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excerpt from Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh

There was a young man named David.  He was a very handsome young man and quite intelligent.  He was born into a rich family and had everything he needed to be successful.  But he did not enjoy life.  He was not capable of being happy.  He had a lot of problems with his parents, brothers, and sisters.  He did not know how to communicate.  He was a very egotistical person, so he always blamed his father, his mother, his sister, and his brothers for his misery.  He suffered a lot, but he was not miserable because everyone hated him, or because everyone wanted to punish him.  He was miserable because he was not capable of loving, of understanding.  He was able to make friends for a few days, but soon after that his friends would leave him because it was quite difficult to be around him.  He was very arrogant, very self-centered, and he lacked understanding and compassion.

One day he went to a Buddhist temple in the town, but not to listen to a dharma talk.  He did not care about Dharma talks.  He went with the hope of making new friends because he was in desperate need of a friend.  So far no one had been able to remain his friend. He was rich, he was handsome, and many people were interested in getting to know him. But all of them abandoned him after a short time.

So that morning he went to the temple because life without a friend was hell. He was thirsty for a friend, for a partner, even if he was not capable of keeping a friend or a partner.  And when he came to the temple, he passed a group of people coming out, and among them was a very beautiful young lady. The image of the young lady moved him deeply, and he was love-struck, dumbfounded.  He was no longer interested in entering the temple anymore, and he turned around in order to follow the group. Unfortunately, another group of people came streaming in, and the crowd made it difficult for David to leave. When he managed to get out of the temple, the group and the beautiful lady had vanished.

He searched all over for one hour but could not find her, and he went home carrying that beautiful image in his heart.  He could not sleep that night, or the next night.  And then on the third night, he saw a beautiful old man with a white beard in his dream.  The old man said, “If you want to meether, then go to the Eastern market today.”  Though it wasn’t morning yet, he did not feel like sleeping anymore.  He got up and waited until noon before setting out on his search for the young lady.

When he arrived at the Eastern market, there were not many people.  It was still too early, so hewent into a bookshop and began to look around.  Suddenly, he looked up and he a painting of avery beautiful young lady hanging on the wall.  It was the same young lady he had seen three days before at the temple.  The same eyes, the same nose, the same mouth.  In the dream, he was told he would meet that lady in the market, but maybe this was what the old man meant- the picture was all he could have. “Maybe I deserve only an image,” he thought.  “I don’t deserve a reality.” So instead of buying books, he used all his money to buy that painting.  He brought it home and he hung it on the wall of his dormitory room at college.

He was a lonely person.  He did not have friends.  Often he did not go to the campus cafeteria.  Instead, he stayed home, and ate instant noodles.  You may have already guessed that David is Asian.  That day, he prepared two bowls of instant noodles, and two pairs of chopsticks.  The second bowl was for the lady in the painting.  He enjoyed his noodles, and from time to time he looked up and invited the lady in the painting to eat.

We know that there are people who cannot communicate with human beings.  They have a cat or a dog to live with for company, so that they can pour out all their love and care on it.  They buy the most expensive food for their pet.  For many people, it is much easier to love a cat or a dog because they never argue with you.  When you say something that is not nice, they don’t react.  The same thing was true with David.  He could live in peace with the lady in the painting, but if the real lady were there, he might not be able to live with her for more than twenty-four hours.

One day he could not finish his bowl of noodles.  Life seemed to have no flavor at all.  He had had it up to his neck.  At that moment, he looked up at the painting.  He was about to ask, “What’s the use of living anyway?” when he saw the lady blink her eyes and smile.  He was very startled.  He thought that he was in a dream.  He rubbed his eyes and looked up again, and there she was, perfectly still.  A few days later, he saw the lady smile and blink her eyes again.  He was very surprised.  He continued to look at her, and suddenly she became a real person and stepped down from the painting.  Her name was Angelina, because she came from heaven. You cannot imagine how happy the young man was.  He was in paradise. To have such a beautiful young lady as a friend, what could be more wonderful?

But you may have already guessed the rest of the story. He was not capable of being happy even with someone as fresh and kind as Angelina. And three or four months later, she left him.  It was impossible to live with someone like David.  One morning he woke up and found a note on his desk.  The young lady had gone for good.  She wrote: “David, it is impossible to live with you.  You are too self-centered; you have no capacity to listen to anyone.  You are intelligent, handsome, and rich.  But you don’t know how to maintain a relationship with another human being.”  That morning, David wanted to kill himself.  He thought that if he could not even manage to live with such a sweet, beautiful lady, then he must be worthless.  He looked for a piece of rope to hang himself with.

Every year in France, twelve thousand people commit suicide. That is about thirty-three everyday.  That’s far too many.  And David is among them, waiting for you to rescue him.  In the United States and throughout Europe, the rate of suicide is very much the same. People are overwhelmed by despair.  For many of us, communication has become impossible and life no longer has meaning.

Offering the Incense of the Heart

While David was tying a knot in the rope, he suddenly remembered that one day Angelina smiled and said, “David if someday I’m no longer around and you miss me very much, just burn some incense.” The day she said this, she had been able to convince him to come to the temple with her to listen to a dharma talk.  There, the monk was explaining how to offer incense as a way of communicating.  When you burn incense, you want to communicate with the Buddha, with the Bodhisattvas, with our ancestors.  If we can communicate with our ancestors, we can communicate also with our brothers and sisters around us.  So the monk was talking about communicating through the act of offering incense.  He said that the incense we offer should be the incense of our heart: the incense of mindfulness, the incense of concentration, the incense of wisdom, of insight.  David was there sitting close to Angelina, but he did not listen very deeply.  However, he heard enough to remember that event.  After both of them left the temple, Angelina turned to him and said, “David, if someday you want to get in touch with me, offer some incense.”

Remembering this, he dropped the rope, ran to the store nearby and bought a bundle of incense.  But David did not know how to burn incense.  In Plum Village every time we offer incense, we use only one stick.  He used the whole bundle, and in just a few minutes, his room was filled with smoke.  He waited for fifteen minutes, half an hour, one hour, but Angelina did not show up.  So then he remembered what the monk said – “For true communication to be possible, you have to offer the incense of the heart, namely, the incense of mindfulness.  The incense of concentration, the incense of insight.”  Burning incense without mindfulness wouldn’t work.

David sat there and thought deeply about his situation.  He saw that he had not succeeded with his parents, with his brothers and sisters, with his friends, with his society.  He had even failed with Angelina.  He began to see that he always blamed other people for his suffering. This was the first time he had a few moments of concentration and he began to have some insight.  This was the first time in his life he sat down quietly and saw that he had been unjust to his parents, and that communication was not possible partly because of him.  He had blamed everyone.  He hadn’t understood until now that he was responsible.  Even with such a sweet and beautiful person like Angelina, he had not succeeded.

For the first time, tears ran down his cheeks, and he was truly sorry for the way he had treated his parents, brothers, sisters, and friends.  He remembered the time he came home drunk, very late at night, beat Angelina and abused her.  He thought of all of this, and suddenly a drop of compassion penetrated his heart, a heart so full of suffering and afflictions.  And he continued crying.  The more he cried, the more refreshed he felt in his heart.  A transformation took place within him.  He began to understand what Angelina had tried to tell him, about how to live according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, about practicing deep listening and loving speech.  He felt a willingness to begin anew, and he told himself that if Angelina ever came back, he would be a different person.  “I will know how to take care of her, and how to make happiness possible.”  At that moment there was a knock on the door.  Angelina was back.  Although David had practiced barely one hour, his transformation was profound.