Welcome to episode 20 of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.
At such a demanding and delicate time, the presenters, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino, reflect on Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh passing on January 22nd, 2022. They offer a profound insight into the memorial week, the funeral, impact on the Plum Village community, and the overwhelming global response.
This instalment of the podcast is an intimate account of the period between the announcement of Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing and the recording of this episode: “a retreat of silence, and a retreat of remembering Thay and continuing Thay.”
Brother Phap Huu, Thay’s former attendant and current Abbot of the Upper Hamlet, shares his personal relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh and how these events have impacted him. He also shares a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the traditional ceremonies and memorial services, preparations, and processions, as well as personal stories from the Plum Village communities over the eight days following the beloved teacher’s passing.
The conversation delves into: the significance of the ceremonies’ texts; the deep practises underpinning the formalities; Thay becoming a spiritual ancestor; deep levels of aspiration; the symbolic homes for Thay’s ashes; acceptance, togetherness, and impermanence; the relevance of Thay’s teachings for years to come; and what it means to be the continuation of Thay.
The episode ends with a short meditation on continuation and gratitude, guided by Brother Phap Huu.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Thich Nhat Hanh memorial ceremonies
Memorial Week for Thich Nhat Hanh
Memorial Practice Resources
‘Photos from Thay’s Memorial Ceremonies’
‘Daily Contemplations on Impermanence and Interbeing’
Chants: ‘Namo Avalokiteshvaraya’
‘Namo’valokiteshvaraya Chant’ (2022)
Chants: ‘Heart Sutra’
‘New Heart Sutra Translation by Thich Nhat Hanh’
Sister Chân Không
Plum Village Lineage
‘Memories from the Root Temple: My Master’s Robe’
‘The 16 Exercises of Mindful Breathing’
“Thay’s life is his message.”
“Many of us grew up in a Buddhist family, but didn’t know the beautiful culture and the depths of Buddhism, and have been waiting for a master to open our eyes to the spiritual dimension. And we were so lucky that we found Thay. So the tears and the prostration are just gratefulness, and honoring, and respect.”
“The tears are bitter but also very sweet, because if we don’t go deep into our feelings – this podcast is The Way Out Is In – if we’re not going into our feelings of grief, then all we’re doing is blocking them. But the point is not to be stuck in them. Our tears are like a flow. And we need to let it flow.”
“Impermanence. We are of the nature to grow old. We are of the nature to get sick. We are of the nature to die. Everything that we hold deep and dear to us, one day we will let go of.”
“I’ve always said that Thay’s the most famous person no one’s ever heard of, because he’s had such an influence yet his name doesn’t… […] Suddenly I felt Thay in the public, in his fullness. And I thought that was his extraordinary power: that he wasn’t well known, but everyone knew him.”
“When Thay did a retreat in 2003 for police officers, we used no Buddhist terms. We did a ceremony, but no incense offering. It’s possible, and we have to be flexible. We have to hope for that spirit.”
“I want to be in the midst of this storm and still have my two feet on the ground. Thay has given us the tools, and I need to cultivate that deeper and deeper, because then brotherhood, sisterhood, community will have stability. And Thay said, ‘If in Thay’s community there is still brotherhood and sisterhood, then anything is possible.’”
“The chanting is another way of directing our grief, another way of honoring our masters, our teachers, our spiritual ancestors.”
“What I see so clearly is Thay’s continuation in his actions and his teachings, and that they are as robust as if he were here; there’s no dilution of them. He’s taught us so beautifully and in such a practical and simple way that people can immediately relate to and practice; as he said, you don’t need to be in the practice for 10 years, you can start right now.”
Dear listeners, welcome to this latest episode of the podcast The Way Out Is In. I’m Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk, a student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition, in France.
And today, brother, it’s two weeks since the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh, and so we are sitting in Thay’s hut, the Sitting Still Hut, in Upper Hamlet, France. And this is a chance to really reflect on these last two weeks. And it’s very interesting because I’m sitting here and I feel my voice very different from normal.
I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu .
And, brother, welcome. And, as I said, it’s two weeks since Thay passed and this is an opportunity to, as I said, reflect and to offer our listeners an opportunity to have a sort of deep insight into these last two weeks; how you’ve been, how the community is; the whole extraordinary global phenomenon of Thay’s passing, and the funeral. But it seems most important to start off with, brother, just to remind our listeners of your relationship to Thay.
Hello, everyone. I ordained when I was 14 years old, but I started my monastic training when I was 13. So my relationship, my student and teacher relationship with Thay started in 2001. And I have been his personal attendant for over 15 years, and so I had the privilege and the fortune of being just so close to him in everyday life, being able to learn from him through the Dharma, his teaching. But then had the chance to learn from his body-action mindfulness in daily life. And that, for me, I still carry all of that teaching like it is implanted into like every cell of my body. And so, yeah, this episode might become a little bit emotional, because in the last two weeks it has been very special, very… Like a solemn moment every day, because just feeling Thay in the Sangha right now – as he is free as a cloud – but how much we are processing and practicing with the continuation of Thay. Because we can look at this present moment in two aspects, it’s the ultimate dimension, which Thay teaches us to see, Thay has not gone. Thay is still continuing through each and every one of us through our mindful breathing, our mindful walking, our practice as a community, because that’s what he has transmitted to us. As long as we carry his message in our life, Thay will never die. And I’ve touched that and that is the truth, that is not wishful thinking. But on another level, let’s say the historical dimension, we are human beings and each and every one of us have different relationships towards Thay. Thay is Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, it means teacher. So whenever you hear I say Thay, that’s who we are referring to. We all have different levels of connection to Thay. Some of us had the chance to be with him for over 60 years, such as Sister Chân Không. Some of us have been with him for 20 years, some of us over 15 years, some of us have never met him in person, but have been with his teaching through his books, through his messages, his videos on YouTube or his interviews. And they have carried his teaching in his life. So, for me, that is also considering meeting Thay. And so when we hear someone so magnificent as Thay, because he has impacted millions of people, someone’s passing like that, you just have too feel sad, you know. And it is OK to feel sad. It is OK to grieve because that is our practice: ‘Breathing in, I’m aware of my feelings. Breathing out, I embrace my feelings.’ And that is our practice, so we have to allow ourselves to be sad, we have to allow ourselves to feel the grief, because in grief, it also expresses what that person meant to us. And for me, a lot of the feelings that have been coming up for myself is, first of all, just gratitude. I just feel ‘Wow, I was able to be born in an era that the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was alive and teaching.’ And then the gratefulness of having the right conditions to bringing myself to Plum Village, and I owe that to my father. And then the right merits that have come together to tell me to become a monk, because those were the conditions that gave me this opportunity to enter into this life with such a person. And the second feeling that I’ve been holding is, you know, the sadness, because it does feel somehow empty. And it’s very strange because I can’t really put my finger on it sometimes. There are days I just wake up and I just feel, I just feel empty, and this is not emptiness of the Dharma. This is just emptiness of the person who changed my life is now embraced by Mother Earth, and he is not in the physical form anymore. And what has been so, so interesting with with Thay is… I can say that Thay has been training his monastic and lay students for over 40 years to already practice no birth and no death, seeing his continuation. But because our mind is so basic sometimes, we’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s later, that’s the future.’ And we are still grasping the here and now, which was maybe a few years ago and Thay was still healthy, he was still teaching. And we don’t bring in impermanence yet. Right? So, suddenly, now with the reality that Thay is not here in a physical form, just knowing that, when he was here, I felt secure. I felt safe. I felt I’m walking the path that my teacher lead me, and somehow I felt that, I felt so supported just knowing that Thay is breathing the same air as I am in this beautiful planet. It just gave me this feeling of stability. And when the moment came… At first, receiving the news, it was surreal. But it was very interesting, and I’d like to share about it. I was in a Zoom call. We were in a Zoom International Plum Village TNH Foundation meeting. And in 2018, when Thay returned back to Vietnam, one of our most senior monastic brother asked Thay: ‘Thay, would you like to go back to Vietnam so you can also live the last days in Vietnam, and one day return back to the earth in Vietnam?’ And Thay nodded. So that moment when Thay gave us that confirmation, we already started to plan for Thay’s passing, for Thay’s continuation, and we have a procedure of how things will go down, and I’ll share about that later. But through the last four years, I’ve had the cell phone with me, always on, like on vibration, or I always keep the screen so that I can see it. Right? Just in case there is information about Thay. So we were having this meeting and the phone call rings from one of Thay’s head attendant. And normally I would text back and I said, ‘Oh, I’m in a meeting, can you call me back in 30 minute or tell me when to call you back? Can it be postponed?’ But the phone kept ringing, and I just had a moment of like, this can be really serious. So I muted my mike, I turned off my camera on Zoom and I called back the sister and I said, [Speaks Vietnamese] it means elder sister. ‘[Speaks Vietnamese], I’m here. What is it?’ And she asked me ‘what is the Sangha doing?’ And I said ‘The Sangha is about to eat dinner.’ And she said ‘Thay’s heart is slowing down, and we are all sending Thay energy. Can the community in Plum Village also all think of Thay and send energy to Thay in this moment?’ When I received that, I still took it as Thay is having a difficult moment and he needs support. I didn’t think that Thay is passing. And the reason why is because I have been with Thay since his stroke. I was in the hospital in 2014 when Thay had the stroke and I was holding Thay as the stroke has happened. And he was supposed not to make that. The doctors told us that he was supposed to pass away in a few hours. And this is in November 2014, and Thay overcame that. You know, like talking about his journey can be a whole series, and we’ve talked about doing it. And we will, we will get into it at one point, but just to share, like Thay has been through so many difficulties regarding the physical illness and the physical impermanence. So I just took, I just took that phone call as in ‘Thay is going through a difficult moment and the Sangha is sending energy to Thay.’ And there’s something when collectively everyone thinks of you and sends their their love, because the humans, we also live off energy. And I know that it has a big impact on Thay. So at that moment, you know, I had to continue the Zoom call, but everything changed for me at that moment. And I, I didn’t want to create any panic also in the Sangha because that is also not healthy. So after the Zoom call finished – luckily it ended within the next 20 minutes – Sister True Dedication receives a text from our dear elder sister attendent, saying that ‘This is the moment Thay is becoming a cloud.’ But it hasn’t yet pronounced that Thay has passed away. So she texted me right away and I jump on the phone call with her, and I said ‘Let us wait, we cannot announce anything yet, but let us send energy to our teacher and the community that is around Thay.’ So in the next ten minutes it was very intense for us. And every minute felt so long because we have a procedure that we have put together since 2018 of what we need to do as a community when the moment comes, when Thay passes away, when Thay continues. And what is most important is that the information has to come from Plum Village, that is the most accurate information. And Sister Concentration gives us a voice message that says that Thay has passed. And then Sister True Dedication takes care of announcing to the world, the press side. And Jo, you were part of this discussion in 2018.
And Thay Pháp Khâm and myself are supposed to take care of the monastic network, of all of Plum Village monasteries. And Thay Pháp Khâm was to take care of Asia and I was to take care of Europe and then North America and any other monasteries. So this network was put into place, and we know that in 2014 there was already a misinformation that Thay has already passed. And that information a little bit was wildfire and we had to do some, some damage control and to just confirm with everyone that ‘No, Thay is still alive, please, breathe together and generate this mindfulness to support Thay in these critical moments.’ So now, fast forward 2022, we’ve learned so much through the years and we wanted to make sure that when that moment comes, it will become a moment of togetherness. That’s what we felt, and that’s what we wanted to generate together, globally, because we know that this moment will not be a moment just for the monastic only, because Thay’s impact is beyond just the monasteries. So we had to be so sure with every information that we’re receiving. So in this this moment, we were trying to get information and, at the same time, breathing with our own mind of trying to visualize what is happening because we’re not there. And, you know, to be honest, I didn’t feel anything at that moment because I went into a different mode, which is ‘What do we need to do?’ Like fight mode, you can say. So like, I was very, very alert and I was being so present for the monastics who were in Vietnam with Thay, and trying to get the right information. And, at the same time, because I’ve been with Thay through his hospital journey, how emotional it is when there is any physical difficulty that Thay has to go through, because your teacher’s right in front of you, so I was trying to understand my dear sisters and brothers attendant what they’re feeling right now and not to pressure anything. So, through text, I was, you know, compassionately saying, ‘Is there any update? Can you let us know? Because we are here for you.’ And there were these pauses of… I know it was only like two minutes or something, but I felt so long and and it was still like, we’re still sending energy. And that for me, it meant Thay hasn’t passed yet. And me and Sister True Dedication were on the phone trying to breathe together. And we’re like, ‘Let’s try to call, let’s try to get their accurate information’. And when we had the phone call, we can hear the brothers and sisters chanting [Chants] That is Namo Avalokiteshvara, it’s a Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. And that’s all we’re hearing. And our sisters couldn’t, didn’t have the energy at that moment to talk to us. And she just put it on video for us to witness. And I know that was an invitation for us to also be there with Thay and with the monastic brothers and sisters there. But nevertheless, we still needed information because we know what we needed to do. And so when that moment came, Sister Dang Nghiem has shared that Thay has become a cloud. That moment, when we received that voice memo, I went right into action. Sister Hien Nghiem said ‘I’m in Lower Hamlet, I’m going to tell all the sisters.’ I’m in Upper Hamlet, I need to tell all the brothers and all the lay friends. And I have to tell New Hamlet, because none of the New Hamlet sisters was on the phone, and that’s part of my responsibility. And I make this phone call as I was running, trying to gather all the brothers and sisters, all the brothers and lay friends said, ‘I need everyone in the Meditation Hall in 20 minutes’ because that is the next step that we have to do. But the poor sister who got my phone call in New Hamlet as I was like breathing because I was running. And she’s like, ‘Brother, what’s going on? Why are you breathing like that?’ And I was like, ‘Is there any elder sister there?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, I can look for one’, ‘No, forget it. Please just tell the elder elder sister that our teacher has passed away.’ And you just hear on the other line, ‘Are you serious?’ And I was like, ‘Sister, this is not a drill, this just happened. It is the moment for us to come together.’ So what we have set up is when the news comes that Thay has passed away, all monasteries of the Plum Village tradition will invite the Great Temple Bell, doesn’t matter what time of the day it is. And the brother or sister inviting it will wear the his or her sanghati, and we’ll just be inviting it for, in principle, 30 minutes, but our brother invited for the whole hour – one of our brothers. And the Sangha was to come together in each individual hamlet and we would make the announcement that our teacher has passed and all of us will sit together and breathe. And then we will do a very short ceremony to recollect, because in this moment, ceremony holds this energy of uniting to Sangha. It’s very important. And we chant the Heart Sutra, which teaches us about impermanence: ‘This body is not me, I’m not caught in this body, no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no form. We are free from all this.’ So it is the right sutra we chant. And then we would offer incense and then we would recite this poem that Thay has beautifully put together: I am not this body. I am not caught in this body, et cetera. I don’t want to butcher it because I don’t memorize it, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful meditation and we have to practice right away. So what was really interesting for myself in that moment was I thought I was fine because in 2016, Thay has already left Plum Village and he traveled to Thailand to our Asian Center. And when Thay left Plum Village, I really felt like Thay may not come back to Plum Village. I just had this intuition because that morning, Brother Pháp Dung and myself – it was during the Rains Retreat – as the community was going to take Thay to the airport, in Bergerac. But myself and Brother Pháp Dung, we had some other duty that we couldn’t see Thay at the airport. So, early morning we went and we said goodbye to Thay at the Hermitage, before he went to the airport. And both of us now we knelt on our knees, joined our palms, and wished Thay safe journey and a beautiful time with our younger brothers and sisters in Thailand and Asia. And Thay Pháp Dung shared to Thay, you know, ‘Thay, we your students in Plum Village, we will carry on your legacy here.’ And Thay, with his left hand, joined his palms and he bowed to us. And he put his hand on both of our heads, and touched our face. And then he said… and he did this motion as in like ‘now, go.’ He put his hand forward as in like ‘Go, do what I want you to do, be my continuation.’ And I remember Brother Pháp Dung and I, we had this moment, we looked at each other and we’re just like, we have to continue Thay, there’s no question. And I only shared this to some inner circle brothers and sisters, but when Thay left Plum Village in 2016, I had a feeling that Thay wanted Plum Village France, because Plum Village France is now the root community of the Plum Village tradition. The root temple in Hue is still our root temple, because that is where Thay was ordained and where he was trained, and our grandfather teacher was also from there. And that is our lineage. We have this beautiful stream of continuation. But Thay also started a new tradition, which is the Plum Village school. And on multiple occasions, Thay has shared with me and with the community that Plum Village France and Upper Hamlet will become the root, the root monastery of this beautiful tradition to go for years to come, if I dare to say, hundreds of years to come. And in 2016, when Thay left, I had this feeling like Thay wanted us to learn to spread our own wings and not to always take refuge in Thay as students that won’t step up. Because I remember this so vividly in 2016, we had all of these beautiful retreats – 21 Day Retreat, Francophone Retreat, Summer Retreat, Wake Up Retreat – and Thay was witnessing us grow up because now Thay can’t speak so us, young Dharma teachers, were learning to be Thay’s continuation. And how beautiful it is to be supported by Thay in this way. And we now, looking back, I would say we’ve grown so much. But what was so funny was like, especially walking meditation, because now we were all alternating in being leaders in our community. Because Thay never said one person would become the leader of Plum Village, Thay said ‘Every one of you would be my continuation.’ And the seniors know what they have to do. The young ones know how they can continue Thay. The lay friends know how they can support and also how they can be Thay’s continuation in their own practice. Every time we gathered for walking meditation and when Thay comes, we all take a step back and we let Thay lead again. And we were still having this habit that Thay is still the leader and we will still take refuge in Thay. And I think we should, we have that privilege, but I think Thay wanted Plum Village, one of the root temples, to stand on our own two feet now. And so, since 2016, when Thay left, I have already been meditating and practicing with this insight that we are not caught in Thay’s physical form, and we have been doing so well, you know. We have grown so much, we have been able to continue to build our Sangha, we’ve been able to continue to have ordination year after year. Young brothers and sisters were coming to aspire to join the path, and that tells us that we’re still… Thay’s legacy is still continuing through us. So I was naive in a way thinking that I’m ready, because I have already witnessed, „Thay’s continuation body in the Sangha.“ And when I finally sat down, I put on my sanghati, for all of us to gather, I just broke down and I just cried. And I just sobbed and, you know, tears just kept coming.
And are still flowing, brother.
Let us listen us breathe for a moment while Phap Huu is in his feelings. Let’s just breathe for a moment.
And Brother Minh Hy comes up to me – the eldest brother in Upper Hamlet at this moment – and he embraces me, and I just cry, I just cried on his shoulder. And I just accepted ‘Wow, humanity just, just said goodbye to one of the greatest teacher of our lifetime.’ And just so much gratitude came up, because I was sitting at the bell, normally where Thay sits. And we brought the picture that we chose for the funeral. And that picture was chosen because it symbolizes the transmission. And I think everyone have seen the photo of Thay in his sanghati and holding a Dharma lamp and with a flame, and that was taken during a lamp transmission. And every time Thay transmited that lamp to a monastic or a lay to become a Dharma teacher, he always has to sing when he says ‘This flame is from generations to generations, and now I am passing this flame to all of you.’ And he said, ‘Please protect it, please let it shine, and make sure it continues in the present moment and into the future.’ And I was just remembering Thay’s love and trust to all of us throughout his time with us. And he was so, so, so unselfish. As famous as Thay became, and he never, he never asked to be in the limelight, or he never, he never strived for that. But the world needed to hear about mindfulness, compassion and love, and Thay was content to give that. But on a personal side, he never left us. He never forgot about us. He would spend time to eat with us, to take us on walks, he would drink tea, he would invite us to watch the flower blooms. We have daffodil hills and he would make it a festival. He’s like, ‘This is Daffodil Festival, and everyone put your schedule aside and we’re going to enjoy the daffodil.’ You know, like just these little moments are moments of love and unselfishness. Right? Because Thay can just say, ‘I’m busy’ and we all respect that. We know how much Thay is offering and how much he needs time and space to do what he needs to do. And one of the, one of the feelings that came up to me was also Thay’s life is his message. You know, he said this so many times and in this moment when I’m sitting there and we’re about to do this for a ceremony, for Thay, and I just realized, ‘Now, Thay has to be alive in each and every one of us.’ And as we were sitting in silence, you know, these words come up, ‘I vow, I vow to keep this fire alive.’ And that was the moment when we finished our first ceremony and we gathered. We then allocated everyone what to do, because we had a whole lot of things we needed to do. And what was the next step was the international level, making sure that the world gets to grieve together, to breathe together, and to offer tribute to Thay together. And we went into super active monastic mode, very, very mindful, but not slow. We were super fast and we created headquarters of information and that team was assembled. The first day we all gathered in Lower Hamlet, and we needed to make sure that all the news outlet that had to have the right information. And then some of us were tasked to write to all of our friends who have been supporting Thay in Plum Village for over 40 years, and making sure that day they get this information from us. And I was contacting all of the monasteries and even some monasteries even receiving the official information didn’t believe it yet. And they wrote to me privately and they said, ‘Brother Phap Huu, is this true?’ And I said I just replied, ‘Yes.’ That’s it, I couldn’t write more, I just said yes. And I pressed send. We were also in contact with Vietnam in this moment, we were making sure how we are going to go forward with the ceremonies because we have agreed that the first ceremony of putting Thay’s body into the casket would be an international event livestreamed from Vietnam. And we would organize to commentate on how the ceremony is happening and what is happening because everything would be in Vietnamese and there is so much meaning to a ceremony that if you have no idea what is happening, you are just going to miss out. And then making sure what we’re going to do for these eight days of ceremony, so we prepared in 2018. And then in 2020 we re-prepared because it became COVID time. What to do in a situation of COVID, of the pandemic, so we shortened it to five days. But then, in Vietnam, with the support of the authorities, they allowed us to have bigger gatherings. So we pushed it to eight days, eight days of, we call it a retreat, a retreat of silence and a retreat of remembering Thay and continuing Thay. And the last day, which was the cremation, was also to be agreed to to be an international event that all of the monasteries, no matter what time of the day it is, we’re going to be present, and we are going to as, one Sangha monastic and lay four-fold, we’re going to be there together. It doesn’t matter what time of the day it was. And this was agreed in 2018 and confirmed again in 2020. And Thay’s transitioning happened at midnight on the 22nd in Vietnam. So this was still the 21st in France. We didn’t end our first moment of working into five a.m.. And the next ceremony was at 9:30, so Maarten, our dear brother who takes care of our Plum Village website, drove me back to Upper Hamlet, and he said, try to get some rest. And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s just close our eyes.’ And I had to lead the first ceremony because it happened during the night in Vietnam, Vietnam needed more time to prepare. So it gave us one extra day a buffer to have a ceremony held in Plum Village as the main ceremony for the world to breathe together, chant together, and remember Thay together. And in Vietnam, it gave the monastics, his students, more time to just be with Thay. And it was very beautiful that we were able to keep Thay’s body in Thay’s Deep Listening Hut at the root temple. And brothers and sisters took time to sit beside his bed in different groups and had time to prostrate, and this prostration is not devotion, this prostration is our deepest respect to someone who has… who’s brought us into spiritual life. You know?
