Healing for the Healer

He is said to be the only person who Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. personally nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thich Nhat Hanh is a master teacher in the Zen Buddhist religious tradition, an exile from his native Vietnam, an accomplished author and world-renowned peace activist, and the type of person we would all consider to be a good human being.

He is also now, at age 89, bedridden and recovering from a severe stroke that he suffered about a year ago. He has come out of a coma, and with the help of qualified medical professionals and the love of his Buddhist students and colleagues, he is slowly learning to do basic things like move his body and speak words again.

The man who has given the better part of his life to sharing the Buddhist spiritual ideals to help heal that which ails us — our own fragile egos and selfish human desires, in other words — is now the one who needs some healing. Could we find some time and space in our busy lives for that?

I can. Master Thay (the Vietnamese word for “teacher”), as he is affectionately known, has been regularly in my thoughts and my nightly prayers since I, like many others around the world, received the jolting news that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage in November 2014. We seemed to hold our collective breath until word came that he would live after all, though just barely.

I look back on his life with humility and respect. This was the man who spoke out, like many other Buddhists in Vietnam, at the risk of their own lives against the U.S. genocide in their country during the Vietnam war (but which the Vietnamese people have always referred to as the “American war”).

During a trip to the United States in 1965, Nhat Hanh wrote and sent a letter to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., calling for him as a man of peace to join the masses of people worldwide who were raising their voices against the Vietnam war. “I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights,”
Nhat Hanh wrote to King, “you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people.”

King understood. A Nobel Peace Prize recipient himself from just a few years before, King in turn nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the peace prize in early 1967. “[C]onferring the Prize on Nhat Hanh would itself be a most generous act of peace,” King
told the Nobel prize committee in Oslo, Norway. “It would remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction. It would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace. It would help to revive hopes for a new order of justice and harmony.”

The Nobel committee ended up giving nobody the peace prize that year — a sign, perhaps, of just how divided the whole planet was over the U.S. killing in Vietnam. In any case, Rev. King went on to speak out against the war, and was assassinated exactly one year to the day after he first did.

A few years later Nhat Hanh was barred from returning to his country, with the South Vietnamese government considering him a traitor of the highest order. Nhat Hanh spent most of his years in exile in France, where he went on to co-found
Plum Village, a Buddhist meditation center and retreat that has been his home base ever since. (He later founded a few such Buddhist study/retreat centers in the U.S. as well, most notably the Deer Park Monastery in California, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York state and Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi.)

He also founded a publishing company,
Parallax Press, for helping to spread the word of the Buddhist teachings, and in so doing, has gained a worldwide following of loyal readers, of which I proudly include myself. As a Buddhist (though not of the Zen school), I have always respected Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep understanding of the causes of human suffering — and the path of reflection and reconciliation that he wisely promotes as a positive way forward in his writings.

He was transferred from France to the United States for physical therapy following his debilitating stroke a year ago, and is reportedly making slow but steady progress. His loving circle of supporters call this progress his “continuation” — a beautiful way of putting it, I thought. The wise elder, in just being alive, is continuing his lifework one small step at a time. Read this emotion-filled
update on Nhat Hanh’s progress as of a couple of months ago for the latest news on his continuation at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

For those who would like to donate or contribute something tangible, as I have, toward Thich Nhat Hanh’s medical treatment and physical therapy,
you can do so here. And if the spirit moves you, as it often does me, you can always send your own wishes and prayers for Master Thay’s recovery via the direct line (that is, your mind).

In the meantime, there is a treasure trove of information about Thich Nhat Hanh on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to read or watch them. One of the interviews I like best is one that U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey did with him a few years ago — one of the highlights of Winfrey’s long and storied career, in my opinion.
(video version here) (print version here)

This blog space you are now visiting, dear reader, is not only a place where I can rant and rave about all the important goings-on of the world (which, as time goes on, I think are not really so important in the long view of things). No, this blog space is also intended to be a place where I can help send out some positive vibes to the people, and help spread a little love and light around whenever possible. And this is one of those times.

Thich Nhat Hanh stands as one of the great spiritual leaders of our time, and he has done it all with compassion, humility, perseverance and grace, and without resorting to philosophical dogmatism, religious fundamentalism or any other kind of “-ism”. All have been welcomed in his house, and many around the world — regardless of religious faith or spiritual belief — have indeed been healed in some way, thanks to his writings and spoken words.

Decades ago, when a world at war with itself most needed a gentle, wise soul of a healer, it got one in the person of Thich Nhat Hanh. Now that the healer himself needs healing, we can be there to send some back to him. Let us do so in whatever way feels right to each one of us, and make his “continuation” on this path of life that much more joyous in the precious time that this wise elder still has left with us.
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