On November 11, 2014, the international Buddhist community was dealt a sudden blow when the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a beloved teacher and prolific author, suffered a brain hemorrhage that rendered him unable to speak or walk. Since then, Thich Nhat Hanh (affectionately known by his students as “Thay”) has shown steady if small signs of recovery: swallowing solid food and more recently, uttering his first words. He is currently receiving treatment in San Francisco at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.
Thay had planned to travel to the United States this fall for his “Miracle of Mindfulness Tour,” a two-and-a-half month series of retreats, dharma talks, and days of mindfulness. Despite Thay’s absence, his monastic students have chosen to go forward with the tour as scheduled.
Tricycle caught up with one such monastic, Brother Fulfillment, at the tour’s recent daylong retreat at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A resident practitioner at Thay’s Blue Cliff Monastery in upstate New York since 2004, Brother Fulfillment discussed what initially drew him to Buddhism, how Thay’s illness has affected the sangha, and where the renowned teacher’s worldwide lay and monastic community will go from here.
—Matt Gesicki, Editorial Intern
Can you describe your first encounter with Buddhism? While I was living in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer, I met a young Tibetan monk by the bank of the Trishuli River, which runs along Nepal’s border with India. The monk was very personable, kind, and present. Right away he built a really close connection with me. I had visited temples in Kathmandu—Boudhanath and Swayambhunath—which were beautiful but also very otherworldly, especially for someone from a Western cultural background. But with this young man there was a simple human connection. I didn’t say it out loud, but there was a part of me that thought, “I want to be like that. I want to touch that kind of joy.”
Right around that time my ex-girlfriend came to Nepal with a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. I thought it was a breathtaking book, and it definitely helped lead me to Thay’s tradition.
You have now been a monk in Thay’s order for over a decade. How has his illness changed the way you and the sangha approach the teachings? I’ve noticed more energy in me. Before, I was following; I was being carried. I was a student, a child of Thay. Within that sense of being carried, I could relax. Now I have shifted to the sense that I’m carrying. I’m carrying what has been transmitted to me and I’m carrying the community. It is beautiful to see what happens as I allow that transmission to manifest itself—to let itself be alive.
When we practice generating this energy of mindfulness and presence, it feels authentic and healing. We become aware that one day we too may be sick and unable to teach the dharma. That urgency makes that desire to shoulder the community start to bloom in me and I see it in the sangha as a whole: everyone wants to carry each other. We know very clearly that Thay’s vision for us is that we become a leaderless community that embodies interbeing.
That aspiration is rising up in us. When we plan events, for example, we all sit together and share our perspectives. How should we meet this day of mindfulness? What should we talk about? No one says, “I’m the authority, so this is what we’re doing.” We listen to each other, and by listening, we let the answers manifest themselves.
This sense of rising to the occasion does bring some anxiety. But instead of saying, “Our problem is that Thay may no longer lead us,” we must say, “Here’s our challenge.” We will make some mistakes. We will not do everything perfectly. There will not be perfect harmony in our community unless we try to work out disagreements, especially without our teacher with us. The energy behind that acceptance is very important.
What has it been like for you and your fellow monastics to assume a leadership role as Thay is recovering nearby in the United States? We face the reality that he wants to be here but that he is too sick to do so. We do this for him, through him, with him. We make him present by the way we walk and by the way we act together. We bring him alive and let his spirit come back into the practice again.
Do practitioners bring up Thay’s illness when they come to your teachings? People who have studied Thay’s work know that he wants people to find his presence in their practice. Followers everywhere—not just the monastic community but also the huge number of lay sanghas and lay practitioners—know that they are continuing his work. They feel, as we do, that this is an opportunity for all of us to rise to a new level of practice. We constantly return to the teaching of his no-death. For the last 40 years he has said: “I will never die. My practice is alive in you. If you walk and breathe, I am there.”
Thay understands the power of instilling a transmission. It is not just that he says this over and over but also that he lives it out. He has set up a good model for us, and now we are exploring what it means to realize that model. It is not simple. We have to discover it for ourselves, so there are difficult moments and misunderstandings. But I see the growth. I see the potential for the blooming of our sangha.
What words of encouragement would you offer to novice Buddhist practitioners? It’s OK to not know. It’s OK if the practice doesn’t work in exactly the way you expect. Sometimes the fruit comes later. Sometimes it just manifests when it wants to. Jesus had a saying about the Holy Spirit in which he likens it to wind: the wind blows; no one knows where it blows, where it comes from, or where it goes. It goes where it wants to! Trying to hold on to the Holy Spirit is very foolish. That’s true for meditation practice as well. It’s nice. We touch it; we taste it. We feel peace, joy, and connection. But you have to let that feeling go, like everything. You have to go on.
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