Dear Thay, my teacher, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh died on the 22 01 2022 in Hue, Vietnam, the place he was also born on 11 10 1926. He was 95 years old and his life and legacy will live on through everyone touched by his teachings. His impact is immeasurable and I am inexpressibly grateful to have been lucky enough to know him. This blog is my attempt to outline something of this and to mark his passing. I have organised a mindful walk to remember him too. The details are here.
The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism announced that beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh passed away on 22 January 2022 in Vietnam
It was around 9pm on the 21 January 2022 at home in Belfast that I heard the news. Several friends messaged to tell me, I checked the Plum Village website and saw it was true. The news was all over social media. At the same time my family was just receiving the news that my dad’s open heart surgery (a triple bypass) that was taking place in Dublin that day was finally over. It’s a 6-8 hour surgery and we were waiting to hear all day how it went. He was due for the operation at 1pm but there were delays…
Also at the same time my wee 7 month old baby was fighting her sleep with tears…
More messages came in. People asked if I was ok and expressed sympathy. Several wrote how grateful they were to me for introducing them to Thay.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s calligraphy ‘a cloud never dies’
Everyone who knows me, even if just via social media knows that Thay had a HUGE impact on my life. I essentially fell in love him and his community when I first saw him in Plum Village (the community he founded in 1982 in South West France) in July 2005. It’s hard to explain but as I remember on my first day there I took part in the daily walking meditation. Half way we all sat down around the lotus pond in Lower Hamlet. I’d never seen lotuses before. I was wearing sunglasses, it was so hot and sunny. Thay seemed to sit opposite me. He never spoke there was at least 500 people there. My heart opened, tears ran down my cheeks. I don’t know why or how that happened except to say I was profoundly moved by his presence and by the whole experience. By the end of that retreat I’d had such a wonderful time I vowed to return to Plum Village every year, and I did until 2019.
As well as following Thay and the international sangha to retreats around the world, in the US, Europe and Vietnam (including being there with him in 2007 at his exquisite ‘root Temple’ in Huê the place where his body now rests). I also attended the Ireland the UK retreats and the most wonderful day for me when he came to Belfast (at my invitation via Mindfulness Ireland) in April 2012.
Bridgeen sitting with Thay in Parliament Buildings Stormont at the event she organised 17 April 2012
But on Friday night with news of his passing I was and am ok. I’m ok because of what Thay taught me. I was able to stay calm because of what Thay taught me. And I am able to think about his death as a continuation of his life because of his own words and teachings. I feel very connected to the Plum Village community internationally, and I feel very connected to my local friends and practioners here. I am so lucky to teach mindfulness and get the chance to share Thay’s words most days. As long as I am breathing I will always have Thay with me. I feel him alive in me when I practice. I will use some of this blog for Thay’s own words on death and impermanence as nothing I can say can explain it like my Master.
‘I will never die’ Thich Nhat Hanh
It is not an exaggeration to say that my life changed completely from the time I met Thay. Maybe not overnight and maybe not that you could necessarily see, but since meeting Thay I found the path of mindfulness, I found my path in life. I found a guide, a support, a community. I feel so grateful. I wonder what I would be like if I hadn’t have met him? Its hard to imagine.
Thanks to Thay and the Plum Village community I’m now a mindfulness teacher. I am an ordained lay member of the Order of Interbeing (True Profound Happiness is my name) and I have the privilege and honour of sharing Thays teachings with others. My contribution is small on the global scale where Thay has had such an impact but I know that each person who practices, each mindful step or mindful breath connects us to Thay and his life. As he said ‘my life is my message’. In each moment of his life he practiced what he taught. He breathed, sat and walked mindfully. He gardened, wrote poetry and addressed parliaments mindfully. He wrote over 100 books and established 9 mindfulness practice centres (Buddhist monasteries) across the world.
He taught and practiced engaged Buddhism, helping refugees (the boat people) from Vietnam not just praying and wishing but my organising practical help on the ground and speaking and negotiating with officials and governments. He didn’t stay in the temple and pray we went into the world working mindfully and peacefully. He taught activists to ‘be peace’ rather than protest for peace. He taught right up until he had a stroke in November 2014 and he still taught through his presence and will even though he couldn’t talk or walk after that.
He teaches me now as I cope with a new born and a new life as a mummy. He’s teachings are practical and applicable to daily life as well as monastic life. His teachings a full of love and infinite compassion. Often just his ‘gathas’ (or slogans) written in calligraphy on a postcard stuck up in my house help me. ‘Understanding is love’ helped my relationship several times!
He travelled the world speaking and teaching to business leaders and devotees and his teachings were so simple they could easily be missed: ‘breath in, breath out’ he said.
I remember the first Plum Village event I organised in Belfast in 2009. A friend who came to it said ‘yeah Bridgeen I get it, breath in, breath out’. But I knew she didn’t really get it… It is as simple as that but also not that simple…
When Thay says it, you get it. Breath in with mindfulness, with full attention, gentleness and reverence for the breath, Breath out with kindness, awareness, and concentration on the body. He says this but only actually saying with feeling ‘breath in, breath out’. It’s hard to explain so here he is leading a meditation on the breath. Try it
I learnt mindfulness in Plum Village the way a child learns to walk naturally and without great effort, I just kinda picked it up from the environment around me. How fortunate to have had the chance to study and practice with this beautiful community for so many years.
A zen monk from another tradition was a bit baffled by my love and devotion to Thay and Plum Village and he asked me ‘what is it that you find so appealing?’ I answered him that ‘it makes me happy to know such a place exists. That there is such a place as Plum Village in this world, that it is ‘real’ gives me hope for the world.’
Now that I have a baby daughter Plum Village’s continued existence, continues to fill me with hope. I want her to live and grow up in a world where love and understanding are cultivated. Where there are concreate practices for developing love, kindness, compassion and mindfulness. That there is a community of people devoting their life to that cultivation is beyond inspiring in my view. I went to so many Plum Village events the Sisters often asked when I would become a nun and some suggested I should…. I didn’t have that level of commitment, not in this life but I feel blessed beyond expression that I found Plum Village that I was lucky enough to meet Thay and travel round the world like a groupie for years attending retreats, cultivating joy and sowing seeds of mindfulness.
I know that Plum Village, Deer Park, the EIAB and all the other practices centres will continue beautifully into the future because although Thay’s physical body is not here his spiritual body is, his community continues as each of us practice. As he shared in his book At Home In The World”
I have a disciple in Vietnam who wants to build a stupa for my ashes when I die. He and others want to include 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 people still 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 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 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.
Tributes to Thay have come in from all over the world from ordinary people and famous celebrities. I particularly appreciated the condolence message from the Dalai Lama who said: “ I have no doubt the best we can pay tribute to him is to continue his work to promote peace in the world.”
One of Thay’s most famous gathas is ‘peace in oneself, peace in the world’. I will continue to practice mindful breathing and to try to cultivate peace in myself and to help others do the same through my classes and offerings from Immeasurable Minds.
To Thay’s beautiful continuation with deepest bows of gratitude, respect and love.
You can find details of the ceremonies to honour Thich Nhat Hanh here and can read about his life here.
You may be interested in some of my previous posts about Thay like this one: Thich Nhat Hanh said six words to me