This week’s letter is written by Krista:
When I sat across from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2003 – the earliest years of this show – I had a very precise sense, never repeated in quite the same way, that this is what it would feel like to sit in the presence of God. On one level, that is a nonsense statement, as this man was not a theist in any sense I had grown up understanding. Thich Nhat Hanh came to the world’s attention in the 1960s when he forsook monastic isolation to be of service as his country was torn apart by war. He was a startling, paradoxical force to the end: tangibly powerful and exquisitely gentle, at once a mystic and a pragmatist.
I missed this complexity in much of the coverage of his passing last week at the age of 95. I heard him described as a social and political activist, which is far too linear a statement. He was equally distinguished by his lyrical and practical teachings, and by his poetry. He opened many to the wonderful practice of “walking meditation” — so helpful to someone like me who has trouble calming my mind without getting my body involved. His Vietnamese Zen sensibility, vividly articulated in word and action, added mightily to the canon by which many in the modern world have been helped by Buddhist psychology and practice. No one else wrote about “mindfulness” as he did, in his classic manual of meditation, The Miracle of Mindfulness:
Meditation is not evasion. It is a serene encounter with reality. The person who practices mindfulness should be no less awake than the driver of a car. Be as awake as a person walking on high stilts — any misstep could cause the walker to fall. Be like a lion going forward with slow, gentle, and firm steps. Only with this kind of vigilance can you realize total awakening.
It was in this spirit that he led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks in 1969. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. But the “engaged Buddhism” for which he was known always defied conventional political calculus. He was banned entry by both North and South Vietnam for decades because he had refused to take sides even as he worked for peace.
His students and community called him Thay — Vietnamese for “teacher” — and so did I after I had been in his presence. Here is what you will experience in this radio hour that is so precious to me and that has touched so many across the years: Thay transmuted what he had experienced of chaos and bloodshed in his life and his country into an ability to speak with equal measures directness and compassion to the many conflicts and bewilderments of contemporary life. He wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness as a companion for young monks and nuns facing death every day in war-torn Vietnam. Later, he was invited to speak at Davos and in Silicon Valley and in Hollywood, as his obituaries reported. But all the while, he created and belonged to communities of care — the Plum Village Sanghas in France and across the world — and tended to all kinds of people in all kinds of places at his teachings and retreats.
I met him around the edges of a multi-day lakeside retreat he was leading in Wisconsin, attended by a cohort from the criminal justice system. While swimming the first afternoon in Green Lake after the day’s teachings had ended, I was introduced to some remarkable participants and heard their stories of the real world impact of this monk’s teachings. You’ll hear two of their voices in conversations I recorded with them there, and wove into this radio hour, including a police captain. It is astonishing to re-experience the deep, enduring relevance of this monk’s teachings for our world now, perhaps more in 2021 than in 2003.
And those teachings are still with us, even if his physical presence is not. His communities of Plum Village are beautiful and thriving. They surrounded him with love and care as he struggled with serious health problems in recent years. In 2005, he was finally able to return to Vietnam for the first time since the mid-1960s, and he died in his monastery home there on January 22, 2022. Let us take this moment of his passing to tend at once to our softness and our vigilance, as he taught.