2022-01-23-In Celebration of Thich Nhat Hanh
6:49PM Jan 23, 2022
I am touched and find a wonderful resonance that, having given a talk last Sunday about Martin Luther King Jr., today I will talk about Thich Nhat Hanh. They knew each other and influenced each other. Martin Luther King was influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh in his opposition to the Vietnam War. That was a monumental change in his direction of his work–one that was controversial and, in retrospect, was probably a wonderful and important change. In return, Martin Luther King and the whole Civil Rights Movement in the United States had a big impact on Thich Nhat Hanh. He learned about it while he was staying here in this country in the very early 1960s. When he went back to Vietnam, it inspired him to do the service work and anti war work that he dedicated himself to until he was exiled by the government.
Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the great teachers of the 20th century, and he had a huge influence on western Buddhism. As I said, he was exiled around 1964 from Vietnam. Then he settled in France, and from there started slowly beginning to teach more and more. I became aware of him in the early 1980s, when I was living at the San Francisco Zen Center. He was contacted to give support when the Zen Center went through tremendous turmoil around the ethical challenges of its Abbot at the time. He was a consultant for both the Abbot and for the Zen Center as a whole. Then he came to the Zen Center.
He had a big impact on the students at the Zen Center for a variety of reasons. One was that he included children. When he gave a dharma talk, he would have the children come and sit up front, and he would talk to them. Then they would leave, and he'd give a talk for the adults. While this might seem like a small thing, in the more austere and strict model of Japanese Zen that the San Francisco Zen Center inherited, that kind of blending was not done. So he broke the mold, and opened up the center to a whole different kind of softness and kindness.
He also placed a lot of emphasis on lay practitioners. The San Francisco Zen Center had a lot of lay practitioners. Thich Nhat Hanh elevated the importance of lay practice, and also the importance of lay teachers. I don't think the San Francisco Zen Center really gave any recognition to lay teachers at that time. A number of the senior lay practitioners started spending time with Thich Nhat Hanh. Some went to France to be with him, and then became transmitted and authorized to be teachers in Thich Nhat Hanh's lineage. The idea that a lay person could be become a Buddhist teacher was also kind of novel. It opened up the field and encouraged appreciation for lay people in the scene.
His gentleness and dedication to nonviolence, to kindness and softness, and to joy and happiness also were not quite the ethos of the San Francisco Zen Center. When he visited he gave us meditation instructions that included using phrases, which was very different from the more silent "just sitting" practice that we did. Some of the phrases were: "Breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I smile"; "Stepping, I experienced joy; stepping, I feel home". He had many such phrases that he would incorporate into the meditation practice. I remember using them back then and feeling so much joy and delight. To feel that this was permitted and was a part of the practice was somewhat novel in the mid 1980s, both for me and for some of the other students at the time.So he had a big influence on the local Buddhist communities that I was part of. He did the same thing for much of the world. He travelled around the world and taught all over.
After meeting Thich Nhat Hanh at the San Francisco Zen Center, the next time I met met him was coincidentally, when I went back to Norway to visit my relatives. When I arrived at the airport, there were lots of people, clearly Buddhists, waiting for something special to happen. My relatives who were waiting for me–I was a Zen priest by then–were wondering, "What's going on here? Are they waiting for Gil?" But when I came into the arrival section, I had no importance for the people who were waiting. Thich Nhat Hanh was flying in on the very next plane, so they were waiting for him. So, knowing that Thich Nhat Hanh was going to be there, I spent the weekend with him in a school classroom, where he was teaching a relatively small group of people. It was really special to spend that time with him.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a man of tremendous emotional depth and emotional capacity, I think. He suffered a lot, and he talked openly about his suffering and wrote poems about it. He was very creative. He was a poet and a storyteller. He had a rich imagination and a rich use of language which was very evocative. He was innovative–he was probably one of the more innovative teachers, especially among monastic teachers, of the 20th century. He pushed the edge, changed things and did innovative things with Buddhism itself. One famous image of him was that he was one of the first Buddhist monks to ride a bicycle. Maybe this seems like a small thing, but it was really pushing the boundaries into the modern world. He started his own monastic order, the Order of Interbeing, in Vietnam in the 1960s, because he saw a need to emphasize a whole different ethos–a whole different approach to Buddhism. He coined important terms–he coined the term "engaged Buddhism", which involved Buddhism that was actively engaged in the social welfare of the world. He was engaged, at the risk of his own life. In fact, some of his colleagues who worked with him lost their lives during the Vietnam War while doing nonviolent work that was misunderstood by both sides of the Vietnam War. Because he was not supporting one side against the other, he was seen as belonging to the other side, so both sides saw him that way. He was kind of in a risky middle. But he was dedicated to not having enemies, to working for non violence, and to working to end the war. These made him unpopular, and so eventually he became exiled. But this was part and parcel of his engaged Buddhism: you actually work in the world.