Brather, let’s take a moment to again, dear listeners, let’s give Brother Phap Huu a moment. We can all breathe together and support him at this moment.
You know, for many of us, we grew up in a Buddhist family, but we didn’t know the beautiful culture and the depths of Buddhism, and we can say we’ve been waiting for a master to open our eyes to the spiritual dimension. And for us, we were so lucky that we found Thay. So, you know, the tears, and the prostration are just gratefulness, and honoring, and respect.
So at the first ceremony, I was naive again because I told my crew in the headquarter office, I told them ‘Oh, I really cried, so I’m good.’ And I knew tomorrow was going to be live broadcast. And, honestly, we didn’t know how many people would be joining us. We had no idea of the phenomenal effect and interbeing of the eight day that it had, that connection. We really, I mean, at least for me, I didn’t know the scale and I was just joking to, you know, Sister True Dedication, Sister Hien Nghiem, I’m like, ‘Sister, I’m good. I already cried. Tomorrow, I’ll be perfectly fine to lead the ceremony.’ And at 7 o’clock, I was rehearsing in my room just reading the texts, what I need to read, and I read it three times and I felt really confident. But when the ceremony came in, this collective energy of the Sangha came together, something happened, which was this unity and this beautiful manifestation of Thay just… was here. One brother, one cushion away from me, right after the incense offering, he just started to cry. He just started to let his tears and his emotion be embraced by the Sangha. And I can hear it. And I knew, ‘Oh no, this is going to be a domino effect.’ And I, right away, I invited… I woke up the sound of the bell and I started chanting because I didn’t want to also be under the spell. And I chanted quite well in the first Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa. And then the Dharma is deep and loving, the opening verse, and then I led the community into chanting the Heart Sutra. But when it came to the line that the spot is empty and we are free from all forms, I couldn’t chat. My body was just telling me, you need to cry. And what better way to be sad than in the Sangha’s embrace? And I, at that moment, you know, sometimes Thay would tell us before chanting, Thay said you can say ‘Dear Sangha, this is my sorrow, this is my suffering. I take refuge in you.’ And you let the Sangha carry you. And in that moment and I said, ‘Dear brothers, dear sisters, dear friends, I’m so sad.’ And I just cried, and I cried, and from time to time, whenever I can chant a few words, I would join in and then, when the tears and the feelings would come up, I embrace it again. I recognize it. And the text that we read was to announce why we are here. And a memorial service is very common in temples and monasteries. And we’ve done many in Plum Village. We have three main ones that we do together as three hamlets. One is for Zen Master Tang Hoi, the first Zen Master of Vietnam. The second is our patriarch, the founder of the root temple, Tu Hieu temple, Zen Master Nhat Dinh. And the third is our grandfather teacher, Thay’s teacher, Zen Master Thanh Qui. So these are the three memorial services that we do every year as three monasteries in Plum Village, we would come together and we would honor our venerable… our spiritual teachers who has already passed. And Thay has written a very beautiful introduction and, now, I had to read it for Thay. And I just got so emotional because we said ‘This is our spiritual ancestor now.’ And I had to announce Thay’s name. And it’s fine when you announce someone who has passed away from years ago and no deep connection, but when it’s Thay, it’s very different. Because, for me, you know, like, Thay is more than a Zen Master. He is also a spiritual father for us. They cared for our well-being not on just a spiritual level, but on the level of like, ‘Do we have enough food? Do we have enough warm clothes? Do we have enough rooms? And Thay would, in tours, would like sell his calligraphies for donations.
Let’s take a moment, dear listeners, to breathe with Brother Phap Huu and to sense his pain, but also his, below that, his deep love for his spiritual teacher.
Brother, Thay for you was not just your teacher, he was like your father, he took you under his wing at a young age and he invested so much in you. And I think once he said to you that, something to the effect of ‘Brother Phap Huu, we’ve been together many lifetimes.’ So, I think, for you, maybe there’s also this deep karmic connection that is deeper maybe than even you know of this, of traveling together in maybe different forms, in different relationships. And so I can imagine that this separation at this moment is very, very deeply felt.
Thank you. Thank you, Jo. You know, Thay would go on tours and sell his calligraphy as a way to get funds for us to build a monastic residence because his monastic students were growing so much. And then, Plum Village started as a small farm and through the years, thousands of people who started to know more about Plum Village and Thay’s teaching. And they wanted to learn directly from Thay, so they would come. And we had moments when we had to build bigger meditation halls and everything, you know, in the world, we need some expenses. So like these, these little steps, Thay took care of us.
In this extraordinary sense of him having this global influence, seeing things at a global level, having this deep understanding of interbeing at the grandest level possible and then at the most intimate level that there was no difference between them.
There was no difference.
And it shows something of his extraordinary nature that so many people who reach a high level in society lose the connection to the Earth. And he was always, he was like up in the stars, and at the same time, his feet were firmly on the ground and he was able to see all and to see one.
