Welcome to episode 23 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.
In this episode, the presenters, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino, talk about the art of Thich Nhat Hanh, represented by his deeply meaningful calligraphies.
They consider their favourite calligraphies by Thich Nhat Hanh, and some of his most popular work, as well as the process behind it, and its significance, context, words, and wisdom (“the fruit of the meditations”).
Brother Phap Huu, Thich Nhat Hanh’s former attendant, shares how Thay created some of his famous calligraphies, the lessons learned, and the brother’s own journey through the art of calligraphy.
He also delves into calligraphy as something offering “directions for life”, and as a representation of the mind and the present moment; art as meditation; and vulnerability.
And, did you know that there is literally tea in Thay’s calligraphy?
Jo recollects a calligraphy demonstration by Thich Nhat Hanh in New York. He further muses on “the golden nuggets” of the mindfulness practice; flow; the embedded energy in each drawing; appreciation of all life; and looking deeply into suffering.
Also, do you know the zen story of the farmer who had one son?
The episode ends with a short meditation guided by Brother Phap Huu, to express gratitude for the humans in our lives.
[This episode was recorded in December 2021 at Sitting Still Hut in Plum Village, France.]
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Blue Cliff Monastery
The Way Out is in: The Zen Calligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh
‘Sounds True Presents: Calligraphy with Thich Nhat Hanh’
‘Calligraphy Exhibition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’
Dharma Talks: ‘The Three Doors of Liberation or the Three Dharma Seals’
‘Exhibition Opening: U.S. Premiere of Global Spiritual Leader Thich Nhat Hanh’s Calligraphy Exhibition’
‘Thich Nhat Hanh’s Books and Calligraphies on Show in Vietnam’ https://plumvillage.org/articles/thich-nhat-hanhs-books-and-calligraphies-on-show-in-vietnam/
Thich Nhat Hanh Calligraphy Note Cards
Browser add-ons: In every new tab you’ll see one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s calligraphies, which serve as mindful reminders to pause, breathe, and smile.
For Chrome: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/thich-nhat-hanh-calligrap/ljicmmknmiapobjgphhogonlfeegmlcl?hl=en-GB
For Firefox: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/thich-nhat-hanh-calligraphy/
“These calligraphies were a way of expressing the practice, in the Zen tradition, which has a lot of art inside. A lot of Zen masters, such as our teacher, were artists, poets, and even musicians. And so Zen offers a space for creativity. A lot of Zen masters would write poems to express their understanding of the world.”
“The tears I shed yesterday have become rain.”
“Be beautiful, be yourself.”
“This calligraphy – ‘Be beautiful, be yourself’ – is a very beautiful insight into touching your true nature and allowing yourself to be who you are, not running after any expectation from outside of yourself.”
“I have arrived. I am home.”
“Don’t hurry. Enjoy the present moment.”
“Peace is every step.”
“Present moment, wonderful moment.”
“Breathe, you’re online.”
“Because you’re alive, everything is possible.”
“Anything is possible when the conditions come together; it will manifest.”
“What we see today can change tomorrow. And what is not here today, can be tomorrow.”
“Even if the sky were to collapse today, there would be a way out.”
“Our teacher started to see that calligraphy can be a piece of art that someone can bring home, and they can put it in a place that can remind them to be in touch with the mindfulness that is alive in them. And the calligraphy then has a power, like the power of the sangha, the power of the teaching.”
“You imagine this ancient art, but actually, ‘Breathe, you’re online’ was so relevant today; if you’re on the computer, be aware of your breath, because that is the place, these days, where we do get carried away. We do lose ourselves; we follow algorithms that take us deeper, deeper down the rabbit hole.”
“I know you are there, and I am very happy.”
Welcome, everyone, to the latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems change.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village community.
And, brother, today we’re going to be talking about the art of Thich Nhat Hanh, which was represented in his deeply meaningful calligraphies.
The way out is in.
Hello, everyone. I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
So, Brother Phap Huu, give us a sense, for those who may not have seen his calligraphies, just describe them. What are they and what do they represent?
If you ever come to a practice center of Plum Village, you will see in the dining hall or around some of the common areas, framed work of phrases such as ‘I have arrive. I am home.’, ‘Don’t hurry. Enjoy the present moment.’ So these phrases are the insight, the fruit of the meditations that our teacher was able to understand through the practice and he has written them through this art, which we call calligraphy. And, normally, it is written on rice paper. But in the early days, they were written on colored paper with this kind of cloud art in the background. Jo, I don’t know if you’ve seen them.
Well, I have one actually, brother, that Thay and the monastics gave me and my wife, Paz, when we got married here.
So, and it is actually the one ‘I have arrived. I am home.’ And it’s got that colored background with the clouds. I didn’t realize.
