Like many thousands of others around the world, I have had Thich Nhat Hanh close in my thoughts this past week. Along with so many, I breathed with some relief when I read Sunday’s report from his community in Plum Village that his condition, following his brain hemorrhage, seems to have stabilized, and while his condition remains critical, there is reason for cautious optimism about the possibility of a full recovery.
The report also said that one way the community is carrying on is by going ahead with the annual three-month practice period. There was a photo of the opening ceremony, with hundreds of sangha members—monastics and lay folk—gathered in the beautiful and capacious meditation hall in Plum Village’s Upper Hamlet. It was for me a stunning thing to see, because I had, 30 years ago, lived for several months in the Upper Hamlet, and it would have been hard to even imagine such a transformation. Back then, the Upper Hamlet was just a handful of ancient stone buildings—a main farmhouse and several small out buildings, all in disrepair. The meditation hall, such as it was, could seat about ten. Dharma gatherings of any size were held in the slightly less rustic and more accommodating Lower Hamlet.
Several years ago, I wrote a story for Tricycle, called “The Debacle,” about organizing and assisting Thich Nhat Hanh on his first teaching tour of US dharma centers. In telling the story, I tried to show Thich Nhat Hanh as I knew him—as a human being blessed by both extraordinary gifts and ordinary frailties. It seems to me that writings about spiritual teachers tend often to consign them to the realm of an ideal, and I think this does them a disservice. If they live up to the projected ideal, we hem them in with it; if they don’t live up to it, we resent them for it. I tried to find a way not to inflict this on Thich Nhat Hanh, to show the great teacher and frail human as a single, inseparable whole—that kind of bodhisattva. I have often wondered about how well I succeeded.
It has been many years since I was last in touch with Thich Nhat Hanh. Perhaps the simplest explanation is the best: Sometimes the living imperatives that bring people together don’t hold them together and may well lead them apart. But there was, since the very first, a deep affinity, and near or far, that has never diminished. Nor will it.
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