A Little Off the Beam

Valentine Davies (1905 – 1961) was a screenwriter, producer, and director. His best known work is a little story known as Miracle on 34th Street. According to IMDB, “[Davis] got the idea for the script whilst struggling through the Christmas shopping crowds, trying to find a present for his wife. The commercialism he saw made Davies wonder what the real Santa Claus would make of it all.”

George Seaton, another screenwriter and director, adapted Davies’ story and made it into a film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and eight-year old Natalie Wood.  It was released on May 2, 1947 and didn’t receive much notice. Today it is considered not only a classic holiday movie, but a classic film period. Davies received an Academy Award for Best Story.

Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street
Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street

Later in 1947 Davies took Seaton’s screenplay, based on his own original story, and rewrote it as a novella.  It was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.

[Kris] had begun to realize that Doris and little Susan were but unhappy products of their times. They presented a real challenge to him – a sort of test-case for Santa Claus. If he could win them over, if he could get them to believe in him – then there was still hope. If not, Santa Claus and all he stood for were through.

“You know, Mrs. Walker,” he said, “for the past fifty years or so I’ve been more and more worried about Christmas. It seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less, that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Doris. “Christmas is still Christmas.”

“No,” said Mr. Kringle, shaking his head. “Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind. That’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, because maybe I can do something about it.”

In spite of herself, Doris was impressed by Kris’ warmth and kindness. She couldn’t help liking the old man, even if he was a little off the beam.

Of course, anyone who thinks he is Santa Claus is delusional.  But as Dr. Pierce says in the story, Kris’ “delusion is for good. He only wants to be friendly and helpful.”  In Buddhism, we don’t like to promote the idea of indulging delusions, but this story reminds me of the one about Bodhisattva Fukyo.  One day, Fukyo went walking around,  bowing to every person he met. As he bowed, he would say, “I deeply respect you.”  He was a little off the beam, too. He thought everyone he saw was a buddha.

The writing in Davies’ novella is lean and simple, similar to a children’s book.  The story centers around the question of whether Kris is the real Santa Claus or just a nice old man with whiskers and a few bats in his belfry. However, there is a more thoughtful subtext. Doris, a single mother raising Susan while employed at Macy’s, is disappointed when Fred Gayley, an attorney with whom she is falling in love, appears to have thrown away his future by defending Kris at his sanity hearing. Fred realizes that Doris has no faith in him.

“It’s not a question of having faith in you. You’re bound to lose this case – that’s just common sense!”

Fred rose quickly.

“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to,” he replied. “And you’ve just got too much common sense.”

“It’s a good thing one of us has,” said Doris heatedly. “It’s rather an asset sometimes!”

“Can’t you get over being afraid?” Fred pleaded. “Can’t you let yourself believe in people like Kris – in fun and joy and love and all the other intangibles?”

Doris stiffened almost inperceptibly. She became the crisp, efficient Mrs. Walker again.

“You can’t pay the rent with intangibles,” she said.

“And you can’t live a life without them.”

In the film, instead of that last line, Fred says that “those intangibles are the only things worthwhile.” I think he also means they are the things most worth fighting for, and that’s why he works so hard to defend Kris.

You see, Fred knew that Kris was a Bodhisattva and that his mission was to awaken people – not to the reality of a symbolic holiday figure, or for that matter, some religious icon – Kris wanted to awaken them to the truth of intangible things, like the ones Fred listed above, and other intangibles such as kindness, hope, patience, and giving. Believing in Santa Claus, and even capturing the spirit of Christmas, is merely allegory for finding the only things worthwhile, those wonders that come from the heart.

And when Doris and her daughter Susan and everyone else began to believe in themselves and in others, they gave up their doubtful ways, stopped being afraid, and life opened up for them, and when we do the same, the doors to life’s storehouse of treasures opens for us, and we learn that everything we want, everything we need, is all around us all the time, and that is the real miracle to be found on 34th or any other street.

In a 2013 interview, Thich Nhat Hanh said,

It is in my heart when I use [the word “miracle”] because . . . you are a miracle and everything you touch could be a miracle — the orange in your hand, the blue sky, the face of a child. Everything become a wonder. And, in fact, they are wonders of life that are available in the here and the now . . . And that is a miracle because you understand the nature of the suffering, and you are not trying to run away from suffering anymore, and you know how to make use of suffering in order to build peace and happiness.”

Well, to sum up, I say that if it leads you to those intangibles which are life’s greatest treasures, then being a little off the beam is a good use of common sense.

Happy Holidays to you all and thanks so much for reading The Endless Further.

MPX222

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Thich Nhat Hanh, Slavery, and Phillis Wheatley the Slave-Poet

According to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hahn’s condition remains stable. As I reported several weeks ago, he experienced a severe brain hemorrhage on November 11 and has been hospitalized ever since. Evidently, the hemorrhage has slightly reduced in size, and while edema is still present, it has not worsened.