So these calligraphies were a way of of expressing the practice. And in the Zen tradition, which has a lot of art inside, so a lot of Zen masters, such as our teacher, were artists, were poets, were even musicians. And so Zen offers a space for creativity to come through. So a lot of Zen masters would write poems to express their understanding of the world. Sometimes they would do a meditation on a flower, and they might see some insights, and they like to express it through art. So calligraphy is one of the ways of expressing art, and it is also a very beautiful, mindful practice. And, our teacher, he has been able to create this art. At first, it was like a hobby for him, and, later on, our teacher would write these phrases around his insights of going as a river, how the community should evolve, how to touch inner peace. And he would come up with poems or even verses. If you come to our big meditation halls, you will see them in Vietnamese these verses are written. And it was distributed around the monasteries. And slowly, and slowly, many retreatants would come along and practice with us in Plum Village, and they would see these calligraphies, and they expressed they would like to be able to bring them home, to purchase them. At first, our teacher was very shy about it and he was like, ‘My calligraphies are not that beautiful. Why would somebody want to bring it home?’ And I remember, as his attendant, he once shared that to me is like sometimes our teacher — we call him Thay, meaning teacher in Vietnamese — Thay would say, ‘Why? Why would someone want to bring my calligraphy home. It’s not that beautiful, but probably just because they want to support the monastery, as well as they need a reminder.’ So our teacher started to see that the calligraphy can be a piece of art that someone can bring home, and they can put it in a place that can remind them to be in touch with the mindfulness that is alive in them. And the calligraphy then has a power, we would say is like the power of the sangha, the power of the teaching. So, slowly, and slowly, I think our teacher’s artwork became more and more famous as well as people by coming to Plum Village, hearing his teaching. And it’s a way to have something that belongs to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh that they can have in their home.
And tell us a bit about, brother, how Thay created them. Because I remember once, when I came to Plum Village and I interviewed him on behalf of the Guardian, and I remember we sat in his hut for a long time. It was, I think, one and a half, two hours. And then we got up to go, and, as we left, we looked through the window and he’d already… we could watch him slowly walk and sit down in his chair and just pick up the brush. And there was something very quiet and peaceful and also profound in that moment to see him, actually, create them. So I’m very lucky I witnessed that once and, also, for most people, they’ll have no clue when… Did Thay do it in the morning? What was… ? When did he creat it?
So, like art, sometime is spontaneous, it just manifests in the moment. But the routine would be normally after breakfast, in the morning-ish, or around the afternoon, around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. But the routine how our teacher would create the environment to do the art would be on a table. He would sit on a chair and he would make sure all of the rice papers are ready. So, as his attendant, we would prepare all the rice paper. So we’d buy them in bulk sent from Vietnam, and we would cut them by hand. So it was a collaboration between teacher and student. So I really felt involved when Thay said, ‘Can you help me cut the rice paper so that I can write these calligraphies?’ And then Thay would always have a cup of tea before doing the calligraphy, and he would pour the ink into the ink tray, and then he would pour a little bit of tea into the ink. And that was his art. It’s not needed, you don’t need to do this, but this was his way of seeing that the tea, him and the calligraphy are all of the conditions that have come together for this moment to manifest. So in a lot of his Dharma talks, he would mention it. He would tell the people who buy his calligraphies, he would say that in the calligraphy is not just the writing, but it is also the tea that I drank.
And the tea… The water for the tea came from the clouds and there so, so, actually it was much broader that as well…
It’s exactly, it is that the whole cosmos has come together for this piece of art to be present. And then he would just start writing calligraphy, and he would use to explain to me that when you do calligraphy you want to be present, but you want to be free. And what does that mean? So this is my own personal experience, because one of the things I like to do is after he finished writing calligraphy, there’s always leftover ink. So after Thay leaves the room, I would take up the brush and I would start to scribble. And that was my journey of beginning to practice calligraphy because I didn’t want the ink to be wasted, because it gets dried up, and then you can’t use it again. So when Thay leaves, I would wait until he leaves into his study room or something like that, and he closes his door, and I started to use his brush and his ink, and start to copy. And what I see is like, I want my writing to be like his. And you have this perception that this is how the calligraphy should be. And you start to do it, but you’re horrible at it and you get so angry at yourself. It’s like, why is this so ugly? Why are there brush strokes so strong, or so fat, or so skinny? They are not as gentle and not as graceful as the stroke that our teacher wrote. So I start to see that during that moment of writing, the more you do it, and the more you have an idea of how you want it, the more you attach, and the more you attach, the more rigid you are in the art. And, of course, the practice makes perfect, and you have to allow yourself to make mistakes. You have to accept that your calligraphy is ugly, that your calligraphy is not what you wanted to be. And this is part of the journey. So accepting that was a really big deal. I have a seed of perfectionism in me, so whenever I see something that is not according to what I have designed in my mind, I get really upset. So, I remember when Thay said, ‘You have to be free.’ And so I started to just accept every stroke, accept every word I write. And even though it is not what I want it to be, I still see that is where it is at. And it is beautiful, but it can be more beautiful each time. So I remembered that teaching. And then another teaching that Thay would instruct or he would share with us more when he was writing calligraphy is that he would invite his parents to write with him. And there were moments Thay would say, ‘And Thay is inviting his teacher to be present with him.’ Or he would even say, maybe the Buddha didn’t have the chance to be introduced to this art and so, sometimes, Thay would say ‘Dear Buddha, write with me.’ And he would envision and invite the Buddha present in him to do these, these zen circles, as well as these calligraphies in English, French, Vietnamese, German, Chinese. And I start to see that it was an art in just being. You’re inviting this whole lineage from the past to be present in you, and you’re also touching no self, you’re touching that this moment is not just about you, but there is a whole stream of spiritual and blood ancestors present. And I think that was also a way of touching the ultimate, touching, transcending all times, the past, the present, and the future.
