"...I would like to tell you a story from my country. A young man went off to war, leaving his pregnant wife behind. Two years later, he was able to return home, and the young woman went with their young son to meet her husband. They cried together out of joy. In Vietnam, in our tradition, when an event of this kind takes place, it has to be announced to the ancestors. So the young father asked his wife to go to the market to buy the things that are needed for the offering that is placed on the altar to the ancestors. Such an altar is found in every house. Each morning we burn a stick of incense to our ancestors on this altar, and in this way we make a connection with them. Burning this incense, adorning the altar with photographs of our ancestors, and dusting the shrine off are very important gestures.
These are moments in which we come in contact with our ancestors. There are people living in the world who are completely uprooted because they do not practice such a turning toward their ancestors.
So the young wife went off to the market. During this time, the young father was trying to convince his child to call him Daddy. The little boy refused: “Mister, you’re not my daddy. My daddy is somebody else. He visits us every night and my mommy talks to him every night, and very often she cries with him. And every time my mommy sits down, he sits down too. Every time she lies down, he lies down too.”
After he heard these words, the young father’s happiness entirely evaporated. His heart turned into a block of ice. He felt hurt, deeply humiliated, and that is why, when his wife came home, he would no longer look at her or speak a word to her. He ignored her. The woman herself began to suffer; she felt humiliated, hurt. When the offering was placed on the altar, the young father burned the incense, recited the prayers to the ancestors, and did the four traditional prostrations. Then he picked the mat up instead of leaving it there for his wife so she could do the four prostrations in her turn. In his mind he thought that she was not qualified to present herself before the ancestors, and she was humiliated by this.
After the ceremony, he didn’t stay at the house to eat but went to the village and spent the day in a bar. He tried to forget his suffering by drinking alcohol, and he did not come back to the house until very late at night.
The following day, it was the same thing, and this went on for several days in a row. The young woman could not take it anymore. Her suffering was so great that in the end she threw herself in the river and drowned.
When the young father heard this news, he returned to the house, and that night he was the one who went to get the lamp and lit it. Suddenly the child cried out: “Mister, Mister, it’s my daddy, he’s come back!” And he pointed to the shadow of his father on the wall. “You know, Mister, my father comes every night. Mommy talks to him and sometimes she cries; and every time she sits down my daddy sits down too.” In reality, this woman had been alone in the house too much and every night she had talked to her shadow: “My dear one, you are so far away from me. How can I raise my child all by myself? . . . You must come back home soon.” She would cry, and of course every time she sat down, the shadow would also sit down. Now the husband’s false perception was no longer there, but it was too late—his wife was already dead.
A misperception is something that can destroy an entire family. The Buddha told us a number of times that we are subject to misperceptions in our everyday life. Therefore we have to pay close attention to our perceptions. There are people who hang on to their misperceptions for ten or twenty years, and during this time they continue to suffer and make other people suffer.
Why did the young father not want to talk this thing over with his wife? Because pride got in between them. If he had asked his wife: “Who is this person who came every night? Our child told me about him. I am suffering so much, my darling, you have to help me. Explain to me who this person is.” If he had done that, his wife would have had a chance to explain, and the drama could have been avoided. However, it was not only his fault, but that of his young wife as well. She could have come to him and asked him the reason for his change in attitude: “Husband, why don’t you look at me anymore, why don’t you talk to me? Have I done something awful that I deserve such treatment? I am suffering so much, dear husband, you have to help me.” She did not do this, and I do not want you to make the same mistake in your everyday life.
We are subject to misperceptions every day, so we have to pay attention. Every time you think it is somebody else who is causing the suffering, you must remember this story. You must always check things out by going to the person in question and asking for his or her help: “Dear one, I am suffering so much, help me please.”