Thay’s Continuation

My teacher Thich Nhat Hanh passed away a few days ago. His students lovingly call him “Thay” (pronounced “tie”), which means teacher in Vietnamese. Thay changed my life, and my deepest aspiration is to be a beautiful continuation of him.

I first went to Plum Village in May 2002. I went for 3 days. I had never heard of Thich Nhat Hanh. I started meditating a year or two earlier and, when I mentioned to a friend I was going to France, she asked if I was going to go to Plum Village. “What’s that?” I asked. “I don’t know, but I hear it’s good,” she replied.

So there I was at Plum Village, not many people there. I was the only guest to arrive that week, so I got a 1-on-1 orientation with a monk. He told me the way most people approach being happy is to ask what they like, and then try and put that into their life. The problem, he said, is that happiness is only available in the present moment, and so that leaves you always chasing future happiness.

A better approach, he said, is to simply enjoy whatever is going on in the present moment. For example, when we wash dishes, we are usually thinking about something else. What if, instead, we focused on the sensations of washing the dishes – the feel of the warm, sudsy water on our hands, seeing the dishes coming clean, the sensation of breathing. When we walk, we can really be there with the walking. Or brushing our teeth. Or whatever we’re doing.

“Okay,” I thought. “I’m here, I’ll give it a try.” I did that for 3 days. When I left, I couldn’t get the smile off my face. I drove for 2 hours without the radio. Just silence. I was so happy!!

That first retreat, I did attend a Dharma talk of Thay’s, but he was talking about the sunshine and the flowers and it went over my head. When I got home, I went to buy a book of his that the monks had recommended. I was surprised when I asked at the book store, and the clerk pointed me to the Thich Nhat Hanh section. I read he was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize. “That guy?”

Well, I went back to Plum Village for a week that fall, joined a local sangha, and Thay became my teacher.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are central to the Plum Village practice. In the tradition, you can “take” the trainings, meaning you vow to practice them and you get a Dharma name. In 2005, I decided to take them at a retreat with Thay at Bishops University in Quebec. I was unsure though, about the 3rd Mindfulness Training. At the time, it included the statement “I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment.”

Well, I am a gay man, and I was single. This made no sense to me. Gay men just didn’t wait that long to have sex. Having sex was part of the “getting to know you” process. Often the first part!

Thay was leading a Q&A session on the Five Mindfulness Trainings. So I decided to ask him whether I should take the 3rd. Explaining to Thay in front of 600 people that I wanted to have casual sex made me awfully nervous, but I was determined to understand what I should do.

I got in line, but as Thay answered others, it became clear he wouldn’t get to me. Still, I waited. Asked about not drinking alcohol or other intoxicants, he said even if we can handle it ourselves, we may inadvertently encourage others who couldn’t handle it. All his answers focused on protecting self and others from suffering. Every word he said was filled with the energy of love, and I could feel that energy inside of me. I knew he would want me to take all five trainings. I had my answer.

As he talked, my heart opened wide. It was incredible. I loved everyone and everything and was in a state of absolute bliss, with no sense of needing anything for myself.

As Thay left the stage, he stopped, turned, smiled at me, and resumed walking.

In the years since then, I was in Thay’s presence many times, spending long periods at Plum Village, attending over 150 Dharma talks. He walks in the hall following his breath and his steps. He does not stop. He does not look left or right. He does not smile at people. Same thing when he walks out.

Should I Be a Monk?

My longest retreat at Plum Village was 6 months in 2009. By the end of it, I was seriously considering becoming a monk. In fact, I was pretty sure. At my last Dharma talk with Thay, he was talking about God. Buddhism doesn’t really have a god, but it does talk about the “source” or “ground of being.” But people ask Thay about God. He said if you are a rose, then God is the most beautiful rose. And if you are a fish, then God is the best swimmer. Then he looked right at me. I was 8 or 9 rows back, but he looked right at me. He said “and if you are gay, then God is the best gay!”

OMG! I had never had actually talked with Thay. He had his hands full with the hundreds of monks and nuns who were his disciples. I had asked him a few questions at Q&A sessions over the years, but that was it. I was just a face in the crowd. And yet he seemed to know me, to care about me. What a gift.

I went home to Toronto a few days later and started preparations for becoming a monk. But something happened along the way. I met someone. It was a brief fling, but it awakened a longing in me, and I decided to hold off. Six months later I met my partner Bob, and we are still together. So much for being a monk!

What Happens When We Die?

My last retreat with Thay, in 2014, was the last 3-week retreat he led. A few months later he had a stroke and could no longer walk or talk. Ominously, it was titled “What happens when we die?” He kept asking us if we knew the answer yet. 

Thay has always taught that we don’t really die, that there is no birth and no death. We do not come from nothing and we do not become nothing when we die. We continue. A cloud does not die, it becomes rain. We continue because our thoughts, speech and actions continue forever, in the impact they have on others and the world. Thay said we, his students, are his continuation, and he asked that we continue him beautifully. 

Thay said when he dies, he does not want his disciples to erect a stupa over his grave. He did not want people to travel to his stupa to connect with him. He said all you need to do is take a mindful breath or a mindful step, and Thay will be there. He half-jokingly said if they do erect a stupa, they should put a sign in front saying “Thay is not here!”

