Be Free Where You Are

Jim frees cage
Originally uploaded by d nelson.

After a gentle, cool rain I’m taking a moment to rest and reflect, here at the Green Hotel in Hue (pronounced “way”). It was an privilege to accompany Thigh Nhat Hanh and the monastic and lay sangha as we flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue early yesterday morning; and then were greeted warmly when we arrived in procession at his root temple, Tu Hieu, where he began his monastic life 64 years ago. Colors and smiles of happiness can be seen in the few pictures I posted on my flickr site. During the procession, Thay paused near some of us bowing and said “isn’t it a beautiful temple?” and then kept walking towards the gate.

From the lobby of this new, very fancy hotel, where the bellboys and other workers neatly wear their green uniforms and the lobby opulence indicates that a rating of many stars is likely in some guide book. Outside is rural Vietnam, Imperial capital during the last time of kings, before the French invaded in the mid 1800’s. Some businesses, especially hotels, clothes shops and autos suggest local enjoyment of economic growth. On the other hand of experience, we are routinely confronted with great poverty. In Ho Chi Minh City I was told that an adequate waged worker made about $120 per month, which could pay for rent, food and basic necessities. But some people make much less, especially field workers, and that is evident here in Hue. Most of the people who look poor seemingly have faces of contentment, if not happiness when I interact with them. It has been common that vendors present us with foods, postcards, hats, fans and other useful items, but I have been wondering about the one’s that approach us with hand-made cages of captured birds, swallows perhaps. For a price, one can take possession of a bird in their hand and set it free. To me, the birds looked very crowded, unhappy and also seemed to suffer from dehydration and malnutrition.

At first this setting birds free seems to be a simple act of compassion; gratification for me and the bird(s). The people possessing the birds in cages appear impovershed, and they are quite insistent that we pay to release them. I’m told that local people, in order to make very little money, catch the birds and put them in the cages. A brother mentioned to me that most of the freed birds do not fly far, and thus are again captured. Looking deeply I can see that by paying to set birds free I am supporting a way of life that seems somewhat cruel. It’s hard to know what to do. I remember once hearing the Dalai Lama say that all people in the world need 3 things; to have more love, more compassion, and to make a living. Perhaps it’s just my western way of thinking that capturing birds and offering them to others to set them free for a price is somehow bad. To these local people, I’m certain they’re just doing what they have to do to survive in their environment. What is right living? What is right action? How can a rich, wasteful American be critical of a very poor Vietnamese peasant who is making a living the best they can. When I can be truly honest with myself, I know that there are many actions I take, even if indirectly, that support suffering (eg. Iraq war) and abuse of the environment (unmindful consumption). These kinds of questions arise as I sit here in a lobby that gets louder and louder as westerners, and wealthy Easterners, most not from our sangha, talk about going out for an extravagant, yet, inexpensive meal. After a few breaths my mind is again and peace, if not still a little confused. My body tired from a bout with food poisoning.

Taking refuge in the sangha has been most helpful on this rigorous journey; helping me be free where I am. Here’s a little poem that comes to me about that:

Like a hard shelled nut
that has been cracked open
You have gently helped reveal
my soft sweetness inside

Taking refuge in you
Taking refuge in me, too

In the sangha there’s enough room
For the joy and the pain

Like the sound of a songbird
set free from captivity
My smile is revealed
to you and to me.


3 thoughts on “Be Free Where You Are

  1. Anonymous

    David, I have heard the words “Be Free Where You Are” before but I have just realized that I actually heard them with my whole self, as if for the first time, only yesterday. It is hard to express how much it has helped me. I hope you feel much better today. The pictures are fantastic. I really enjoy looking at them. I have a young student of Vietnamese origin. His parents immigrated to Europe. One day the kids wrote a letter about moving to a new place. His letter was full of very difficult emotions. He wrote about Vietnam. It seems that his family had a really hard time living there. I do hope that Thay’s trip will help. I am sure it already has. Lots of smiles, Ania

  2. Jackie

    Ah, yes. The struggle to not judge others by our Western/American standards of what is OK and what is not. That is always a challenge when in second and third world countries. And, yes, people often do seem content with their lives. Often until they are presented with the Western way of live and materialism and decide that that is what they want or need to be happy; then they are not content with their lives and what they have.You seem to be dealing with the contrasts and challenges in thinking well. Be well!

  3. david nelson

    Thay’s book entitled “Be Free Where You Are” is short and quite inspiring. It was taken from a talk he gave in a prison to the inmates. He helped them see that the air and flowers on the inside were just as fresh and free as those on the outside. By practicing mindfulness one can be free of the walls and bars, real or imagined, that keep us from happiness.I have a lot of compassion for all the people trying to make a living by selling me rides, food, fans or birds. Sometimes it seems like a crazy, mixed up world, other times everything seems like it’s just the way it’s supposed to be. The Buddha said the right view is the absence of views. Easy to say.


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