twilight is perfectly clear. Just like me, the sky and the earth are transforming in every instant. Each fraction of time is splendid, each fraction of time is sublime. I stretch out; my back rests against the soft pillow of the hill. I doze off. Life is singing, in this great reality, in each of her wonderful aspects. One thing embraces all things. The peak guards the peace of my slumber.
The clouds rendezvous on the mountain.
They are multiplying.
The past and future no longer exist.
The present expresses itself in its fullness.
I sit down again.
The sound of the hunting horn no longer oppresses us. The scent of the grass is intoxicating.
Do you remember, young novice? That morning, at the foot of the hill, I showed you a sturdy laurel, and you doubted that it was indeed a laurel. How did it manage to become so big? I pinched a little leaf and squeezed it between my fingers so you could smell its fragrance. Then you confirmed that it was indeed a laurel.
I told you how I love the flavor of laurel leaves, of thyme, coriander, mint, parsley, and other aromatic herbs found in abundance in our homeland. The leaves of the river-tea-tree and the guava tree have a unique taste and fragrance, which I like so much. Although tiny, the leaf of the guava tree is the immutable emissary of a particular and incomparable scent.
Dear novice, if, in the future, we are able to journey to faraway planets, the aroma of a single laurel leaf will remind us of how much we miss our own planet, our country, and our homeland.
How marvelous is the reality of the present moment! Each leaf is a universe of taste, scent, and memories. Each one is a unique world, both spiritual and temporal. A single leaf encompasses the entire universe. We tremble at this revelation that inspires great devotion. We bow in front of the miracle of this manifestation. We no longer dare neglect the smallest thing: leaf, stone, or fragrance.
Dearest friend, your voice is yours, unique. I remember in the past I used to listen to it on a tiny cassette tape; yet it opened up a vast and bright world for me, which was its very own, a realm of past, present, and future. One day, someone told me that you had telephoned, announcing that you would come and meet me at the foot of the mountain. How strange the telephone is, this invention of ours that aims to prolong the presence of the phenomenal world.
Certain wondrous phenomena respond to the human need to know the infinite, truth, beauty, goodness. Others, deliberately enigmatic, remain inaccessible to our brains and hearts. Humans are much too accustomed to penetrating the universe with a narrow and limited mind, ignoring the eighty-thousand doors that are always open, at our disposal.
That morning, dear novice, you watched me with sparkling eyes. Now I see your eyes again, wide open like a window, that offered me a vision of the splendor of the world, of reality as it is. My child, you are the key. You are the mouthpiece of the whole universe, of ultimate reality as it manifests in yellow flowers and violet bamboo. Looking at you, I see each stone, each leaf, the entire universe. I see my true home in a young laurel bud.
Duong Xuan Hill
The osmenthus is one of the most precious flowers of Duong Xuan (Springtime of Yang) Hill. The hill is mostly covered with rocks and stones. Our mother pagoda, the first pagoda built by the founding father of our lineage, was built there more than 150 years ago. The osmenthus there are scrawny; their trunks and branches are covered with whitish mold. Their fragrant white flowers cluster in little bunches, pressed between thin, angular, delicate branches.
At that time, I was as old as you, and every afternoon around three o’clock, I would pick two or three bouquets for Grandfather Monk Su-ong’s tea, for that is how we respectfully called the highest monk in our order. Few flowers bloomed at the same time, but they bloomed every season. The flowers that stayed on the branches dried up, turned yellow, and fell.
Sometimes, deep inside the tiny corollas, dark yellow insects hid. They were as tiny as grains of sand. I, the novice Phung Xuan, tried to dislodge them by shaking the flowers over a sheet of white paper. Phung Xuan is my Dharma name, connecting me to my lineage. It means “Walk towards Spring.” I would then lay the little bouquets on the palm of my left hand and lift them to my nostrils to inhale their perfume. How delicious! Finally, I would put them inside the teapot with a few leaves of green tea and pour the boiling water over them.
Around twelve, venerable Grandfather Monk liked his tea to be brought to his table. He would drink a few drops, just enough to wet his tongue, then pour another small cup, which he gave to the novice respectfully standing back. The novice waited to serve the tea and drink with him. What joy for a student.
