A Teacher of Eternity: A lasting afternoon with Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh lives on in his community, world wide influence on mindfulness practice, and his books. “He will never die”, but it is natural for his passing to be sad – personal contact with Thich Nhat Hanh was a very rare form of contact with thousands of years’ contemplation of the eternal.

My heart goes out to those who really were personal students of Thich Nhat Hanh for years. For all his influence and accomplishments, to really know what has recently dispersed into the cosmos, you just had to be there — as with any person that one has personal contact with. This was one whose essense reflected the noblest efforts of ancient ancestors. I was “there” for just a few hours, and was taught something about eternity. 

I had the amazing good fortune to cross paths with Thich Nhat Hanh a few days after deciding to do something serious about anxiety attacks that had plagued me for twelve years. My attacks came several times daily, sometimes literally making nearby cat’s hairs stand on end. But on a weekend trip to meet an old friend in Las Vegas the attacks truly exploded. I came to Las Vegas knowing it was not what I needed. My dear Aunt had recently died, and I was lonely and very much struggling. I felt humans had to understand themselves better, quickly, to survive and wanted to work insights from spiritual traditions into psychology.  This obsession had landed me in a PhD programme in psychology where I felt a clear thread of meaning, but deep isolation and pressure to make a difference ─ I had trapped myself in a dark “hero’s journey.”

To begin with, this mindset was dangerous to combine with the overstimulation and emptiness of Las Vegas ─ but the television in my hotel room turned on, spontaneously, all by itself, while I laid in insomnia. A commercial for a local cancer center came on “I just knew” the cancer patient in the advert said. I turned the TV off. It turned on again,  by itself, and the same advert came on again. This happened several times. “Holy shit. Am I dying? Is this real?”  Usually I could poor beer on my anxiety and dull it. Now, I poured whiskey on the anxiety but it was so strong, it barely mattered.

While driving back to San Diego the next day I pulled over five times, overwhelmed by waves of anxiety and gasping paralysis. 

I was still too proud and solitary to ask for help. But a visiting scholar in our laboratory wanted to do a study with meditators, and I saw my opportunity. Deer Park was nearby, and it was a sister monastery to Plum Village, where a friend of mine was a monk now. I emailed him to ask him if perhaps some monastics might take part in the study. I could talk to them “as a scientist” and it wouldn’t even be like asking for help. My friend emailed back, “let’s find out, I’ll be there in a few days with Thich Nhat Hanh.” He was just boarding a bus from Mississippi to San Diego with dozens of monastics.

I remember, now with some trace of shame, arriving at Deer Park a few days later with a sort of hostility to Thich Nhat Hanh. I had been studying the Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s work for years and was very impressed by his warning that spiritual seekers get trapped in dogma, worship of Gurus, and the tendency for meditation to become another thing to be perfectionist about, and dissatisfied with. The way people talked about “Thay”, as he was called, was a bit too much like Jesus, it seemed to me. People talked about “practice” a lot. It sounded like habits, going through the motions. 

Part of me wanted to meet “the real deal”, part wanted to be above Thich Nhat Hanh’s happy little message. People gathered to sing songs before walking meditation, they seemed childish and sentimental. I had to drink to deal with my anxiety, but I found a way to look down on people who were singing happy songs. Alcohol’s warmth is morally earned by torture somehow. Behind my cover as a scientist, mixed with this Chistian martyrdom, was a young boy who lost his father at seven, and had convinced himself he was an island. I had to know if Thay was fake. I stared with intense hostility into the pupils of “the authority” Thich Nhat Hanh.

And Thich Nhat Hanh noticed. And glanced back. It wasn’t the warm look that you might know best. It is impossible to know how solid a person’s gaze is till you meet it, personally, and feel that gaze’s immobility. Trying to stare Thay down felt like a painless version of pedaling a bicycle into a wall. I came to and he’d turned away, towards the practice at hand, walking meditation, and I stood watching the “sangha body” take form.

Thich Nhat Hanh, poetic peace activist and master of mindfulness, dies at  95 | Reuters
This is pretty close to the look I remember, but you had to be there.

We walked around the monastery grounds and paused in a garden, but with the large crowd stuffing into the garden, though, somebody hit a hornet’s nest. Most people were settled, and an effortful stiffness settled over many. They would not embarrass themselves by letting their meditative calm be disturbed by hornets. I felt concern mixed with Schadenfreude. Yelps of pain were suddenly emitted. I admit I chuckled inwardly. But I noticed something. The monks, Thay’s followers, were just quickly getting out of the way. Perhaps they were not slaves to practice after all.

So when, next, Thay gave his famous dharma talk “A cloud never dies” I was able to get over myself and listen. He guided the audience in considering when clouds are born and when they die, and where the cloud goes while the non-cloud elements that make it up remain, and if our death is more real. His voice came from deepest contemplation subtly inviting the crowd along. Time stilled. Suddenly there was no death, and no anxiety,  for the first time in many years. Teacher had another new student.

So on January 22 it was happy and almost eerie to be calmed by what I noticed in myself after hearing of Thay’s “death”. First of course was sadness that this person, in whom thousands of years of humans wisdom had so visibly and affectingly accumulated would never again be in personal contact with anybody. I noticed though, an automatic slowing down, awareness of breath, and suddenly fuller color in life, I noticed the preciousness around me, and then, gratitude. This transmission really was passed to me through contact with his community, mostly since Thay was silenced by a stroke. These times flashed in my eyes, and I looked for the now-departed Thay in them and saw with tears of beauty that none of it was possible without him, he spread through it all, as if a cloud.

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