Most of you are probably aware by now that Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen teacher, is in the hospital. His monastery, Plum Village in southern France, announced that he had a brain hemorrhage on November 11th.
Thay, as he is affectionately called by his followers, has been unwell for some time. A reliable source on Facebook says that he is in a stage one coma. That’s when a patient is incapable of voluntary activities such as eye opening, and speech. However, according to Plum Village, he is “still very responsive and shows every indication of being aware of the presence of those around him. He is able to move his feet, hands and eyes. There are signs that a full recovery may be possible.”
I’m sure we all hope that will be the case. Only last month I wrote a post in commemoration of his 88th continuation day. May every day be a continuation day for this beloved teacher.
I am not part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist tradition, but for me his life and his teachings transcend sectarianism. Perhaps, you feel the same way. Plum Village is asking people to send Thay healing and loving energy. While that is certainly appropriate and perhaps beneficial, I feel his suffering is an opportunity to do something deeper, to look deeper, go deeper. It’s an opportunity to learn more about the nature of suffering.
In The Heart of Understanding, his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Thay writes,
There are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of know-how, the gift of the Dharma. The third, and the highest kind of gift, is the gift of non-fear. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is someone who can help us liberate ourselves from fear. This is the heart of the Prajnaparamita.”
Avalokitesvara’s suffering was literally non-substantial, for mythical beings have no real suffering to cross over. Thich Nhat Hanh is real, and like countless other living beings in this world, his suffering is real, and painful. Moreover, he is truly someone who is helping us liberate ourselves from fear. His current suffering, as well as all his past suffering and future suffering, is his gift of non-fear to us.
Throughout his writings, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to look deeply, listen deeply, understand deeply. He says that to meditate is to look deeply. He tells us that we can learn to love ourselves by looking deeply. He points out that “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive . . .” When Thay uses the metaphor of a cloud in a piece of paper to explain interdependency or “inter-being,” he says that there is also sunshine in the paper and “Looking even more deeply, we can see that we are in it too.” He suggests that through listening deeply we “can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening.”
And “When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be with it in order to really understand.”
We cannot stand outside of Thay’s suffering. We should take it as our own and enter it. There are many ways we can do this. His writings are full of meditation tips and suggestions for simple practices that can be performed many times each day in various settings and situation, some as uncomplicated and effortless as smiling or walking. All of them help us look deeper.
One plan would be to take a phrase or short quote of his that resonates with us, or speaks to the subject of suffering, and for however long he is in the hospital, make the words our mantra, our koan, and meditate upon them, reflect on them as we go about our daily business. Enter the words as deeply as possible.
I am very sure Thich Nhat Hanh would want us to use his suffering as an opportunity to engrave his teachings, or any wisdom teachings, into our hearts and minds. Of course, the deepest manner in which we can reply to Thay’s spirit is through the Bodhisattva way, by being ourselves a person who helps others cross over suffering. The Bodhisattva’s path of compassion is a path anyone can walk. The gift of non-fear is the gift everyone can give.
Fear is the greatest suffering and we can never liberate ourselves from suffering until we conquer fear. As Thay says “Suffering is very important for your happiness. You cannot understand, you cannot love, until you know what suffering is.”
That would be a good phrase to use for the purpose of reflecting on the nature of suffering, but there are many others. Here are some links to quotes and talks by Thich Nhat Hanh. You may have an idea yourself about a way to reply to Thay’s gift of non-fear, and if so, please feel free to share it here in a comment.