The afternoons were very peaceful in our mother pagoda. The shade of the great Dharma hall unfurled its freshness on the long row of water jars lined up beside the building that sheltered Grandfather Monk Su-ong’s room. The main entrance to the Lac Nghia (Joys of Friendship) room was always open. In the center of the courtyard, the carambola tree spread out the shade of its foliage on the pond and rocks. From time to time, a yellow leaf would fall and gently lie on the surface of the water. The ageless rocks were encrusted with moss. Big, heavy fruit hung from the tree. Everyone proclaimed that these carambolas were as sweet, if not sweeter, than the oranges from Kwang Chou. In fact, a carambola is a carambola, and an orange from Kwang Chou is an orange from Kwang Chou. Each one contains a wondrous universe. These carambolas are prized for their crunchiness. Their flesh, neither too soft nor too juicy, allows us to eat and savor them without staining our hands or clothes. Their sweet taste is unique and does not resemble an orange in the least. It is the sweet taste belonging only to the carambola. Doesn’t my dear friend, Phung Xuan the novice, make you smile? At the Tu Quang (Light of Kindness) pagoda, there was a monk named Trong An (Deep Gratitude). He had a wonderful character, very friendly and kind. He was a poet. Several monks and nuns had learned his poems by heart. His pseudonym, True Diep, meant Bamboo Leaf. Each year, on New Year’s Day, he would go to the mother pagoda to see Grandfather Monk Su-ong and his novice Phung Xuan. In honor of the occasion, the venerable Grandfather Monk would offer him a carambola, placed on a white plate, with a little knife for peeling it and removing the two ends. One pulls off the quarters with one’s fingers and savors them. One never uses a knife to cut a star-shaped slice. Before the visitor took his leave, Phung Xuan often offered a second carambola adorned with a few leaves to decorate Trang An’s room at the Tu Quang pagoda.
One does not eat a carambola while drinking tea.
The Jambosa Tree
Towards three in the afternoon, the sun’s rays were still burning hot. In spite of the heat, mindful work had already resumed in the meditation hall, in the cassava field, in the meadow, on the cliff, and in the library. His head covered by a large conical hat made of palm leaves, Grandfather Monk Su-ong went down to the lake or up towards the pine-covered hill. He came to oversee the work, make suggestions, and everyone appreciated his refreshing presence. He always carried his bamboo stick. He would stop here and there, radiant with joy, for ten or fifteen minutes. Sometimes the novice Phung Xuan would accompany him on his visit to the bamboo groves. The young can-giao bamboo shoots taste good and strong.
The taste and smell of tea influenced the whole afternoon in the monastery. The novice would cut a few bamboo shoots that grew too thickly close to the ground. His arms loaded, he would bring them to Auntie Tu, who prepared them with soy sauce for dinner. On some mornings, especially after a rainy night, the novice went hunting for mushrooms with Grandfather Monk Su-ong.
My dear children, when you return to the mother pagoda, I promise I’ll take you everywhere: to the hill, to the garden, along all the paths, to the bamboo grove, to the well. Then you will learn to see with the eyes of Su-ong, your Grandfather Monk, and with mine, that is to say, with your own eyes.
All the nooks and crannies overflow with memories. The white washed wall next to the Tang Thap stupa is where, many years ago, the novices Tam Man (Fullness of the Heart) and Phung Xuan used to roast can-giao bamboos and fresh mushrooms on a fire made of pine needles. The meal started with the bamboo shoots, cooked to perfection and placed on a fig leaf; their bright yellow flesh was tender and sweet-smelling. The novices enjoyed them. The meal ended with the mushrooms: morels, boletus mushrooms, chanterelles, blue-feet mushrooms, and others … Carefully washed in the river, they were then rubbed with salt, then washed again. Finally, they were wrapped in fig leaves and laid on the fire. The novices relished them. The mushrooms were flavored with bay leaves, thyme, parsley, and mint picked in the pagoda garden.
When we are adolescents, we have a great thirst, a thirst for intimacy, for the forbidden, for fun, for mischief, a thirst to act wild. When we remember those times, we miss the bonds of friendship that we made at that age.
My children, I will bring you with me to visit the jambosa tree in the willow garden north of the pagoda. This tree has a close connection with Tam Man. His eyes were as bright as yours today. The two novices used to play under this tree for hours. Tam Man often climbed up the tree and Phung Xuan stayed down below. Tam Man threw ripe jambosas down to Phung Xuan. The two brothers played like this in the willow garden, on scorching afternoons, while other members of the community rested in their rooms.
