Brother Phap Vu

The last movie my wife and I went to see before the corona-virus outbreak was “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a movie which is less about Mr. Rogers than it is about the reporter who wrote a cover story about him for Esquire magazine. In the film, the reporter is portrayed as a fairly stock character, a cynical and embittered writer who approaches his assignment to do a 400 word profile of Rogers with understandable skepticism. As his relationship with Rogers grows, however, and his understanding of the man deepens, the profile expands into a 10,000 word feature article which – to the author’s surprise – takes it subject far more seriously than he had imagined it would.

One point the movie makes is that Roger’s goodness was a “practice.” It was something he worked at in a number of concrete ways such as consciously developing non-destructive ways to deal with emotions like anger and nightly praying for individuals – by name – who had requested his prayers or who he felt were in need of them. The idea that someone would make a choice, an effort, to work daily at virtue as a practice can seem naïve, but it was also what made Mr. Rogers significant. The magazine article was entitled, “Can You Say . . . ‘Hero’?”

The film reminded me of a visit I made in 2014 to the Blue Cliff Monastery outside Pine Bush, New York. It’s part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, the form of Zen (Thien in Vietnamese) which probably has the largest number of adherents in North America. It derives – like Japanese Rinzai – from the Chinese Linji tradition but bears little resemblance to the forms that lineage has taken in Japan or the west. Its popularity it based on the fact that its forms are simple and accessible. Instead of struggling to make sense of the koan Mu, practitioners in the Order of Being are advised to simply repeat, inwardly, a four line poem during their periods of meditation:

Breathing in, I calm my body;
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

I approached my visit to Blue Cliff with the same reservation the reporter had to Mr. Rogers, suspicious that this was all too naïve to be taken seriously. What I discovered was a community of people who genuinely chose to practice a way of virtue with integrity.

The monk who’d organized my visit was Brother Phap Vu who I contacted again as I began work on my most recent project. He is no longer in residence at Blue Cliff although he remains a monk in the Order of Interbeing. He travels about the country giving retreats and providing support to other monastics through an on-line program called Dharma Pathways.

There is a modesty to the practices promoted by the Order of Interbeing, but they are grounded in basic Buddhist theory. The understanding of “interbeing,” Phap Vu explains to me, “is based on two concepts in the Mahayana tradition. The first is dependent co-arising. All things are dependent on other things for their manifestations, for their being. The other comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra, interpenetration. That I’m in that, and that is in me. And what these two things are looking at, what these two things are describing in the human experience, is that there’s a larger version of us. There’s a larger interconnectedness of us, of all things. Nothing exists within itself. Everything is connected with everything else.”

The goal of Zen practice, then, is to bring about a shift in perception. “Either it’s realizing the interconnectedness of all things, or realizing how one could respond to the difficulties in life. And the difficulties in life can be anything from a relationship with another person, or the difficulties in life could be economic. Or it could be something like a global catastrophe. Global crisis. How do we approach this? How do we respond?”

The “global crisis” he talks about isn’t something theoretical. Thich Nhat Hanh has been blunt in warning his disciples to face the ecological impact human activity has had on the interconnectedness of all things and the possible consequences of that activity. “Civilizations have been destroyed many times and this civilization is no different. It can be destroyed.”

How does one begin to come to terms with a concept such as that?

“What is it that you hope for for the people you work with?” I ask Brother Phap Vu.

His answer – like that of Mr. Rogers when asked about what he hoped for the children who watched his program – is one of those deeply profound statements that inevitably sound overly simple: “To love themselves. To have compassion for themselves.”

“You sense that’s something lacking in people?”

“Well, I had a lack of that capacity to see myself in another way. To see that you are much more than you think you are. You know, we live our lives, we do our work and school or whatever we do, with family or whatnot. And sometimes we’re stuck in this mode. And we put ourselves in boxes, give ourselves labels. And society puts labels on us and puts us in boxes. And we’re not aware of that larger aspect of ourselves.”

The larger aspect is what Buddhism calls our “Buddha Nature.” Phap Vu tells me that Nhat Hanh uses another term: “He refers to ‘home,’ our true home. Every spiritual tradition has this. In Christianity it would be like the Divine nature. It’s the interconnectedness that we’re a part of the divine basically.”

“And that’s what the shift in perspective . . .” I start to say.

He nods his head. “Yes, and we can only touch that when we have enough compassion for ourselves, when we have care for ourselves. Then it radiates out.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 439-63

Zen Conversations: 67-69; 144-45

Other Links:

Dharma Pathways

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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