Exactly. And I came in as a teenager, so I’ll never forget this, as we we’re sitting in Thay’s hut, you know, in Sitting Still Hut… I’ve never shared this publicly, and here it is, in the podcast. But there was a day when one of Thay’s attendant called me and said, ‘Thay wants to see you.’ And I come into the hut a little bit nervous because when Thay wants to see you is either like, you are not practicing properly and he wants to give you guidance, and that means that you’ve done something wrong, or he has some projects for you that he wants you to be a part of, which is a great, great honor. But when you don’t know, there’s just a bit of fear. Right? And whenever Thay meets anyone in his hut, he always invites some tea. And i’m having tea with Thay, 14 years old. And Thay started to tell me, it’s like, ‘Khong’ Khong means student, son, daughter. Khong emphasizes son, daughter, nephew, nieces, whatever. Like, ‘Khong, you’re going to be growing up and your body’s going to be changing, so if you have any questions about puberty, about your development as a human, don’t be afraid to ask Thay. And don’t be afraid to ask your elder brothers for guidance.’ Like, this is who Thay is. He deeply… He deeply cares for us. And, like you said, he didn’t see himself separate from us. And I think that was what drew us so close to him. And at the same time, Thay is really funny and he loves life. You know, in this hut, like, we’ve had moments when Thay would sing songs. Thay would tell us stories. We would all laugh. Thay would hear our stories so invested and he would, he would laugh about our shortcomings and sometimes we would share something that we’re not so proud of, but he would say ‘But thanks to that, now you’re here.’ You know, he always helps us see the beauty of suffering, the beauty of shortcoming, and the beauty of life. And there’s another moment, as I was attending Thay. You know, normally we always prepare food for him. And I’m not a good cook, but we have many good sisters that are his cooks and in big retreats, you know, Thay has a lot of guests. And one of my training is to make sure that his time with guests are not too long. If he gets too tired, I know how I would have to skillfully close the meeting so Thay can rest. And there was a day in one of our 21-day retreat. Thay had a lot of guests and way surpassed Thay’s lunch time, and Thay’s food was already brought into his dining hall, where we’re sitting, Jo, this table, where Thay ate. And normally I would go to the dining hall to get my own food and I get to eat with Thay. And that day Thay said ‘Come, you share with Thay, you eat with Thay.’ And it was so intimate because I got to serve the same rice with Thay, eat the same tofu, the same soup, the same vegetable. But, like you said, no matter how accomplished Thay can be, he is never a victim of that. And that’s what I really aspired to cultivate in myself. You know? And you know, in the ceremonies, we had a chance to share about all of this, like what it meant for us, who Thay was, how he touched our heart, and how we want to continue him. And the ceremonies was a way to channel our grief together, because sadness is an energy. Gratitude is an energy. Grief is an energy, and to do it as as a Sangha body was the best way to do it.
And as you say, brother, because I know some people felt on Thay’s passing that that was OK to be sad. And I think what you’re giving them the answer without having to say anything, that actually the tears are bitter but also very sweet, because if we don’t go deep into our feelings – this podcast is The Way Out Is In – if we’re not going into our feelings of sadness, into our feelings of grief, then all we’re doing is blocking them. But the point is not to be stuck in them. It is… Our tears are like flow, it’s like a, it’s like a flow.
And that we need to let it flow.
And what was so unique in Plum Village, and I think many of the friends can feel it as they joined us online, was even though there was great sadness and sorrow, but there was great lightness and togetherness. And we had moments of just drinking tea together and we would laugh. You know, we would share something so beautiful about our path. You know, we would share a meal and we would… I started to realize I was looking at my brothers and sisters with newer eyes, to see Thay in them. And then I was walking much more mindfully, every step I took, every time I opened the door I would do it much more skillfully. And isn’t it amazing that Thay is still teaching us in this moment? And that was what I was embracing, that thay is still here through these, through these actions and through my practice. So this was the first day, 22. And now comes the first ceremony in Vietnam, which is putting his body into the casket. And I just want to share and I want to share my flowers to the whole team on Vietnam and in Plum Village, because the amount of work that we put into preparing for it was incredible and it was a moment of ‘we are the river.’ There is no separation, nobody is thinking about themselves. We had to prepare all the text, we had to try to understand everything that’s going to happen, so that Sister True Dedication can give a beautiful commentary about how it will be presented. And she did an absolutely amazing job, a task, you know. And I, to today, like every time I see her, I just bow so deep to Sister True Dedication because she was one of the forces for the team, the energy for the team, and she was… Sometimes I call her boss, sometimes I call her, call her my dear sister, or sometimes my younger sister if I just want to support her. But she was such a rock for all of us during this moment too. And I was also very aware of how tough it was for her. But when I saw, and all of us, we saw the video and the livestream of it, when I saw Thay’s body… Impermanence. We are of the nature to grow old. We are of the nature to all get sick. We are of the nature to die. Everything that we hold deep and dear to us, one day we will let go of. And I was just reciting that in my, in each breath, as I was watching Thay’s body be carried by my wonderful brothers and sisters in Vietnam. And the first person that I thought of after that ceremony, together with all of the Plum Village monasteries and lay friends around the world, the first person I thought of was Sister Chân Không, who was Thay’s companion since Thay started Engaged Buddhism as a lay, as a lay young woman with this deep aspiration to walk the path of nonviolence. And so I called her, I was like, ‘I need to get in touch with Sister Chân Không because, as big of a moment that this is for the Sangha to remember Thay, I also think we have to think about Sister Chân Không. And I called her, and we both started crying through the video call. Sister Chân Không was so sweet, she said that ‘Thanks to you, it is the second time that Sister Chân Không is able to cry.’ So she said the first was that morning and the second was with me, and we both to share this moment of tears. And Sister Chân Không is such a seasoned practitioner, so she knew how to change the peg right away, or how Thay says, or change the CD, change the situation. And she said, ‘You are beautiful continuation of Thay. You will bring Thay into the future.’ And she kept going, and to water my flower, and my tears just couldn’t stop. And when she finally start watering my flower, I just jumped in and said, ‘Sister Chân Không, and we are so grateful for you because you are also Thay. Without you, I don’t think Thay would have been able to accomplish as much as he has. You are also our teacher. You are also our light, Sister Chân Không. So please, take care of yourself and let us embrace Thay together.’ And I was so happy I was able to say that. Yeah, and after we cried a little bit more, and then she said ‘OK, we should hang up.’ And like ‘Yeah, I think we should hang up.’ And then we all went to take a rest. And that morning of the 23rd, that day was a real day of just some embracing together. And my tears were just a waterfall that day. I was drinking tea, I was crying. I looked at the trees, I cried.
I think your tea went straight into your tea. There’s a direct flow.
So the joke was Phap Huu, how many clouds did you cry today? And I said about two clouds today. Yeah. So, you know, like we have to embrace it. You know, and the coming days was much more beautiful in bringing Thay’s life into the present moment. And one of the greatest joy that we could continue to do is have a novice ordination. So we had this novice ordination that was scheduled already for the 21st of January. I’m not that I’m sorry, not the not the 21st, the 25th of January. Excuse me. I had a little fear because I didn’t know if it would be appropriate to have a novice ordination, um, during during this, this memorial service. And so I reached out to a lot of brothers and sisters, senior brothers and sisters, and I I asked them, is is it appropriate? And it’ll be beautiful because. This is the continuation of time and for the world to also witness together that we even though Thay is now a cloud and Thay is being embraced by Mother Earth, but his life is not in that form. It is still in the stream of life of this spiritual dimension. And that day, I really felt it change. Also, the energy of the community is still very solemn moments, but there was more. There was a lot of life. And when I was sitting at the bell once again, that’s where I was. I was at the. I was next to it about him and he was at the bar. But I would help lead to chant. And so I really saw Thay smiling. And I was so happy for us to. To continue the growth of the community, because for me, one of the highest masterpiece is is the Sangha is creating a community where brothers, sisters, friends from around the world who have the aspiration to practice mindfulness can come and be supported and captured, as are many Dharma Talk. And I think he said to you, Joe, also in interviews like when he was young, his only hope is to have a community where we all can aspire to have the path of mindfulness, peace and compassion. And the Sangha is that path. And whenever someone leaves Plum Village, they asked Thay, what? What does you want them to do? They always say help. They build Sangha everywhere, help to build a refuge, a spiritual refuge everywhere because we all need a spiritual dimension. We all need a place that we can come home to to touch. I have arrived. I am home in the present moment.
