Tribute to Thich Nhat Hahn
By Joan Halifax
In the mid-1960s the war in Vietnam was raging and so were many of us young people in the United States. The civil rights movement and the anti-war movement converged at a time when those of us in our 20s were meeting a frontier of consciousness that focused on freedom, the environment, justice, and nonviolence. And yet, for many of us, the sense of moral outrage toward our government was anything but nonviolent.
In the midst of this wild psycho-social tangle arrived a young monk dressed in brown, traveling from France to the United States to urge our country to stop bombing his country, Vietnam. His name was Thich Nhat Hanh.
Hearing Thich Nhat Hanh speak, I realized that being a social activist was not necessarily separate from being a contemplative. My mind and heart changed and my life as well. Thich Nhat Hanh was, for me and many others, the model of a socially engaged Buddhist. Because of him, many of us opened our lives to the path of socially engaged Buddhism.
It was not for another 20 years that I would meet Thay personally. In the mid-’80s, I found myself in Plum Village in the south of France, sitting in a small stone building one evening in the Upper Hamlet with Thay and his colleague Sister Chan Khong. I recall that meal vividly: white rice and mustard greens. We ate so silently that I could hear the inner workings of the clock hanging on the rough plaster wall. I was also eating very quickly, velocity I had learned from my first Zen teacher, but soon I became aware that Thay was very slowly chewing his rice many times. What could I do but slow down and join him at a snail’s-paced ritual of eating? I “finished” my rice and thought that was that. But Thay looked into my bowl, and following his gaze, I realized that five small grains of rice were left at the bottom. Thay looked at me with a straight face and said: “You did not finish your rice. It seems that you will be reborn as a duck.” I burst out laughing, and the merriment on the faces of Thay and Sister Chan Khong lit up that tiny, dark room.
We were so fortunate that Thay came to The Ojai Foundation for at least two significant retreats: Peaceful Cultures and the artist retreat. It was so precious to see him walking slowly and carefully in our oak forest and trails. California Governor Jerry Brown came to meet him. Many of us bonded into lifelong friendships during these retreats. And the learning and inspiration lifted us up.
In 1990 or so, a few friends and I went to Vietnam on Thay’s behalf, with a handwritten copy of one of his books sewn into the bottom of my suitcase. Carefully and gratefully, I gave it to his community in Hue, and while there I had the great joy of meeting members of his lay sangha who were part of the School for Social Service. Their humility and love of Thay moved me deeply. I was also so fortunate to spend time in his hermitage, which was kept ready for him should he be able to return. And return he did; yes, he returned for all of us.
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