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.
As this Tricycle issue goes to press, 88-year-old Thay is in a hospital bed after suffering a massive brain hemorrhage. I am only one of tens of thousands of people around the world actively praying against the odds for his full recovery. It is difficult for me to contemplate life in a world without Thich Nhat Hanh. My personal views about all the deep topics of being, the meaning of life, of love, of giving and receiving, and of death itself have been shaped in no small part by his teachings and by his example. With Thay recently dwelling in the state between life and death, I couldn’t help but reflect on a few teaching moments of the many that have characterized being on the path with him for the past 28 years.
* * *
HAPPINESS IS INTERPERSONAL
Staying up very late one night in Sarnath, India, where the Buddha gave his first dharma talk, Thay cowrote with me the Five Awarenesses by candlelight. They were to be vows for my wedding, the first English-speaking marriage ceremony at which he had officiated. He translated roughly into English from Vietnamese and I tried my best to polish it, but then I realized he was pulling it out of me in a way such that I would remember it for the ceremony. The next day, after circumambulating the imposing Dhamekh Stupa, the wedding party settled under a large mango tree and we recited the Five Awarenesses, at the heart of which is the realization that happiness is not an individual matter:
We are aware that all generations of our ancestors
and all future generations are present within us.
We are aware of the expectations that our ancestors,
our children, and their children have of us.
We are aware that our joy, peace, freedom, and
harmony are the joy, peace, freedom, and
harmony of our ancestors, our children, and
We are aware that understanding is the very
foundation of love.
We are aware that blaming and arguing can never
help us and only create a wider gap between us;
that only understanding, trust, and love can
help us change and grow.
My wife and I were to recite these vows at every full moon and be witnessed by members of the community, or as Thay said, “the marriage could break.” Twenty years later, it did.
STRENGTH IN SIMPLICITY
We had hurriedly left a retreat at Mount Fuji, Japan, for the train station, and Thay was waving good-bye to the Japanese students who had come to the platform to see him off. Just as the train doors closed, many of them abruptly dropped to the ground, as if they had all fainted at once. Then, when we arrived at our destination (Kamakura), I suddenly went blind and lost the use of my legs. Richard Baker Roshi carried me to the ryokan [traditional inn]; Thay and his coworker Sister Chan Khong stayed close until I felt better. We later learned that a mushroom picked at the mountain for the post-retreat lunch was poisonous and that over 60 people had been hospitalized. Among those traveling with Thay, I alone had grabbed some lunch from the dining hall on our way to the train station. The simplicity of Thay’s teaching to just breathe and smile helped me to remember it, and then practice it, in order to deal with the terror of not knowing if my sight would ever return.
PLAYING NO FAVORITES
Thay exemplifies the impersonal teacher who treats everyone the same despite the tendency of some of his Western followers to seek his personal attention, approval, and recognition. The most acknowledgment he usually offers his longtime students is a smile with the occasional twinkle of his fingers, and the rare invitation to tea at his cottage. To be recognized by your teacher is a reasonable expectation, and Thay did so, but in a minimal way. I couldn’t help but appreciate that he practiced such equanimity with regard to his students, although some of his early ones may have been unhappy about being treated essentially the same as first-time retreatants and for that reason gradually stopped coming. One student who had moved on asked me, “Don’t you tire of the repetition?” I didn’t have to think long to answer. Since I am so forgetful, I told him, it helps me to hear the dharma over and over again. At times, being in retreat with Thay felt as though you were practicing with the historical Buddha. Still, Thay would say, “I am not the new Buddha. Don’t wait for a new Buddha. The new Buddha is the sangha.”
OPEN TO THE NEW
In 1995 I was developing websites for organizations and groups that were meaningful to me. With another of Thay’s students, Arnie Kotler, I set about to create an online bookstore for Thay’s publishing house, Parallax Press, and the first online introduction to Thich Nhat Hanh and his teachings. In early 1996 we organized a preview of the new website at Plum Village for Thay, the monks and nuns, and some of his lay students. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and for many of those present it was their first exposure to a website. But one very articulate and passionate student raised a philosophical objection. She argued that the Web was a tool of corporations, an extension of their greed and domination of the working classes. She loathed the idea that her spiritual teacher would be reduced to 1s and 0s and be recreated electronically for commercial purposes. I was crushed.
The time allotted for the demo expired, and everyone left for their various chores. Thay came over to me and said that he loved the website, and he asked me not to be discouraged. He agreed that communication technology would be very useful for spreading the dharma and approved the website to go live.
