When I heard this week that the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh had died I felt a pang of sadness. I paused for a moment and thought of all the little and large ripples of kindness, compassion and peace he sent into the world. He was a rare and precious person, who relieved the suffering of so many during his time on this planet.
I personally have been strongly influenced by his teachings, which have often been a source of inspiration and wisdom for me. I look around my home, and see little reminders of his lessons.
This photo hangs on my refrigerator:
And this bookmark is often in use:
This calligraphy done by him was a gift to me, and hangs in my home. I try to remember to embody the lesson it offers.
I try to remember most days, a little lesson of his that goes something like, “Everyday be grateful you do not have a toothache.” This reminder to notice the absence of suffering and the presence of health in one’s life has been a powerful teaching for me.
The meditation poem, also known as a gatha, that we teach at the Koru Center, is an adaptation from one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s many poems. Our version goes like this:
As we learned from Thich Nhat Hanh, we teach our students to link these words to their breath, as a way of helping them anchor their attention in the present moment.
A Life of Service
Thich Nhat Hanh spent his whole life leaning into the suffering of others, engaging in ways that most of us would fear, to offer compassion and cultivate peace everywhere he went.
He became a novice monk at age 16 in his home country of VietNam. When the war in VietNam began to rip through his country, he founded the Engaged Buddhism movement, and put his beliefs and values to work, serving the hungry and wounded all around him. The suffering he saw motivated him to become an activist for peace, a calling he followed his entire life.
In one of his many books, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, he said:
“I grew up in a time of war. There was destruction all around – children, adults, values, a whole country. As a young person I suffered a lot. Once the door of awareness has been opened, you cannot close it. The wounds of war in me are still not all healed. There are nights I lie awake and embrace my people, my country, and the whole planet with my mindful breathing.”
His capacity to turn his experience of overwhelming trauma into a life of service, seems nearly miraculous.
In 1966, on a mission to end the violence in his country, he traveled to the US. While there, he met with Martin Luther King who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize and famously said of him, “He is an Apostle of Peace and Non Violence.”
As a result of this trip, he was exiled from his beloved home country, and was unable to return to VietNam for 39 years.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a poet, writer, scholar, teacher and activist. It is hard to imagine, much less describe, all that he accomplished in his life. He lectured at famous universities, he established monasteries all over the world, he worked with political and business leaders to help them understand the path of peace. Those who met him personally say he had an aura of gentleness and kindness that drew people to him, and made them want to be kind, too. He touched the lives of thousands with his message of peace and love for all.
At the Koru Center, we talk a lot about the value of planting seeds. You never know what will happen when you plant a seed, but if you plant a lot of them, you will eventually cultivate some truly beautiful fruit. Thich Nhat Hanh was a master seed planter and cultivator. His passing is a tremendous loss to the world, but there is no doubt that the impact of his life and teachings will continue to grow, and spread.
Perhaps we can each honor his life today, taking the time to plant a tiny seed by offering an act of kindness or generosity to someone in need. And if it fits for you, with a smile on your face, take a moment and notice that you do not have a toothache.