Updated: Jan 31
This month the world lost a hero, inspiration and healer to millions of people. Thich Nhat Hanh was an embodiment of peace. And he had dedicated his life to making that peace accessible to everyone.
What he taught was probably nothing new. But the simplicity and elegance with which he laid out a path for peace and happiness in the modern, hectic world was extraordinary. And what made him so admirable, and what probably drew so many people to him, was that he truly lived the life that he preached.
As his students and followers in Vietnam and France farewelled him through a week of beautifully coordinated and deeply touching ceremonies, the internet has unsurprisingly been flooded with reflections on how Thich Nhat Hanh impacted countless lives. I too couldn’t help but pen down the thoughts and emotions that have flowed through my mind and heart during a week filled with a little sadness and lots of gratitude. It is a brief account of the perspective and magic he brought into my world, even though I never had the opportunity to be in his physical presence.
This is certainly not a complete picture of the impact Thich Nhat Hanh has had in my journey, but this piece of writing has helped me see more vividly the imprint he left in my life.
No mud, no lotus
Eastern cultures have for a long time used the lotus flower as an analogy to express some important lessons about life. I grew up with the one presented in the Bhagvad Gita. The sacred text teaches us to live like the lotus flower, untouched by the dirt underneath. In other words, we should aspire to attain a state where we remain unaffected by the events that unfold around us in the material world.
While I still find the analogy in the Bhagvad Gita beautiful, Thich Nhat Hanh shared a slightly different perspective. He reminded us that the lotus cannot bloom without the mud. Therefore, there is value in the mud also, so long as we learn how to handle the mud. His point was that we cannot appreciate happiness without experiencing suffering. What we need to do is develop the wisdom and skills to handle our own suffering. When we notice and accept our suffering, we need to attend to it as tenderly as we would for our loved ones.
I came across Thich Nhat Hanh’s words soon after I had been diagnosed with severe endometriosis. As I came to learn more about this disease, I was confronted by some regrets of the past and anxieties for the future. Thich Nhat Hanh’s words provided an instant balm for my wounds, kick starting a healing process that continues to be a work in progress.
Ironically, I even came to value my suffering. Because had it not been for the desperation that stemmed from my suffering, I would not have set out to search for answers. And I would not have introduced the lifestyle changes that have given me the energy and strength to enjoy and explore life more than I had for a long time.
What was even more empowering was his reminder that happiness and suffering are not mutually exclusive. We can still enjoy moments of happiness while tending to our suffering. We just have to bring our attention to the present moment and open our eyes to what is in front of us right now.
Arriving in the present moment
Reading eulogies and tributes written by diverse media outlets and respected academics, Thich Nhat Hanh’s global impact becomes very apparent. The beginning of the mindfulness movement in the west is frequently attributed to him. But what set his mindfulness teachings apart is that they were not about having a more productive day or becoming more successful in any material sense.
The skills and tools that Thich Nhat Hanh imparted to his students was about “arriving” in the present moment. It was about “coming home”, because we can only live in the present moment. It was about slowing down or even stopping. Peace and happiness, the soft-spoken zen master believed, are only available in the here and now. These ultimate life goals we keep chasing cannot not fully be experienced while we are prisoners of the past or focused on the future.
And how do we arrive in the present moment? By focusing on our breath. For Thich Nhat Hanh, mindfulness wasn’t just a practice for which we need to set aside an hour a day. It is something to be lived and applied throughout the day. So whenever we’re in distress, we should come back to our breathing. When not in distress, we should continue to enjoy our breath and simply feel alive. Mindfulness is about checking in with ourselves throughout the day to release those tensed shoulders and to relax the frown we unknowingly carry on our faces.
Thich Nhat Hanh emphasised that the conditions for happiness are always available in the present moment. If we bring our attention to the present moment, we can find a refuge in mother nature. We can hear the birds sing. We can smell the flowers. We can feel the coolness of the breeze or the warmth of the sun on our skin. And we can enjoy the deliciousness of our tea.