Wow, beautiful, brother. And I think there’s something, you know, anyone could write a calligraphy by saying, ‘This is it.’ But actually behind that is… And you’ve described part of that, and another part of it is that its Thay’s presence in… is in the art. It’s like there’s not just a two or three words or a few words on a piece of paper, that that behind that is everything Thay has understood. It’s like the very sort of essence of his teachings. It’s like it’s been… It’s like, take this huge… It’s like looking for almost golden nuggets. You know, sometimes you have to dig up half a mountain to find a few golden nuggets, and it’s like they are the golden nuggets of the practice. And I remember, brother, and I remember you very clearly there, that I and my wife were in New York when Thay held an exhibition of his calligraphies in this very famous shop called ABC Home, and it had a floor which was actually called the Deepak Chopra Center. And and I remember Thay did, actually, and this was the only time I saw it, Thay did actually a calligraphy demonstration. And one of the things I remembered is that as he was drawing the Zen Circle, he said ‘The first half of the circle is me breathing in, and then the second half is breathing out.’ And so that actually the artistry was a representation of his breathing.
That is correct. In every moment when I was with him writing and seeing him write calligraphy… Because we would be two attendants, so Thay would write a calligraphy and he would finish. And then one attendant would take the finished calligraphy to place on the ground so it can dry, and the other attendant would bring in the next rice paper. And it would be this this beautiful art between the three of us. And there’s no demand, nobody else is telling who what to do, but it’s just this movement, this dance between the teacher and the two attendants. And so we would create this rhythm that is happening. And I, when I was in that moment, I felt like I have to be very present. I can’t be thinking about the past or thinking about the future or be caught in a perception because if I am not in the present, I would be an obstacle to this dance that is happening between the three of us. So in that very moment, you can see that the art has become the meditation.
And there’s a great flow, isn’t there, brother? It’s like, there’s this sort of it’s like a river. It’s like it’s come out of, as you say, out of the lineage, out of the past into the present moment and it flows onto the paper. And so when people receive it, they receive the energy of it. It’s not just the words. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s a piece of paper with words’, but actually it has embedded energy in it, not just embedded tea and ink.
And I remember, brother, at that exhibition… sort of I remember all the monks were there and were chanting, and then Thay led everyone round the exhibition, and I remember my wife, Paz, saying to me, she said ‘It could take a whole lifetime to look at these deeply and really sort of pay attention and understand them.’ And there’s something, I remember at that moment that it’s something… it’s so empty, in a sense. I mean, it was just frames with either an empty Zen circle or just two or three words or whatever. And yet, there was a lifetime of sort of learning and wisdom in that, and each one you could spend years on, actually.
Exactly. They’re so profound. And I think today one of our interests is to speak about some of our favorite calligraphies.
And why they are our favorite. And what do we understand from those calligraphies?
Yeah. But before we do that, brother, I know, you told, because when we had a chat about doing this episode, you said, ‘Oh yes, one of the things I know is what was the most popular of Thay’s calligraphies.’ So when people bought them either at retreats or when they came to visit Plum Village. So I am really intrigued by that because it doesn’t say anything, but also says something.
So what were the most popular ones?
Most popular ones, ‘I have arrive. I am home.’ was one of the top sellers, because I think if you have that piece and you bring it home, then that makes your home into the sacred space that you have learned from the teachings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Arrive and home, it doesn’t mean a house, it means ‘in the present moment I feel safe, I feel this is my peaceful dwelling.’ So that is the essence of ‘I have arrived, I’m home.’ And it is actually the first Dharma Seal of Plum Village teaching is to learn to arrive and be at home in the present moment. That’s one. The other is ‘Peace is every step.’.
And that is the link to the teachings of walking meditation. And that practice is one of the practices that Thay would teach over and over again, and he would encourage from monastic students to all of his lay students, from teachers to politicians to police officers to fathers and mothers, to really see that walking is an opportunity to touch life in every moment. So I think people really see that having that calligraphy as an encouragement each day to not take for granted, being able to walk each each day but walk with my footsteps. And ‘Present moment, wonderful moment.’ That’s another calligraphy that was very popular. And, of course, the breathing series. So Thay would have a breathing series of calligraphy so such as ‘Just breathe’ or ‘Breathe, you’re alive’, ‘Breathe and smile’, ‘Breathe, it will be OK.’ And there was one particular one that everybody really adored is ‘Breathe, my dear.’ And that sounds like Thay’s telling you. So whenever you see that calligraphy in the monastery, at home, you can almost hear his voice that he is whispering in our ear, ‘Breathe, my dear.’
And also, brother, there’s ‘Breathe, you’re online.’
And the reason I really like that one is because this feels to me at the heart of Thay, which was that he was able to bring this ancient wisdom, but also make it relevant for today’s world. So, you know, you imagine this sort of ancient art, but actually ‘breathe, you’re online’ was actually so relevant today that if you’re on the computer, be aware of your breath because that is the place these days where we do get carried away, we do lose ourselves, we do all these algorithms that literally take us in deeper, deeper down the rabbit hole. And Thay was saying, ‘Breathe, you know, just come back to yourself, don’t get lost.’.