Maybe it is not a coincidence that, in his name Thich Nhat Hanh, "Thich" means that he is a child of the Buddha. He is in the clan of the Buddha–in the Buddha family. Many monks in Thailand are called "Thich" because once you ordain, you are a child of the Buddha. "Nhat" means "one", and "Hanh" means "action". So he was a man of action, of engaged Buddhism–tremendous action. What the "one" refers to, I don't know. There is a lot of symbolic value in "one".
When I knew him, one thing it meant was the tremendous presence he had in just doing the thing he was doing. Whatever action he was doing, that is what he did. If he was drinking tea, he was just drinking tea. If he was walking, he was just walking.
To be in his presence was to slow down, and and he brought you into the present because he was so present. His gentleness and softness and his slowness were kind of commanding everyone to slow down. It was not fast action–he was not in a hurry for anything–no hurry whatsoever. One action: he would just do one thing at a time. But within that one thing at a time, slowly and calmly, he was able to do a phenomenal amount of things–a phenomenal amount of teaching, action, support and innovation. He started monasteries. Certainly he got lots of help at some point. But in the beginning, he and his colleagues were able to foster a phenomenal movement of Buddhism–one of the great movements of the modern world. He also offered a tremendous amount of wonderful teachings.
We get a sense of his emotional depth, and the degree to which he suffered, especially during the time of the Vietnam War, from some of the poetry he wrote at that time, and so I would like to read some of that.
This poem is titled "For Warmth": "I hold my face in my two hands. No, I am not crying. I hold my face in my two hands to keep the loneliness warm–two hands protecting, two hands nourishing, two hands preventing my soul from leaving me in anger."
He talks about much of what he had to deal with and work with during the Vietnam War, and later. The things that people did to each other left him angry, but he he practiced with it. This poem is an example of how he practiced with it. This image of holding his face with his two hands– the cupped hands on the face holding his loneliness and his anger–is a very tender way of being mindful and present.
Some of his fellow monks–I don't know if he knew all of them–were the ones who burnt themselves to protest the war. They sat in the streets and poured gasoline over themselves. There are photographs (probably most of you have seen them) of monks sitting there in the meditation posture–calmly sitting, meditating, engulfed in fire as they're burning, until they died.
Here is one poem about that: "The fire that burns in you, burns my flesh with such pain, that all my tears are not enough to cool your sacred soul. Deeply wounded, I remain here, keeping your hopes and promises for the young. I will not betray you–Are you listening? I remain here, because your very heart is now my heart."
So these things pained him tremendously–the loss, the pain,and the suffering. This is a man who suffered a lot. But he was not afraid to suffer. He was not crippled by his suffering. He practiced with it. He turned it around and he composted it. He dedicated it to a different way of living.
Here's another poem, and this was printed in 1966 for the Fellowship of Reconciliation as a Christmas card: "Life has left her footprints on my forehead. But I have become a child again this morning. The smile, seen through leaves and flowers, is back to smooth away the wrinkles, as the rains wipe away footprints on the beach. Again a cycle of birth and death begins. I walk on thorns, but firmly, as among flowers. I keep my head high. Rhymes bloom among the sounds of bombs and mortars. The tears I shed yesterday have become rain. I feel calm hearing its sound and the thatched roof. Childhood, my birth land, is calling me, and the rains melt my despair. I am still here alive, able to smile quietly. O sweet fruit brought forth by the tree of suffering! Carrying the dead body of my brother, I go across the rice fields in the darkness. Earth will keep you tight within her arms, my dear, so that tomorrow you will be reborn as flowers, those flowers smiling quietly in the morning field. This moment you weep no more, my dear. We have gone through too deep a night. This morning, I kneel down on the grass, when I notice your presence. Flowers that carry the marvelous smile of ineffability speak to me in silence. The message, the message of love and understanding, has indeed come to us.
