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The path of struggle is the only path worth following

I’ve been reading and writing about Thich Nhat Hanh’s journal ‘Fragrant Palm Leaves.’ This is the third entry. The previous entries can be read here, for part one, and here for part you guessed it two.


Photo courtesy of Parallax Press

It’s August 1962, the Soviet Union is performing nuclear tests at Novaya Zemlya, Ray Charles has top 10 hits on both sides of the Atlantic and Hanh is reflecting on the enormous effort and time it takes for change to take root, grow and emerge. A timeless insight that, it being timeless and all, might also ease one’s frustrated spirit in current times where change is happening fast enough seemingly nowhere. Check out this site to gain some perspective on turbulent times (not that it‘s a competition…). Seeing all those major events, knowing what is to come, makes studying and really stepping into history such a fascinating and mysterious rush.


Anyway, back to 1962, back to Hanh:


‘One cannot expect too much too soon’

For eight years, we tried to speak about the need for a humanistic Buddhism and a unified Buddhist church in Vietnam that could respond to the needs of the people. We sowed those seeds against steep odds, and while waiting for them to take root, we endured false accusations, hatred, deception, and intolerance. Still we refused to give up hope.

Now some of those seeds have begun to grow. As discontent with the political regime is growing, the idea of a Buddhism for the people is taking shape. We couldn’t imagine then how deeply our ideas would take root, especially in central Vietnam. One afternoon while accompanying Nhu Hue and Nhu Van on a visit to a poor hamlet in Quang Nam, I heard a mother singing one of Tam Kien’s protest songs to lullaby her child to sleep! I wanted to weep.

Of course, one cannot expect too much too soon.

Casting off the old skin is not something a culture does overnight or without resistance. The fear of challenge is often accompanied by a subservient mentality. And if there is subservience, culture is not true culture, just a tool for controlling others. Hardships and conflicts caused by challenges to the old cannot be avoided. That is why the path of struggle is the only path worth following.



Interestingly enough (to me, at least), this last paragraph can also be read as somewhat of a guideline for personal transformation:

Casting off the old skin is not something a culture does overnight or without resistance.


Replace ‘culture’ with ‘person’ and it fits quite neatly. Or: it really doesn’t fit quite neatly, for the skin is old, and what’s underneath cannot breathe through it. However, the old skin has served you well in the past and it gives (the illusion of) security, so why give that up? Is that new skin all that great? Sure, it promises new and fresh experiences, but how to be sure? This whole changing skin business will not happen without some good old resistance.


The fear of challenge is often accompanied by a subservient mentality. And if there is subservience, culture is not true culture, just a tool for controlling others.


Subservient. You know the feeling and you know what it looks like. Hunched shoulders, subverted eyes. Not seeing what is there. Not wanting to see what is there. Fear. Fear makes you look and turn away, makes you subservient. Unless we pay attention, we are slaves to our old mentality, we are controlled by our old patterns of doing things: our old culture.


If culture isn’t in a constant state of renewal it becomes stale for it doesn’t grow naturally with change. This doesn’t mean we should ditch everything ‘old’: holding on to tradition that keeps us rooted and connected to our past is essential to actual, healthy growth: a tree without roots, after all, cannot live. However, a culture forever choosing security and stale tradition over progress, thereby strangling renewal, will never evolve: a tree without new branches shall not grow (as this song - previously heard on Thich Nhat Hanh‘s tree post - so eloquently explains):




Hardships and conflicts caused by challenges to the old cannot be avoided. That is why the path of struggle is the only path worth following.

The only path worth following is struggle? Shit.

Why?


Returning to that whole business of casting off the old skin. Why give that skin up? This question comes from a place of fear of the big unknown: there is no way of really knowing if the new skin will be able to bear the sunlight. How to decide if it is in fact time to give up the old?


In the end, I think, it’s not really a question of deciding to give anything up. It’s not even a question of wanting to give it up. In fact, you have nothing to do with it. It is out of your control.

The new skin is ready even as the old skin is holding on. This creates tension, itching, irritation, conflict. Conflict brings suffering. Suffering, in this way, makes us look at ourselves with renewed focus. It brings attention to exactly those areas in life where there’s conflict. Oftentimes, this is where renewal starts. Something new wants to be born, something old is in the way. This isn’t even a bad thing, it is just what happens naturally, all the time. It is the essence of change, and change is the only constant there is. Only by really looking at it and accepting it, does this natural process continue. Humans have this strange ability to stop their own natural development.


So, there is a choice then. Or you decide to look away from your suffering and thus become subservient to your old culture, your old skin. Renewal ends, life becomes more stale every day, but you maintain a certain amount of superficial comfort with the added bonus of the illusion of safety.


Or, you take the pain head-on and take the conscious step to free yourself from the stale parts of your own cultured being. Hardships and conflicts are ahead, no doubt. There are farewells to be said, habits to be buried. You have to face your demons, look at your shadow, and shine a light at the dark dungeons of your own psyche. It’s no picnic. This is the ‘challenge to the old.’ Escaping a prison can make for a good movie, but it definitely makes for a good life. The escape to freedom may lead you through mud and shit-smelling foulness, and yet it is the only path worth following, for it brings you to…



And here then, the escape scene of one of the most famous movies ever made.


Part One:


Interestingly enough, in this second part, the last lines by Red, the narrator, are:


A man nobody ever laid eyes on before, strolled into the main National Bank. Until that moment, he didn’t exist. Except on paper.


Part Two:


Renewal at its finest. He had to escape a prison, crawl 500 yards through the sewer, but there he was: a man nobody laid eyes on before, a man that until that moment didn’t exist, except in the mind, except potentially. If you free yourself from your own prison, you come out of it renewed, reborn. The same face, a similar manner, but somehow different, as if closer to yourself. An old skin shed, the new one nearer to your essence. It may take some struggle, but hey…

Hardships and conflicts caused by challenges to the old cannot be avoided. That is why the path of struggle is the only path worth following.


Thich Nhat Hanh returns to Tu Hieu Pagoda, his root temple in Huế. Photo by Paul Davis

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PS I’m reading ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ now and this is what Morrie Schwartz has to say about culture:


You have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own.


Additional Reading:


Here is an interesting article on Hanh’s life.


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