Thích Nhất Hạnh (1926-2022)

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Today, I woke up with light tears and heart upon the news that my master, Thích Nhất Hạnh, has passed away at Từ Hiếu Temple in the homeland of Huế, where his spiritual journey began in 1945. It is also the homeland of my in-law family, a Buddhist heartland. Light, in the sense that he taught me that through my own practice, he will always be around in whatever form wherever I am, and wherever he is, as a cloud, raindrop, the sun, the late evening star, or a butterfly passing by to arrive gently during prayers. Whenever we breathe, walk, sit and share compassion and love for other people mindfully, he is observing us, as his continuation and spiritual children.

More intimately, people including myself call him either Thầy or Sư Ông, which both refer to as “teacher”. I will refer to him as Thầy in this post.

Thầy taught us that Buddhism is not about ‘escapism’ but self-realization as part of a selfless collective of humanity and Mother Earth; as confronting daily and lifelong difficulties and societal struggles by watering oneself and others with compassion, wisdom, and courage to overcome them; as carrying collective human and social responsibilities; and to be present and even sacrifice wherever there is oppression and suffering across political, cultural and religious spectrums. By the law of interbeing, your suffering is my suffering, and by true emptiness, no material and mental objects exist by themselves. Those form the essence of engaged Buddhism, which he initiated to reform Vietnamese Buddhism from the late 1950s through monastic, scholarly, and social activism. When the colonial struggles against France resumed in 1946 and were further extended by the neo-colonial struggles against the invading United States, his humanity was present. After 1975 and 1979, when boat refugees were in need of touching the earthly soil of empathy, care, and compassion in a world torn apart by rigidity, extremism, and division, his humanity was present. “When bombs are falling upon the heads of people, you cannot sit still in your temple“, he taught. A grassroots organization that he formed, the School of Youth and Social Service, eventually amassed over 10,000 people who rebuilt schools and villages every time that US bombings hit across the South Vietnamese countryside. He once recalled that a village was rebuilt 4 times after every bombing, driven by a persistent faith for humanity.

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In reading ‘At home in the world’, there are several stories to which I keep close to my heart. One such story was from 1976-77, in which he willingly broke the immigration laws of Singapore together with the French Ambassador to Singapore in order to prevent a boat of Vietnamese refugees from sinking in the ocean and instead anchor with the Earth’s gift for a renewed life. Anyone familiar with the boat refugee crisis between 1975 and 1991 must know that the route from Vietnam towards Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia was the most grotesque in terms of falling prey to pirates, rape, and ultimate death in the deep ocean, emptied of human empathy. He was expelled from Singapore, but saved the lives of those boat refugees.

The second story from 1947 is that of a young French and Viet Minh soldier respectively during the anti-French war of resistance. Thầy recalled: “One day, my friend (Viet Minh soldier) came to the temple where I was, and burst into tears as he embraced me. He told me that during an attack on a fortress, while he was concealed behind some rocks, he saw two young French soldiers sitting and talking. He said, “when I saw the bright, handsome, innocent faces of those boys, I couldn’t bear to open fire, dear Brother. People can label me weak and soft; they can say that if all the Viet Minh fighters were like me, it wouldn’t be long before our whole country was overtaken. But for a moment, I loved the enemy like my own mother loves me! I knew that the death of these two youngsters would make their mothers in France suffer, just as my mother had grieved for the death of my younger brother”. This story was shared with a young French soldier as follows: “So you see, that young Vietnamese soldier’s heart was filled with the love of humanity”. Before Thầy befriended with the young French soldier, the latter’s unit had once attempted to storm and attack Bảo Quốc temple, a potentially bloody scene only prevented by the soldier’s awe for the fearless tranquillity and courage of all the monks meditating in silence as the French soldiers were about to step into the meditation hall. The young French soldier first encountered Thầy from behind as the latter was walking by foot from one temple to another. But Thầy did not run away out of fear and remained calm. Would he have been shot dead by the young French soldier if he had run away in panic? This is an example of how mindfulness might have saved Thầy’s life at that scene. The name of the soldier was Daniel Maty, who later received a spiritual name (or “dharma” name given to new lay Buddhists) Thanh Lương, meaning “pure and refreshing peaceful life” after several months of receiving teachings and practicing with Thầy. Daniel was later retracted back to France, only to be sent to Algeria. What is certain, is that Daniel was transformed during his remaining months in occupied Vietnam. While Daniel was never to be heard of again, what is now certain is that Thầy and Daniel now have reunited as clouds together that never die and watching over us.