I think this is a powerful poem that describes his own despair, his own suffering, and the depth of it. It is probably true that he carried his dead colleague–a fellow monk–to be buried among the mortars and bombs that were blowing up around him. He was right there working, not exactly at the forefront of the war, but it was happening around him. And then to end the poem with a message of love– what a powerful thing to do.
Then he would come to come to us to here in the West and do walking meditation with us. He would do tea meditation with us. To walk with Thich Nhat Hanh–outdoors,on the ground, slowly and mindfully–was quite a powerful experience.
Here is a poem called "The Walking Meditation": "Take my hand. We will walk. We will only walk. We will enjoy our walk without thinking of arriving anywhere. Walk peacefully. Walk happily. Our Walk is a peace walk. Our Walk is a happiness walk. Then we learned that there is no peace walk; that peace is the walk; that there is no happiness walk; that happiness is the walk. We walk for ourselves. We walk for everyone always hand in hand. Walk and touch peace every moment. Walk and touch happiness every moment. Each step brings a fresh breeze. Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet. Kiss the Earth with your feet. Print on Earth your love and happiness. Earth will be safe when we feel in us enough safety."
"When we feel in us enough safety". He went from the suffering of Vietnam in the first poems, with a dedication to being in the present moment and looking, staying present and seeing what is here, and to being fully with his suffering– to being fully with the flowers the next day. To be fully with the suffering and ready to smile soon thereafter. To be fully present for this. Here we are, walking–"and the earth will be safe when we feel in us enough safety". What does it take to feel safe safety within us? Is this where safety is to be found? Is the earth safe when we find in safety in us? I think he would say yes to all those questions.
So he dedicated himself to teaching people what he called the "miracle of mindfulness": to show up for this moment right here. But the teaching was not just to show up for the present moment. He emphasized penetrating through to the depth of it–seeing through to the ultimate that was there.
In the Chan Zen tradition that he was part of, classically they use a lot of gathas, or four line verses. When I was in Japan, we were given verses to recite when we washed our hands, when we used a toilet, and when doing all kinds of ordinary things. So he had one: "I have arrived. I am home". Here again is an emphasis on coming home. But here, he finds it in the present moment: "I have arrived. I am home. In the here, in the now ,I am solid, I am free. In the ultimate I dwell."
Here is another poem where there is anger: "Angry in the ultimate dimension, I close my eyes and look deeply. 300 years from now, where will you be? Where shall I be ?" [speaking to his anger]. " 300 years from now, where will you be? Where shall I be? Angry in the ultimate dimension."
Then he wrote: "When we are angry, what do we usually do? We shout, scream and try to blame someone else for our problems. But looking at anger with the eyes of impermanence, we can stop and breathe. Angry at each other in the ultimate dimension, we close our eyes and look deeply. We try to see 300 years into the future. What will you be like? What will I be like? Where will you be? Where will I be? We need only to breathe in and out. Look at our future and the other person's future. We don't need to look as far as 300 years. It could be 50 or 60 years from now, when we have both passed away".
He kept emphasizing looking deeply. For him, looking deeply with impermanence opened a rich multi-dimensional world that also used the imagination–imagining 300 years into the future. A famous exercise he gave was to look at a piece of paper and imagined that to see it deeply with your imagination. If you see deeply with your imagination, you see more than just a paper. You see the tree that grew that became the paper. You see the rain that fell and the soil that nourished the tree to grow. You see the sun that shone sunlight on it and allowed the tree to grow. You see the person who cut the tree down, the people who converted to the paper, the people who brought the paper to the store,and the storekeeper who sold it to you. You see a rich world that includes the ecology that we are in and the social world we live in.
For him, to see all of it together was part of waking up to this world. Maybe this is partly why he had such a strong social message. He saw us as living in what he called an "interbeing" world–an interdependent world where our own being was not separate from the being of everyone else. We " inter-are": we exist because someone else exists.
He wrote a poem titled: "Interrelationship": "You are me, and I am you. Isn't it obvious that we inter-are? You cultivate the flower in yourself, so that I will be beautiful. I transform the garbage in myself so that you will not have to suffer. I support you; you support me. I am in this world to offer you peace; you are in this world to bring me joy."
