Article Mindfulness

On the Passing of Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh

I remember coming face-to-face with Thay. It was at an educators’ retreat in London. Immersed in my first walking meditation, at the back of the group, absorbed by each flower in the warm April sun, it felt like learning to walk all over again. Thay told us to take each step when we felt really ready to be free, so for me it was slow going. I didn’t even notice those walking ahead had come full-circle around the garden. I looked up and suddenly Thay was right there. I nearly bumped into him! Thay’s face lit up with a beautiful, surprised smile I can only describe as recognition. In fact, I turned around to see who he was welcoming so warmly. It could not possibly be me!

Another time, in Ontario, inexplicably sitting next to Thay amidst the sangha, all eyes were on him as he serenely sipped his tea. Thay was looking outward, beyond the group and I turned to follow his gaze. The willow grove was shining in the morning light. All at once, I felt the energy of the trees fill me. Everything seemed impossibly beautiful, a shimmering paradise. I slowly turned back to my teacher to find him looking at me deeply. I can still feel exactly the warmth of his hands as he took mine in his to demonstrate a mudra he often taught to the children. I fumbled clumsily, embarrassed and confused. I felt, rather than heard him say, ‘practice‘.

These moments were not unique. Anyone who has been with Thay can tell you similar stories, some too precious to share. We hold these in our hearts so they can ripen and flower. He has planted seeds of awareness and insight deep inside us to germinate when conditions are sufficient. We are his ‘seed bank’, his continuation on Earth. Like other students, his patient teachings have transformed me, and no one was more surprised than me when I realized I had been thirsting for them all my life.

When I learned he had passed, I was with a dear elder in hospice, Nancy Roof, founder of Kosmos Journal, in an octagonal room like a lighthouse with windows overlooking the Berkshires. At that moment, I felt an expansion in my chest. Thay was there – in the deep orange sunset that transitioned upward to cloudless blue; in the single-pointed radiance of planet Venus; in the suffused interior light, soft as cornsilk. I moved slowly, touching the flowers in the room and sensing Thay in each one. Mind empty. Breathing.

Learning the exact time of his passing, ‘zero hour’ in Vietnam, I reflected on the numerology: 00:00 1/22 2022. Only three digits – 0, 1 and 2. I thought of the Triple Gem: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Or, another way to say it, wakefulness, reality and community, three legs of the same stool.

The five zeroes reminded me of the five Skandhas: Body, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness. The realization that they are empty of a separate self-nature is central to our idea of enlightenment, as expressed in the opening verse of the Heart Sutra, greatly loved and translated by Thay:

while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.

Five zeroes. I imagine Thay smiling. Smiling at his gentle reminder that nothing arises independently of anything else, that nothing is born or dies in the way we have been led to believe. The moment he chose to transform, 00:00, reminds me that Thay is not bound by time, by ‘coming or going’. We should not look for him in his body, or in a shrine. He is not there. Thay continues in a flower, a sunset, a cloud. Maybe I’m foolish to see meaning in numerals. Maybe it is just coincidence. Either way, I smile with Thay.

I smile because I remember the triple rainbow that broke out after the rain one day, just as Thay and his entourage arrived at Blue Cliff Monastery in New York from Plum Village in France. As the cars made their slow way to the meditation hall and modest hut reserved for Thay during his stays, the other staffers entered the dining hall for lunch. I hung back, then hesitantly made my way toward my teacher. I hid deep in the shadows of a small grove of trees where stone Buddhas sat silently. My beloved teacher was seated at the lotus pond, sipping tea, his monastic family arrayed joyfully around him, a tableau straight from the sutras. Living Buddha. Unbidden tears mingled with the sweetness of leftover rain dripping from the pines. I felt so unworthy witnessing this intimate scene, an intruder. Then Thay looked up. He smiled and waved to me.

Beautiful Blessed One
You marvelously sitting
at the lotus pond.
The triple rainbow of your arrival.
You, my Sky,
Full, so full
of emptiness.
this one
hiding in the shadows
of the Buddha grove.
The wave of your hand
the sun of your smile
How, how did you know
no one was there?

So much is written and will be written about our teacher. My words neither add nor subtract. For me, Thay’s passing has produced a deep calm. I hear from others who feel it too, inside their body. We feel more solid, more peaceful, more grounded, more alive than ever. So please don’t feel sorry for us or too sad about Thay.

His sangha is vast, including millions touched by his writings, retreats, dharma talks, and calligraphy. He is free, and now he has come home to every cell of our hearts. The quality of his sitting, the smile-lines around his eyes, the grace of his steps live within us.

Thay is always arriving. Now it is for us, all of us, when we feel really ready to be free, to take mindful, peaceful steps with Thay.

“The way proposed by the Buddha is to help yourself and to help the people around you. It is to practice looking more deeply in order to be liberated from these notions that are at the foundation of hate, fear, and violence.

Meditation is not an escape. It is the courage to look at reality with mindfulness and concentration. Our world needs wisdom and insight. As a teacher, as a parent, a journalist, a filmmaker, you are capable of sharing your insight so that you can wake up your nation, your people. And if your nation, your people, are awake, then your government will have to act according to the insight of the people.

Meditation is essential for our survival, our peace, our protection.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh


Excerpt: A Eulogy from Thay’s Disciples in Plum Village

Dear Thay, we honor and cherish your virtue, your ethics and your integrity. You have dug deep into your own experience and the riches of Buddhist heritage to offer us a robust code of global ethics that can guide us through even the harshest storms ahead. You have shown us how to share these “applied ethics” in families, schools, workplaces, prisons, parliaments and town halls around the world. You have shown us how to wake up and fall in love with the Earth, so we may protect and heal her with all our heart. We may spend our whole lives trying to keep up with you, dear Thay, and your vision for a future that is possible—a future whose foundation you have built step by step, breath by breath, page by page. READ THE FULL EULOGY

About Rhonda Fabian

Rhonda Fabian is Editor of Kosmos Quarterly. She is an ordained member in the Order of Interbeing, an international Buddhist community founded by her teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Rhonda is also a founding partner of Immediacy Learning, an educational media company that has impacted millions of learners worldwide.

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