Thích Nhất Hạnh

Photo credit: Kelvin Cheuk

Lotus in a Sea of Fire:
Honoring Thích Nhất Hạnh

Thích Nhất Hạnh, pronounced Tik-N’yat-Hawn, was a Vietnamese monk of the Zen tradition, part of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. The first word in his name, Thích, is actually a title meaning “teacher” and I stumbled across him when learning about Buddhism in 2006. Over time I collected dozens of his books, out of the many he wrote throughout his life.

He was one of several highly influential people I had encountered in the early years of my life, who shaped who I am as a writer and inspired me in ways few could.  One of those profound human beings you’ve probably never heard of, who impacted this world in ways most of us can only dream of.

Born as Nguyen Xuan Bao in Hue, Vietnam on October 11, 1926 he became ordained at the age of 16 and today is a modern day legend in human rights the world over.  First displaying his dedication to the practice he developed called Engaged Buddhism, when he chose to stay during the hell-fire of the Vietnam War, caring for the injured on both sides of the conflict and calling for peace.  In 1966, while traveling abroad, both the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese political parties banned him from returning, and he remained in exile for the next several decades until his first return in 2005. He would travel there four more times before his death on January 22, 2022.

In 1967 he was nominated by his friend Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize. A spiritual leader, author, artist, peace activist, and humanitarian, there are few people who could speak on matters of the heart and soul the way that Nhất Hạnh did for the last eight decades.  A bright light, pure and unyielding, from a generation far stronger than my own.  Humble, balanced and wise souls like his are what our world needs the most and yet has the least.  His presence was only rivaled by that of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a sub-branch of Vajrayana Buddhism.

In 2014,  Nhất Hạnh had a stroke at Plum Village Monastery in southern France, a Zen Buddhist center he founded and had been living at from 1982 onward.  The stroke caused partial paralysis and he became wheelchair-bound and unable to speak.  In 2018, he was permitted to return to Vietnam and call it his permanent home, to live out his remaining time in the land of his youth, the land that sparked his spiritual journey.

I find it deeply saddening that his time in this world has come to an end.  However, he has left behind a phenomenal legacy that will carry on through his students for generations to come.  Thích Nhất Hạnh spent a lot of time and effort bringing Zen Buddhist practices to the West in a way that was practical and useful to our way of life. He has been and will continue to be a strong spiritual leader.

I’d like to leave here a collection of excerpts and poetry from his journal entries that were written during the Vietnam War and later published as Fragrant Palm Leaves, they are poignant and passionate, deeply thoughtful, aching and reinvigorating all at the same time, much the way that Nhất Hạnh was himself, throughout his life.

I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands
to keep the loneliness warm

two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing
my soul from leaving me in anger.

~Thích Nhất Hạnh

Promise me,
Promise me this day,
Promise me now,
While the sun is overhead
Exactly at the zenith,
Promise me:

Even as they
Strike you down
With a mountain of hatred and violence;
Even as they step on you and crush you like a worm,
Even as they dismember and disembowel you,
Remember, brother,
Man is not your enemy.

The only thing worthy of you is compassion – invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face the beast in man.

One day, when you face this beast alone,
With your courage intact, your eyes kind,
Untroubled (even as no one sees them),
Out of your smile
Will bloom a flower.
And those who love you
Will behold you
Across ten thousand worlds of birth and dying.

Alone again,
I will go on with bent head,
Knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
The sun and the moon
Will continue to shine,
Guiding my way.

Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote this poem in response to the 1967 executions of 4 young Buddhist monks, who had joined the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam during the war, an organization led by him that provided medical care to victims on both sides of the conflict.

I know what it is to get angry, and I know the pleasure of being praised.  I’m often on the verge of tears or laughter.  But beneath all these emotions, what else is there?  How can I touch it?  If there isn’t anything why would I be so certain that there is?

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

When icy winter comes, it is unforgiving to all things young, tender and insecure.  One must grow beyond youthful uncertainty to survive.  Maturity and determination are necessary.  Seeing the courageous, solid way that trees prepare for winter helps me appreciate the lessons I’ve learned.

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

At first, it seemed like a passing cloud.  But after several hours, I begin to feel my body turning to smoke and floating away.  I became a faint wisp of a cloud.  I had always thought of myself as a solid entity.  And suddenly I saw that I am not solid at all.  I saw that the entity I had taken to be me was really a fabrication.  My true nature, I realized, was much more real, both uglier and more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

Friends want you to appear in the familiar form they know.  But that is impossible.  How could we continue to live if we were changeless?  To live we must die every instant.  We must perish again and again in the storms that make life possible.  I became a battlefield, and I couldn’t know until the storm was over if I would survive.  Not in the sense of my physical life, but in the deeper sense of my core self.  I experienced distraction upon distraction and felt a tremendous longing for the presence of those I love.  Even though I knew that if they were present, I would have to chase them away or run away myself.

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

When the storm finally passed, layers of inner mortal lay crumbled.  On the now-deserted battlefield, a few sunbeams peeked through the horizon, too weak to offer any warmth to my weary soul. I was full of wounds, yet experienced an almost thrilling sense of aloneness.  No one would recognize me in my new manifestation.  No one close to me would know it was I.

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

Mountains and rivers, Earth and sun all lie within the heart of consciousness.  When that realization arises, time and space dissolve.  Cause and effect, birth and death all vanish.  Though I dwell a hundred thousand light-years from a star, I can cross that distance in a flash.

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

I knew early on that finding truth is not the same as finding happiness.  You aspire to see the truth.  But once you have seen it, you cannot avoid suffering.  Otherwise, you have seen nothing at all.

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

At that moment, I felt perfectly at peace.  Not one sad or anxious thought entered my mind.  Ideas of past, present and future dissolved.  And I was standing at the luminous threshold of a reality that transcends time, space and action.  I arose and sat in meditation the rest of the night.  All that remained was a deeply rooted peace. I sat like a mountain and I smiled.

~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

Learn more about Thích Nhất Hạnh by visiting the Plum Village website…

Recommended Reading:

The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

See the trailer for the film Walk With Me, about the life of Nhat Hanh

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