The latest press release states, “Thay continues to rest peacefully with the ticking clock on his pillow, and we sense that he is relying on his deep awareness of breathing, rooted in Store Consciousness, to guide his healing process.”

Thich Nhat Hahn had been invited to participate in an event organized by the Global Freedom Network, on December 2 at the Vatican. Leaders of the world’s major religions came together to sign a common declaration condemning slavery and to “call on the United Nations to end human trafficking and slavery globally.”

Thay was represented by a delegation of 22 monks and nuns. His prepared speech read by Sister Chan Khong, his first ordained monastic disciple.  An excerpt:

In this age of globalisation, what happens to one of us, happens to us all. We are all interconnected, and we are all co-responsible. But even with the greatest good will, if we are swept away by our daily concerns for material needs or emotional comforts, we will be too busy to realise our common aspiration. Contemplation must go together with action. Without a spiritual practice we will abandon our dream.”

In November, Walk Free, a partner of The Global Freedom Network, released a report saying “Slavery still grips tens of millions worldwide.” 35.8 million to be exact, a shocking number. Slavery in defined as “the systematic deprivation of a person’s liberty, and abuse of their body for personal or commercial exploitation.”

Tomorrow, December 6, will mark the 149th anniversary of the ratification by the states of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States of America. Although President Lincoln’s 1863 final Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves held by the Confederate States, it and the previous proclamations were but first steps in the process of freeing all slaves.

Just as the Emancipation Proclamations are important human rights documents, so too are the poems by a woman named Phillis Wheatley, and one in particular, from 1772, a poem that “provides readers with an emotional appeal of slavery, forcing readers to evaluate their views on the institution of slavery.” * When she composed the poem, Wheatley was herself a slave.

She was born in Africa, captured and sold into slavery as a child. In 1761, she was purchased by John Wheatley of Boston. He soon recognized Wheatley’s intelligence and she was taught to read and write by his 18 year-old daughter, Mary.

Phillis Wheatley became well known for her poetry, and was not only the second published African-American poet but also the first published African-American woman.

In October 1772, she was asked to write a poem for William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, who had just been appointed secretary of state for the colonies. The poem is entitled “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” and the 3rd verse reads,

phillis-wheatleyShould you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Phillis Wheatley was freed on October 18, 1773.

You can read the entire poem and more of Wheatley’s work at the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Phillis Wheatley herself at Biography and Wikipedia.

And make sure you go Global Freedom Network to sign the declaration to end slavery once and for all.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Phillis Wheatley Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) Jamie Baldwin and David Townsend Candidates, Master of Arts in English Education Department of English & Theatre University of North Carolina, Pembroke

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Thich Nhat Hanh’s Suffering is His Gift of Non-fear

Most of you are probably aware by now that Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen teacher, is in the hospital. His monastery, Plum Village in southern France, announced that he had a brain hemorrhage on November 11th.

thichnhathanh1X3Thay, as he is affectionately called by his followers, has been unwell for some time. A reliable source on Facebook says that he is in a stage one coma. That’s when a patient is incapable of voluntary activities such as eye opening, and speech. However, according to Plum Village, he is “still very responsive and shows every indication of being aware of the presence of those around him. He is able to move his feet, hands and eyes. There are signs that a full recovery may be possible.”

I’m sure we all hope that will be the case. Only last month I wrote a post in commemoration of his 88th continuation day. May every day be a continuation day for this beloved teacher.

I am not part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist tradition, but for me his life and his teachings transcend sectarianism. Perhaps, you feel the same way. Plum Village is asking people to send Thay healing and loving energy. While that is certainly appropriate and perhaps beneficial, I feel his suffering is an opportunity to do something deeper, to look deeper, go deeper. It’s an opportunity to learn more about the nature of suffering.

In The Heart of Understanding, his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Thay writes,

There are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of know-how, the gift of the Dharma. The third, and the highest kind of gift, is the gift of non-fear. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is someone who can help us liberate ourselves from fear. This is the heart of the Prajnaparamita.”

Avalokitesvara’s suffering was literally non-substantial, for mythical beings have no real suffering to cross over. Thich Nhat Hanh is real, and like countless other living beings in this world, his suffering is real, and painful.  Moreover, he is truly someone who is helping us liberate ourselves from fear. His current suffering, as well as all his past suffering and future suffering, is his gift of non-fear to us.

Throughout his writings, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to look deeply, listen deeply, understand deeply. He says that to meditate is to look deeply. He tells us that we can learn to love ourselves by looking deeply.  He points out that “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive . . .” When Thay uses the metaphor of a cloud in a piece of paper to explain interdependency or “inter-being,” he says that there is also sunshine in the paper and “Looking even more deeply, we can see that we are in it too.” He suggests that through listening deeply we “can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening.”

And “When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be with it in order to really understand.”

