A Letter to Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay)

We will meet at the source of each moment, and we will meet again in different forms of life.”

Dear Thay,

In deep gratitude for meeting Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. 

Thay, it has been some time since you passed away. Still, your memory remains more alive than ever. I still remember the morning of the funeral ceremony; I watched the live broadcast at the Lotus Pond Temple in Ngong Ping, and said goodbye to you from Hong Kong, where you have many followers, a good portion of them that are younger people.

I remember that in 2001, it was here, at Lotus Pond Temple, that I met you and your sangha for the first time. After your Dharma talk, another practitioner and I accompanied the Sangha back to the hotel. You were waiting for the elevator, and when you saw us, you smiled and joined palms, and we bowed in return.

These few seconds of contact are deeply imprinted in my heart.

Watching the flame and chatting with Thay, Blue Cliff Monastery, Pine Bush, NY in 2007. Image courtesy of the author

In 2007, after the retreat at Blue Cliff Practice Center in the United States, I followed the Sangha to Plum Village in France, where I had the opportunity to live with Thay for a while. There were not many people in the practice center at that time, only the monastic sangha and a few laypeople. Everyone was very laid back and could meet Thay at any time. Sometimes, Thay went to the kitchen to watch us prepare food, ate with everyone in the dining room. At other times, we saw Thay appreciate nature or swinging on his favorite hammock.

Every time we met, we both joined palms together (means to offer you a lotus flower). You didn’t say much. Before breakfast, at the entrance of the dining hall, Thay would pat me and say, “Go inside and have some breakfast!” Once, after breakfast, Thay was very interested and sang the songs of childhood with a childish look on his face. We seemed to see you as a child. Another time, Thay suggested that it was better to go to the residence of the brothers to drink tea, they went and prepared right away, so that soon everyone enjoyed tea, and the fun of being with each other.

One time, I asked you the Chinese translation of a word. I passed you the manuscript, and you said you would read it at night. The next day, I was helping in the kitchen, you patted me, turned out to return my manuscript, and then said, “I wrote it here, do you think it is OK?”

You ended up writing three Chinese words for “Noble Sangha.” I still remember it clearly. I was so moved, and I deeply felt your love for me: the love between teacher and student, your commitment and humility.

Look at the tree and the cloud at Blue Cliff Monastery, Pine Bush, NY. Image courtesy of the author

One morning, we followed you to the woods in the distance for walking meditation, accompanied by many others. When I went back to Blue Cliff Practice Center, the Sangha arranged for me and another practitioner to take a car. The friend who was driving was a practitioner from Dharma Drum Mountain Practice Center. We visited this neighborhood Practice Center on the way, and then when our friend drove us back, he wanted to drop by to visit Thay. It was a bit sudden. At that time, we could not inform the Sangha in advance. We didn’t know if the Sangha would be tired, need a rest, or would be inconvenient, so we felt a little troubled. After returning to Blue Cliff Practice Center, we invited fellow practitioners to stroll outside the center, while I went to the dining hall to seek for help. I met Sister Ding Nghiem. After she comforted me, she asked Thay for instructions and arranged for everyone to have tea with Thay. I think it is important to communicate in advance, rather than taking guests back rashly. But Thay and the Sangha not only did not blame me, but resolved the problem in a calm and amiable way.

When leaving the United States, the plane was delayed, and Thay said that we would still arrive at the airport as scheduled. After completing the formalities, Thay made use of the time to talk with different disciples. Thay did that every time the sangha travelled. Compared to seeing the hurried and impatient faces at the airport, seeing Thay sitting gracefully, walking calmly, and the care that naturally showed when communicating with the disciples, my heart was also quiet.

When I was in transit at a French airport, I knew there was a strike. Our group of more than 20 had to switch to trains. Since we did not buy train tickets in advance, our seats were scattered. Sister Chan Khong was very considerate. Knowing that I did not understand French, Sister Dinh Nghiem was specially arranged to sit with me.  At that time, many passengers slammed their tickets like us, and the situation at the train station was chaotic. Once again, I followed Thay and the Sangha, walking peacefully, sitting and enjoying bread and chips in the crowded and chaotic environment.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to be close to Thay during this time. When I returned to Plum Village in France, I was also impressed by the contact with Thay outside the retreat period. One day, Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and one or two disciples were sitting on the grass, and I happened to pass by. After I joined palms to you, I was ready to move on. At this time, Sister Chan Khong asked me about the translation of her book into Chinese. Just when I didn’t know how to answer, Thay pointed to the earth and the sky and said, “Look at the flower, look at the cloud.” Thank you, Thay, for taking us back to the present moment.

Walking on Mindfulness Road at Blue Cliff Monastery, Pine Bush, NY. Image courtesy of the author

By the time I was at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany, I had just finished cleaning. I put the vacuum cleaner back to the utility room, and when I looked back, I saw Thay standing behind, joined palms and smiled, and Thay patted me on the head. Before that moment, I hadn’t seen Thay for a while. You were still so kind and warm, and I knew you were there with me.

Goodbye, Thay! “We will meet at the source of every present moment, and we will meet again in different forms of life.”

I know that in every mindful breath and every mindful step I take, Thay is with me. My practice is your continuation.

In deep bow with gratitude,
True Sangha Fragrance (Anita)
11 April 2022 (first written on 23 January 2022)

Anita Wong studied with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Sangha during the early days of its establishment in Hong Kong, and was one of the first members who assisted in the spread of the community and its practice in the Asian financial hub.

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