Thay recently received this beautiful and moving letter from one of his students (a lay man) in Ireland. With permission from the author, Thay asked us to type it up and post it online for the whole community to read. We have transcribed it from the original handwritten letter, and removed the names mentioned.
A little more than eight years ago, perhaps ten, I drove up to Dublin mountains every other evening after work and parked at the edge of the steep cliff. I would roll and smoke joint after joint and cry and cry and cry. I would drive my car to the edge of the precipice and try to summon up the courage to drive it over and to end my life there. It was such a beautiful place. Mountains on both sides rolling down to a beautiful green valley with a lovely river running through it. A beautiful place to die, but I couldn’t do it. I would cry most of the way home and just go to bed.
The following morning and every following morning—would lead to the torture of another day, and then the weekend would come and I would come and I would drink and drink and drink, then smoke joint after joint after joint. All to try and dim the pain inside me. It was at that time that I reached the edge of my life. I worked in an office, had “a very successful job” and it was killing me. Every morning as I entered that building, any office building, I could feel my soul staying outside. The beautiful part of me never entered and I was beginning to die. I was about 35 years old then.
Years earlier one of my best friends committed suicide, B__ R__ was his name. I write his name here because it deserves to be written. He was a lovely man. We grew up together, we fought together, we played together and we were great friends together. It came as a great shock to me—his death—I always thought I’d be the first to die. Anyway at the edge of my life a voice came to me: “T___, what would be your greatest regret if you died?” And the answer came immediately. Poetry. I always loved poetry but had never entered into the living of it. It was then I realised I was living my life in a way that I though my mother and father wanted me to live it. In short I was trying to conform to parents’ measurement of “success”.
You see my father was a very violent man. He beat my mother up many, many, many times. And he beat myself and my three other brothers. I lived in great fear of him. And I hated him very much. He used to tell me regularly that I wouldn’t amount to anything, that I’d be a failure. He would point at my little brother and tell him he’d grow up to be a great man. I was also sexually abused by two people outside my family. This happened on two occasions. So I really wanted to die from an early age. My summers were very beautiful though. I spent them on my uncle’s farm in county Sligo and it was there we were allowed to be kids. We played from dawn to dusk in the way that lovely children play in the summertime. My Uncle, J__M__ told my father to his face that so long as he was around, no one—and he pointed at my father—would hurt us. And he told him to leave and when he said all this I felt a very beautiful joy and great peace. I mentioned my uncle’s name because it too deserves to be written.
It was when the answer came from the voice that asked me about my last regret, that I decided I was going to do the best I could to live. And to live in a way that I wanted to live. An enormous weight rolled off my shoulders. I began a degree course in Poetry. It was like coming home. There was no “study” involved in it for me. I was entering a door through which I’ve yet to emerge. I gave up my “successful” job and gave myself over to Poetry. I don’t really write poetry Thay; I decided I was going to live it, to the best of my ability. For the first time in my life I felt like I was living.
I cut my drinking down to one a month approx., maybe every six weeks. I continued to smoke joints and sometimes I took a lot of cocaine. In fact I started doing it regularly until it became a problem for me. But you see once I’d entered through the door of poetry there was no going back. I gave up cocaine. In fact I didn’t give it up. I just left it. And then I met another beautiful man by the name of C__S___. A name that really deserves to be written. He introduced me to mindfulness.
Prior to meeting him I had really bad suicidal tendencies at times. I wanted to drive down to a beach in the west of Ireland and drive myself into the ocean. I remember it was the eve of Christmas, I was very drunk, on my way to that beach my car broke down. It was late at night and a police car stopped behind me. The guard got out of his car and knocked on my window which I rolled down. He asked was I alright and I just started crying and told him I was drunk and just wanted to kill myself. And he stayed and talked with me, I never got his name, he was a beautiful man. He told me everything was going to be okay.
Another friend of mine—a photographer by the name of W__H__ wanted to do an exhibition about people who had attempted or were seriously suicidal. He asked me if I knew anyone who’d been through it because he knew one of my friends had completed it. So I told him my story and then he gathered together a group of people who had survived their crises and come out on the other side. One of the members of that group was C__S__. And that was the man who introduced me to mindfulness. After the first class (it was once a week) I started meditating every day. I stopped smoking joints, I stopped drinking heavily. My life began to really change.
My last year of the poetry degree was the most beautiful year of my studies. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink—apart from one glass of wine maybe every 3 days—and I didn’t take any drugs. And I never “gave any of it up”. It just seemed to fall away from me. Every morning before breakfast I’d meditate maybe for an hour or 40 minutes. That would begin my day. I went to a lovely psychotherapist. I opened up about my abuse—physical sexual abuse—and then I left her after a year. I had always wanted to live in the west of Ireland so following my poetic instinct I move west. My heart was still hurting though. I isolated myself. But I meditated every day. C__S__ introduced me to a CD by Thich Nhat Hanh. Beautiful. Meditating on my own was very good, but I decided I’d check to see if there was a group of practitioners in my locality.