We cannot stand outside of Thay’s suffering. We should take it as our own and enter it. There are many ways we can do this. His writings are full of meditation tips and suggestions for simple practices that can be performed many times each day in various settings and situation, some as uncomplicated and effortless as smiling or walking. All of them help us look deeper.

One plan would be to take a phrase or short quote of his that resonates with us, or speaks to the subject of suffering, and for however long he is in the hospital, make the words our mantra, our koan, and meditate upon them, reflect on them as we go about our daily business.  Enter the words as deeply as possible.

I am very sure Thich Nhat Hanh would want us to use his suffering as an opportunity to engrave his teachings, or any wisdom teachings, into our hearts and minds.  Of course, the deepest manner in which we can reply to Thay’s spirit is through the Bodhisattva way, by being ourselves a person who helps others cross over suffering.  The Bodhisattva’s path of compassion is a path anyone can walk.  The gift of non-fear is the gift everyone can give.

Fear is the greatest suffering and we can never liberate ourselves from suffering until we conquer fear. As Thay says “Suffering is very important for your happiness. You cannot understand, you cannot love, until you know what suffering is.”

That would be a good phrase to use for the purpose of reflecting on the nature of suffering, but there are many others. Here are some links to quotes and talks by Thich Nhat Hanh. You may have an idea yourself about a way to reply to Thay’s gift of non-fear, and if so, please feel free to share it here in a comment.

BrainyQuote

Wikiquote

Goodreads

Transcriptions of Dharma Talks @ Plum Village

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Continuation

Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, “’Greatness,’ it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong, there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.”

At several points in the novel, Tolsoy’s characters (and the narrator) proclaim the greatness of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whose intentions were often noble but his actions regrettably ignoble. Napoleon’s ego and ambition led him to believe he was the greatest of the great, and therefore, excluded from those standards of right and wrong. Tolstoy, however, at the conclusion of the chapter from which the above quote is taken*, rejects the ethical exceptionalism of the great, stating, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.”

Those three qualities would most certainly describe the “great” man whose birthday is tomorrow, October 11.

tnh-3bThey don’t call it a birthday at Plum Village in France where Thich Nhat Hanh lives and where he is currently in Autumn Retreat. It’s Continuation Day. As Thich Nhat Hanh continues, he will be 88 years old.

It seems somewhat inappropriate to praise a man whose path asks him to shun praise in favor of humility. This, of course, is what makes Thay (as he is affectionately known by his students) an exceptional teacher and role model, deeply grounded in the standards of right and wrong, an individual whose positive influence has been felt far beyond the tradition of Vietnamese Zen and the Way of Buddha-dharma. Whether you hear him speak in person, or watch him on a video, or merely read his words, his humility and sincerity shines through. It’s like Lao Tzu said, “When greatness is not shown, true greatness is revealed.

I like the idea of Continuation Days.  Continuation seems an excellent word, for as you know in Buddhism each individual is a continuum, beginningless and infinite, a continuum of consciousness, and actually, everything continues . . .

In the clip below, Thay talks about this using simple words and poetic imagery that allows for greater accessibility to a complex concept, and helps those who listen deeply and openly to think about death and continuation differently, in a way that transcends notions of literal rebirth or other such concepts.

“Some people might ask you, ‘When is your birthday?’ But you may ask yourself a more interesting question: ‘Before that day which was my birthday, where was I?’”

– – – – – – – – – –

* Book Fourteen: 1812 Chapter XVIII

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Being Alive

I’ve had problems concentrating recently, which is why blogging has been slow, intermittent. It is partly due to my recovery from major surgery and the medication they are giving me, and partly due to other matters that have been pressing on my somewhat compromised mind, such as the death of a dear family member.

Fear of death (thanatophobia) is a phobia shared by most people. Almost everyone is afraid of dying. Buddhism teaches that when we develop a deep understanding of the inevitability of death, we can overcome this fear and face death with courage.

Another aspect of fear of death is a reluctance to talk about death, or think about it. But the subject of death should be discussed and pondered, and I feel our reflection on death should lead us to an appreciation of life.

There are times when it is difficult for me to remember just how precious life is, times when I begrudge my life.

It is easy to lose track of what is important. The old adage about stopping to smell the roses is a good one, because as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When we learn to stop and be truly alive in the present moment, we are in touch with what’s going on within and around us. We aren’t carried away by the past, the future, our thinking, ideas, emotions, and projects.”

Nor are we preoccupied with feeling sorry for ourselves, bemoaning our disappointments, and so on.

Life is not fair. Life is uncertain. Death is not fair. Death is uncertain, but inevitable. Every moment of life counts, every breath is precious . . .

There is only one important point you must keep in your mind and let it be your guide. No matter what people call you, you are just who you are. Keep to this truth. You must ask yourself how is it you want to live your life. We live and we die, this is the truth that we can only face alone. No one can help us, not even the Buddha. So consider carefully, what prevents you from living the way you want to live your life?”

– Dalai Lama XIV

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