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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Thich Nhat Hanh

Updated: Apr 17, 2022

On Saturday, January 22, 2022, Zen Master Thich Nhất Hạnh, passed away peacefully at Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam, at the age of 95.

News of his passing (what he'd call his continuation) touched me deeply. He was one of the most influential teachers of my spiritual formation. His teachings are evident in most of my essays, where he is quoted directly or indirectly and often cited. His teachings went beyond words. They were lived; they were embodied. And they abide in me and those who practice his teachings. “If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.”

Learning of his death transported me back in time. When I was 17, a deep sadness washed over me and lingered over the mindscape like a sheet of gray clouds. I sat in bed with an anthology of Walt Whitman’s poems and an anthology of poetry called The Mystic in Love.

The poets were of different religions, cultures, and times, but they all described the same longing I felt deeply.

The desperation I read in St. Teresa of Avila’s poems resonated with me.

What a tedious journey is our exile here!

Dreary is the sojourn,

Hard indeed to bear!

Dark is this existence; Bitter is its thrall:

Life that is lived without Thee

Is not Life at all.

The grim poems of St. John of the Cross read like suicide notes. I sensed, however, that he was not contemplating death, but longing to die to something else, so as to live more fully. He wished to die to suffering. His desperate longing was intense. The intensity of his desire for God's grace drove him to kenosis, self-emptying, renunciation, the annihilation of ego- not death of the body, which comes to all soon enough without the need for hastening it.

What serves this life (I cannot tell)

Since waiting here for life I lie-

And die because I do not die.

To this dread life with which I’m crossed

What fell death can compare since I

The more I live, the more must die.

Rescue me from such a death

My God, and give me life, not fear;

Nor keep me bound and struggling here

Within the bonds of living breath.

Look how I long to see you near,

And how in such a plight I lie

Dying because I do not die!

These poems resonated with my Soul. How meaningless the world seemed to me. It offered nothing that I wanted. "Come back, my soul! How much longer will you linger in the garden of deceit?" wrote Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet. I had received admission to a top university, but even the promise of a good education did not offer me hope of liberation from this weariness. Like St. John, I, too, longed for annihilation- not of the body and not of mind- but the end to suffering. It comforted me to know I was not alone in this seeing. The poets gave words to the longing.

The 15th century Indian scholar Sankara Devi wrote:

My soul is on the point of perishing through the poison

Of the venomous serpent of worldly things.

On this earth all is transitory and uncertain: wealth,

Kinsmen, life, youth, and even the world itself.

Children, family, all are uncertain. On what

Shall I place reliance?

Like Sankara Devi, St John of the Cross, St Teresa and others, my soul ached. I sat with it- the ache, the longing, the heart pain, the grief.

I had finished reading some verses when an indescribable peace washed over me. It was as if the little self had disintegrated, as if a veil had fallen from my eyes, as if I had been given a peek into eternity, as if I were enveloped in love, in something eternal and sublime. I was experiencing what the mystics had been writing about for millennia. The default mode of thinking was quieted. This transformative experience oriented my heart’s compass.

This was IT! This was what my soul longed for! This was the peace I sought, the fulfillment that I knew could not be had in the accumulation of things or titles or power. My thirst was quenched! Like the poet Kabir, I had "drunk of the Cup of the Ineffable… from the cup of the inbreathings and outbreathings of love; I have found the Key of the Mystery; I have reached the Root of Union. Traveling by no track, I have come to the Sorrowless Land; the mercy of the Lord has come upon me. My heart’s bee drinks its nectar.”

That fall, I started my freshman year at UC Berkeley. I was diligent and stayed on top of my studies, but my true interests laid elsewhere. "Two eyes our souls possess," wrote Angelus Silesius, the 17th century German priest. "One is tuned on time; the other on things eternal and sublime." I was of two minds. One was engaged with the world; the other was absorbed with the Mystery.

I wanted to understand what I had experienced that summer. I spent hours in the library investigating. I spent time with religious leaders of various faiths. Then one day, I happened upon a book of poems and essays by Thich Nhất Hạnh. He spoke directly to that experience and explained how to go deeper and live more mindfully. I consumed more of his books.

One day, I saw a flyer announcing a lecture tour. He was scheduled to speak at a theater near campus. I attended. As soon as I stepped foot into the theater lobby I felt out of place. Most of the attendees were white, middle aged or older, and members of the middle and upper classes. I was a young man of color from the inner city. I did not see anyone who looked like me. Yet, I felt his message was intended just for me. "He had that ability to feel he was singling you out personally in that room, speaking directly to you,” one member of his community would later say.