A third story is that of a teacher-pupil affection, from the book “My master’s robe: memories of a novice monk“. It is a collection of stories between Thầy and his own teacher who ordained him. I am moved to tears by the gentleness of this story whenever I return to read it again. The story, which is about his teacher mending the robe for Thầy to be ordained with, took place in the late evening before the day of Thầy’s ordination:

“My ordination was scheduled for four o’clock the next morning. That night after the Sangha’s Pure Land chanting practice, I saw my teacher sitting in his room on a cushion beside the light of a flickering candle; there was a stack of old scriptures piled high on a table next to him. He was carefully mending a tear in on an old brown robe. Despite his old age, he still had a clear vision and a straight posture. Brother Man and I stopped at the entrance and watched. As he slowly pulled the needle through the cloth, my teacher looked like a bodhisattva in deep meditation. After a moment, we entered the room and my teacher looked up. Seeing us, he nodded and then lowered his head to continue sewing a half-sewn stitch. Brother Tam Man spoke: “respected teacher, please go and rest, it is already very late.” My teacher did not look up. “Let me finish sewing this robe so that Quan (Thầy) can wear it tomorrow morning”.

Then I understood why my teacher had been sorting through his pile of old robes all afternoon; he was looking for the least worn robe to fix and make presentable for me. Tomorrow for the first time I would wear a brown robe. During the past three years, we were only allowed to wear the gray robe. Once ordained as a novice, I would be allowed to put on the precious robe that the sutras call the robe of liberation, the uniform of freedom. In a wavering voice, I said: “Respected teacher, let us ask Auntie Tu to finish the sewing”. “No, I want to sew it for you with my own hands”, he replied softly. With our arms folded in an obedient manner, we stood to one side not daring to say another word. A little later, my teacher, without raising his eyes from the needle, spoke:

“Have you heard the story in the sutra about a great disciple during the time of the Buddha who attained enlightenment just from sewing robes? Let me tell you. This disciple often found joy and peace in mending torn robes; he mended his own and also those of his Dharma brothers. Each time he passed the needle through the fabric, he gave rise to a wholesome goodness that had the power to liberate. One day, when the needle was passing through the fabric, he understood thoroughly a deep and most wonderful teaching, and in six consecutive stitches, he attained the six miraculous powers”. I turned my head and looked at my teacher with deep affection and respect. My teacher might not have attained the six miraculous powers, but he had reached a profound stage that who knew how long it would take us to achieve.

At last, the robe was mended. My teacher signaled for me to come closer. He asked me to try it on. The robe was a little too large for me, but that did not stop me from feeling so happy that I was moved to tears. I was touched. Living the path of practice, I received the most sacred kind of love, a pure love that was gentle and spacious, which nourished and made fragrant my aspiration throughout my many years of training and practice. My teacher handed me the robe. I received it knowing it was tremendous encouragement and given with a tender and discreet love. My teacher’s voice at that moment was probably the gentlest and sweetest that I had ever heard: “I mended this myself so that tomorrow you will have it to wear, my child”.

It was so simple. But I was deeply moved when I heard these words. Although my body at the time was not kneeling before the Buddha, and my mouth was not uttering the great vow to save all beings, my heart made the vast and deep vow with all sincerity to live a life of service. Since that day, I have had many new robes. Whenever I wore this robe in the past I remembered my teacher. Today, the robe is too torn to be worn, but I still hold onto it so that in moments of reflection I can look back on the beautiful memories of the past”.