So, brother, why don’t we start. So what we were going to… what we thought of, we would choose one each.
And start off. And then say why we love that particular one, and then we can sort of add to that and then we can go back and forth. So, do you want to go first?
No, I’ll let you go first, Jo.
Okay. Okay. So I’ll go first. So just to put a bit of, by way of introduction… I woke up this morning feeling quite sad, actually. And I had… I was lying in bed and I was… And I had, it was a sort of echo of my past where I sort of thought, ‘What’s the point of getting up?’ You know, there was that sort of hidden child in me that says, you know, ‘What’s the point?’ You know, if I get out, what’s, you know, what’s the point of life? So, of course, I did drag myself up and make myself a cup of tea and felt better. But then, actually, I was thinking about which calligraphies to choose, and actually just going back over them, just brightened or gladdened my mind because it just reminded me of what was important. So I’m going to start off with ‘The tears I shed yesterday have become rain.’
Wow. And that’s a lovely one.
And it’s a bit sad to tell the story of this because I was in at a retreat in Blue Cliff Monastery, in New York state. And Thay was giving the Dharma talk. And he described this and why it was important. And as soon as the Dharma talk finished, I went off to the tent where they were selling his calligraphies, and I said, ‘Oh, could I have that one, please?’ They said, ‘Oh, we knew that would be popular because there seems to be this thing that whatever Thay talks about, there’s then a run on those particular calligraphies.’ But during this talk, it sort of really touched me deeply. And there were a number of reasons for that. I think one was about the teachings of impermanence, that there are times in my life where I felt desperately sad, and have shared many, many tears. And often, when I was younger, I felt those were going to last forever. That that, you know, that moment where I just felt there was no hope or no escape. And so, for me, that calligraphy reminds me that actually everything shifts, that my tears that were yesterday have already moved. Then they’re no longer there, they’ve already become something else. So there was that sort of sense of movement and the fact that that these deep emotions come, but also they go. A bit like this morning. And the other thing for me was just my deep connection to life. The fact is that my tears come from the rain. And when I shed them, they go back to the rain and that my tears are part of her life. You can’t, you know, in Thay’s… you can’t separate your tears from anything else, that actually in my tears is all of life. And then all of my life is my tears. And so, and I just remember when he said it, it just like pierced my heart, which is, I think, the power of this calligraphies, they just said, ‘Wow, yeah, I can really relate to that.’ And when I thought about it this morning, it just opened my heart because you just, you can’t help but sort of open yourself when you realize that your tears are part of all life. Why do you like that one? And then we’ll go on to you. Will be the first round.
That one’s really powerful because it also feels like it gives me permission to cry. I’ve discovered later on that I can easily cry. I actually have a very soft spot inside of me, which I thought at first I was quite strong and rigid, and ‘no, I’m not going to cry.’ You know, I can go through anything and I don’t need to shed a tear. But just like you shared that the tears is also part of the universe, is part of life, and that there should be moments when we should allow ourselves to cry. We should allow ourselves to be sad, to grieve if it is necessary. And so this mass that we allow ourselves to have, which is even the idea of solidity, or the idea of of being strong, but actually maybe being strong is also having the courage to cry, having the courage to express our sadness. So every time that I feel like I want to cry, I need to allow it to cry. I need to allow my tears to just flow and not have shame towards it, because the tears that I shed today can be the the rain that will nourish my understanding, will nourish the flowers of love inside of me, and nourish the hope that I have of life. So that’s why whenever I see that calligraphy, it allows me to be vulnerable.
Yeah. And I love that idea because the rain washes, it sort of washes and nourishes. And, as he said, and it’s beautifully put that the rain… That that the tears rather are able to allow us to be free, actually, to show up truly as we are in that moment. Brother, OK, your turn. Here we go.