And brother, for those people who are listening, what can you say about what it is to… for them to continue Thay? Because, I mean, what you’ve described so beautifully is Thay’s passing, is such a down-to-earth, real example of the fact that while someone’s body may pass that… because the fifth remembrance – which you didn’t say about apart from getting old and sick and dying, letting go of everything – is that all we can rely on are our actions and thoughts. So, you know, what I see so clearly is Thay’s continuation is his actions and his teachings and that they are as robust as if he were here, that there’s no, there’s no dilution of them. He’s taught us so beautifully and in such a practical and simple way that people can immediately relate to and practice, as he said, you don’t need to be in the practice 10 years, you can start right now. So if someone’s listening to this, whether they know Thay or don’t know Thay, what is that? Well, what few steps could they take that would actually represent Thay’s continuation?
The first step that we can do every day is allow our self to practice mindful breathing and to really be in touch with the breath and not be caught in the future or carried away by the past. And that mindful breath is the transmission that Thay offered us and Buddha offered Thay. If we can be in touch with that, we are in touch with Thay. That’s number one. He always tells us that. The second is our steps. Thay has many famous calligraphies and one of it is „Piece is every step.“ Peace is not outside of us. Peace is every action that we take. It’s not about waiting for peace to arrive, but you can be in touch with peace in the here and now. So if we can take at least 10 steps of mindfulness, really know that this is a step that I am taking on Mother Earth. Breathing in, this is my left foot, placing its seal of peace on Earth. Breathing out, this is my right foot, placing a seal of love on Earth. And these steps, it embodies Thay’s Dharma, it embodies Thay’s part of his legacy because what we were so lucky with is that Thay is a spiritual teacher, a Zen master, a peace activist, a poet, a scholar and also a visionary. Right? So each of every one of us can can honor something that he has given to us and make that our spiritual home. And I feel that we can continue Thay, because that will lead to the next. We always have to take the first breath first, the first step first, or the first cup of tea. And if we can connect to Thay, in that moment, he is never lost. And to go a little bit deeper is we have to practice right view, developing our mind to transform the suffering in our mind, transform to non-discrimination, cultivate loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness. These four elements of love is what I always felt when I was around Thay. And, for me, I always measure myself: Am I kinder this year, or am I more bitter? And if I want to become a better practitioner, I always review myself. Do I still have love in my heart? Is my kindness bigger or smaller?
Because nothing is static, it’s either going one way or the other.
Exactly. And we are always growing and we’re always changing. And if we don’t feed our spiritual life, our dimension of love, happiness, joy, we will lose it. So what Thay has taught us is that everything needs food. So even though a picture of Thay is not Thay, that is where the ultimate dimension comes in, what Thay teaches us, ‘Don’t find Thay in the picture, don’t find Thay in the stupa.’ Even if you arrive at Plum Village and you don’t practice, you haven’t been in touch with Thay. And this is very deep Buddhism, and this is very deep teachings of Thay. So simple, so easy to understand, but to realize it you really need training, you really have to invest yourself because Thay can’t do that for you. A lot of us we think, ‘Oh, if we learn from Thay, then yeah, that’s it.’ Now, what Thay has offered us is the legacy, but we have to receive it and we have to put it into action. And in the last few days I’ve been, I’ve been just listening to Thay’s Dharma Talk from from snippets to snippets. And it really just tells me I’m like, ‘Wow, there’s still so much of Thay’s teaching that is going to be so relevant for years to come.’
Yeah. And brother, what’s… And I’d like to, in a minute, get onto the sort of final ceremony.
But before I do, you know, it’s just in the middle of the New Year, Lunar New Year, and a lot of the monastics sort of choose this time to have an aspiration for the year.
So I know it’s still very early days since Thay passed, but in the time you have had to reflect, what is your aspiration? How do you see your path? Because for me, you are, we’re all continuations of Thay. So it’s not to put a sort of discrimination there. And at the same time, you are the abbot of Upper Hamlet, you have been Thay’s attendant for 15, 16, 17 years. He has, in a sense, invested very directly in you. And there’s a sort of very beautiful relationship that’s still blossoming in your, his teachings are blossoming in you in a very clear, and direct way. So I was just wondering what’s in your heart at the moment about how you want to fully embrace Thay in your life now, and into the life of this community and in your ability to share the Dharma.
In 2016, I was already attending Thay from 2014 to 16. This is when the stroke happened, so I was with him day in, day out, sometimes 24 hours. But there came a moment when I was attending Thay close to 2016. I just felt like it was time for me to return back to Upper Hamlet to to be the abbot that Thay entrusted himself to me to help the community grow and thrive beyond Thay. And there was a moment I just felt like he doesn’t want me to just be next to him all the time. And some brothers and sisters asked me, ‘Why? Shouldn’t you be with him? Because he’s so comfortable with you and he’s so accustomed to you, and when you’re suffering with that, you need to feel supported like that.’ And I just… There was something deep inside of me that said yes, but Thay also has entrusted a lot in me, in order to be an abbot, to be a Dharma teacher, to be with Plum Village, and to allow the Sangha to grow with the non-Thay physical element in the Sangha. And so that day, you know, when I went and asked permission to Thay and I shared with Thay that I would like to return back to Upper Hamlet to be with the Sangha and to continue to lead the Sangha and the community in the retreats that we offer, and to be Thay’s continuation. And why was because Thay was healing and our schedule with Thay was very different than the main body of Plum Village. So that’s why all of us who were taking care of Thay, we had a different schedule. We kept our sitting an hour in the morning and afternoon, but we couldn’t go to the classes, we couldn’t join the retreats because our care for Thay was our priority. And in a way, that’s what the Sangha entrusted this group of attendants to do. And now, you know, there’s nothing, nothing different. But this moment now feels like… that I have to really hold the torch with my two hands. I think that the vision before was like Thay’s holding the main and he’s holding at the bottom, and I’m still taking refuge in Thay. But now my hand is Thay’s hand. My steps are Thay’s steps. My sharing is Thay’s sharing. And that feels more real now. It’s not just on the intellectual and teaching level, it’s like, ‘Oh, your breath is Thay….’ No, this is now you are Thay like, you have to continue him. It’s really hard to put into words, but that’s where my vow is coming. And in one of the closing words that I’ve shared to end the ceremony was like ‘Thay, you have transmitted us the torch, and now we as a Sangha will carry that torch forward.’ And in a way, that’s my aspiration and how that is we know how Thay has been an amazing leader and amazing teacher. He’s taught us how to lead ceremonies, how to lead retreats, how to lead Dharma talks, how to facilitate meetings, how to put a pulse on the energy of the community, how to look at difficulty. Thay’s taught all of us that, but now it is the moment of making sure that we continue to transmit that teaching so it doesn’t get lost. And we have to also we recite those teachings again, and again, and again. Mindful breathing I have arrived. I’m home to four nutriments, the four elements of love, the Four Noble Truths, because that’s what Thay did. Thay would remind us in his Dharma Talk: ‘Did you breathe yet? Are you in the present moment?’ And now Thay is not going to do that. So we have to numner one, do it for us; number two, do it for our community. Number three is continue to offer that because we also are not allowed to be selfish and we have to give, we have to be the trasmission teachers now as a body though. And this story kind of is what I am trying to carry in myself. So, in 2011, we had a moment where in Nottingham. You were probably there, Jo.
I was there.
