“When there’s a storm, wild waves appear on the ocean. But below the surface, the ocean remains calm. The level of waves is consciousness. The fathomless blue ocean is wisdom. If you think the raging surf is the whole of reality, you haven’t paid attention.”
– Cuong Lu
Cuong Lu, author of The Buddha in Jail, continues his written output with a new book released this month called Wait: A Love Letter to Those in Despair. Ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh, Cuong Lu is a Buddhist teacher and former prison chaplain who dedicated his life to service after witnessing a shooting while fleeing Vietnam in 1975. His new book, addressed to people in states of deep suffering, is a communication of companionship and compassion. In this excerpt, he talks about attachment to form in relation to the grief of his own father’s passing. There is a special kind of wisdom, an oceanic wisdom, he asserts, that can see beyond the commotion of the passing waves and the raging surf.
If someone you love says something awful, remember it’s just on the surface. If love is real, it includes the bitter and the sweet. Consciousness sees opposites—presence or absence. It doesn’t know that my father is now present, only in a different form. Attachment to form is always incomplete. When there’s a storm, wild waves appear on the ocean. But below the surface, the ocean remains calm. The level of waves is consciousness. The fathomless blue ocean is wisdom. If you think the raging surf is the whole of reality, you haven’t paid attention.
Listening to the person you love, if you perceive only through ear-consciousness, you might start to feel destabilized. Sometimes it’s pleasant, sometimes not; sometimes it’s sweet, sometimes bitter. Happiness or unhappiness—it doesn’t matter. It’s only on the level of appearance.
If I use only my consciousness, it hurts when I think I’ll never see my father again. I feel guilty about the things I did to hurt him, things I left unsaid. Like many men from Vietnam, my father was more often than not reticent. When my dad was quiet, I did my homework. I thought he’d be pleased, but I see now, he just wanted to be with me, to take care of me. I had no idea at the time.
There is a child being born somewhere at this moment that is also my father, in a new appearance. If you take care of that child, you are also taking care of my father, and yours. Why stay attached to form? A flower is an appearance; its true nature is the earth. When the flower wilts and dies, it no longer has its old form. But if we look using our wisdom, we’ll see that the flower is still here.
“A flower is an appearance; its true nature is the earth. When the flower wilts and dies, it no longer has its old form. But if we look using our wisdom, we’ll see that the flower is still here.”
Searching for my father since I was thirteen, I’ve sought out wise and stable men (and women) who can inspire me to discover myself. Parents and other mentors forget they carry this archetypal dimension. Together we are co-creating something miraculous. The child who looks up to this heroic figure is both separate and, in some way, also a part of them. At first, the child lacks wisdom, so as a parent or guide, you can use your wisdom to help the child. A child lacks self-confidence. She’s stuck in the dimension of the wave—soaring up and crashing down. She doesn’t see that she’s also the vast blue ocean. This is not only true for children. Any relationship includes these kinds of projections, places we hurt or are unable to access. We can allow a mentor figure to hold this for us until we are ready to reclaim it as our own.
Parents who understand the dimensionality of water can offer that to their children. When my father was alive, I didn’t need to worry. He was there to protect and guide me. After he died, I thought he had abandoned me, and I became extremely insecure. Even if your parents are or were not all that supportive, you can always find someone who has your back. Look around—for a teacher at school, a coach, or another person who inspires and guides you—and try to find someone. After my father passed away, I realized all my friends and many generations of ancestors are still with me. If you cannot find someone in your town or city, try to find inspiration in a historic figure, in a book or a movie. Hold close to their protection, and let it help you feel safe and supported.
Young people today are high achievers. They may climb to the top—but still lack basic self-confidence. To help them feel the love and attention they need, you can begin by practicing the art of listening. They will benefit, and you will benefit. Thanks to your wisdom, we all will open to life. Whether we believe it—or not—how we show up affects everyone.
From Wait: A Love Letter to Those in Despair by Cuong Lu © 2021 by Cuong Lu. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.