Here we go. Here we go. So, oh, man, sometimes we are very alike, Jo. So this morning I woke up for meditation, but I skipped meditation. I didn’t feel like getting out of bed. I had a really long day yesterday. We’ve been having a lot of meetings, been doing some deep team building in our community. And so we had a deep listening session, which was very powerful. And just deep listening sessions in our spirit is a space to create where everyone feels safe in our community, our core community of monks. And there are things that we hold inside our hearts that sometimes we don’t dare to share. Maybe it’s our deepest suffering, our deepest fear, our deepest aspiration, our deepest wishes for the community, and wishes for our self. Our hopes, or things that we see that are still not beautiful in the community that we just want to express. So we had this one hour and a half session of all of the brothers together, which already is so powerful when a body of 50 monks come together. And our facilitator offers a very beautiful space and we all were grounded. And the session started and you just listen, you… We practice deep listening and I just practice deep listening and I get to hear the voices of my community. And, of course, some of it triggers something inside of me like, why? Why do they think like this? Or really? Is that what they would love? Oh, wow, that is his deepest fear, that is his deepest aspiration. How can I support that? So I felt like a holder and I was receiving all of this input. And I was trying like, ‘Oh man, what can I do?’ And actually, I felt a little bit overwhelmed. I felt like, ‘Oh man, this is maybe more than I signed up for.’ And so the whole day we… I walked with this, I breathed with this, and then in the afternoons I had meditations, I had meetings, and then I had sitting meditation, which I was like, ‘Should I go?’ I’m like, ‘No, I want to be with the Sangha.’ But then the morning I felt really overwhelmed. I’m just like, I need some space. And so I stayed in bed. And I knew we were going to do this podcast, so what came up for me, and it was very spontaneous, it’s not my favorite calligraphy, but it was what was really alive. And it said, and the calligraphy goes like this ‘Because you’re alive, everything is possible.’ And somehow that just got me out of bed. I was like, that’s true. There’s a teaching in Buddhism, it’s about the second arrow. So you hear something that that you don’t like or you hear something that challenges you, or you hear something that that makes your breath a little bit heavier. And then you start to create all of these other stories like ‘What can I do?’ Or maybe ‘that’s never going to be possible.’ And then you drag yourself down. And if you allow yourself to be alive, you allow yourself to just be in the present moment, and just to see that, you know what? Anything is possible when the conditions come together, it will manifest. And I am part of that condition, even though I don’t see my capacity, my capacity in helping yet. But if I am alive, I am here, I would do what I can. That’s the best I can give. So I was able to just recognize that do not allow yourself to create stories that make it more challenging for yourself, and just to see things as it is and then learn to flow through them, learn to dance through them. Because you are alive, everything is possible. And what we see today can change tomorrow. And what is not here yet today, can be tomorrow. And just with that insight, it just kind of gave me this hope. And I was able to just channel all of the difficulties that that I think are difficulties, and not make it such a such a big deal, and just said, ‘Yeah, it’s part of life, but because we’re alive, we can transform them, because I am still breathing, because I still have a community, because I am still committed to this practice, and to this path, everything is possible.’ So that became really alive for me in this very moment.
Wow. And it speaks, brother, to me about, in a sense, what we’re facing in the world today with all these crises, which is that that, you know, there’s a lot of people who feel overwhelmed by life, who feel there’s no hope, who are sort of giving up. And I think that’s a beautiful calligraphy. And it reminds me of a Korean proverb that I was told once, which was said something to the effect of ‘Even if the sky were to fall, collapse today, there would be a way out.’ And I think that that’s, you know, that calligraphy is very powerful in sense, it says, actually, don’t just believe that what is now is the end of the story. And I think that’s when people give up hope, isn’t it? It’s, they think, well, it’s never going to change. It’s a little bit in that sense, a bit like the impermanence of the tears, it’s saying, actually, don’t get lost in thinking this is it. This is a chance to sort of… There’s a chance to sort of break through. Beautiful. Okay. Round two.
Here we go.
So my next one was, ‘I know you are there, and I am very happy.’ Oh man, I love that one. I bought one of those calligraphies for one of my brothers, and I bought him a cheaper one, actually, which said, actually, ‘I know you’re there, and I’m happy.’ And he was very upset because he wanted the very happy place. ‘So why don’t you love me?’ But I bought him that because I felt that, as an older brother, he had always been there for me. And that, and that even though I never needed him in an emergency or haven’t yet.
Just knowing he was there gave me enormous faith and stability because I knew that there was a sort of a safety net there for me. That if I was walking across this tightrope and I fell that he would drop anything wherever he was in the world and come and help me back up. But more broadly than that, you know, I feel that with my wife, Paz, you know, it’s just beautiful. I know you are there. I know you are there. I mean, it’s just to say, behind that, I know you are there. So I’m aware of your presence and that presence makes me very happy. In other words, just knowing you’re there just allows me to breathe in deeply and have this sort of freshness in my life. But this morning, I had this other sort of addition to that, which was actually, I’ve tended to think about it in terms of humans, you know, people. Phap Huu, I know you’re there, and I’m very happy. And that’s also true. But actually, it’s true of everything, that as I was walking up here, you know, I know you’re there looking at the leaves on the ground, and I’m very happy because it’s very beautiful. I know you’re there to a flower, and I’m very happy. So, so, actually, it’s an appreciation of all of life, actually. There’s nothing that needs to be excluded from that.
Beautiful. That one is a power, a power mantra, we would sometimes say in Plum Village, because when you can say those lines, it also tells me that you are mindful of what you have in the moment. And we don’t take for granted the relationships that we have all around us. And it also… It’s one of the ingredient of brotherhood, sisterhood, relationship, companionship. Just to be able to tell the ones who have an impact in your life to let them know that you are grateful for their presence is such a gift. And our teacher used to encourage us to have this, these what we call mantras, these phrases that have this energy to bring us into the present moment, to have it in like a business card that we can put in our wallet. So, from time to time, if we we want to practice letting our loved ones know that, that we are grateful for them, we can be reminded of this card, and then put it in a text message and just say, ‘Darling, you know what? I know you are there, and I am so happy.’ And that’s on the human level, right? And then, like you mentioned about just space and nature, and I… The stars have been very beautiful, and when we walk to our early morning meditation, the stars are still shining bright. And we have this very beautiful and almost poetry walk as we go to the meditation hall from our monks residence. So our sitting starts at 6:00 in the morning and we hear the wooden board which announces you got 15 minutes, start moving to the hall mindfully. So as we’re walking to the meditation hall, we have a brother on the Great Temple Bell… And doing this chants to wake up our living beings, you know. And so, then you’re making these graceful steps towards the meditation hall. And then there are days when the sky is just so, so clear. And I just look up and I just see all the stars and I see how beautiful it is. And sometimes I also practice that I know you are there and I am so happy. So it’s really that mantra that that in that phrase, ‘I know you’re there. I am very happy.’ It’s a deep insight, a deep insight.
