Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh died last Friday, at the age of 95, in the temple in Vietnam where he first became a monk at the age of 16. In a long, mindful life, Thay, as his students lovingly called him, touched the hearts and minds of millions.
Thay also changed the mindfulness conversation to one that focused on justice and peace for all. He believed - and lived into the belief - that engagement in the world, and healing the world, were the truest callings of all serious mindfulness practitioners.
Thay left us with many powerful teachings. In my favorite, he asserted that in the vast, possibly imaginal, lineage and continuum of buddhas - those ordinary humans who achieve perfect enlightenment and a lineage stretching back thousands of years and forward just as many more, the next Buddha would not be one human being at all.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, the next Buddha will be the "sangha": that growing, worldwide community of mindfulness practitioners of which all of us are a part.
Now we just need to prove Thay correct. And there's never been a better, more urgent, moment to do that. Let's see what that conversation, and work, look like.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call 336.
A lot has happened in the last week. I feel like I say that all the time because so much does happen these days. But in this last week, two things happened that really brought me to my practice.
Once I was offering a training in Arizona and talking about how mindfulness can support us when we’re facing big, impactful, moments, and this older partner said, “When those happen for me, I just hit my knees.” He was talking about prayer, I’m speaking to my “practice,” but they’re not really different.
Anne Lamott, the great writer and teacher, says there are three kinds of prayer (and maybe, practice): help, thanks, and wow. I used to think hitting my knees, or hitting my practice, was the “help” prayer.
But now I think falling to our knees, or falling into our practice, is really the “thanks” prayer. And a lot of times for me, it’s even, the “wow, thanks!” prayer.
One of those big impactful moments for me this past week was the death of Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay, as his students affectionately called him, was one of the great mindfulness teachers of our time, maybe of all time. He was past 95 when he died, and had taken orders as a monk at the age of 16. In his 80 years practicing and studying mindfulness, and in his 100+ books, Thay taught us to turn towards difficulty in order to find a way forward that is just and loving, by remembering the most important thing: that we belong to one another. His Order of Interbeing is named after this most basic tenet of mindfulness. As Thay would often say – and as we – or at least I - so often forget - we “inter-are.”
This point of view, which is known in classical mindfulness as “right” view, does not stand alone. It is paired – Thay taught us to pair it - with a commitment to heal the world. Not a theoretical commitment, but a commitment to this very world, with its pandemic, its systemic racism, its tight patriarchal grip, its anxiety and depression and unfathomable threat of climate collapse. And this pairing inherited a name. In the mindfulness world, it’s, “engaged mindfulness.” In Hebrew the concept is as old as mindfulness, and is called, tikkun olam, the commitment to repairing the world. In the law it’s just called social activism, and it’s what we do. Whatever its name, the commitment is at once deeply aspirational; abundantly practical; and nothing we can do alone.
When I heard about Thay’s death, I did hit my proverbial knees, and practice. But not to say “help.”
To say, “wow, thanks!” I’m so grateful, and so amazed, to have lived when Thich Nhat Hanh lived, and to be living when the Dalai Lama is living, and when so many other great teachers are living.
We are all living, right now, in a golden age for mindfulness. Of course this age is not so golden in other ways. But never in the history of the world, that we know of, has mindfulness pervaded east, west, north, and south, landing solidly and powerfully in the hearts of so many humans.
Which in one way makes it easier to think about how we inter-are. How we belong to one another, as Sebene Selassie says in her beautiful book, You Belong.
We belong to each other. We belong to every human, whether they’re practicing mindfulness or not. But we especially belong to those who are like-minded, like-hearted mindfulness practitioners. In one way of thinking about it, together, we are, already, that world-wide community, that sangha, stretching from village to village and continent to continent, with our hands reaching back across millennia and forward an equal distance, helping the legal profession, and the world, to wake up. As my friend and yoga teacher Brooke Lehman says, we always need to extend towards what we care about, but not lose track of where we come from.
The legends say that Gautama Buddha, the Buddha whose teachings so many of us study these days, was just the most recent in a long lineage of fully awakened humans stretching back across the millennia and forward into the unfathomable future. But Thich Nhat Hanh said that the next buddha to come along in the lineage will not be one person. He taught us that the next Buddha will be the sangha, meaning, the remarkable, world-wide community we are all part of. And that that community will be our teacher. Maybe like Indra’s net, with its uncountable gems nestled in each knot, each reflecting towards one another, this huge, earth-wide mindfulness sangha will reflect its wisdom not only at each of its members, but also at all of humanity. And in this way, deliver the message of mindfulness, or as Thay called it, the miracle of mindfulness – the miracle of peace and justice – to the world.
So Thay died, which was one thing that happened in the past week, and then the other thing that happened was that Steven Breyer announced his retirement. Which wasn’t the second thing for me. The second thing for me was that Justice Breyer is a meditator, so the news forced me to think about what that’s meant to the U.S. Supreme Court in the almost thirty years that he’s served. And what his departure might mean in terms of Thay’s teaching that we inter-are, and that peace and justice are truly possible.
When I heard that Justice Breyer was retiring, for the second time in a week I hit my knees. Again not in “help” mode, but to once again say, “wow, thanks.” Because maybe, just maybe, Justice Breyer has left enough of an impression to have brought even the U.S. Supreme Court into this growing, worldwide sangha that will become the next Buddha, the next great, enlightened, being. So yeah, wow, thanks.
Meanwhile as crisis upon crisis threatens to bring us all tumbling down, it’s good to remember Thay’s message: we are the crisis. And we are also the cause of the crisis, the conditions of the crisis, and the solution, or at least resolution, to the crisis.
Thay was also a poet, and one of his most powerful poems, which is about interbeing, is called, “Call Me By My True Names.” I’ll read it today for our sit. So find a comfortable posture, and even relax rather than sitting upright if you like, and enjoy.
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am also the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.