For the luckiest of us, childhood is like a field bathed in the warm rays of the sun, utterly new and fresh and astonishing. The moment when things cease to astonish us, when the sun is thickly clouded over and the field seems familiar, trite, and commonplace is the moment we die inside and become adults. To be an adult yet perceive everything through the innocent eyes of a child is to practice a sacred art of resurrection, the ability to reunite with the soul of our childhood and see the world anew. This is what legendary Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (October 11, 1926 – January 22, 2022) explores in one of the entries of his Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-1966.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Vietnam has extraordinary rainstorms. One day, I sat by the window of a friend’s home and watched a scene I could have watched forever. Across the street was a low-roofed dry goods store. Coils of rope and barbed wire, pots and pans hung from the eaves. Hundreds of items were on display — fish sauce and bean sauce, candles and peanut candy. The store was so packed and dimly lit, it was difficult to distinguish one object from another as the rainstorm darkened the street. A young boy, no more than five or six, wearing a simple pair of shorts, his skin darkened by hours of play in the sun, sat on a little stool on the front step of the store. He was eating a bowl of rice, protected by the overhang.
While rain pours off the roof making puddles in front of where the young boy sits, Thich Nhat Hanh continues to recount the mesmerizing scene:
He held his rice bowl in one hand and his chopsticks in the other, and he ate slowly, his eyes riveted on the stream of water pouring from the roof. Large drops exploded into bubbles on the surface of a puddle. Though I was across the street, I could tell that his rice was mixed with pieces of duck egg and sprinkled with fish sauce. He raised his chopsticks slowly to his mouth, savoring each small mouthful. He gazed at the rain and appeared to be utterly content, the very image of well-being. I could feel his heart beating. His lungs, stomach, liver, and all his organs were working in perfect harmony.
Astonished at the boy’s tranquility, peace, and all-embracing joy of being, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
I looked at him as one might admire a perfect jewel, a flower, or a sunrise. Truth and paradise revealed themselves to me. I was completely absorbed by his image. He seemed to be a divine being, a young god embodying the bliss of well-being with every glance of his eyes and every bite of rice he took. He was completely free of worry or anxiety. He had no thought of being poor. He did not compare his simple black shorts to the fancy clothes of other children. He did not feel sad because he had no shoes. He did not mind that he sat on a hard stool rather than a cushioned chair. He felt no longing. He was completely at peace in the moment. Just by watching him, the same well-being flooded my body.
As the boy’s mother calls him back to refill his rice bowl, Thich Nhat Hanh concludes with a touching thought:
How can you enter paradise unless you become like a little child? You can’t see reality with eyes that discriminate or base all their understanding on concepts. As I write these lines, I long to return to the innocence of childhood.
As I read these lines, I know Thich Nhat Hanh did return, he did enter paradise, when on January 22, 2022 at the age of 95 he had transitioned out of his old and frail body to become a child that is forever free. Complement a soul-nourishing read that is Fragrant Palm Leaves, with Thich Nhat Hanh on the value of opposite forces in our lives and then revisit his teaching on how to live in the now.