The beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught the West about peace, mindfulness and ‘interbeing,’ just recently passed away at 95 years old. While many of us who admired him were saddened to hear of his passing, for me I was reminded of his own comforting words about interbeing and death: When a young girl once asked him how to deal with the grief of her recently deceased dog, he instructed her to look into the sky and watch a cloud disappear. The cloud has not died, he said, but has become the rain and the water for tea in the teacup. Just as the cloud is alive in a new form, so is the dog. So I do not grieve that Thay (as his followers affectionately call him) is gone. I know he is still here–in each and every one of us who, because of him, ‘kiss the Earth’ with our feet as we practice walking mindfully, who honor noble silence, who stop and listen to the rain, who cultivate compassion and empathy for our families, who practice nonviolence in thoughts, words and actions.
Over the years our Yoga Book Club has read several of Thay’s books, including Peace is Every Step, The Art of Communicating, At Home In the World, and How to Fight. We were all inspired by his simple yet profound messages. One of those messages that resonated deeply with me is that when we work on our own healing we are also helping to heal our ancestors. Thay says that our wounded inner child is not only us; she may represent several generations. Our parents and ancestors may have suffered without knowing how to look after their wounded child, so they transmitted that child to us. So when we’re embracing the wounded child within us, we’re embracing all the wounded children of past generations. He talked about this topic often, saying that even when we are practicing walking mindfully our parents and ancestors are with us, because they’re present in every cell of our body. So each step that brings us healing and happiness also brings healing and happiness to them.
The topic of mindful walking reminds me of my own personal story about ‘hanging out’ with Thay. While I was working at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in New York in 1997, Thay facilitated a week-long mindfulness retreat there. It was a big deal to host him, and there were hundreds of attendees—many more than would normally be on Omega’s campus at any one time. So our normally mellow, peaceful campus turned into more of a Grand Central Station—except that everyone attending the retreat was invited to practice mindful walking everywhere they went—so there were hundreds of people out and about but they were all walking SUPER SLOWLY. It got really frustrating for me pretty quickly, because I was not part of the retreat–I was staff–and I had places to go and things to do! Not only that, but during meals the retreatants were required to practice noble silence and, since we all ate in the same dining hall, staff were required to eat in noble silence for the duration of the retreat too. I will never forget one day trying to get my food and drink together from the different stations, in a hurry of course (why on earth was I in such a hurry?), and having to get around all the SUPER SLOW WALKING PEOPLE. I finally made my way to the station where they had honey (I don’t remember why I needed honey—maybe for tea?), grabbed the little honey dispenser and turned it over to squeeze it out, realizing too late that the top was not screwed on it! Honey poured out all over my suede shoes. Of course I could not say anything or ask anybody to help me because we weren’t allowed to talk! Grr! Needless to say, at that point I couldn’t wait for the retreat to be over!
While I can look back on those two episodes now and laugh at my lack of mindfulness (with compassion; after all I was only 26 years old!), what I will remember most from that retreat is being able to partake of some of Thay’s talks. I honestly don’t even remember what he said, and he spoke so quietly and had a rather thick Vietnamese accent that half the time I couldn’t understand him anyway. But what I do remember and will always cherish is the absolute sense of peace that I think each and every one of us who were under that large tent with him felt just by being in his presence. If you have ever heard him talk or even seen videos of him, you know what I mean. He was peace incarnate, and you could not help but be in the present moment when you were with him.
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”
So simple, yet so profound. Thank you, Thay, for sharing your peace with me and the world.