Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, “’Greatness,’ it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong, there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.”
At several points in the novel, Tolsoy’s characters (and the narrator) proclaim the greatness of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whose intentions were often noble but his actions regrettably ignoble. Napoleon’s ego and ambition led him to believe he was the greatest of the great, and therefore, excluded from those standards of right and wrong. Tolstoy, however, at the conclusion of the chapter from which the above quote is taken*, rejects the ethical exceptionalism of the great, stating, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.”
Those three qualities would most certainly describe the “great” man whose birthday is tomorrow, October 11.
They don’t call it a birthday at Plum Village in France where Thich Nhat Hanh lives and where he is currently in Autumn Retreat. It’s Continuation Day. As Thich Nhat Hanh continues, he will be 88 years old.
It seems somewhat inappropriate to praise a man whose path asks him to shun praise in favor of humility. This, of course, is what makes Thay (as he is affectionately known by his students) an exceptional teacher and role model, deeply grounded in the standards of right and wrong, an individual whose positive influence has been felt far beyond the tradition of Vietnamese Zen and the Way of Buddha-dharma. Whether you hear him speak in person, or watch him on a video, or merely read his words, his humility and sincerity shines through. It’s like Lao Tzu said, “When greatness is not shown, true greatness is revealed.
I like the idea of Continuation Days. Continuation seems an excellent word, for as you know in Buddhism each individual is a continuum, beginningless and infinite, a continuum of consciousness, and actually, everything continues . . .
In the clip below, Thay talks about this using simple words and poetic imagery that allows for greater accessibility to a complex concept, and helps those who listen deeply and openly to think about death and continuation differently, in a way that transcends notions of literal rebirth or other such concepts.
“Some people might ask you, ‘When is your birthday?’ But you may ask yourself a more interesting question: ‘Before that day which was my birthday, where was I?’”
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* Book Fourteen: 1812 Chapter XVIII