January 22-26, 2022
One of my earliest teachers and influences on the Path, Thich Nhat Hanh, left left his physical body last Friday, January 21. He was 95. He had returned to Vietnam a few years ago to die, as I understood it. I had been expecting to hear this news long ago, but he apparently had some meditation and work to do before his final transition from this life.
There is a lot out there right now about Thay (meaning “teacher,” the term and name that his disciples and friends used for him). One good biographical account is here. You can also partake in some of the ceremonies around his death online and at home. See the website for Plum Village, his main center and home for many years in France. There’s nothing I can add to his legacy by writing this, nor can I (or anyone) adequately express and describe the profound influence he had in the world, both the spiritual world as well as the world of society. I only hope to share the news in case you didn’t hear as well as share a little of what he meant to me.
My wife Nikki told me the news the day he died, knowing that he was a special teacher in my life. I said, “Good for him,” which is my standard response when I get the news that someone died. (That’s my internal response at least, almost always, but will only come out as words when appropriate. More on that probably in the next blog.) And it is good for him; he lived a long and productive and deep life, living true to himself from a very young age and realizing the deepest part of “himself,” or “the highest Truths of Life” in that time. He shared himself fully and inspired many people to “be mindful,” to look deeply, to transform painful inner experiences before they could come out and harm others. His teachings were simple but no less profound. The world is a better place because he had been on it. Is there anything more we could hope from our life?
I found out about Thich Nhat Hanh from his books The Miracle of Mindfulness and Being Peace around the same time that I found yoga. Both of those profound and simple books inspired me to start meditating daily, even though it was very physically painful—leg pain that started after just 15 minutes of trying to sit still and meditate. Those books and my fledgling practice also inspired me to attend a meditation retreat with him at Mt. Madonna Center in California in 1991. It was a long bus ride and then car ride from northwestern Washington to California (and then back), but totally worth it. Five days of almost complete verbal silence with him teaching us; slow, mindful movement; hours of sitting meditation and then walking meditation and then sitting meditation again… on the top of a beautiful mountain.
He taught us to be mindful, to practice mindfulness; he’s the reason we know those words in the first place. We got to have a little personal interaction with him, which leads to what I most want to share about Thay. He was the first person into whose I looked as he was looking at me, and the spontaneous thought—not so much in words, but in feeling—was there, “This man has something that I don’t have…and I want that!” It was only a short glance. Maybe in that glance I saw Infinite, or maybe it was just profound peace; that’s the best I come up with when I try to put words on what happened in that glance. I was changed on a deep level in that moment, no doubt one of the defining moments in my life and spiritual Path. That which Thay had is what I’m after; I’m pretty sure I’ll know it when it’s there.
For a couple more years after that retreat, I continued the practices and rituals he taught and met with the greater sangha (spiritual group) that had been influenced and taught by him. In the “end,” Yoga won out. The sitting meditation was too painful and more mentally challenging than I was willing to continue on my own without support from a Thich Nhat Hanh community after I moved away. (Meditation did come back a couple years and MUCH on-the-mat practice later and continues to be physically comfortable since then. Knock on wood.) In the following decades, I had many great teachers and met a number of people who I believe are fully enlightened and several that are quite possibly enlightened, but that initial glance way back then still is a driving force that I can easily connect to inside.
In a different vein, the timing of his death is a little interesting to me as in my Path of Yoga group, we are reading Raja Yoga by Swami Vivekananda, who is attributed with bringing Yoga to the West at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893. In this book, he reminds the reader that “all [students of Yoga] are especially and earnestly reminded that, with few exceptions, Yoga can only be safely learned by direct contact with a teacher” (emphasis is his). This reminder does, I believe, apply to physical, on-the-mat, practice as well, though he is referring to the more mental practices of Raja Yoga. (Full disclosure: I, too, did initially start hatha yoga practice from a book.)
One of the Path of Yoga folks recently was expressing her concern about the Swami’s statement about needing direct contact with the teacher, as her teachers are dead, dying, or soon to die. She wanted to know “for how long” do we need this direct contact? Did she have enough? (Perhaps this resonates as some have had to move away, even years ago, and haven’t found their in-person teacher. Others only get to be in Yoga practice on Zoom, whether they moved away recently, long ago, or Covid has made that be the case for now.)
My thoughts for her in the moment were partly that she was worrying about what is “God’s job,” about what is pretty much out of her control. But more importantly for her was, by her own admission, that she had taken what her teachers had taught her and has been practicing it as dedicatedly and sincerely as possible. This practice and application have allowed her to make the teachings her own. She is able to take what she had been given and apply it in her life, which has allowed her to go beyond what she had originally been taught.
This is true for me, too, though there are many of my teachers who I don’t ever expect to get “beyond!” I’ve had direct contact with many great teachers, and I endeavored to take what they taught, practice it as best I could given my understanding and limitations of it at the time, and see how it morphed naturally over time to become my own. I used the teachings to get experienc—the greatest teacher—and the point of any teachings from any one. (And I also always tried to get back to my teachers as often as I could.)
So it is with Thay for me. He was a strong, though relatively short, influence in my life, especially around awareness (mindfulness), but also including around what he called “engaged Buddhism,” meaning how to apply the teachings in the world, including in the political world. But engaging with the world in that way, as he taught, hinges on getting some peace inside. Without peace inside, there is no way in hell (words purposely chosen) that we will create peace in the world “outside.”
Anyway, he inspired me to go deep and to GET what he was teaching—through unrelenting awareness, practice, determination, commitment and love—and he modeled being a humble and inspiring teacher, which I endeavor to emulate. Thay, I thank you for what you gave me, and I’m sure you gave more than I’m conscious of. May you and the world you lived in be at peace, by our actions of love, care and awareness.