Practicing Happiness in the Face of Death
By Anne von er Lühe
Excerpted from the book, Tears Become Rain: Stories of Healing and Transformation Inspired by Thích Nhât Hạnh, edited by Jeanine Cogan and Mary Hillebrand
Driving down the road one day, I heard a radio program about the Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh, who had opened a practice center in Germany. Retreats were planned there for the coming summer. Although I knew nothing about Buddhism or Vietnamese culture, I had the feeling that this information would change my life. Not knowing what to expect at a Zen center, I was afraid of making all sorts of embarrassing mistakes. On the other hand, I had nothing holding me down — no job, no family obligations — and a retreat seemed like the right way to spend what turned out to be the next two years of my life.
The European Institute for Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Waldbröl was one of several retreat centers Thầy [the name used by his followers] created around the world to facilitate the study and practice of mindfulness. As a resident there, I put my professional skills to use by teaching German to the Vietnamese sisters and brothers, who were very eager to learn, and by translating various documents and dharma talks to help grow the community. I taught the monks and nuns a new language, and they taught me a new way to see the world and my place in it. I started with one sentence: “I am aware that being happy comes from my inner attitude and does not depend on external circumstances.” The monastics taught me to focus on living happily in the present moment by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy.
…I was building a new family, a Sangha of monastic sisters and brothers who in both gentle and lively ways helped me realize that I had all the conditions within myself to be happy. They held my hand when my tears flowed and helped me transform tremendous sadness. We shared many happy moments — gentle smiles; beautiful, calm walks in the forest; lively moments playing ball together; wild adventures sledding down the hill in the apple orchard.
…Living and practicing at the EIAB, I focused on mindfulness skills — simply trying to see things as they are and checking if I can be completely open to whatever physical feeling or mental formation arises. When I was ordained as a member of the Order of Interbeing, Thầy’s community of people committed to mindfulness and compassionate action in society, I received the dharma name True Inclusiveness of the Ocean. There is a teaching of the Buddha that if you pour a handful of salt into a glass full of water, the water will be undrinkable. When you pour a handful of salt into the ocean, however, the water is not affected in any substantial way. I did not know how essential such a profound understanding of being present would be for my life. I became as spacious and open as the ocean.
Seven years later, that is how I received the news that I had metastatic pancreatic cancer. The cancer had already spread to my liver, and my situation was much direr than my first diagnosis had been. Hearing this news, I was able to accept it without resistance. In my mind I felt strong like the mountains and firm like the earth. I was calm, I felt room inside, and I was not crowded by despair or uneasiness. I was open like the ocean.
Now I experienced first-hand what I had learned: if you can accept ill health in your body, you suffer much less. I thought to myself, That is it, and there is nothing else to do but breathe.
The night following the diagnosis, I lay awake for a while. I recalled how I had been confronted with death fourteen years earlier, and how alone I had felt then. At that time, I had thought to myself, If I die, I am completely alone; I have to undertake this journey all by myself. This time, after years of studying and practicing Thầy’s teachings, was different. In just the same way that I felt the soft, firm bed on which I was lying in the darkness, I also felt union with all living creatures, with mother earth, with my loved ones, and in particular with my Sangha.
In my mind’s eye I saw my mother, my children, and my partner. Alongside them I saw my beloved teachers and dharma sisters and brothers to whom I felt so closely bound through our journey on the same path, our shared practice, and the deep experience of interbeing.
I experience every day that when the thought of death is absent, fear is also absent: no death, no fear. This doesn’t mean that I deny my own mortality. I am aware of it every moment. This is precisely what makes life so beautiful.
I don’t tell myself stories about how dramatic my situation is. I don’t go looking for information on the internet; that action is not wholesome or helpful for me. Instead, I have complete trust in my doctor, who is a very competent and compassionate person. In this moment, I am fully aware that death is only a thought. One day this body will stop breathing, this heart will beat its final beat. But that is not now; in this moment I have all the conditions necessary to live a truly wonderful life.
—Anne von der Lühe lives in Germany and practices with the Fourfold Sangha in Waldbröl and the Clouds and Sunshine Sangha in Cologne. In her professional life, she was a high school teacher of German, French, and Spanish.
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Jeanine Cogan, Ph.D., is a mindfulness meditation teacher and executive consultant. Mary Hillebrand is a former magazine editor and writer, and is now a teacher who enjoys sharing mindfulness with teenagers and adults in therapeutic settings. Their new book, Tears Become Rain: Stories of Transformation and Healing Inspired by Thích Nhât Hạnh (Parallax Press, Oct. 10, 2023), offers intimate encounters with the wisdom of the most influential monk and peace activist of the past century. Learn more at parallax.org/product/tears-become-rain/.