Present, Everywhere and Always: Plum Village Takes Thich Nhat Hanh’s Message to Hong Kong’s Buses

Throughout Thich Nhat Hanh’s voluminous collection of writings on how to see deeply into the nature of life and death, a consistent theme has always remained. It has been to encourage his students to realize that no one is ever truly gone. To say “a cloud never dies” is not intended to be a mere coping mechanism for the bereaved. It is a glimpse into how reality works. It is a simple statement that leads us to correctly perceive how Thay continues to be present in the life of Plum Village, and indeed, all who come into contact with his teachings after his physical departure. In fact, even this idea of a “physical” death is mistaken, illusory, if our minds are mindful enough to pay attention. He is everywhere, just as we all will be upon our own deaths.

To commemorate Thay’s birthday this month on the 11th, Plum Village’s Hong Kong chapter (PVHK) sponsored the placement of sticker banners inside the interiors of 20 buses owned by KMB, one of Hong Kong’s major bus companies. This was done with the help of Ven. Chang Lin and friends at KMB. A decade ago, in the early days of PVHK’s beginnings at a small center in downtown Tsim Sha Tsui, it was inconceivable that a fleet of buses would see the presence of any Buddhist organization. Even today, it remains an acute rarity and is an innovative method of spreading Thay’s message (complete with a QR code) on the go for an increasingly distracted, smartphone-focused, attention-fickle public.    

Image courtesy of PVHK

Alternately reading “Peace in Oneself, Peace in the World,” and “Peace begins with your lovely smile,” the banners’ messages are tailored for the busy commuter likely to be riding on one of these buses. The stickers express two of Thich Nhat Hanh’s core messages: that a peaceful world is impossible without interior tranquility, and that such a peace must begin with your own smile. Thay has written extensively about smiles, perhaps more than many traditional Buddhist teachers. He once said: “Smiling is a practice. There are over three hundred muscles in your face. When you are angry or fearful, these muscles tense up. The tension in these muscles creates a feeling of hardness. If you know how to breathe in and produce a smile, however, the tension will disappear – it is what I call ‘mouth yoga.’ Make smiling an exercise. Just breathe in and smile – the tension will disappear and you will feel much better.”

Yesterday, at one of KMB’s bus depots, I attended a tour and sharing session by several of PVHK’s practicing members. The group was treated to a small tour inside one of KMB’s double decker buses. Some of them were recent inductees into Thay’s community, while several others have been long-time members of PVHK. They come from all walks of life, with different interests and preoccupations. However, everyone was a passenger aboard the Dharma bus. The sangha members sang Plum Village songs, listened to a meditation track with Thay’s voice, and shared their feelings upon practicing as a group inside one of these “Plum Village buses.” One member said that she shed tears upon hearing Thay’s familiar spoken words, while others expressed their profound gratitude at the shared energy of the assembled Dharma friends. It was an altogether different experience to enjoy group practice on a double decker, even as gatherings become more commonplace with Hong Kong’s reopening. The physical reminders of Thay’s teachings represented, in their own small way, his enduring presence and the idea that he is everywhere, always.

Image courtesy of PVHK

The art of a simple smile is more important than ever: for those of us who live with worries and burdens every day, and those of us who have lost loved ones (essentially, everyone!). There are also those students that miss Thich Nhat Hanh, including myself, having undertaken the Five Mindfulness Trainings back in 2013. It is difficult to overstate the importance Thay places on smiling in our daily lives, including on our busy commute. “Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy,” he once wrote. “The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.” Amidst the alienation and stress of the busy cityscape, this initiative by PVHK reminds commuters to attend to themselves, to see themselves as agents of enlightened activity. We, too, like Thay, will be clouds in the sky, and we can find simple reasons to smile every day we wake up. If we can put his exhortations into practice, our sincere smiles will be one of the things that bring peace to the world.

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Dandelion has my smile (Awakin)

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