Meantime my uncle J__ who lived in country Sligo was in very poor health. He was a bachelor farmer who now was unable to look after himself. He was in his mid seventies and had become an old man. He lived in squalid conditions in a once-lovely farmhouse and wouldn’t answer the door to anyone. He had an ulcer in one leg and couldn’t walk very far. Rats were all over the place, his toilet no longer worked, he had one very small heater and would only leave one bar of it on and he stayed sitting in a chair most of the day. If it was a sunny day he’d go outside to where his car (which no longer worked) was parked and sleep for a few hours in it. He was unable to climb the stairs to his freezing cold bedroom so when night came he’d put a blanket over his head and sleep on his chair. This situation had been going on for 5 years. People started taking advantage of his farm. I’ll try and explain briefly the character of my uncle.
He was offered 1.2 million euros for a piece of land he owned which has access to a lovely lake. He said no, the offer rose to 1.5 million. My uncle asked if a right of way would be maintained so that everyone could enjoy the lake. And also the land had many 100 year-old trees on it which he was afraid would be destroyed. They couldn’t give any guarantees so he refused the offer. A lovely man.
Anyway during the time all this was going on, I was unable to visit him because I was going though my fight for survival. I was unable to be in that once beautiful place that had been such a refuge for me. I didn’t have the strength to go there and see the state of my uncle. I was not able to do anything for him.
I kept meditating and I located a sangha in Sligo that meditated in the Plum Village tradition according to the teaching of…well…Thich Nhat Hanh. So every Monday night at 20:00 that’s where I go. And every day my practice got deeper and deeper. And I started visiting my uncle. I started visiting him regularly. I found it very difficult to visit him because of the squalor and the depression which surrounded him. It was like walking into a thick black cloud. He had never smoked or drank in his life. He was always very fit—he ran for Ireland and he walked for Ireland. And he was always a very gentle soul—the only man I’ve met who never lost his temper and always treated people with great kindness. It was very hard for me to see him in such a sorrowful state. His whole way of life had gone. Some of his friends had died and farming had moved on too. I cried most times—every time I left him. But I was also very happy to get out of there.
Then I was bringing him into hospital on a regular basis because of the ulcer on his leg which was getting worse and worse. I was also bringing him to the public health nurse every week. Maybe twice a week. And every morning I was “Breathing in…, Breathing out….” It was because of this that I had the strength to keep visiting my uncle. Then in the winter of 2010 (November) I was to go to a poetry weekend in the North of Ireland. Before I went I decided to pay a visit to my uncle. The temperature that winter was between -10 to 15 degrees Celsius. On the day I was visiting my uncle it was snowing and bitterly cold. I knew if my uncle’d stayed in that farmhouse he’d be a dead man. So I brought him to the hospital and tried to get him admitted. But after giving him a dinner and bandaging up his leg they wouldn’t take him in. I was shattered because I wanted to make that poetry festival!! They had to admit him! But they wouldn’t, so rather than taking a left turn to bring him to his home, I took a right and brought him back to mine. I didn’t say anything to him. I just drove him back to the cottage that I rent and set him up in the spare bedroom. And he’s been with me ever since.
In 2012, it was announced that Thay was coming to Ireland. And to Killarney! So I immediately booked my place on the retreat. That was really the start of something very special for me. On the first evening you gave the orientation, and your words were like nectar to me. You told us to go back to our roots. It was like all my life I had been waiting for you to come and to say what you did that night and the following few days. The power of that retreat has not lessened one little bit. At the end you said that even though the weekend was over, that didn’t mean the end of the retreat. Not at all Thay. That retreat remains in my heart. It saved my life.
You told us to ring our fathers or our mothers if we hadn’t spoken to them in a long time. And to use loving kindness. Directly after that Dharma talk, I borrowed a phone and rang my father, B__ K__ (I mention his name because maybe he needs more prayers and good thoughts sent to him than all the others I mentioned). I told him that even though I hadn’t spoken to him in a long time, that I loved him anyway. That was a bit of a lie. But I mentioned some things he’d done that I was thankful to him for and I really did mean them.
Still, you’d shown me how to open the door to really difficult feelings and situations in order to overcome our pride, our hate, or whatever it was that stopped us from extending our hand across the divide. It’s a very, very, very difficult thing to do, but one of my favourite things I hear you say is “It’s possible”. I love it when you say it. You have a lovely way of saying it, Thay. “It’s possible”. I always smile when you say it and it makes me feel very warm and happy. I feel very loved when I hear you speak. I feel very loved by you. I’ve learned now that everything is possible.
After that retreat I stopped drinking alcohol completely. I read about a lady who asked you a question about giving up alcohol even though she only had one glass a week. You replied that maybe she might consider giving up, not for herself, but for all the other people who had a problem with it. What a glorious answer. So that was it for me. I chose not to drink any more of it and I dedicated that practice to a lovely girl who’s an alcoholic. Her name is K__O’__. She no longer drinks now and she attends AA regularly.