Yeah, and, brother, thank you for saying that about the importance and value of saying it to someone else. Because, actually, you know, when you look at, you know, we’re very complex beings in some ways and also very simple beings.
And, actually, what we want most is to be recognized, to be seen and to be valued, you know. Like, you know, it’s like at work, everyone says it’s actually not about the money. Of course, we need to earn the money, but money is one aspect of value. But actually, the real value is to say, ‘I see you, I recognize you, I value you, and I see our relationship.’ And that’s so rarely done these days with people rushing around. It’s so rare that people will just stop and just say, ‘I see you.’ And I know that when it is said and when I hear it, when it’s said to me, oh wow, you know, just says, oh, thank you, because it’s like, it’s like someone just giving you a big bouquet of flowers or a big box of chocolates. So, thank you. That’s beautifully spoken.
OK, brother, end of round two. You go.
OK. I think this one is also a favorite of many, but it also speaks to me: ‘Be beautiful, be yourself.’ Boom. Yeah. I grew up with a lot of complexes. I was raised in Canada, in Toronto. And coming from an immigrant family, so I was going to school speaking a new language, and then learning a new culture and then seeing what society wants. And a lot of what we see is images of white people more than your ethnicity. So I remember growing up with that complex of having fear of being judge, of what I eat, of what I wear, how good I am at English, or just the normal stereotype for us Asians that we’re really good at math, which I was actually really bad.
You couldn’t even live up to the stereotype.
And even couldn’t even live up to that. The only thing that I lived up to in that stereotype was being Buddhist and loving martial arts, that I really put a lot of energy into that — the martial art part, not the Buddhist part — until I became a monk.
You caught up on that now.
I caught up on that now. I’m still walking that journey. So I remember I remember growing up, um, you know, like, when somebody asks you in school like… Your teacher asks you, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up, as a job?’ And every time is like a profession that is… At that time was more for someone not in my race, and maybe I was trying to to be someone that I’m not. And then later on, coming into Plum Village and seeing a community with a lot of Vietnamese brothers and sisters, and then the teachers, Vietnamese, it taught me to see my heritage and see the beauty of my heritage. And I was accepting myself, and it wasn’t easy at the beginning. Even as a monk, there were moments that I didn’t want to see myself as a Vietnamese monk, which is really strange. But that complexity that was developed inside of me was very alive. So part of my journey was just learning to be at home. That first calligraphy that we mentioned, ‘I have arrived. I am home.’ to arrive at who I am, what I am, and to know that I am Brother Phap Huu, I am good enough. I am enough. Just that mantra was really important for me. So when Thay was starting to teach, I think a lot to younger people, Thay would share this insight is you are already what you want to become. So be beautiful, be yourself. Wow, that really brought it home for me, and I really was able just to let go of all this expectation, and just to be who I am. And who I am right now will also be different tomorrow because I am always evolving, I’m always changing. So, in a way, I don’t have to be caught in any sign. And I felt free. It was this moment of just feeling free. And I’m a small figure, I’m kind of petite. So I was always like, I was always I was picked on also in school. So that also gave me inferiority complexes of being small. And then just always trying to prove myself. I remember I would always stand with my chest more upright, trying to puff it up, make myself a little bit taller. I was afraid of being short. I was afraid of just many things. And then, so this calligraphy ‘Be beautiful, be yourself.’ is a very beautiful insight of touching your true nature and allowing yourself to be who you are and not try to run after any expectation that is outside of you.
Yeah. And it’s funny because as you were talking, I was thinking of what the opposite would be, which would ‘be beautiful, be someone else.’ And when you say, like, that sounds so ridiculous, you know, and that’s what so many people in this world are trying to be someone else. And, like you, brother, my childhood was riven with insecurities, and one of them was sort of at school. I wanted to be part of the cool, cool kids, the cool boys. And I was absolutely not one of the cool boys. In fact, I was at the opposite end of the spectrum. I wasn’t even a nerd. I didn’t even have the intelligence to be a nerd. So I was sort of lost in space, I think. And… but there was such a… There was that feeling that if I was like them, then I would be happy. And I think, you know, that this Western consumerist society is built on that, is built on the idea that, actually, if only I have this outside of myself, if only I can be more attractive looking, if only I have a faster car, if only I have a this, or I have a that, then I will be beautiful, I suppose. And yet, when you say ‘Be beautiful, be someone else.’ it’s like, ‘Well, what’s the point of being alive in order to be somebody else?’ Because that, by its nature, can’t have any foundational value because it’s not you. Shall we do another round, brother?