Peace is in every step
“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet”, Thich Nhat Hanh would say. We regard the Earth as Mother, so gentleness is called for. Of course, this is easier said than done when we are rushing from one errand to another, or running from one goal post to another.
Thich Nhat Hanh was known for his walking meditations – a quiet practice where we consciously pay attention to the act of putting one foot in front of the other. In this practice, we sync our movements with our breath. Again, the whole idea is to arrive in the present moment, because it is only in the present moment that our mind can be liberated from our past and future burdens.
How often do we walk mindfully? We have become so accustomed to walking with our mental chatter that bird songs have become background noise. We often miss the changing colours of the sunrise and the synchronised dances of trees. We don't take the time to decipher the smells in the air and we take little notice of how the ground feels on the soles of our feet.
Normally practiced outside, walking meditation makes us available to the many wonders of nature. It creates the time and space for us to enjoy the sun setting and the clouds floating. It allows us to be captivated by the flowing stream and flowering cherry trees. It lets us truly experience the chill of winter and the coolness of rain. And perhaps more importantly, it reconnects us with the Earth.
We are the Earth
Thich Nhat Hanh is recognised as a spiritual ecologist. He often talked about the need to care for our planet and wrote books on it too.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, when we refer to our planet as the “environment”, we see it as separate from ourselves. And when something is separate from us, we tend to do little to protect it.
Thich Nhat Hanh reminded us again and again that we are made up of the same elements that Earth is made up of. So we are not separate from Earth; we are a part of Earth. He invited us to consciously recognise the Earth within us, and to see ourselves as a piece of Earth. When we remove the separation between ourselves and Earth, we naturally feel more love for the planet. And care for the planet comes more instinctively.
The concept of non-duality or oneness is not new in Eastern philosophies. But Thich Nhat Hanh had an extraordinary ability to illustrate these complex concepts simply and poetically:
If you look deeply into a flower, you see that a flower is made only of non-flower elements. In that flower there is a cloud. Of course we know a cloud isn’t a flower, but without a cloud, a flower can’t be. If there’s no cloud, there’s no rain, and no flower can grow. You don’t have to be a dreamer to see a cloud floating in a flower. It’s really there. Sunlight is also there. Sunlight isn’t flower, but without sunlight no flower is possible.
If we continue to look deeply into the flower, we see many other things, like the earth and the minerals. Without them a flower cannot be. So it’s a fact that a flower is made only of nonflower elements. A flower can’t be by herself alone. A flower can only inter-be with everything else. You can’t remove the sunlight, the soil, or the cloud from the flower.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the philosophy, it’s difficult to unsee the poetry in nature after seeing life through Thich Nhat Hanh’s lens.
The manifestation of matter and life
A little girl once asked Thich Nhat Hanh how she could deal with the sadness of losing her dog. With a gentle smile, he first admitted that it was a very difficult question. But then he explained that the dog had not gone anywhere. A cloud never dies, he told the little girl. It simply changes form and manifests as rain. The dog too was going to change its form, and she could still enjoy her dog in the rain and in her cup of tea.
Not only was this a beautiful way of helping a child accept the reality of death, but it was also an elegant way of explaining matter. At the end of the day, we are all made of matter, and the atoms that make up matter can manifest in an infinite number of ways. Just as autumn leaves transform into soil, which then gives birth to other forms of life, we too are bound to change our manifestation. When we understand that, we also appreciate the transitory nature of life.
This understanding won’t take away the suffering that comes with grieving, but it does give us some upliftment at a time when we are in the grips of darkness. There is much comfort in recognising the magical way in which life keeps transforming. Indeed, that is the mindset with which millions of Thich Nhat Hanh’s students and followers have mourned the departure of their beloved Thay (teacher).
Until we meet again
Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing has left a little emptiness in my heart. I don’t know when the world will see a person like Thich Nhat Hanh again, or when we will get to see the kind of impact he had. I’m sure it will happen eventually.
But in the meantime, I’ll see him in the rain and the flowers and every other miracle he opened my eyes to. Nature feels like an apt place to find him. As he so artistically described:
I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”