At the path to the meditation hall, two monks, clad in cloaks and wool hats to ward off the cold, approached on the road from the opposite direction. My German friend whispered, “it’s him.“ Like a big dummy I said, “who?” At that moment, the sun rose over the east rim of the canyon. The monks stopped, put their palms together and bowed. We returned the gesture, which went on a good ten seconds. Then, the smaller monk smiled gently, and they continued on their way.
“I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel peace prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I never pretend to be a Buddhist. But many years ago I sat on the floor of the Bodhi Tree bookstore in West Hollywood, looking like so many of us for some kind of inner peace and curious about Buddhist meditation. I leafed through a few books and came across a slim paperback entitled “Transformation and Healing” by Thich Naht Hahn. Not sure what planet I had been on, but I had never heard of the author, or just hadn’t paid attention. Unlike the others, his writing was very inclusive and clear.
Inside the back cover was a link to the Plum Village website. Turned out the great teacher was coming to a winter retreat at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido in a couple of weeks. Curious, I decided to go. There were no spaces left in the dorms, so I packed my SUV with camping gear and went, along with hundreds of people from all over the world, to camp out in a canyon in the hills not far from San Diego, not realizing it would be below freezing at night and I’d end up sleeping in the truck.
The first morning, at the un-Godly hour of 5 AM, the meditation bell rang. And rang. The monk or nun in charge enjoyed it a bit too much. I am not a morning person, not even a little. If I’m up before the sun, there’s usually fishing involved. I got cleaned up and, bleary eyed (I had slept perhaps an hour in the back of the SUV), trudged up the hill with a couple of new friends, a young man from Germany and a retired teacher from Michigan.
The “smiler,” of course, was Thich Naht Hanh, who had just arrived from San Diego airport after his flight from France, on his way with his attendant to the meditation hall to give his morning dharma talk. My German friend and I were the first people to encounter him after his arrival. This was my introduction to the great Buddhist philosopher and teacher. Whoa.
Thay was accessible the entire weekend, leading meditation walks, giving dharma talks, bowing to everyone he encountered with that smile. A beautiful man of peace, teaching the path of mindfulness, an inclusive path that saw no division based on religious beliefs. Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu… all were welcome, not to be indoctrinated and perhaps converted, but instead to take what they need from the teachings of mindful living. Meditation is not a religion.
I’ve been back a couple of times since (though not while Thay was visiting). Once I went alone on a Christmas retreat and had the almost surreal pleasure of performing on my travel guitar, “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding,“ to a roomful of monks and nuns while standing next to a Christmas tree on a makeshift stage in the dining hall, with novice monk in the back joining in on the chorus.
Kiki and I went there on a family retreat with the kids and, challenges of getting teenagers up at 5 AM for meditation and keeping them entertained without internet for a couple of days aside, we all had a very calming and mindful experience. We talk about returning sometime in the near future, and find the place and the absence of technology and the 24-hour news cycle very nurturing and restoring. And the hiking trails all around the large monastery property lend themselves to beautiful walking meditations. (And you know Kiki likes a good hike.)
You may be asked to do some work while you’re there, like helping with the dishes or in the kitchen, or putting up shelves or working in the garden. All this work is to be done mindfully. “Thay” taught that mindfulness is not only for the meditation hall. One can be mindful doing everyday tasks, like washing the dishes, and find peace even in mundane chores. If you are mindful, for example, when you wash the dishes, YOU ONLY WASH THE DISHES. You don’t worry about work, or health or the big mess we’ve all gotten ourselves into. It’s just you and the dish and the sponge. And breathe. Kind of a Mr. Miyagi deal with the wax on, wax off.
If only I could live this way more of the time, rather than merely writing about it. Still time to learn.
Some of Thay’s meditations are about death, the visualization of what happens to your body after you die. Going back to the earth as dust. He was a firm believer, not in reincarnation, but in the idea that nothing ever really dies, it just becomes something else, the way the nutrients from dead leaves turn into food absorbed by saplings. The energy of the dead leaf does not die, it is now part of the tree.
One thing is certain, this man will rest in peace. He lived in peace, he died in peace. He taught peace. He is no longer here in the manifestation we knew him in, but he lives on through his students and his teachings. And soon, in some tree growing in Vietnam.
If you’re interested in mindfulness and meditation, Thich Naht Hanh is a good place to start. This man of God and peace and mindfulness was the real deal. Thankfully his meditations and teaching on mindfulness are available for us in books and video.
Kiki and I did a meditation called “Calm and Ease” last night, in Thay’s honor. Slept like a baby.
Living in the present moment, you know it is a wonderful moment.