As soon as he entered the room, there was a deep silence. "Just the way he opens the door and enters a room demonstrates his understanding. He is a true monk," Thomas Merton once observed.

Suryagupta, chair of the London Buddhist Centre, first encountered him at a retreat in England about 25 years ago. “He is definitely a giant of a man and I had the good fortune to be on retreat with him in my early days of exploring Buddhism,” she said.

“What was so striking was, whenever he walked into a space, sometimes there would be hundreds of people there, without saying a word literally as soon as he walked in his presence would instill this sort of stillness and quietness in the crowd… and a softness, you felt yourself relax and be alert somehow in his presence.”

Thich Nhất Hạnh spoke softly, but I could hear him intently with my entire being.

He was the real deal. I had met many spiritual leaders. My father and grandfather were ministers. I grew up around clergymen. But none had this degree of self-mastery.

I grew up listening to ministers shouting from the pulpit. But this gentle minister of peace communicated volumes with few words. His presence was unlike anything I had encountered. There was no proselytizing. His sermon was lived, not preached. His presence was his message.

Thich Nhất Hạnh, or Thay as he was called by his students, was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in Hue, Vietnam, on 11 October 1926. He joined a Zen monastery as a novice monk at 16. Upon his full ordination in 1949, he assumed the name Thich Nhất Hạnh. His steel discipline was forged in the fires of political upheaval and the war that started in 1955.

By his mid-twenties, he had founded his own temple, had published several books, and started Engaged Buddhism- "a Buddhism that could act as a raft," applying teachings to real-world suffering.

Thay went to the United States in 1961 to study at Princeton and soon was appointed as a lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University. He was fluent in Vietnamese, English, French, and Chinese. Despite his scholarship and Ivy League credentials, he remained humble. His words and essays were simple enough for children to understand.

In 1963, he returned to Vietnam and continued to organize monks and laypeople in nonviolent peace efforts. He established schools for activists, including Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon; founded the La Boi Publishing House; and wrote essays, books, and poems in several languages, inspiring a generation of peace advocates.

“We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions,” he once said. “Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they rely only on the armed forces to remove terrorism.”

Thay was a warrior. He trained his mind the way a soldier trains in arms. He trained his heart in love-tactics like a military strategist at war. He disciplined his spirit and modeled, not by lecturing on peace, but by becoming peace. It takes true strength and courage to approach an adversary pointing a rifle at your chest unarmed and to face opponents with respect and compassion. I was a soldier once. A man with a gun can conflate the illusion of fear with power and respect. Many are conscripted into fear and are marched into hellish realms under the generalship of fear. Anyone can talk tough. But few who've experienced the true horrors of war emerge with hearts unscatched or minds unjaded. And fewer have had their convictions tested as severely as Thay had. It's easy to preach peace and goodwill when circumstances are peaceful and good. Try keeping your faith in mankind when the bombs start dropping.

Many of his fellow monks and friends were murdered by soldiers from all sides- Vietnamese, French, and American. Many of the schools and hospitals he helped build were bombed or destroyed. Yet he held the soldiers in compassion, channeling his anger into action with the fierce resolve of a true warrior. How many spiritual leaders can maintain their resolve or keep vows of non-violence or compassion under such terrible circumstances? I doubt that I could. He himself was threatened by both sides of the conflict and was later exiled. Men with no power over themselves have always been threatened by those who achieve their power not from title or rank, not through intimidation or fear, not with force or violence, but through respect, persuasion, love, and self-discipline. People willingly cooperate with men and women the likes of Thay from a place of good-will, not through force or coercion. Peddlers of fear, on the other hand, maintain consensus through bullying, manipulation, blackmail, lies, distortions, self-righteous piety, illusions of separateness, violence, control, and the kind of power that comes not from within but from without.

Thay was like him of whom it was written: "He that is slow to anger is mightier than the warrior; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city." Proverbs 16:32

I suspect, however, that he would disapprove of my dualism, my division of men into saints and sinners, good and bad. Indeed, he might gently remind me that monsters hid in the shadows of all minds, mine included. Under the right conditions, these monsters would emerge from the darkness and possess our minds. Understanding this, compassion arises, for those who do not love themselves cannot love others. Their self-hatred projects. They suffer and cause others to suffer. Fear and ignorance cannot thrive in the light, only in darkness. As it is written: "If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness." (Matthew 6:23)

He recognized our common humanity and interdependence. Dividing people into good and bad, righteous and hypocritical, brave and cowardly, he might gently point out, does not win the goodwill of those with whom we wish to engage in dialogue and constructive action.

