I will continue to be. But you have to be very careful to see me. I will be a flower or a leaf. I will be in those forms and send you a greeting. If you are aware enough, you will recognize me, and you will be smiling at me. I will be very happy about it.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
Valley Insight would like to add its voice to the world-wide community of voices celebrating the life and observing the passing of beloved Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. His influence is enormous; he has changed the way many of us conceive of ourselves, our communities, our purpose, our very being.
Oren Jay Sofer wrote: “It would be difficult to overstate the tremendous impact Thich Nhat Hanh had on modern Buddhism. Known affectionately as ‘Thây’ by his students and community, he was a living embodiment of the Buddha’s teachings whose commitment to peace and justice through nonviolent action gave birth to what we know today a[s] ‘Engaged Buddhism.’ His prolific spiritual teachings (from popular, accessible works to nuanced translations of classical Buddhist texts), his innovative spirit of creativity (he taught songs and hugging meditation), his direct work for peace and justice, and his deep compassion touched millions.” It was Thich Nhat Hanh’s rendering of the Buddhist fourth ethical precept, Sofer says, which first inspired him to take on the deep practice of Right Speech.
Thich Nhat Hanh was born Nguyn Dinh Lang in Hué, Vietnam, on October 11, 1926. At age 16, he entered the monastery at Tu Hieu Temple in Vietnam. After receiving training in Vietnamese Mahayana and Thien Buddhist traditions, he was ordained as a monk in 1951, and received the name Thich Nhat Hanh.
He is credited by many with bringing the concept of mindfulness to the West. The Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation website says: “While there is no universal definition of ‘mindfulness,’ Thich Nhat Hanh often describes it as ‘being aware of what is happening inside and around you in the present moment.’ ” And then, he taught us, we must combine that mindfulness with social engagement to address political issues, and most importantly, to alleviate the suffering of all those who are swept up in the wake of war, poverty, political repression.
Buddhism means to be awake—mindful of what is happening in one’s body, feelings, mind and in the world. If you are awake, you cannot do otherwise than act compassionately to help relieve suffering you see around you. So Buddhism must be engaged in the world. If it is not engaged, it is not Buddhism.
Thich Nhat Hanh was the head of the Order of Interbeing, a monastic and lay group founded in 1966, which emphasized that we are not just individuals but are all “interconnected parts of the fabric of life” (Vishvapani Blomfield, The Guardian).
Denied permission to return to Vietnam in 1973—because he wouldn’t take sides in the war—Thich Nhat Hanh was granted asylum in France, which led to the founding, with Sister Chan Khong, of Plum Village in 1982. Deer Park Monastery, his first monastery in America, was established in southern California in 2000, and since then many dharma centers across the US, serving tens of thousands of lay students, have been established as part the Order of Interbeing. For a few years in the early 2000s, there was one such a community in the Upper Valley—with a large retreat center in Hartland and small monastery in Woodstock. Though the center is gone, the associated sitting group still meets weekly in Norwich and offers periodic programs and retreats.
In all of his work, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that our practice calls us to connect with one another:
The peace we seek cannot be our personal possession. We need to find an inner peace which makes it possible for us to become one with those who suffer, and to do something to help our brothers and sisters, which is to say, ourselves (from The Sun My Heart, quoted in the LA. Times).
In his book At Home in the World, published in 2016, Thich Nhat Hanh addressed his inevitable death:
This body of mine will disintegrate, but my actions will continue me…. If you think 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 mindfulness and 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 the 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.