Okay. So I was going to do ‘I have arrived. I am home.’ But we’ve talked about that, so I’ll choose another one. So the one I’m going to choose is ‘No mud, no lotus.’ It’s funny because it’s not my favorite…
In the sense that, you know, I, you know, I bought three or four of Thay’s calligraphies, I didn’t buy that one. But actually it’s deeply profound.
And actually, it speaks very… It speaks of my life in a certain way that… And it very much relates to beauty, doesn’t it? Because it’s like so much of we want now, we want to have things without any suffering. We want to bypass suffering. We want to just be the glorious lotus flower. We just want to sort of show our beauty as though it comes from nowhere. But actually, you know, it comes from our suffering, and so it’s a fantastic calligraphy because it talks of the relationship between suffering and our happiness. That it’s only… You can only produce a lotus from the mud. And also, every season, the lotus goes back to the mud in order to provide the nutriment to produce the lotus. And I always remember my dad. When I was at university, my dad used to write me these very deep letters, and, at the time, I paid no attention to them. It was like, ‘Oh, no, not another letter like that from dad.’ And I used to I just shut them in the drawers, ‘What’s he on about’, you know. And went off down the bar. But sort of looking back at them, you know, he spoke very much in this way as well. He talked about… He said life is not like being handed a rose. It’s more like an onion where you just have to take each layer off and in each layer, there are tears. But it’s by going through that process that we find our happiness, and I think that’s at the heart of Thay’s teachings, not to avoid our suffering, not to be afraid of our suffering. It’s the First Noble Truth. We do suffer and that in that suffering, if we’re able to allow ourselves to enter that suffering, to actually walk towards it with with an open heart, and courage, and with almost — and it sounds very bizarre and it probably is — but almost to look forward to it in some bizarre way. And I don’t mean that… None of us wants to suffer, but we do suffer and circumstances show up where we do suffer, and that when it shows up is… The most important thing is how do we approach it? Do we welcome it and or do we sort of hide from it? Or do we run away from it? And I know Thay’s teachings for me have allowed me to deeply understand, actually, no, welcome it. Not to wish it, not to wish for it, but if it’s there in front of me to welcome it and it’s actually there is an opportunity to work with it, there is an opportunity to learn from it, that is an opportunity to grow through it. And through that process, we do create something of beauty and I can sort of see that in my life. You know, I had a lot of mud and I didn’t see any lotus, you know, when I was younger. But, you know, I’ve just turned 60 years old and I look at my life and I realize that all that mud has allowed me to be here now. And more than that, I just started coaching someone, someone new and they asked me a question, which is a very natural question. He said, you know, ‘What happens if my suffering comes up so much that I can’t handle it, you know? Do you have… Will you be able to handle it for me?’ And I said… And it’s funny because no one’s asked me that formally before, you know, it comes up in different ways when I coach people. And I said, ‘Yeah’, I said, ‘I can be present for you. I can be here for you in whatever suffering, whatever trauma, whatever comes up for you. I can sit with you because I feel that I’ve been there.’ And, of course, everyone has their different forms of suffering. But that in essence, that, for most people, if I’m there, if I’m there and they want to share something, however much, I feel that’s OK because I’ve dealt… I’ve looked deeply into my suffering. I don’t feel scared of it. I can sit here with you. I don’t need to try and advise you how to get out of it. But just by sitting with you and your suffering it gives people the sort of stability, gives people the hope, gives people the space, gives people the sense of safety to explore that and then to produce something beautiful from it.
This calligraphy ‘No mud, no lotus’ was also on my top list.
Oh, sorry, brother, you’ll have to find something else now.
No, well done, well done. And I love what you just shared. And what I see that the inside of it, it gives you courage to see the mud, to look at the mud, to even play with the mud, sometimes. Right? Sometimes people put mud on their face. It’s good for your skin. Actually, once, both of you gave me a gift, a mud mask for my feet. Yes, you know, that insight, ‘no mud, no lotus’, is also the birth of Plum Village. Our teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, went through so much in his upbringing as a young monk through the war, through being exiled, through the feeling of despair, the feeling of loneliness. And then the challenges of creating a community in the West with nobody’s help, finding the companionship along his path, being open to the new environment. So we can say all of that was the mud and Plum Village is a manifestation of the mud. And so when I whenever I think of Plum Village and sometimes, you know, I just sit in the hall and, you know, I see some spider webs, and I see it’s not as beautiful as it should be because I’m the Abbott, I want things to be…. And I said, ‘Yeah, but you know, this place is the making of all of this suffering.’ But now, it is such a refuge for myself, is a refuge for all of us sitting here around the podcast table. It’s a refuge for so many friends who want to touch this space of spirituality in them. So we are living this insight in this very moment and it also tells me that any suffering that we meet, be courageous, take care of it, be with it. It will transform because that is the law of nature. Everything is in process of transformation and whether we can be with it, assist it, or sometimes by taking care of our happiness, that mud will also be taken, will be taken care of just like the lotus doesn’t have to do much, it needs to bloom. And by the autumn, it will wilt and then it will nourish the mud, nourish the mud, and nourish the root. And I remember one time our teacher said this and it was a Dharma talk, it was the early days when I think people were talking about taking a cell and then creating. What does that call?
Is that cloning?