Tam Man was younger than Phung Xuan. When you arrive at the pagoda, you will naturally become Tam Man and Phung Xuan. Nothing will have passed, nothing will be lost.
The well was made of stone and its water was icy. It was so pleasant to shower with the cool water in the evening, under a bright moon, or on summer afternoons. Two arms’ -lengths of rope were all it took for the bucket to reach the water.
In the summer, Phung Xuan washed himself with the water at least once a day, sometimes two or three times. The water from the well was so refreshing. It was reserved for washing, watering plants, and washing clothes. A hedge of privets surrounded the well. The pagoda was so quiet that you could hear the sound of the bucket and the water streaming on the edge of the well from more than ten yards away. If someone was already at the well, you had to wait until he or she left before going over yourself. Tam Man and Phung Xuan didn’t obey that rule. Tam Man would exclaim: “Let me come in and have my shower as well. We’ll have fun.”
Near the well, there was a stone basin to wash clothes in. It had a hole, as round and small as a toe, which could be stopped with a cork. It’s probably no longer used today, but it is still there. You can see Phung Xuan doing his wash there. Novices drew water only from the upper well for drinking, cooking, and making tea. It was situated high up and had a cover. A small jar with a wooden top and a little scoop was placed near the tea kitchen on the path leading to the Ancestors’ hall. Every morning, Phung Xuan went to the kitchen to start the fire to boil water and prepare tea for Su-ong and the monks. In winter, our limbs froze while we made the fire. Phung Xuan wished the fire would catch quickly so he could warm up his numbed hands. You could always find small bundles of pine sticks in the kitchen that Auntie Tu had bought at An Cuu market. We used these to light the fire quickly. The kitchen was tiny and was reserved for preparing the morning tea. Nothing else could be done there.
When you return, my child, I will take you to visit Auntie Tu’s tomb, the Dieu Nghiem pagoda, the Tang Thap and Lang Vien stupa, and the pagoda’s mausoleums. I remember one day, in Lang Vien, when I was working as a guide for a group of students from Hue University, a wind blew up suddenly and quickly gained strength. It was very cold, and I invited the students to seek shelter inside the mausoleum. There, we were protected from the wind, which was howling among the pines. Then, a terrifying sound filled the earth and sky. A real storm! We all longed to be somewhere out of the wind. Later, I led the whole group to the kitchen where we warmed up. We stayed in its warmth for a long time.
The Trai Bui Olives and the Almond Tree
For your first meal, the novices will probably offer you some trai bui olives, a variety of smooth, purple olives that are only found in tropical countries, which are marinated in soy sauce. You can peel off their flesh with your fingers, tear it into little pieces, and dip it in a bowl of soy sauce. A novice will probably have cooked some olives with a little salted and fermented soy. You will develop such an appetite that you will want to devour all the rice in the pagoda. There are many olive trees of this variety at our mother pagoda. Each year, at harvest time, the novices offer olives to the other pagodas in the area. The pagodas Tay Thien, Thuyen Ton, Tu Dam, Bao Quoc, Linh Mu, and Tuong Van each receive a gift of three to five hundred olives. Sometimes a pagoda that has not received its gift sends a reminder. One day, the novice Phu met a monk from True Lam pagoda on a mountain lane. He could not help asking him, “Have you picked many olives this year? You haven’t visited us yet. It would be nice if you brought us some.” The trai bui olives are truly precious.
At that time, Phung Xuan often asked himself why the other pagodas hadn’t planted olive trees. Perhaps it took many decades for an olive tree to bear fruit. Our mother pagoda had about ten olive trees. The most fruitful tree was behind the West hall and the Ancestors’ hall. Its trunk was very straight, and it had beautiful foliage. There was also one near the Venerable Patriarch’s stupa, not far from the century-old magnolia tree. The one that grew near the stable, close to the nut tree, was also very tall.
I haven’t yet told you the story of this nut tree. During the war, sometimes we had no oil in the pagoda. The novices had to gather nuts from the tree. They broke the shells and crushed the pulp so they could make dishes requiring oil. The nuts are tasty when roasted and crushed, but if you eat too many, you get a stomachache.