And we were in the room where Thay rests before he leads to walking meditation after the Dharma Talk. And next year was 30 years of Plum Village. And I went up to Thay and I said, ‘Thay, how about next year is 30 years of Plum Village, we’re going to celebrate. Thay, don’t travel, don’t go on tours. Why don’t you just stay in Plum Village? We will organize all the retreats in Plum Village for the world to come, to be with Plum Village.’ And my way was just getting time to rest. And I think it was tempting because Thay did think about it. He had a moment of pause and thinking about it. But then, Jo, he looked at me and he said ‘You know, when a doctor has medicine and he sees that there is illness around, his responsibility is to offer the ones who are suffering medicine so that they can get better.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘And you know what? Thay has medicine.’ And I just, I understood right away, I joined my palms and I said, ‘Thank you, Thay. We will support you.’ And somehow that spirit needs to live on in Plum Village. That spirit needs to live on in all of us. That is the deep level of aspiration. And then on, like one of the personal aspiration is Thay is so cool in every situation. My goodness, he is always so solid and so peaceful. I want to be like that, Jo. I want to be able to be in the midst of this storm and still have my two feet on the ground. Thay has given us the tools, and I need to cultivate that deeper and deeper, because with that, then brotherhood, sisterhood, community will have stability. And Thay said if in Thay’s community there is still brotherhood and sisterhood, then anything is possible. Anything is possible.
Beautiful, beautiful. We’re here to support you, Brother Phap Huu.
Yes, and I shared this for many of my brothers and sisters too. I know a lot of us are having this aspiration now.
And brother, so just coming to the final…
The final day.
Final day, because I was traveling and this is the earliest I could get back. I drove 13 hours to get back to Plum Village in time for the cremation ceremony. And I want to thank you personally, brother, because until that point I had mourned Thay, but I had not been able to release my own tears. And after the ceremony, I saw you stand up and you moved to open a window. And I just knew that I felt I was about to crack open. I need someone who can support me in that moment. I came over and we had a hug and I just sort of was able to… We were both able to… You had already been doing it for… I took the last tears out of you, I think, brother. So thank you for the depth of your camaraderie at that moment. But the cremation was an extraordinary global event. I mean, just to see Thay, who was such a small, humble figure, you know, who lived so simply, who had just a few robes, who, you know, as we’re sitting in his hut, they can see in the other room his old jacket that he wore. You know, just this tiny, little modest hut for this great master. And then to see this extraordinary ceremony with what? 50 pallbearers and all their red and gold and yellow. And then just, I mean, tell us a little bit about how you felt about that. And then maybe also, you know, what happens to Thay’s ashes, because…
There’s a lot of questions, a lot of curiosity. Yes. Wow, what an event. Let’s just start off with myself, Sister True Dedication, Brother Phap Linh, and Brother Minh Hy, who is our senior brother and he comes from the traditional temple. He ordained in the traditional temple. So he has a lot of understanding of the traditional ceremonies. And wow, he was a great support because he went through the program with us, and he explained the meaning of the incense, the meaning of, you know, caring an image, the meaning of why the procession is like this, and why the ceremony is like this. And we shared through the commentary in the ceremony. And first of all, it was an education for me, and I was… I got to see a very rich and beautiful Hue culture – Buddhism in the Central Vietnam. So we knew it would be a big event, but it a global event. So the ceremony begins at 6:00 a.m. in Vietnam, that’s 12:00 a.m. in France. And we all assembled in the Still Water Meditation Hall in the Upper Hamlet. And we were all sitting in our sanghati, breathing, and facing the altar. And we’re going to witness this with the global community. First of all, just knowing that this is going to be the last time we can see Thay’s casket, even though we don’t see him, but just the, just the notion of like, that casket and Thay’s body will become emptiness. It brought shiver to me. In the ceremony, we can see the brothers and sisters of Plum Village, all in brown robes and the yellow sanghati, and walking as one family in stillness, in meditation. And that already was very unique because Thay is a Zen Master, but Thay is also a teacher that embraced so many different traditions, like chanting is a part of Plum Village training, ceremony is also part of it, but Thay has, you can say simplified, but he has kept the most essential aspect in ceremonies, when it unites all of us, it directs our hearts, it directs our mind, it directs our aspiration, which is in the chanting of the Venerables when they offer the incense, when we do the chanting of the Heart Sutra, when we recite the Buddhas in Bodhisattva’s name. And then when we will accompany Thay on his journey to freedom. So on one of the cars that drove Thay’s casket, is says [Speaks Vietnamese] ‘Coming and going in freedom’ because that is the spirit of Zen… is to be free. We want to be free. And so, it was more for us to have this moment, to accompany Thay, and then for us to embrace freedom in us than Thay. And normally in traditional ceremonies, there would be more music, there would be these classical instruments that would be played. But because Thay is a Zen Master and the way of Plum Village is more in silence, so our procession was in full silence. And it was so beautiful because it was so, of course, you can hear the cameraman and you can hear some organization, but the walk was to walk with Thay. Thay is walking with us in our steps as we are practicing freedom in our own hearts. And I’ve talked to many, many brothers and sisters and many lay friends in Vietnam who had a chance to be there and there were thousands of people. The images are amazing and there was a lot of beautiful moments because in Vietnam, because Buddhism is our root culture and our root tradition, and it’s in even the child. So, you know, when a great master such as Thay, even if you don’t know him, you just respect him. So there are some images that when Thay’s casket passes by, you see people touching the Earth. And somehow that really touched my heart, you know, and because maybe that person has been saved by Thay’s teaching, which we have seen so many sharings in our website and on different social media platforms of people sharing their appreciation and their aspiration of how Thay change their life. And some people really said Thay saved their life; without Thay, maybe they wouldn’t be here. So, you know, when there’s a child that touched the earth to Thay and I felt myself in that child when it touched the earth to Thay’s casket when it passed by. And what was also very beautiful was just to see brothers and sisters that I know, get to hold the umbrella, get to hold the incense, get to hold the flowers that are accompanying the body. And so we arrive at the cremation site, which was… The site was already there, but it was even more developed for Thay. And you can see the grass is very new, the trees were newly planted, because a great holy person is going to be cremated here. And so it was done on this appreciation of who this person was. And we, as we were commentating, you know, there was a moment we had a pause and I said, Wow, the most simple is Monk is now having the most grandiose funeral and cremation, but it was done with by hearts, and it’s not for the for the glamor or anything like that. And I felt the hearts of millions of people in that moment. And it was so beautiful in the cremation. We had some ceremony aspect which is chanting and just to share, you know, the chanting is another way of directing our grief is another way of honoring our masters, our teachers, our spiritual ancestors. Cause in the texts you share about the virtue of these teachers. And then we had very Plum Village moments when, you know, our most senior elder Brother Pháp Ấn asked Sister Chân Không to sing a song. Sister Định Nghiem to sing a song, and they would read Thay’s poem that we would chant in Plum Village through the years. And so we had such beautiful, beautiful moments of just togetherness in that ceremony. And I really felt grateful that all the Venerables who were also there were supporting us to embrace the ceremony in the Plum Village style, which is more, more sharing and more like singing sometimes…
Less formal. Even though we were in our sanghati, but we can smile, we can laugh, we can cry, we can, you know, hold each other’s hand when we need to. Yeah, it was less formal and it felt very warm in that moment. And then on the Plum Village site, we followed all the way into the end and then they would continue to have the cremation of Thay’s body, and it was done in the traditional Buddhist way, which is through firewood. And the professionals that were there would continue to feed the wood for it to… for the casket and Thay’s body to burn. And it goes on for, I don’t know exactly, but more than 10 hours. And the community in Vietnam had a break, so that’s when we ended our livestream. But we kept it for anyone who wanted to watch because in Vietnam, they will be practicing just slow walking meditation around that site. So the next morning was the ceremony, which wasn’t livestreamed because it was too much work, but it was all recorded, which we uploaded later – friends can see – and which was also very beautiful because you get to see also the same procession and now bringing Thay’s ashes back to the root temple. And Thay’s instruction to all of us, his students, is Thay doesn’t want us to be caught in him. So when the ashes come back to our monasteries, we are to spread the ashes. So the ashes will nourish the lands of Plum Village, France, America, Germany, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia.
