January 25, 2022

Thich Nhat Hanh: Saying Goodbye to the Monk who Transformed my Life.

I wasn’t looking for a teacher.

In 2008, a friend asked me to sign up for a five-day retreat. “I’m not so sure,” I said. Five days is a long time. “Sign up!” she urged. A few months later, I was sitting on a meditation cushion for five straight days.

I do not think of myself as a religious person. Still, I am no stranger to religion. Born to a Hindu family that didn’t visit a temple or worship gods, I nevertheless attended a Catholic school, worked with Quakers in rural India, an ecumenical Centre in Ohio, and held a position at the Methodist Church in Washington DC.

I met Thich Nhat Hanh at the retreat. The five days consisted mostly of silent walking, sitting, eating/drinking meditations, and listening to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. His teachings made a deep impression on me—their simplicity, everyday examples, and the questions he raised about all the things I took for granted. Most of all, I connected with the calm and peace he exuded.

At the end of the retreat, we were invited to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings:

1. Reverence for Life

2. True Happiness

3. True Love

4. Loving Speech and Deep Listening

5. Nourishment and Healing

They represent a global Buddhist vision. That is, right understanding and true love can heal, transform, and bring happiness to ourselves and the world.

Practising the five mindfulness trainings helps to cultivate Right View, which helps to remove discrimination, intolerance, anger, fear, and despair. To live in accordance with the trainings is to walk the path of a bodhisattva. Knowing we are on that path means we are not confused about our lives in the present or in our fears about the future.

Several of us took the trainings and became part of a sangha, a community that practices dharma together, with the goal of maintaining awareness. Indeed, the essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony, and love.

Thay, as we fondly called Thich Nhat Hanh said,

“I don’t think the Buddha wanted us to abandon our society, our culture or our roots to practice. The practice of Buddhism should help people go back to their families. It should help people re-enter society to rediscover and accept the good things that are there in their culture and to rebuild those that are not.”

Since 2009, I have taken further course instruction based on Thay’s teachings, practised, and kept in touch with my Sangha, including organizing Sangha gatherings, and leading meditations. I’ve even participated in trainings with India’s police forces. Most of my related activity has been online post-Covid. Regardless, I’ve learned a great deal from these activities.

Thay is still a major presence in my life, a voice in my ear, urging me to be better, do better and live mindfully in every aspect of my life. I do not always succeed. While I still experience anger, disappointment, and frustration, I can bring myself back into my mindful self. Practice has helped me through four surgeries and their long recoveries. I learned to accept what comes and seek a calm and harmonious life.

Yesterday, I learned of Thay’s passing. I was prepared. Thay had been was ailing for years since a stroke. During this time, he moved from his base in Plum Village in southern France to Vietnam, the country of his birth. The cloudy, rainy day was a fitting tribute to a Thay teaching: the cloud exists in a piece of paper because the clouds produce the rain which waters the trees which make the paper. It is a lesson on interbeing; how everything is linked to everything. As Thay says:

“There is no such thing as a separate object, event, or experience because no part of the world can exist apart from all others. Rather, everything that looks like a separate entity is dependent on, and therefore interwoven with, something else. Everything (object, event, idea, experience, whatever) is made up of other things. Whatever is an isolated “thing” is a combination of its constituent elements. These elements are the influences from the other things with which it is interwoven. And those elements, too, are made up of other combinations. The world is an endless web of combinations.”

I like the fact that Thay thought globally and was able to help his followers connect to the world as individuals. His suffering allowed us to see the suffering of others and expand on the notion of “dukkha” or suffering in Buddhism. He taught suffering was essential on the path to happiness.

I also took impermanence to heart, that everything passes—the good and the bad. Nothing stays. Thay says:

“The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent—flowers, tables, mountains, political regimes, bodies, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We cannot find anything that is permanent. Flowers decompose, but knowing this does not prevent us from loving flowers. In fact, we can love them more because we know how to treasure them while they are still alive. If we learn to look at a flower in a way that impermanence is revealed to us, when it dies, we will not suffer. Impermanence is more than an idea. It is a practice to help us touch reality.

When we study impermanence, we must ask:

“Is there anything in this teaching that has to do with my daily life, my daily difficulties, my suffering?” If we see impermanence as merely a philosophy, it is not the Buddha’s teaching. Every time we look or listen, the object of our perception can reveal to us the nature of impermanence. We must nourish our insight into impermanence all day long.”

Yesterday morning, my heart was heavy, but also light. I lit a candle with some incense at my shrine composed simply of a Buddha statue and Thay’s calligraphy. I made a fresh posy of flowers as an offering. I was then able to watch the ceremonies at Plum Village and his Vietnam retreat Centre. They will continue for a week. Our Sangha will also have a daily gathering.

In the words of Thay,

“no coming, no going.”

I am at peace and grateful I found a teacher, even when I wasn’t looking for one.


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