Chu Chi Chu Chi, Little Abbot Chu Tri
In 1964, the novice Nhat Tri (Unique Wisdom), your older brother, was accompanying me on an expedition up the river Thu Bon to help the victims of the floods. At that time, the war was raging, making our mission dangerous. The two warring factions were present in the region. Your older sister, Chan Khong (True Emptiness), also accompanied us on our journey. All the members of the group were dressed in thin brown robes and walked barefoot. They were walking in full awareness, on the hard soil of Ca Tang, Son Khuong, Khuong Binh, Son Thuan, and Tu Phu regions. On either side of the river, bullets whistled by. At one point, Nhat Tri jumped in the water. When your brother wrote letters, his handwriting strangely resembled mine. You would not be able to distinguish it from mine. He was very active in starting Pilot villages, which gave birth to Tu Nguyen village (Volunteers of the Great Vow), as well as in the movement of Youth for Social Service, from 1964 to 1974.
“I am going to the field and I see a buffalo … ” These are the first words of a song that he composed for the children of Thao Dien village. He taught at the School of Nightingales in Cau Ki.nh village and helped create Thao Dien village. The children gave him the nickname “chu tri tru tri” (“the little priest Tri”), which became “chu chi chu chi” because they lisped. Your older brother was an exemplary social worker. He put all his heart into serving others. One day in a street in the capital, an American soldier spat on his head from the height of a military truck. That soldier, under the sway of propaganda, saw communists disguised as Buddhist monks everywhere. When your brother came home that evening, he cried. I held him in my arms for a long time. During a mission to help the people, he disappeared. His friends and I waited for him for fifteen years. Alas, he never came back. My child, call him by his name, for he is your older brother.
Sister Chan Khong often came to our mother pagoda to see Su-ong, the venerable grandfather. She stayed there when she came to teach at the Faculty of Sciences in Hue. The novices were happy to offer her trai bui olives and cheese made from tofu. Grandfather Monk Su-ong also enjoyed her visits very much. She would often bring him a package of dates, a loaf of gluten ham, and a pot of honey. Once, she brought a microscope for the little novices. They all pressed their heads together to look inside. Hearing them talking and laughing out loud, Grandfather Monk Suong could not resist sitting next to them and looking inside the eyepiece. When he discovered a corn pistil as big as a rope, he burst out laughing like a young novice. Young and old had the same spark in their eyes. What a wondrous scene! How can the gap between such distant generations be as thin as a hair or a thread of silk?
When you arrive at the mother pagoda, you will see Grandfather Monk Su-ong, with his wide conical hat, coming and going along the path that leads to the pond shaped like a half-moon. Every time I returned from a long trip, he would open his eyes wide and look at me for a long time, to make sure of what he saw in front of him, before expressing his joy; a very pure joy, childlike and innocent. I feel so much gratitude for Sister Chan Khong, who took care of him in my absence, during all those years of trips and difficult missions.
The Little Buffalo
During the late afternoon, while weeding, Phung Xuan could hear Tam Man chanting inside the great Dharma hall, his voice as clear and full as a bell.
When evening came, sitting at the edge of the pond, he would listen to the chanting attentively till night fell. He did not even move to go down to the half-moon pond to wash his hands. The atmosphere was strange, enchanting, and the moon was so brilliant over Duong Xuan Hill.
Everything had converged to make Phung Xuan a poet. But poetry is not just moonlight. Like me, you know that poetry is also the swampy stagnant water, outer-space fire storms, brokendown huts on the river’s edge, rescue attempts, bold and dangerous acts, yellow flowers, violet bamboo, and ultimate reality, as
His voice, as dear and deep as a bell, is imprinted in me forever. I live with it, in it. It lives in me. Tam Man is an adult now, and Phung Xuan, also. Nevertheless, my children, in the ultimate reality, you can meet each other as young novices in the mother pagoda. At that time, no one owned a tape recorder to record Tam Man’s wonderful voice. Yet his voice is not lost. It still exists, he still exists. Phung Xuan still exists, just because you are there.
Do you see, my friend? The three of us together, Tam Man, you, our friend, and me, Phung Xuan, are running after each other at full speed on the side of the hill. Tender grass and April pines grow all around us. In the distance, we glimpse the forest. The little river is snaking around the foot of the hill. Barefoot, with no sandals or shoes, we run as fast as we can. Look, there is a little buffalo; he has seen the three children. He also starts to run. He follows us towards the sun. Towards the sun …
Against the flaming sunset is the silhouette of three children …
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