I will be everywhere.
Thay is everywhere. And so we have already agreed that Thay’s ashes will be divided for all of our monasteries. Any monastery under the Plum Village branch will receive Thay’s ashes, and each monastery will have a ceremony to commemorate and to honor, and then to spread the ashes of Thay. And so, in Plum Village, for example, we have three hamlets, so each hamlet will receive a portion and that is how we will conclude it. But in Plum Village, when we ended our ceremony, we also just had a moment of time and Thay Minh Hy asked me to prepare just a little speech just to thank the international Sangha and everyone who has been with us for the eight days. Just thank you because we really felt all of your presence and we wouldn’t been able to keep our stability without everyone’s support. And then he asked me to have a conversation with Thay. And that’s when I also, like, got really emotional. And my main message in that part was in 2013 was my last tour with Thay, in Hong Kong. And after lunch, we had a moment when Thay and I, we were drinking tea and Thay looked at me and I said, ‘Thay has already renewed Buddhism by 60 percent. And the future, that 40 percent, it’s in the hands of my students, my descendants, monastic and lay. You all have the responsibility of keeping the Dharma wheel spin. And, for us, that means keeping Buddhism renewed, relevant, adaptable, speaking to today’s challenges, today’s language.’ And when Thay said that I was still very young in 2013, but for him to to share that, I felt just so much trust he had in us. And he already saw him in us, and he was already practicing letting go. And in that last ceremony, that was what I shared, I said ‘I will never forget that conversation, and that is one of the torches that you offered us, and we make a vow as your students to continue this path, to continue your legacy as our legacy,.’ Because there’s also… We don’t want to become a victim. And being in Thay’s shadow, because that’s not what Thay wants. You know, Thay wants us to walk this path of freedom because Thay has opened a path for us already. And I also never forget you know, Thay said ‘You are very lucky because thay has done a lot of the homework for all of you.’ Thay said if when he was young and there was less turmoil and less war in Thay’s environment, he could have gone deeper into meditation. Of course, we see that no mud, no lotus, right? Because of the suffering Thay is who he is. But that’s just him encouraging us that you have the Dharma in front of you and in your heart. If you don’t practice it, then you are taking for granted what Thay has offered you. And that’s why Thay said ‘Thay has done all of the homework through all of this suffering that Thay has went through, Thay found the most beautiful teachings of the Buddha, the 16 awareness of mindful breath for establishment of mindfulness, loving speech, deep listening, beginning anew, renewing relationship, restoring communication, touching the earth and numerous of Dharma doors. And he has presented it to all of us. And the human, sometimes because it’s so simple, we think that it’s so basic and we think we’re done. But if you keep practicing it, your understanding of the Dharma will become deeper and deeper, and we have to make sure that these teachings continue to thrive. If it needs renewal, we need to do it. If it needs a change in language, we need to offer it just… And we experience it with Thay. When Thay did a retreat in 2003 for policemen and women, you know, we used no Buddhist terms. We did a ceremony, no incense offering. You know, it’s possible and we have to be flexible. We have to hope that spirit. And this is what, you know, that last ceremony for me, that’s what it also meant is now everything that Thay has offered us is in our hands now. And if we don’t do it, then we are not good students of Thay. We are not honoring Thay’s legacy.
Thank you, brother. And just finally, because I want to give you a chance to rest, but you touched on it, the response of people. You know, I’ve always said that Thay’s the most famous person no one’s ever heard of, because he’s had such an influence yet his name doesn’t… You know, people say, ‘Oh, Dalai Lama’, they know exactly who you mean. But what came across so strongly was thousands and thousands of people taking the time to write in and share their experience of Thay. And I think just to highlight what you said, there were so many people who said I was in the darkest place in my life, I felt I could not carry on, I saw no path out of my desperation. And Thay was like, you know, you could say the torch and the path. I mean, Thay had a torch-lit path that allowed people to come out of their darkest place and back into the light. And it was quite extraordinary. I was just speaking to my younger son earlier. He said, and he’s a documentary filmmaker, and he was saying, ‘Oh yes, I was looking at my feeds, my social media feeds, and all these people who I respect in the film world I thought that I have nothing to do with Thay, but they were appreciating him.’ And I think suddenly I felt Thay in the public in his fullness. And I thought that was his extraordinary power, was that he wasn’t well known, but everyone knew him. It was like, It’s hard for me to make complete sense of that.
Yeah, it’s almost like Thay is so sacred that you don’t want to show it off because it has such an impact in your life that if you do, it might lose that sacredness. I think that’s what the feeling is. And the same like with… I just started to see all of these media and then all of these social media posts from people I had no idea who would be… been touched by Thay’s teaching, would share their appreciation. And my heart was really warm and it was so full of gratitude.
Yeah. Brother, thank you for taking the time to share so deeply. And, you know, one of the things that is most important in life is through our leadership, we give permission for others to follow our path. And this is such a beautiful example of you expressing Thay’s continuation. For you to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be deep in your feeling to be able to express yourself so deeply and beautifully gives permission for other people to share and to go into their feelings too. So thank you for being here today when you’ve been through so much and to share what’s happened, but to share the deep practice within all the formalities that have been. So, brother, in time-honoured fashion, and we finish our podcast with a short meditation. So, if you have enough energy it would be lovely. And just after all this emotion just to settle us, bring us back to the present moment.
Dear friends, wherever you may be listening to this podcast, just allow yourself to be still. If you’re walking, just to take a pause and can even be standing. If you’re so tired, you can even lay down, and let us come back to our breath. As I breathe in, I know this is my inbreath. As I breathe out, I know this is my outbreath. I recognize my inbreath. I recognize my outbreath. This is inbreath. This is outbreath. As I breathe in, I invite Thay to breathe in with me. As I breathe out, I invite Thay to breathe out with me. Thay, you breathe in with me. Thay, you breathe out with me. I am breathing in, and Thay is breathing in. I am breathing out, and Thay is breathing now. Breathing in, I see Thay not just in his physical form, but Thay is love, is my mindfulness, is the compassion I generate. Breathing out, I carry Thay in the present moment and into the future. In, Thay is not in the form. Out, Thay is my mindfulness, is my compassion. Breathing in, I generate gratitude to the teachings, the way of life that Thay has shown me. Breathing out, I embrace that gratitude. In, generating gratitude. Out, I embrace that gratitude. Breathing in, Thay, you are free. Breathing out, I am also free. In, Thay is free. Out, freedom in myself, in this breath, in this moment. Breathing in, this is a continuation moment. Breathing out, Thay, I see you smiling. In, continuation. Out, Thay, you are smiling. Breathing in life is in me and all around me. Breathing out, I am grateful to life in me and all around me.
Thank you, Thay. Your legacy will continue in each and every one of us. Thank you, dear listener. And we hope to see you in our next podcast.
Yes, and thank you, dear listeners, for joining us in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Sitting Still Hut, in Upper Hamlet, France, where the sunset is just starting to go down. And if you’ve enjoyed this episode, you can find many other episodes of The Way Out Is In on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on other platforms that carry podcasts and on our own Plum Village App.
And this podcast was brought to you by the generous donors of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. If you would like to support further episodes of the podcast and the work of the international Plum Village community, please visit www.tnhf.org/donate. Thank you, everyone.