Encounters with a Zen Master / Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh

On the occasion of Thay’s 95th continuation day, we are happy to share with you stories from three of our senior monastic brothers and sisters on how they have been inspired by and learned from Thay.

“Every step you take can bring happiness” 

Sister Chân Đức

Sister Chân Đức (left, also known as Sister Annabel Laity) became the first Western European woman to be ordained as a nun by Thầy on November 10th 1988 in India. She is a  much-loved senior Dharma Teacher and travels widely, leading meditation retreats and inspiring many with her unique teaching style throughout the world. She is currently Dean of Practice at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

The teaching for which I am most indebted to Thay is the teaching on walking meditation. The first day I met Thay at the airport in London I noticed how slowly and relaxingly Thay walked, and during the retreat that Thay led on that occasion Thay would remind me to walk mindfully, but, only on coming to live in Plum Village, was I able to receive the transmission of mindful walking. I would watch the way Thay walked and one day I thought: “I can do that too.” But the teaching that “Every step you take can bring happiness,” has taken much longer to reach me. 

About ten years ago I was busily walking somewhere on an errand while organizing the retreat in the EIAB in Germany. Thay was walking down the staircase and I was walking unmindfully up it. When I reached Thay, Thay said: “Here is your challenge. Every step can bring happiness.” Thay has said that if people want one way to find happiness it is to take every step in mindfulness. If people can do this it will save the world. This for me is the deepest teaching. Every step wherever you are whatever you are doing can bring happiness. Even if you are on your way to the guillotine, every step can bring happiness. It is a challenge. Can you do it? It is up to you because happiness does not come from outside. Every day I take up that challenge from my first steps in the early morning until my last steps at night. Thay cannot walk at the moment but we can walk for Thay.

Thay with Sister Chân Đức

“My dear, what are you doing?”

Brother Pháp Khâm

Brother Pháp Khâm was ordained a novice monk in 1998, a fully ordained monk in 2000 and a Dharma teacher in 2004. He currently serves as Director of Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism (AIAB) in Hong Kong.

After more than two years at Deer Park Monastery, I returned to Plum Village France in December 2002. In January 2003, Plum Village held the Great Ordination Ceremony themed “I have arrived, I am home”. I had the occasion to follow Thay and his attendants to visit the brothers and sisters who were preparing for the ceremony. Thay asked me: “My child, do you think we have organized well enough?” I am not a specialist in this area so I did not know how to answer. Thay smiled and said: “If it is not so well yet, we will do better next time!” Thay often said that the role of a teacher is to inspire their students. When a student has been inspired, they can create many miracles. Thay often transmitted his inspiration to us through such gentle words of encouragement.

I am very nourished by Thay’s words: “Thay trusts you can do it”. But doing what? The question “My dear, what are you doing?” that Thay often asked had confused many of his students. In May 2001, I was part of the organizing team for the West Coast leg of Thay’s US Tour. There were many things to do, so I was quite busy. Seeing me sending a document via fax, Thay asked me what I was doing. I said I was sending a fax. Right after answering I recognized that I have not learned the lesson. Someone had already given me the tip that when we are asked this question, we only need to return to our breathing and smile. The question is like a bell of mindfulness that invites us to return to the present moment. Of course Thay knew what his student was doing. But Thay wished to help us not to be so carried away by work that we forget to be in touch with life in the present. Simply stop for a few seconds and breathe! 

Some brothers and sisters considered that question as a koan. If they answered correctly, meaning, simply returning to the breath and smile, then it was as if they had solved the koan and they were very happy. If they answered incorrectly, like in my case, then they still wished to be asked again by Thay so they could breathe and smile, and see that as a seal of approval from Thay. 

One morning, while the Deer Park sangha was resting and preparing for a retreat, Thay and the sangha went on walking meditation around Solidity Hamlet. Passing by the registration office and knowing that I was inside, Thay asked his attendant to knock on the door and invite me to walk with the sangha. I said I was not going because I had to use that time to take care of a few work matters. Again, I missed the rope that Thay threw to me. Indeed, in that moment I was carried away by work. But why continue to miss the rope? The ones who threw to me the next rope were the brothers. During the lazy period, some brothers went on walking meditation and passed by the office. They saw me inside, waved at me and invited me to walk with them. I smiled, waved back, turned off the computer, and went outside to join them for a stroll.

Thay with Brother Pháp Khâm in 1998

Infinite love, infinite patience

Sr. Giác Nghiêm

Sister Giác Nghiêm (also known as Soeur Elizabeth), a French nun, is a much loved elder sister in Plum Village. In 1997, she joined the community of Plum Village as a monastic. She is currently the abbess of Maison de l’Inspir, a small monastic establishment of the Plum Village tradition, located near Paris.

What quality of Thay would I like to continue? His unconditional love and his deep understanding, that’s what I want to continue of Thay. And then his patience. What patience, what love!

It was day end. I had accompanied two sisters to go care for Thay, and I was there to help clean. When I arrived, it was dark in Thay’s dining room. In the far left corner, there was a sink, a light bulb hanging just like that. It was extremely simple, an extreme sobriety. There was such a similarity with Francis of Assisi and Jesus that it was easy for me to be there.

I approached to do the dishes and remained fascinated by a glass, like the ones our Master drinks his tea with, and a spoon with glutinous rice on it that was soaking in hot water. It was very harmless but it drew me, as if Thay had put his teaching in it with a particular intention for Sister Giac Nghiem. That’s how I see it now, but at the time, I wasn’t thinking about it, I was fascinated. All the time I was there, I didn’t do anything, not sweeping, not the dishes; I just contemplated Thay’s teaching. I let myself be infused in contemplation, simply being in contact and without any words. At one point I touched through it an understanding of Thay’s teaching. I was in direct contact with Thay’s love for his disciples, his disciples who were not wise, who are painful; who are still well wrapped in glutinous rice. And I saw his patience, the teaching was: Just wait, like hot water – the surrounding love – that gently penetrates through what is glutinous and at some point, it will give way and the rice will leave the spoon alone. And I cried. I kept looking and this time I no longer saw the spoon, the rice, the hot water, but Thay’s love, the way this love envelops each of us. This infinite, ineffable love that penetrates us and helps us to become more flexible, soft, and to let go of all our attachments. I was crying and our Master came down, put his hand on my shoulder and said to me: “Sister Giac Nghiem, you are going to become a Dharma teacher.” I’m sure that my path is to be this hot water for everyone around me. I was deeply in touch with the practice that Thay intended for me. My true path is this. This is what Thay gave me as a gift that day. It is infinite love, infinite patience that helps us accept others as they are, while knowing that only one thing can heal them – understanding and love. That’s all. 

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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