Today, I have a personal sharing I’d like to offer to the space on the passing of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (students call him Thay, which means “teacher”), whose work has been deeply influential for my work with tea, as well as my thought process and orientation in the world.
Indeed, as one of my dear friends said to me earlier this week, we are “losing so many of our elders.” Yes. And this is indeed a deep grief. But also, I have been considering how we carry our beloveds with us already, all the time. And how we are ready to be that change in the world that they taught us to become.
We are ready.
I hope this reflection might create some space for breathing and light. Let’s have some tea and be with our breathing…
“Tea is an act complete in its simplicity.
When I drink tea, there is only me and the tea.
The rest of the world dissolves.
There are no worries about the future.
No dwelling on past mistakes.
Tea is simple: loose-leaf tea, hot pure water, a cup.
I inhale the scent, tiny delicate pieces of the tea floating above the cup.
I drink the tea, the essence of the leaves becoming a part of me.
I am informed by the tea, changed.
This is the act of life, in one pure moment, and in this act the truth of the world suddenly becomes revealed: all the complexity, pain, drama of life is a pretense, invented in our minds for no good purpose.
There is only the tea, and me, converging.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
The Father of Engaged Buddhism
On January 22, 2002, the world lost one of our most beloved elders, at least in his physical form – Thich Nhat Hanh. He passed away in Hue, Vietnam, at the temple where he was first ordained as a novice monk as a teenager. He was 95 years old and had served as a monastic for 80 years.
Thay spent nearly 40 years of that time as an exile from his homeland, after the government determined he and his progressive minded colleagues were a threat for calling to end the Vietnam war. He spent those years living in France, where he established a Buddhist practice center, Plum Village, which in itself became a spiritual lineage that now has several monasteries around the world, and has ordained hundreds of new leaders to carry on Thay’s legacy.
Thich Nhat Hanh is often regarded as the “father of mindfulness.” Indeed, he popularized the term and our understanding of it in the West, and gave the world some of the most accessible, relevant to daily life practices for living mindfully that anyone had ever done.
He founded what became known as the Engaged Buddhism movement. In short, this movement teaches that meditation and spiritual life don’t just happen in temples, only to benefit monastics or people removed from society, or for upholding ancient traditions. They must be lived in the world we know now and made accessible to the lay people who use them. They must exist for the freedom of all. Thay had an enduring affection for lay practitioners – people who are not ordained as a monk or nun, but who still follow a tradition’s teachings. People who live the “householder’s path.” In the Plum Village tradition, lay friends are in no way considered lesser than or not as committed to the work as monastics. This, too, was a rather radical idea in the religious world where Thay came from.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a powerful force in civil rights and non-violent communication, and also became an inspiration and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, who nominated Thay for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Root Teacher: Where are your own origins?
I shared with our regulars in Quiet Tea Sundays that Thay was – is – also my root teacher. This is a term that, in contemplative practice, means the teacher from whom you connect your origins and inspiration. They represent where you came from. The taproot, if you will, that nourishes the other practices and teachers and studies that you will branch out in time, creating a healthy root system.
I first started studying Thay’s work in 2006, after my first Buddhist teacher, a Tibetan, introduced me to his writing. Since then, his teaching and worldview strongly influenced how I approach my work and beliefs, and the connections that would become relevant to that work, such as becoming certified in trauma-informed meditation teaching. My given dharma name in the Plum Village tradition, in Vietnamese, is Tâm An Trú – “Peaceful Refuge of the Heart.” (a dharma name in this tradition is not an achievement or a title, but a personal contemplation that you study and aspire toward cultivating. If they keep practicing, it’s not uncommon for folks to receive several dharma names over their life.)
Something I would like to share with you, that I’ve been revisiting during Thay’s passing, is the importance of living our life in the awareness of the present moment. You see, I never got the chance to meet Thay in person, even though I had many chances to do so. Whenever he came to the US, I never felt I had the ability to take time away to go see him. (I once went 10 years with no personal time off. All of my travel is normally for work.) Even when I was so lucky as to be working in Germany for a few years – a quick train to Plum Village in France – I did not go. I did not think my own spiritual needs were worthy enough to upset my work commitments.
This broke my heart, but I kept saying, you know, “someday…”
A Lesson on Listening to Your Heart
At the end of 2018, 4 years after suffering a life altering stroke, it was announced that the Vietnam government would allow Thich Nhat Hanh to return home, to spend his remaining time at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, where his journey as a monastic began decades before.
The same night in October that I read this news about Thay, two yoga friends of mine happened to announce they were hosting a retreat in Kampot, Cambodia in early spring of 2019. Very affordable, and an easy flight away from Vietnam. Without hesitation, I decided to join them, and started planning my travel to Hue from Kampot.
I was able to spend 3 days at the temple, sleeping at a small homestay nearby and then hiking to the temple each day to sit and have tea, journal, and rest in contemplation.
Two remarkable moments happened during this time. First, one of Thay’s personal attendants (a few monastics from Plum Village accompanied him to Vietnam) came to where I was sitting, and we chatted for a while. He was so kind as to take the gift of a precious loose leaf tea and some incense I brought with me, to give to Thay. He also assured me Thay was doing well, and we looked at photos and video on his phone that he had taken that morning while having breakfast with him.
The next day, I was sitting in the grass, having tea near a pagoda at the sisters’ practice center next to the temple. I brought a thermos with me each day and self-sufficiently brewed my tea, not to bother anyone at all. I wanted to blend in like a little blade of grass. But then, one of the sisters came up to me, and motioned for me to come over to share the community lunch they prepared each day for lay friends. I sat down with a small plate and my tea, and she came back over to me after a little while. Looking at my tea, then at me, she gave an enormous, warm smile and said, “Ahh, Plum Village is with you.”
When we intentionally, continuously practice returning to the present moment, we wake up to how profoundly important even the tiniest moments in our life become to us. When we are not present, we simply do not see these moments. And we will spend years, decades, saying, “someday…” Even now, in this pandemic, we are still saying “someday,” and I wonder, what are we not seeing that *IS* here, right now, as we wait for our tomorrows? What is still possible, if we just listen to that inner voice?
I am forever thankful that I was able to make that pilgrimage. I had planned to return in the spring of 2020, but of course, the world had other plans. But even as I made those plans in my head, in my heart, I really knew this would be the only moment. I began practicing my physical world goodbyes to Thay then. And I just stayed with it, letting it teach me the lesson I so very much needed. No more planning. Just live. And it has honestly helped me tremendously over the last nearly two years of uprooted everything.
And I am forever thankful to Thay. His physical form is not with us now, but somehow, he actually feels more present now in the ancestor realm. During this time of mourning, I have been letting go feeling that I let myself down somehow, or that I was not / am not enough or that I’ve lost too much time. I remind myself, I was always doing the very best that I knew how to do in that moment, and there is no fault in that. Life is always here, smiling and waiting for us to wake up.
“Being able to see just once in a lifetime is no small accomplishment. If you’ve seen once, you can see forever. The question is whether you have the determination and diligence.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
You can learn more about Thich Nhat Hanh’s work, as well as the Plum Village lineage, by visiting plumvillage.org.