Back in the ’80s, I had a friend named Michael Attie, a lay Zen practitioner known in the media as the “lingerie monk” because he once organized a sitting group on the roof of his business, Playmates of Hollywood, one of the world’s largest lingerie stores. Thanks to his persistence one Sunday in 1987, I agreed to accompany him to see a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and antiwar activist giving a talk under the “teaching tree” of the Ojai Foundation, 90 minutes by car from Los Angeles. The Foundation was created by Joan Halifax, then an anthropologist who worked with Joseph Campbell, the mythologist and writer widely known for his now often-repeated slogan “Follow your bliss.” It was meant to bring Native American teachers and Buddhist masters together to teach in a natural power spot facing the dramatically sculpted Topa Topa mountains.
From the moment that I laid eyes on Thich Nhat Hanh (known to students as “Thay,” meaning “teacher” in Vietnamese), I was struck by how quietly impassioned he was. I will always remember how he began the talk: “Dear brothers and sisters—our appointment with life is only available in the present moment.” One had the sense that this gentle yet vehement monk was offering himself as a living example of a Buddha for us to scrutinize.
During the Vietnam War, the Communists thought Thay was CIA, and the CIA thought he was a Communist. Exiled from Vietnam, he fled to France and that same year was nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for a Nobel Peace Prize. When Thay spoke of peace, you could feel, in a visceral sense, the arising of true peacefulness inside you and all around you. I found it compelling that he had made it his work to teach mindfulness and strategies for inner peace in the very countries that had perpetrated the long, destructive war on his land and people. Immediately after hearing him talk, I became a part of Thay’s community—what the Buddhist writer Rick Fields called the “international interdenominational floating sangha”—and joined his ten-day artists’ and writers’ retreat in Ojai.
Since that time, I’ve participated in ten years of summer retreats at Plum Village, Thay’s practice center in southwestern France, traveled with him three times to India, accompanied him on pilgrimages to Japan, China, and Vietnam, hosted him in Rome, and was even married by him. I came to know the man and the teacher; his soft, gentle, at times childlike demeanor as well as his ferocious discipline and unsentimental allegiance to truthfulness.
Thay is like a father, a teacher, a rock star, and occasionally like a stranger to me. His physiognomy, including the gap between his two upper front teeth, seems mysteriously similar to that of my real father, as does his abstemious temperament punctuated by bouts of obvious gladness. He appears to have the stamina of someone 20 years his junior, and I have always been impressed with his energy for traveling, which he does constantly, while he also has somehow found the time to be an astoundingly prolific writer and teacher, having penned over 100 books and given thousands of public talks.
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