A Supreme Teacher Continues on...
Thich Nhat Hanh, 1926-2022 (Graphic: Brian Covert / Photo: PVCEB)
A Native American brother weeps hot tears of rage as he recalls his time in “that mess” that was the American war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. “The Creator didn’t put us here for this,” he says, choking back tears. In the space of a couple minutes, he then recites the violent history of the USA better than any history book ever could.
It is August 2002, nearly a year after 11 September 2001, and the Native brother is participating in a sangha, or community, of Vietnam war veterans organized by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh at Stonehill College, a private Catholic school located in Easton, Massachusetts. Like me, Nhat Hanh was in the United States at the time of 9/11 and saw firsthand the dangerous wave of fear, ignorance and hate that quickly rose up throughout the land: A “war on terrorism” was officially declared, the nation of Afghanistan was soon invaded and now the U.S. government was preparing for a second invasion in Iraq.
But instead of succumbing to that fear, paranoia and self-righteous hatred sweeping across America, Nhat Hanh chose to face the beast and offer a path in a different direction — to peace, understanding and reconciliation — by allowing broken American military veterans the chance to tell their stories to the world so that all could understood the root causes of this violence the USA kept engaging in.
I heard the deeply moving testimony of these veterans broadcast over the airwaves on radio station KMUD in Humboldt County, northern California, around the first anniversary of 9/11 in a program titled “Seekers of the Truth: The Veterans’ Sangha”. It was a revelation for me, the first time I really sat up and took notice of what a great teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was.
The venerable Buddhist monk, author, poet and peace activist passed away on 22 January at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam at age 95. One of the earliest reports of his death, filed by the Associated Press (AP) in Hanoi, Vietnam summed up nicely how Thich Nhat Hanh had lived and died: “It was a quiet, simple end to an extraordinary life, one entirely in keeping with his love for taking joy from the humblest aspects of life.”
In all the well-deserved reverence and mourning of his passing by many around the globe, however, what seems to get overlooked is the fact that Thich Nhat Hanh was, at heart, a supreme teacher. The Buddhist spiritual tradition was the curriculum he used, his own life was the example he taught by and the whole world was his classroom.
Take his Stonehill College appearance, for instance. As he did in many cities in many countries over the years, he led the Stonehill audience in the art of meditating while walking — he called it “walking meditation,” the act of being acutely aware of all that is going on inside and outside of you with each step you take. He would do the same meditations with foreign audiences that he would do every day with hundreds of monastic disciples at his own Buddhist temple, which at the time was the Plum Village monastery in France that he had founded in the early 1980s.
Here is Thich Nhat Hanh leading a group on a walking meditation in 2002 on the Stonehill College campus, where he held that memorable U.S. veterans’ sangha that was later broadcast over the radio:
The life he lived was, as the AP reported, an extraordinary one. He became a Buddhist monk at age 16, grew into an outspoken peace activist against the American war in his native Vietnam and ended up being exiled for decades from his country. He refused to be silenced, though. He opened a new monastery at Plum Village and other places (including in the U.S.) and even founded a publishing company, Parallax Press, to help spread the Buddhist message of mindfulness more widely. He understood the power of the media in reaching people.
Nhat Hanh befriended the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the mid-1960s and was nominated by Dr. King for the upcoming 1967 Nobel peace prize. (The Nobel committee decided not to issue any prize at all that year.) Nhat Hanh was, according to all accounts, devastated by Dr. King’s assassination. In many ways, Nhat Hanh picked up the mantle from where Dr. King had dropped it and continued on with many of the ideals for peace, social justice and higher love that he and Dr. King both preached and practiced.
Several decades later as an elder, Nhat Hanh had a severe stroke in 2014 that left him mostly immobile and unable to speak. The silencing of his voice was done by age, long after the governments of Vietnam, the U.S. and others had tried and failed to silence him. He spent the last years of his life at Tu Hieu Temple, the root temple where he first started out as a young monk.
Much is being made in the news media of Thich Nhat Hanh ranking second in popularity to the Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama, who, as an elder himself, continues living in exile in India. But that comparison is quite misleading: The Dalai Lama espouses Tibetan Buddhism; Nhat Hanh carried out Zen Buddhism in the traditional Vietnamese way. The Dalai Lama is more of a religious leader, while Nhat Hanh was always a spiritual teacher. There is no numerical ranking between them — they both stand shoulder to shoulder as two of the most admired religious figures in modern history.
Certainly by me they do, and I know by millions of others of various religious faiths around the planet as well. For me personally, as one who walks the Buddhist path, Thich Nhat Hanh was a spiritual father I could indeed be proud of and his beloved community of Plum Village monastics was, and still is, a true family in every respect. Had I not gone into the field of journalism/mass media many years ago at a young age, it is quite possible I would have eventually found my way into Buddhist spiritual service as a monastic training under Thich Nhat Hanh.
He was known affectionately and respectfully as Thay, the Vietnamese word for “teacher”. That’s as it should be. He was always a teacher whose effectiveness was in communicating ancient ideas of spirituality in modern ways. Like any good teacher does in any field of study, he simply pointed out the way and let his “students” discover the life lessons for themselves. He did it extremely well. The tributes for him that are pouring in from the four corners of the Earth are a testament to that.
Life and death, he often reminded folks, were part of the same “continuation” of existence, be it in physical or spiritual form. As long as people were carrying on in his spirit, he would still be there with them. And as usual, the supreme teacher was right. As he continues on the journey, he is as much with us today following his passing into the Otherworld as he was in the physical life — and will no doubt stay that way for a long, long time.