Thay always invites the children to take his hand during walking meditation at teachings and retreats. He loves the company of young people in practice, and they seem to pick up from him very quickly how to do walking meditation—often more skillfully than the adults. My adult daughter still cherishes her memories of walking with Thay. When she was 6 years old, Thay paused in the middle of a dharma talk to send best wishes to her after learning that she had been ill the previous night. When I thanked him afterward, he curtly replied not to thank him but to just be thankful that she was OK.
Once, in the Bamboo Grove, a favored haunt of the Buddha in what is now a neglected public park in the Indian village of Rajgir, we sat with Thay silently in a circle, letting in the sounds around us. Amid the loud cries of birds, a young local boy and girl around 7 or 8 years old suddenly appeared and sat down at Thay’s feet, begging. He motioned to them to sit beside him and held their hands for the rest of our visit, showering his love upon them.
BEING MINDFUL FOR OTHERS
We were preparing to climb to the top of Wutai Mountain, the great holy Buddhist mountain in China, when in a surprisingly demanding way Thay insisted that everyone on the bus (mostly monks and nuns) move very slowly and take only one mindful step for each breath. It was hurtful to him to see his monastics rush around like tourists. Earlier I had seen him, from outside his window, sitting on the bus and observing the monks and nuns practice walking meditation in the parking lot. It seemed to give him great delight. As we progressed in a ceremonially slow pace up the old stone steps, smaller groups of Chinese tourists rushed up the steps next to us and then shortly afterward rushed back down, appearing not to even notice us. I remember thinking that we were operating at such different energies that we might have been invisible to them.
As we approached the temple at the top of Wutai Shan, it was clear that he wanted the strength of the group’s mindfulness to make a powerful impression on the temple’s abbot. Once inside, with panoramic views of China’s Shanxi region surrounding us, Thay and Shantum Seth, our Indian guide and one of Thay’s senior students, had formal tea with the abbot as the group watched. Thay smiled brightly and laughed unusually vigorously. His joy in that moment invaded the sensibility of everyone there, and we became a very happy throng of pilgrims delighting in what we were sure was the most spectacular sunset in all of China.
GROWING AND CHANGING
In the bus during our first trip to India in 1987, travel in the Buddhist sector (the poorest area of India) was tough, roads were rocky, and available accommodations were teeming with rodents and lacking even running water. Over Thay’s objection, everyone, including all the monks and nuns, insisted on stopping at a newly built Japanese luxury hotel near Vulture Peak for some soba noodles and to use an actual bathroom. In this moment, while Thay sat alone on the bus fuming, he became a profoundly more real person to me. Later that day, I was exploring the caves near the peak and wandered into what was known as the Buddha’s Cave. Once inside, I saw Thay lighting some incense, and I turned to leave so as not to disturb. He invited me to stay, smiled warmly, and then slipped out a few moments later. In subsequent visits to Rajgir, we all stayed at the Japanese hotel, including Thay.
ACCEPTING THE CHALLENGES
I was hiking with Sister Chan Khong and Thay—at age 80—up one of their favorite mountains adjacent to Deer Park Monastery in San Diego. Although they had just finished conducting a weeklong retreat for almost 200 people, there was no evidence of fatigue. Thay climbed very slowly and deliberately, carefully choosing where each foot would land, and yet I practically had to run to catch up with him. When we arrived at the top, we stayed silent for a while, enjoying the views and the breeze. We talked about how pleasant and useful it was to have such a perspective— to be so elevated over the issues waiting below. Thay then made a confession that surprised me. He had grown weary of being responsible for so many students, including the monastics. Their expectation that he would always respond to situations in a superhuman fashion made being “Thay” an unrelenting challenge. Feeling free, he said, took more work on his part than at times he was comfortable with. I had the sense that being Thay was not as easy or as fabulous as I had assumed it to be. The benefits of being a leader go mostly to others.
* * *
From that first experience of Thay under Ojai’s teaching tree, it was clear to me and those present that he had an extraordinary capacity to model the Buddha’s teachings—to walk the walk. Thay’s words were always simple, measured, and profound, as were his bodily movements, infused with mindfulness. The timbre of his voice had a dual character—simultaneously tender and fierce—not unlike the dharma itself, to which he devoted his entire life.
Studying with Thay has better prepared me for transitions, if that is what Thay’s current condition turns out to be. As Thay himself said:
This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there, the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies all manifest from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free. Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide and seek.
Spiritual father to so many, Thay reminded survivors that even when their parents die, they make a final gift to you: a part of yourself. Thay explained that “an aspect of your essence lies dormant within you until a parent passes on. At their death, it comes to life, and you become more fully who you are.” On the other hand, he would counsel that “parents never fully die, that inside of our hearts and minds they live on.”
“So smile to me,” says Thay. “Take my hand and wave goodbye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source, always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.”
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.