So: inter-are and interbeing. He saw this at a social level, at an environmental level–at all kinds of levels. He always emphasized the level in which we inter-are. This is a powerful teaching from him.
Last week I read a passage by Martin Luther King where he said that God is love. I don't know to what degree that idea influenced Thich Nhat Hanh, but he had a wonderful book–an anthology of different writers. The title was very inspiring and meaningful for me when it first came out. The title is: "For a Future to Be Possible–Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts". He called the five precepts "wonderful precepts". He would often use superlative adjectives like this–"wonderful" and "wondrous".
He was talking about the five ethical precepts, and "for a future to be possible". I think that is a powerful idea–isn't future going to come? Futures will always come, but will we be there as a human race for the future? What kind of future will we have? Ethics is part of the answer. He wrote: "The five wonderful precepts are love itself. To love is to understand, protect, and bring well-being to the object of our love. The practice of the precepts accomplishes this. We protect ourselves and we protect others. I am confident that our children and their children will have an even better understanding of the five precepts, and will obtain even deeper peace and joy."
This was a hopeful message. He was looking into the future; he was looking into the past; he was looking at a wide creative imagination throughout the world. He was saying, "Just show up here. When you walk, just walk–only walk", and "Really drink your tea –just drink your tea".
His capacity to switch orientations–to understand, to grow and develop, to open up and focus, to be here and work through his sorrow and his grief and find happiness and joy–was phenomenal. The humanity of this man. To bring so much humanity into his Buddhist teachings was exceptional for any Buddhist teacher.
He died on Thursday (we say:" he died"). I suspect that if he had said that himself–"I died"–he would have followed it up with: "There is no death". He talked about that sometimes–that there is no death–the idea of no birth and no death. That idea is not to be believed or understood logically, but is to be discovered through really being present–just here and now–free of our abstract ideas, our proliferations, free of our stories, and free of our concepts.
There is something about just being present, in the purity and simplicity of presence, that reveals a deathless realm and a birthless realm shows. It reveals an aspect of attention and awareness that is free of concepts and ideas of past and future–free of anything, but "just here". To find this freedom and peace and to feel at home, and to recognize this as the ultimate: this is profound. This is a profundity which is always here. It is a dimension that, in a certain way, does not depend on our concepts, and does not depend on our ideas or thoughts. In a sense, it does not depend on our existence. But it is our true home, and in it there is no birth and no death. There is just being present. So to be fully present at the moment of your death–for that moment– is to be in a timeless, deathless moment. Then afterwards, it continues to be the same timeless moment. There is freedom here. This is the avenue for love and for the richness that he was so much about.
As a final tribute to him, maybe in a way that he would appreciate, I will quote him again. He was a teacher, and he spent a tremendous amount of time teaching. The testimony of all his teaching is the many books that were produced–something like 100 books in English. But he wrote, or said: "Teaching is not done by talking alone. It is done by how you live your life. My life is my teaching, my life is my message".
So: "My life is my message", and that message continues. He is still alive. His example lives in us–in our memories, and in those of us he touched, and those of us who learned about him.
As a teaching, this points back to ourselves. Imagine: how would you live if your life was the message? If your life was your teaching? Maybe then we would realize our true nature, in the way that Thich Nhat Hanh meant those words. He said: "Our true nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Only when we touch our true nature can we transcend the fear of not existing–the fear of annihilation."
I am inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh. I am both saddened by his passing, and I am inspired by his passing, because his passing is just as much his message. To not see his passing as part of his teachings and part of his message is to miss his teachings and miss who he was and what he was about.
To hold a wide range of feelings and not to get caught and stuck in the feelings, but rather, to see that they too are part of this inter being– they are not ours alone. By seeing them with the eyes of impermanence and seeing with depth, we can find our freedom, and perhaps our smile, in the midst of our sadness.
May it be that Thich Nhat Hanh's life grows the smiles that can exist in this world– the smiles of the children. May the children smile a lot, and may we support that. The smiles of our elders–may our lives be ones that bring smiles to them so they experience smiles before they die. May their smiles grow. Smiles for our neighbors, smiles for our colleagues and smiles for our family and friends. May we live a life that spreads smiles throughout the world–smiles that can help us to hold kindly, lovingly and compassionately the sorrows of this world as well. May the memory of Thich Nhat Hanh support us, guide us, inspire us and continue to benefit this world for a long time. Thank you all.