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.