By Acharya Samaneti
I have to admit that I have a soft spot for dhamma teachers that are, or have been prison chaplains.
I find that prison changes our relationship to the dhamma; it is usually simple, effective and mainly focused on the ethical and liberator practices. When I found out that Cuong Lu was a student of Thich Nhat Hanh (a very popular dhamma teacher/author in prison) and was an ex-prison chaplain; I was much more interested and curious about his new book, Wait: A Love Letter to Those in Despair.
This book is offered and written for those who are in pain. You can see why this would interest a prison chaplain, because if anyone is in pain—it’s the incarcerated. They must navigate waves of emotional and mental storms and violence.
Cuong Lu urges one to not give in to anger. He asserts that suffering cannot be avoided and asks those in despair to choose to live and recognizes self-harm or suicide to be acts of violence against everyone, because individuality is an illusion. The root of suffering is born from our failure to appreciate constant flux, especially when we tend to judge new moments against similar ones from our past. I am sure that we have all experienced similar feelings when we are particularly nostalgic about whatever we are living in the moment.
He invites us to not feed anger in the chapter, My Suffering is Mine, he gives the example of patiently listening when a loved one lashes out.
This short chapter (all the chapters are short on words, but deep in wisdom and leaves us with enough to reflect on in the astuteness that is shared) was very useful for me and my relationship to difficult conversations, which I am sure that I am not alone in this one. When we love someone, we can let them suffer. We don’t need to fix anything; instead of fighting against their anger we can simply be present and try to understand.
I tend to have the habit of needing to fix things for my partner because I don’t want them to suffer and think that it is part of my couple’s duties to ensure that they feel the least amount of suffering as possible. Cuong even suggests that it need not feel negative, just an expression of energy—reminding us that our partners do not always have to be nice.
So when someone you love speaks in a way that triggers your anger, wisdom teaches us that it’s your reaction, and we should not bring them into it. Their speech is their responsibility, and your reaction is yours.
When you recognize your own suffering, you will allow them theirs. Same goes when you recognize your own happiness, you will allow them theirs.
This book is full of great chapters like this one, full of practical and simple dhamma wisdom that we can use on our day to day lives. This book represents the prison dhamma that I try and share with the incarcerated men that I serve. The Plum Village lineage is known for this type of simple, deep, effective dhamma—a reflection of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. This is also why it is so precious.
I know that I will keep this book with me in my chapel office.
It will be a reference for when I need inspiration, wisdom and whatever else that will help me spread these liberator teachings. This book is not very long, but it is a great read and something that I can see someone coming back to during difficult times when we feel overwhelmed by life’s difficulties.When you recognize your own suffering, you will allow them theirs. Same goes when you recognize your own happiness, you will allow them theirs. ~Samaneti Click To Tweet
I will be getting copies for the guys that I see at the prison.
This is the type of dhamma book that they can keep in their cells and lean on when they feel they are sinking into anger and despair. The dhamma has the power to uplift even in our darkest times and places; for me, it never shines as bright as in the dark halls and cells of prisons.
I leave you with a poem from this wonderful little book, may it inspire and may it unlock the wisdom that you need:
“Defuse Me” – Thich Nhat Hanh
If I were a bomb
ready to explode,
if I have become
dangerous to your life,
then you must take care of me.
You think you can get away from me,
I am here, right in your midst.
(You cannot remove me from your life.)
And I may explode
at any time.
I need your care.
I need your time…
Acharya Samaneti is a prison chaplain, philosopher, a lover of the written word, and truth seeker. The contemplative life called him early in his life; an only child, Samanetti found comfort in silence, reflection, and personal inquiry. Samaneti is interested in bearing witness to the oneness of suffering and the loving actions that awaken hearts; this mission draws him to work with the incarcerated and other marginalized populations.
Photo: Shambhala Publications
Editor: Dana Gornall