Thay was teaching in every moment. I know this not just from my own observations, but from conversations with some of the monks and nuns who knew him best. He never wanted anything for himself. He just wanted to help others to enjoy life and to suffer less. On his birthday (which he called his “continuation day”), he did not want gifts. He wanted us to make a commitment to practice. To be mindful climbing the stairs, or answering a phone, or getting up in the morning. He was always encouraging us to practice.

My Deepest Aspiration

Thay always encouraged us to practice wholeheartedly, to make a great vow to liberate ourselves and others from suffering. And not to be attached to any outcome. To practice just to practice.

I was clear then, and I am clear now, that I want to be a beautiful continuation of Thay. Of his diligence and discipline. His kindness and compassion. His peace and joy. And of his great understanding that we are not separate self-entities, but rather part of a greater whole. 

Thank you Thay. You have given me a gift that I can never repay. But I will do my best.

My New Year’s Resolution

I’ve been having a tough time this past week. Worrying about omicron has been part of it, but there’s been more. Not much joy, and strong sadness and despair. I was face-to-face with my biggest samskara1 – the belief that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me. That no matter what I do, I’m screwed! When combined with the power of my emotions, these thoughts have at times been overwhelming.

While this has been really difficult, it’s also opened my eyes.

It’s been awful and uncomfortable and unwanted. But I’ve used it to grow. When my mindfulness has been strong, I’ve been able to observe my experience from the seat of awareness and just relax. I’ve seen my personal mind2 clearly, and recognized just how powerfully hurtful the “voice in my head” can be.

One thing all this makes clear is that what my personal mind says really is garbage!

I’ve had a lot of happiness and good fortune in my life. Many people like me. Some even love me. Objectively, I have a good life. Clearly these thoughts of being screwed no matter what I do are garbage. Not only are they garbage. They have the ability to trigger my deepest suffering.

It’s the New Year. For me, it is a time to look back and to look forward. To take stock, to see where I’ve gone, and to strengthen my intention to go in a good direction. No listening to harsh judgements, but rather looking back with kindness and self compassion, letting myself feel any pain that arises, and embrace it in awareness, as a mother holds her crying child.

I’m lucky that my year has been quite good – much joy and contentment, especially after I was vaccinated and felt safe enough to see my friends in person. But since omicron has come on the scene, a lot of fear and anxiety have arisen, accompanied by the feeling that my chest is in a vice. I see that my personal mind wants to escape, and a big part of that is spiritual escape, having that non-dual experience to liberate me from this body and mind.

I’m not sure, but I think the despair has arisen because my personal mind says that I’ll never be able to do that, because I just don’t trust the universe, or perhaps I don’t believe I have what it takes. Which, of course, is what my personal mind has been telling me lately.

So starting now, I’m taking a new approach. Forget non-dual, no self, enlightenment. Forget getting anywhere. Just be here now, and plant the seeds of love and happiness. Drop the goal of escaping my suffering, and just work with where I’m at.

As for my new year’s resolution, I ask myself “what change can I make that is manageable, measurable, and that will help me go in a good direction?”

No matter what particular resolution I choose, it’s all about taming my personal mind with my higher mind, my higher intentions.

My highest intention, my “pole star” as Mickey Singer says, is to love everyone and everything. I may never reach that goal, but, like the north star, it is my guide. I know that to go in that direction means taming my personal mind. And that takes discipline, to not give in when my personal mind tells me to do something against my highest intention. Mickey eloquently explains why discipline is required in his talk “Cultivating the discipline to free yourself.

What it boils down to is that as long as your personal mind is running the show, you are channeling your life force in unhelpful ways. Taming your personal mind doesn’t mean stopping it. It means having the clarity not to listen to it, not letting fear and desire drag you around and prevent you from taking good care of yourself and others.

When I lived at Plum Village, we ate most of our meals in silence, doing eating meditation, being present with our food. It wasn’t oppressive. It was great! I could really enjoy every bite and allow my mind to settle. Here in Toronto, I find it next to impossible to eat alone without watching Netflix or YouTube or reading the news. Many years ago, my mentor suggested eating meditation, but I could never do it. My personal mind is so strong!

And so my new year’s resolution is to do eating meditation at least one meal a day, for the entire year.

I know this will be difficult, and so I must keep reminding myself – I want to feel love for everyone and everything. That is my top priority, more important than money, relationships, work, or even my health. It is my pole star. I know doing eating meditation when my personal mind wants to watch TV will help get me there, because it will help tame the personal mind. (Btw, it’s only my personal mind that wants to watch TV.)

Please wish me luck!

And good luck to you in 2022. May it be a year filled with joy, peace and love, and may you successfully take steps to tame your personal mind.

Notes:

(1) A samskara is a blockage, an internal knot or pattern of mind that is stored inside us and which can trigger reactivity and negativity.
(2) The personal mind is our reactive mind, the “voice in your head”, which comes from all the aversion and attachments we’ve stored as our preferences, beliefs, judgements, and all self-referential thinking.