Finally, Thầy’s teacher also told another story, that of Nhất Định, a venerable monk from 100 years back (around 1845) who was the Zen master who originally founded the Từ Hiếu Meditation School and temple where Thầy would begin his spiritual journey and in the end lay to rest:

Long ago, the patriarch went up to Spring of Yang Hill near to where the temple tombs now are located, chose a peaceful spot to clear, and built a hermitage where he could practice and take care of his aging mother. In this hermitage, which he named “Nourishing Peace”, he followed the Buddha’s teachings faithfully. His concentration was very deep and he wasn’t caught in anything small or petty. Even though he was a Zen master, he cared for the needs of his old mother. When living in an era where there is no Buddha, taking care of one’s parents is as virtuous and meritorious as taking care of the Buddha. One time his mother was ill and needed some nourishing food to recover. Knowing that in the past his mother liked to eat rice soup with fresh fish, he went to the market to buy fish to prepare for his mother. People were shocked to see a monk buying a fish and carrying it home, but they dared not to say anything to him, knowing that he was a high monk and could do no wrong. People didn’t understand it, however, and they gossiped about him behind his back. But the master continued to be himself in his natural, unaffected way as he walked through the streets carrying a fish home from the market. He knew what he was doing and he did not get caught in other people’s opinions of him, which were based on ignorance.

When I first heard of this story, I felt a joy that almost brought me to tears. Nhất Định demonstrated a free and liberated attitude that wasn’t bound by dogma, like a poem that a person who is caught in prejudices would never be able to live or understand.”

Across these stories that I have shared, a lesson that comes up is having an unrepentant faith in human life and capabilities across spectrums, and serves as one of many strengths needed in our current age of multiple crises of immense climatic, political, social, and human dimensions. In this context, it is worth briefly addressing his critics, communist and anti-communist alike. Mindfulness, known in Vietnamese as “thiền” or in Chinese 禅, was not invented by Thầy as commonly portrayed, but rather resurrected by him as a forgotten 2,500-year-old tradition of Buddhism at the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, known as Prince Siddharta Gautama before entering monkhood and becoming the first Buddha (“the enlightened“). As mindfulness was sidelined, the focus on rituals and individual purification has ever since made Buddhism appear supposedly not progressive in the eyes of critics, in particular in leftist circles. There is some truth to this: at the time when Buddhism spread in the present-day South Asian sub-continent (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan), it was truly revolutionary in that it advocated for democracy and equality across castes. As late as well into the 20th century, it was not without a reason that India’s intellectual and social giant, B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), of Dalit caste descent resorted to principles of Buddhism to call for the freedom of India’s Dalits. However, from the industrializing 19th century and until the present day with the ever-growing attention into class and gender liberation, Buddhism overall (across traditions) continues to lag behind, not necessarily by theory but certainly by practice. There is now ample empirical evidence to justify portraying today’s magnificent global crises, from trade to climate wars, into an all-encompassing class struggle as the power, property, consumption, and polluting emission trends and structures are dominated by the richest 1-10%. As a result, Buddhism and for that matter, Thầy’s engaged Buddhism is criticized for not taking enough into account class dimensions. Individual behaviors cannot matter alone if people begin from vastly different starting points by wealth, income, gender, race, and so forth, and it is only realistic to take class seriously as to not mistaken Thầy’s legacy as one of a “middle-class Buddhism”, especially considering the rural roots of his social activism while in Vietnam as well as his homeland’s tradition of peasant Buddhism and other folk religions that are closely attached to ordinary people at the grassroots but nevertheless also in need of modernization. However, here comes the correction. Individual purification in this context are not meant to enlighten oneself to one’s isolated self-worth, but to make one aware of and realize one’s self as being inherently attached to other people’s self. That is the law of interbeing and the law of impermanence. The belief in equality among human beings in this context is the unwavering belief that change is possible and faith in any human being’s innate nature and potential to change one’s life and the world. There is no destiny. This is one reason why mindfulness in the tradition of Thầy emphasizes “living in the present moment”, by downplaying the role of cause and effect from one’s past life into the present. One’s trajectory today and tomorrow is largely decided by your actions today. This is precisely why human suffering must be alleviated at any point in life through practical actions in the present moment, and never avoided in a false awareness about the laws of the cause and effect on the past, present and afterlife. Through this realization, one can firmly grasp that today’s climate crises especially require universal actions and solutions beyond sovereignist and nationalist perceptions. Buddhism, therefore, is inherently internationalist and universal. I fully agree with the philosopher, professor Nguyễn Hữu Liêm, on his assessment of Thầy’s legacy in the world as that being inseparably both Vietnamese and universal:

“During the course of Vietnamese history, in terms of philosophy and ethics, Vietnamese intellectuals only had exchanges with the European and American world on a one-way direction. Vietnamese culture has only imported and absorbed ideological products from the West, but there has never been a character capable of opening a stream of knowledge from Vietnam to sow the seeds of thought abroad. Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh is probably the first and only person to have done this. It is not an overly subjective assessment, but an objective academic fact. . (…) Nhất Hạnh opened the foundation of the concept of Awakening from the Zen roots of Buddhism through the lens and Zen tradition of Vietnam. Therefore, we can say that the thought and practice of Mindfulness that Nhất Hạnh initiated and preached around the world is the Vietnamese thought.

Pháp thoại cho trẻ em tại thiền đường Nước Tĩnh, xóm Thượng, Làng Mai

Hence, given the inherently internationalist and universal nature of Buddhism, can the latter’s role be treated as a complementary division of labor rather than as a contender to socialists and alike? I will be straightforward to claim that the latter do not have good historical records when it comes to combining the fight for social equality and justice with a sustained affection and kindness toward each other. To my observation, many comrades don’t treat each other well. Isn’t that a basic lack of mindfulness in speech, body, and mind? This reality is why they often, unfortunately, get labeled as equivalents to fascists for their capacity to violence, hatred, and puritanical separatism against each other within shared ideological ideals. In this context, Buddhism’s meticulously analytical theories on healing, treatment, and transformation at individual and collective levels from the perspective of the psychology of the mind can be rather supportive for a much-needed internationalist and universal cause to be built up for class and ultimately human liberation. For myself, I am a Buddhist not because I do not believe in class distinctions or the necessity of political power to solve today’s global crises, but simply because it’s where I retreat to whenever I need to further water and beam myself with the seeds of compassion, wisdom and courage, and a capacity for listening and understanding toward other fellow human beings as humanism, and which serves as a complementary identity rather than a replacement of my evolving political beliefs in social equality and justice. For instance, I still believe that politics must be in command to solve social and structural problems, and this standpoint comes from myself being willing to deviate a bit from Buddhism by theoretical causal consistency behind my spiritual beliefs as a Buddhist. Then, what about some compromise from the others? Socialism promulgates love for fellow human beings, as a matter of ethics, but not systematically and causally how for me, which is where Buddhism sustains me at least organizationally in psychology. Anyone can claim to be loving one another while, in reality, being simultaneously harmful in the name of love. As Thầy often emphasized, “love without understanding is no true love“. In order to love genuinely, one has to understand how to causally do so, starting with an awareness of the natural laws of the relationship between fellow human beings, the earth, and life, summarized as oneness. Socialism and other ideologies alone cannot solve all macro and micro-level non-materialist problems of human life and ethics, and their adherents should be willing to learn, be flexible, and become more open-minded. A socially and ecologically just society of the future is certainly not one that condones mental depression and suffering in the process of materialist-based class struggle and liberation. That brings me to a longstanding question that I do not have a clear answer yet to myself: is class liberation, as the end goal of (Marxist) socialism, truly compatible with political liberty, such as by allowing for wisdom to be applied from different philosophical and religious strands? This open-ended and unresolved question explains why Buddhism fundamentally advocates for the spirit of “trung đạo” (“the middle pathway”) as a principle of mitigating extremist temptations. It is not to replace needed socio-political interventions, but potentially incorporated as wisdom. Socialism in the 21st century and beyond cannot succeed, sustain, and continuously vitalize itself without humanism and democracy for those who suffer and toil in today’s modern society. “When will we have a society that is truly democratic, equal, and cultured? It is as if these dynamics harass me. I cannot sit still. I must continue to take a full part in life“, in the words of Nguyễn Thị Bình, a retired communist leader. Speaking of compromise and sustainability, I want to share a quote by professor Cao Huy Thuần:

But Master Nhất Hạnh is a fruit that has not fulfilled its promise with a small flower when it has just opened its buds in the garden of Từ Hiếu temple. The flower bud at that time carried a dream distinct of Vietnam, that of the dream of modernizing Buddhism so that Buddhism deserves its place in the evolution of the times. Together with Thầy, a whole generation of young people has raised that dream. With Thầy, that dream is still intact as a small flower bud in the old temple garden. Times, fear, division, and especially the outstanding but lonely personality of the Master, have made the fruit lack the unique sweetness in the homeland. The fruit has sown good seeds everywhere (around the world), but the seeds for Vietnam lack the ability to adapt to the soil, lack of favorable rain and wind. The fruit has far exceeded the promise with Từ Hiếu flower bud, but cannot help but betray the dream of the small flower in the past.

Thầy’s departure from his impermanent body is received with a light heart of relief and tears of gratitude. Light, in that there is no birth and no death, no beginning and no end, but only a transformation. Farewell, our teacher. I was blessed to have attended your lectures and retreats, as well as having taken refuge in the Three Jewels under your tradition, with your last physical presence in the summer and autumn of 2014 before you fell ill and became paralyzed until today. When I can finally return and visit Huế again, which I have been unable to due to COVID-19, I promise to visit Từ Hiếu temple and bid a belated proper farewell. For now, from far away, I wear my gentle grey lay robe of loving kindness and prostrate to you from my heart. Thank you for having come down to this world when the world’s people, in particular Vietnamese people, were the most suffering on Earth.

Muôn vàn thương nhớ và tiến biệt Thầy, một vị Bồ tát trong lòng con.

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Mourning pin: “Đến đi thong dong” (“To arrive and depart leisurely”)

Your last lesson:

I have a disciple in Vietnam who wants to build a stupa for my ashes when I die. He and others want to put a plaque with the words, “Here lies my beloved teacher.” I told them not to waste the temple land.

“Do not put me in a small pot and put me in there” I said. “I don’t want to continue like that. It would be better to scatter the ashes outside to help the trees to grow.”

I suggested that, if they still insist on building a stupa, they have the plaque say, “I am not in here.” But in case people don’t get it, they could add a second plaque, “I am not out there either.” If still people don’t understand, then you can write on the third and last plaque, “I may be found in your way of breathing and walking.”

This body of mine will disintegrate, but my actions will continue me. In my daily life I always practice to see my continuation all around me. We don’t need to wait until the total dissolution of this body to continue—we continue in every moment.

If you think that I am only this body, then you have not truly seen me. When you look at my friends, you see my continuation. When you see someone walking with compassion, you know he is my continuation.

I don’t see why we have to say “I will die,” because I can already see myself in you, in other people, and in future generations.

Even when the cloud is not there, it continues as snow or rain. It is impossible for a cloud to die. It can become rain or ice, but it cannot become nothing. The cloud does not need to have a soul in order to continue. There’s no beginning and no end. I will never die. There will be a dissolution of this body, but that does not mean my death.

I will continue, always.

Excerpted from Thich Nhat Hanh “At Home in the World: Stories & Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life” (2015)

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*This post was written on the day that Thầy passed away, on 22 January 2022 at 01:30 AM.

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