During 2012 retreat, I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings and went to Plum Village for the 21 day retreat “The Science of the Buddha.” Last summer I worked in Plum Village for the Summer Opening Retreat and then the Health Retreat. I returned home in late August and returned for 2 weeks of the Fall retreat. Each time was like coming home for me. The lovely welcome I receive each time I go there is just magnificent and the love I experience there is something very special. I have no words to describe it. In thanks all I can do is to try and live my live in as beautiful a way as I can.
Through this time my uncle slowly, slowly, slowly got stronger and healthier. People had told me to put him in a home if it all got too much. Others felt very sorry for him and some didn’t think he’d make it. Some wrote him off altogether. They didn’t think it was possible, Thay! But I knew it was possible. I knew it was possible because Thay had said it was possible. The wonderful monks of Plum Village told me it was possible and the wonderful sisters of Plum Village told me it was possible. You had all shown me what was possible.
And now it has come to be. I never knew what love was, Thay. I never knew what it was when you entered the room in Killarney in 2012 to give the first orientation talk I got a glimpse of love. And do you know that I wasn’t able to sit near you because of that love that’s all around you. It’s like a halo of yellow light. I didn’t think I was deserving of that love and I sat at the back. Over in Plum Village I sat at the back and kept out of everyone’s way.
All that’s changed now though. It’s changed because now I know the value of the mud that makes the lotus bloom so beautifully. The abuse I went through as a little boy was very hard to heal. It still is, but through the grace of this practice and the Buddhist psychotherapist that I go to, healing—tremendous healing—has happened. (Her name is S__ P__ and I write her name here as well because it deserves to be written).
My uncle J__ has benefitted enormously from the healing. We took a trip back to his farmhouse a few days ago. It was his first time back in 3 years. He called around to his neighbour’s and he cried as he told them that he’d been asleep for 3 years and that if I hadn’t brought him to my house, he’d be a dead man. He said this to every one of them. I was almost crying myself. In fact I did. I was crying with love for this man. He has always been a very beautiful human being. And it’s great to see him blooming again.
He’s back walking, he’s not eating any chocolates or sweets and he’s started taking good care of himself. He’s got plans to do up the old farmhouse again and I’m going to help him. (The people I’ve mentioned it to don’t think it’s possible.) And he’s talking about us moving back there. He’s started to dream again, Thay! Isn’t that beautiful? I’m going to help him with the dream because it is possible. To see someone who has hit rock bottom and then to rise again. As one of my friends said “He is not just ‘back’, he’s better than the best he’s ever been.” And it’s true. He’s got a whole new energy about him.
People can’t believe it. But I believe it. I am living in a miracle Thay. It’s been very tough, but this is the fruit. I prayed for my uncle. I prayed to St. Thérèse of Liseux—she said she’d spend her Heaven doing good on Earth. She’s a beautiful lady. And she’s looked after my uncle. I came to you and I came to your home. I came to your monks and I came to your sisters. You’ve brought my uncle back. This is the miracle, Thay. And it’s the Miracle of Mindfulness.
It is the poetry of what is possible. I meant to write a small letter to you many, many, many times about my lovely uncle and just about how your practice has influenced my life. It’s turned into a huge letter now. You say a good question is a short question and I always laugh when you say that. I hope it doesn’t extend to a letter!
I am going to help my uncle with his dream. The old farmhouse will rise again, the way my uncle has risen. I’ve risen too, Thay. I have a lot more compassion for myself now. I don’t drink, smoke or take drugs. I’m practicing with the fourteen mindfulness trainings and have become a member of the OI. And my uncle is the fruit of my practice. There are many other fruits too. Both of us are going to move back to Sligo. I don’t know how it’s going to happen but it’s possible.
I’m doing a course on “Looking after the elderly” which finishes in late June. Then I hope I can earn a little money. You see I’ve been looking to earn a right livelihood. This is one of the ways I’ve gone about it. I intend to apply to work again in Plum Village for the Summer Opening Retreat. I’d love to go to the 21 day retreat in June: “What happens when we die”, but the course I’m doing doesn’t finish until the end of June. Every Wednesday morning I sit with the dying in the local Hospice and just talk with the clients. This is another fruit of my practice. I’m applying to do an MSC at Bereavement Counselling with the Irish Hospice foundation so that I can work both with the Dying and with those who have experienced grief in their lives. These are my aspirations, Thay and mindfulness has made them possible.
The reason I wrote this letter was to tell you that I love you very, very much. And to tell the brothers and sisters that I love them very much. This is just a story about one life—a little life. You’re here in this cottage all the time, Thay. I know this. Just because I leave Plum Village—the place—that doesn’t mean it leaves my heart. I’m more in Plum Village when I’m not there than when I am. All the monks and all the nuns are here too. You have saved my life. My life has changed completely since finding your practice. The only way in which I think I can thank you is to keep on practising, and to cultivate Beauty in my life by making the best use out of the compost of suffering.
I don’t run away anymore, Thay.
For the tremendous beauty you’ve brought to my life.
Go raibh mile menth agat—A hundred thousand thanks
P.S: I sat up front at all your talks last summer! I embrace all forms of beauty now.