Despite the traumas of war, he retained his humanity, his faith in the goodness of others, and a childlike delight in the simplest things. To transform suffering into compassion took great skill and insight. Indeed, he taught us to embrace our suffering. Without suffering, empathy and compassion for one's self and others might not otherwise arise. "No mud, no lotus."

The path to this compassion and inner peace was mindfulness, settling the mind into the present, abiding in the here and now, dropping below the layer of mind objects and mental formations into stillness and silence. Few can sink below the seemingly solid layer of thought to that clarity. Most are too attached to their beliefs, their wills, their bodies, their identities, and their egos to reach that peace.

He suggested the breath as a vehicle to guide the mind to clarity. He shared several gathas at the talk he gave those in the audience who gathered to hear him speak at Berkeley. Gathas are verses we recite quietly in rhythm with the breath to quiet the mind. "Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, I know I am breathing out," is one of the first he shared. This is abbreviated as "in" as we inhale and "out" as we exhale. Keeping the mind single-pointedly fixed on the breath is not easy, as simple as the instructions may be. Thoughts, feelings, and sensations soon distract attention away from the breath and we find ourselves lost, once again, in thought. With guidance and practice, however, a meditator learns to shorten periods of mind wandering and extend those moments of concentration. Throughout the journey, we learn simply by observing. First, we become aware of the noise that is mind. Then, we become aware of conditioned patterns of thinking. We experience how thoughts and emotions affect the body and vice versa, how the conditions affecting the body influence thoughts and emotions. We see how attachment to certain hindrances bends the mind this way or that. Attachment to craving, for example, bends the mind toward lust, pleasure, and desire. During meditation practice, for example, this may express as a desire for enlightenment, a sexual fantasy, or a craving for some imagined state of peace. Attachment to ill will bends the mind toward frustration, anger, and hatred. During meditation practice, this may express as irritation with the practice itself, a murderous thought, resentment toward another practitioner who may be breathing too hard. As awareness becomes clearer and clearer, we detach and let go. We begin to assume responsibility for those attachments, which we no longer identify with as "me" or "mine." We see how we create our own suffering and how we project our own undisciplined thoughts onto others with blame or criticism. We keep letting go of attachments to thoughts, biases, prejudices, beliefs, perceptions, emotions, sensations, cravings, aversions, and, ultimately, the conditioned, little self we identify with as "me."

Unless embodied, this may seem abstract. However, we may find this way of living imminently practical. When we unburden the mind, we lighten the load, we simplify. The simplest chores can become delightful. After reading his essay on washing dishes, my attitude shifted to doing mundane things. On doing dishes, he wrote:

When I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the annual Rains retreat all the monks would come back to the monastery to practice together for three months, and sometimes we were only two novices who had to do all the cooking and wash all the dishes for well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a difficult chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then we had to heat up a big pot of water before we could do any scrubbing. Nowadays with liquid soap, special scrub pads, and even hot running water it is much easier to enjoy washing the dishes. To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles! If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert or a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of enjoying my dessert or my tea when I finally have them.

I began to find joy in the simplest things from simply breathing to walking. The deeper we go, the more we realize just how not simple the simple can be and just how holy the seemingly mundane can be. His lessons guided me daily. I took up the 14 mindfulness trainings as a layman, and began to live more like a monk.

In November 2014, a month after his 88th birthday, and following several months of rapidly declining health, Nhất Hạnh experienced a severe stroke in a hospital in Bordeaux, France, losing his ability to speak and becoming mostly paralyzed on the right side.

In 2018, he returned home to Vietnam after 5 decades in exile to live out his last days at the Tu Hieu Temple, where he had first become a monk. This was yet another lesson in forgiveness. Even after his stroke, his example spoke volumes. Although stroke paralyzed and left him unable to speak, he taught me the power of equanimity, the ability to maintain the balance of one's mind regardless of circumstances. All things are impermanent, including health and life itself. Only love endures. I finally understood the value of community. His beloved sangha cared for him and carried on his work in centers he helped establish around the world... and in the hearts of people like me who loved him from afar.

Thay lived with integrity and died with honor. Many of the priests, monks, lamas, rabbis, and gurus I once admired held secrets and hid their vices. While I could respect a man who admitted to his weaknesses and sought atonement (I was a bad boy once), those who did not or denied allegations that eventually proved true lost my trust. Perhaps it may come to light someday that Thay clubbed baby seals for fun or had a secret foot fetish, but, after 95 years of life, no allegations or scandals ever surfaced. He was the real deal, truly venerable.

Thay gifted us a near-complete guide to mindful living. He was a master teacher who taught skills that matter. In his book No Death, No Fear, he concludes:

This body is not me; I am not caught in this body... Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again.

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