Goodbye, Thay

In the early hours of the morning, the Hong Kong Buddhist community received the sad news of Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing at midnight on the 22nd of January, 2022. He was 95.

I last saw him in 2013, on a Plum Village retreat in Thailand. As is typical of Plum Village, we happened to take refuge in the Triple Gem and receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the retreat’s conclusion. I personally see taking refuge as only necessary once, since we do so in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, not any one master. I had converted to Buddhism under my Chinese Buddhist preceptor in 2008, but looking back on my 2013 retreat, I feel extremely grateful to be a very, very small leaf of the grand Plum Village oak that now, thanks to Thay’s unmatched influence, compassionate and direct teachings, and compelling and attractive sangha organization, will stand sturdy and strong despite Thay’s departure.

Today, my social media feeds were abuzz with reflections on the Zen master’s teachings. They all struck a similar chord: recalling Thay’s gentle and vast wisdom, but tinged with inevitable, mortal sadness. Most of the posts from my friends and colleagues, many of them practicing or working in Hong Kong-based Buddhist organizations, had a similar tone. Remembering what he taught about love, gratitude, mindfulness, and forgiveness. The more academically minded opined on Thich Nhat Hanh’s irreplaceable influence on how Buddhism in the West understands itself today, and how he played an active role in shaping American opinion against the Vietnam War. Those that know their history and interfaith relations look back fondly on his meetings with Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton. Those more actively involved with the Plum Village community will have insights to share about building the centre in France, the Institutes of Applied Buddhism in Europe and Asia, and his many initiatives like the Wake Up network for young people and the Order of Interbeing.

There is a poignant, almost poetic sense in how his passing has entered our news feed and re-energized talk and discussion on the bedraggled, tortured state of the world in 2022. Most of us know that the planet as a whole, let alone humanity, is not in good form right now. So even though many of Thich Nhat Hanh’s disciples, including senior and well-versed lay practitioners, are doing their best to put Thay’s teachings into practice, there is great heartache and surely many tears.

There is nothing wrong with this. It is not deluded to feel grief. Practicing non-attachment must not be conflated with bottling up and locking in our feelings. What would Thay call genuine non-attachment? First of all, he would ask us to see him as a cloud, brushing by us in a gentle gust of the wind, reflected in the mighty, ancient sun in a humble, accidental puddle. He would say, “Thank you for missing my old body. But I’m still here: all around you, in the garden, among the trees, in the depths of the oceans and the ripples of a lake, and among the stars as the same cosmic matter that composes things that still draw breath.”

Brother Chan Phap Dung has shared, in Plum Village’s public message on Thay’s death, how the master wanted his remains to be treated: “Please do not build a stupa for me. Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside and limit who I am. I know this will be difficult for some of you. If you must build a stupa though, please make sure that you put a sign on it that says, ‘I am not in here.’ In addition, you can also put another sign that says, ‘I am not out there either,’ and a third sign that says, ‘If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.’”

I am not in here.

I am not out there either.

If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.

He is still here, in our breath and in the steps we take. Our breathing and walking should therefore be tranquil and kind. My favourite phrase about Thay’s presence is that of “no coming, no going” in the Plum Village song. It is one that goes beyond duality. Some of us might be singing this song among others to ourselves now, as we await the formal commemorative events to be streamed on Plum Village’s various outlets today. When I recall this phrase, I also remember the title of Thay’s biography of the Buddha: Old Path White Clouds. The master has re-joined the old path.

He is the white cloud in the sky now.

No coming, no going
No after, no before
I hold you close to me
I release you to be so free
Because I am in you and you are in me
Because I am in you and you are in me

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