Look into a plum tree. In each plum on the tree there is a pit. That pit contains the plum tree and all previous generations of plum tree. The plum pit contains an eternity of plum trees. Inside the pit is an intelligence and wisdom that knows how to become a plum tree, how to produce branches, leaves, flowers and plums. It cannot do this on its own. It can only do this because it has received the experience and heritage of so many generations of ancestors. You are the same. You possess the wisdom and intelligence of how to become a full human being because you inherited an eternity of wisdom not only from your blood ancestors but from your spiritual ancestors, too. -Thích Nhất Hạnh, No Death, No Fear
Last Saturday was a sad day in Viet Nam and around the world as we awoke to the news of his passing at midnight. I had been thinking about him recently, knowing somehow that his mortal end was near. On the one hand, his death casts a pall over the Tết season, which ushers in spring. On the other, there is happiness because Thầy (teacher) lives on in his teachings, writings, and the countless lives he touched in life and will touch in death, what Buddhists refer to as a transition between the present life and the next.
Thầy is no longer among the living but he lives on and inspire us to follow the path of mindfulness and live in the moment. His brand of engaged Buddhism also lives on and is more vibrant than ever not only in his community but in others, including in Viet Nam. While those of us who knew him or knew of him mourn his death, we’re comforted by the fact that his work will go on. We’re also aware that he’s the latest in a line of messengers and practitioners going back thousands of years ago to the Buddha himself.
I like this excerpt from At Home in the World: Stories & Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life (2015) entitled, I Am Not in Here:
I have a disciple in Vietnam who wants to build a stupa for my ashes when I die. He and others want to put a plaque with the words, “Here lies my beloved teacher.” I told them not to waste the temple land.“Do not put me in a small pot and put me in there” I said. “I don’t want to continue like that. It would be better to scatter the ashes outside to help the trees to grow.”I suggested that, if they still insist on building a stupa, they have the plaque say, “I am not in here.” But in case people don’t get it, they could add a second plaque, “I am not out there either.” If still people don’t understand, then you can write on the third and last plaque, “I may be found in your way of breathing and walking.”This body of mine will disintegrate, but my actions will continue me. In my daily life I always practice to see my continuation all around me. We don’t need to wait until the total dissolution of this body to continue—we continue in every moment. If you think that I am only this body, then you have not truly seen me. When you look at my friends, you see my continuation. When you see someone walking with compassion, you know he is my continuation. I don’t see why we have to say “I will die,” because I can already see myself in you, in other people, and in future generations.Even when the cloud is not there, it continues as snow or rain. It is impossible for a cloud to die. It can become rain or ice, but it cannot become nothing. The cloud does not need to have a soul in order to continue. There’s no beginning and no end. I will never die. There will be a dissolution of this body, but that does not mean my death. I will continue, always.
On a personal note, it was pure serendipity that I got to see Thầy, along with the monks who were traveling with and caring for him. It was in the Nha Trang airport in the fall of 2020 on a short flight to Danang. We were at the check-in counter and there he was in his wheelchair.
Here is a good summary of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s life and his message to us all: Thich Nhat Hanh, who worked for decades to teach mindfulness, approached death in that same spirit.
Finally, here are some photos I took in January 2019 of Tu Hieu Pagoda (Chùa Từ Hiếu), Thầy’s home pagoda located in Hue in central Viet Nam. Situated in a pine forest, it was built in 1843.
Shalom (שלום), MAA