If you were to ask any Buddhist in North America for the name of the most famous Buddhist alive today – not counting The Dalai Lama – our response would be Thich Nhat Hanh. We’d probably also be able to remember when we first heard one of his teachings. For me it was early on in my first meditation class. We had been taught about breathing from our haras, and the importance of straight backs and shoulders. I had discovered the knee pain that comes with sitting longer than, say, a half hour. It was overwhelming. Then a tiny little Thich Nhat Hanh teaching, casually expressed, changed my whole experience. It was this:
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind.
Breathing out, I smile.”
Suddenly it was okay to not try to be some samurai warrior meditating through grit teeth. Instead my job was to relax into the posture and to enjoy myself. Behind all of the jetsom and flotsam of everyday life that was circling around in my head like a scrabble game gone rogue was a smile. I still think of this teaching every day.
Thich Nhat Hanh deserves his fame. Born in Vietnam in 1926, he has spent his life teaching mindfulness, compassion and peace all over the world, beginning in 1961 when he came to the United States to teach comparative religion at Princeton. He founded a relief organization in Vietnam that presently has over 10,000 volunteers, as well as Plum Village, a monastery in France where some 200 residents receive and teach mindfulness in various forms to 8,000 visitors a year.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1966. This is a man who has advised more world leaders than any of us will probably ever know, and has been fearless in his faith that peace is possible any time, any where. In the meantime he somehow managed to write more than a hundred books. More than 300 million of them have been sold, some of us buying multiple copies of the same book over and over.
As I write this, Thich Nhat Hanh is lying in a coma in a hospital in Bordeaux, France. At the ripe age of eighty-eight he may not live for much longer. Thinking about this inevitable shift in his life has led me to reflect on what his greatest gifts have been to me. I’m happy to share them here.
There are three:
- Thich Nhat Hanh has taught me more about how to love than everyone else in my life altogether. He has taught me that love is about honoring the other person as he or she is. It is about having compassion for them, and for being patient, and – at the end of the day – about just plain being kind. I still give Peace is Every Step as a wedding gift to people I know who are getting married. This has included my two children.
- Thich Nhat Hanh has given me a language I can use when I talk with Christians about Buddhism. In Living Buddha, Living Christ he purposefully looked for shared values in the two traditions and found at least four very powerful ones: tolerance, compassion, charity, and love.
- Thich Nhat Hanh has explained emptiness better than anyone I’ve ever studied. When I first heard his teaching about how a table isn’t a table but the sun and the rain and the earth and all of the components of all of the lives of all the workers who made it, shipped it and sold it, light bulbs went on in my head that have never dimmed. Even with change as our constant, we are all a part of each other and everything else. Amazing.
The loss of Thich Nhat Hanh will be personal and deep for millions of us. At the same time he will leave us with the immeasurable joy that comes from knowing that someone, somewhere, loved each of us down to the bone just as we are.