Cloning! Exactly, cloning. And in the Dharma talk, Thay said, you know, ‘Even if somebody takes a cell of Thay, a DNA of Thay, and clones Thay. But that new person will not be Thay because he wouldn’t have experienced the war that Thay went through. He wouldn’t be able to touch the insight that he got through the suffering of the world. So that cloning will not be Thay, it will be someone else. And so that also touches ‘Be beautiful, be yourself’, right? Sometimes you just you accept who you are and you are a beautiful manifestation of this planet, of a flower in the garden of humanity. And you have something to offer because you have your mud, you have your lotus, and it has its own natural cycle. And how do we take care of it? And how do we nourish the mud, and also nourish the flower? And did you know that you can eat lotus root, Jo?
Have you… You haven’t ever had…
You just want me to dive into the pond… ?
No, no, no. So the lotus flower is magnificent. So you can enjoy the beauty of it, you can put tea inside the lotus flower, and it will add a beautiful fragrance to it. A lot of the brothers and sisters, they do it during the summer. And the root is also very nutritious.
And, brother, sort of what you were saying reminds me of the zen story of the farmer who has one son. And the son is injured in an accident. And and all the other farmers in the community come running to the house and say, ‘Oh, what a disaster, what a disaster.’ And the farmer says, ‘Yeah, you know, maybe yes, maybe no.’ And then three months later, as his son is still recovering, there’s sort of an army comes through and takes away all the able-bodied young men. And because his son was injured, he gets left behind and all the farmers in the community come to him and said, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky, you’re so lucky.’ And he said, ‘Well, maybe yes, and maybe no.’ And the story can go on infinitum. And it speaks of the fact that even when there’s a disaster or what seems to be a disaster in one minute, one moment that we don’t know what the future holds. All we can do is be present for that moment. So the idea that, you know, and so it happens in so many times that someone might lose their job and it looks like an utter disaster at the time, and it may be at that moment, but it may be that later down the road, they look back and say, ‘Oh, my God, that was such a turning point.’ So there’s something about being in the present moment and also not. And, you know, and it’s speaks to the fact that all these calligraphies actually inter-are. Actually, you can’t see, like Thay says, ‘You can’t separate the calligraphies from each other.’ But, brother, let’s do a last one.
OK. So this one is in Vietnamese, and it was one I received from Thay, so it has… It speaks to me a lot. So just to share a little bit of backstory of it. Thay has a lot of monastic students, right? And one of his… Like, as a monk, we’re not rich in money, so we can’t really leave inheritance for our spiritual students. So, our teacher, one of his inheritance that he knows he can offer is a calligraphy. And when a monk or a nun is just ordained, they would have tea with Thay either after ordination on that day or a few days later. And they would have a moment to be with Thay, and Thay would have some encouraging words. Thay would take time to see each of his new ordained monks and nuns, and then Thay would have a set of calligraphies that each member can choose one that speaks to them. And in 2013, yes, 2013, after all the exhibitions, and Plum Village didn’t do an exhibition, so Thay said, ‘Why don’t we do an exhibition in our own meditation hall and celebrate our own gifts that we have in the monastery?’ Because sometimes we forget of the gifts that we have in the community and only like we go outside and we’re like, ‘Yeah, why don’t we do this at our own home? Why? Why is it only at ABC home or in Vancouver, or in Hong Kong, or Thailand?’ So we had a monastic retreat and organizing team asked Thay if Thay would give permission to do an exhibition, and Thay said, ‘Of course’, and Thay would offer each monastic at the retreat one new one. And we were all so excited. It was like a cookie going to the convenience… A child going to the convenience store and getting to pick their chocolate, or their chips, or their cookie. And Thay was also writing them on the spot. Thay was taking demand on the spot, so it was super cool. It was such an offering from Thay. He spent hours there with all of us. And there was a new calligraphy that he was writing, so Thay comes up with new calligraphies every year, and sometimes some only work in English, and some only work in Vietnamese, or in French, or etc. And this one, I don’t think is in English yet, so it’s in Vietnamese. So I would like to read it, and then I will translate it. And it goes like this [Speaks Vietnamese]. And it means ‘I have an ideal, I have a dream, I have an aspiration, I have youth, and I have days of happiness.’ It’s three words like that put together into this verse. And at that time, it really spoke to my heart because I was taking for granted the monastic life, and there’s a side, there’s a seed in you that Thay says ‘of a wanderer’ meaning that we never feel complete and we always think that the grass is greener on some other side. And we’re always seeking something outside, and our practice is to come back and to be aware of what is happening in the present moment. And so, when Thay wrote that calligraphy it, I could even say like it was calling my name. It was saying ‘Phap Huu, you need to be reminded of this.’ And so we were going down the list of ordination age of… Thay usually like to gift the younger ones get to pick first. And by then I was one of the… I was already a Dharma teacher, so I was quite senior. I said, ‘Oh my god, please don’t… nobody take that calligraphy. Nobody take that calligraphy.’ And lucky enough, it wasn’t taken. And so, when it was my turn to pick a calligraphy, I, no question, I just went directly and I said, ‘This one has my name all over it.’ And, for me, it’s just a reminder that I do have an aspiration. I have a dream. And that dream is… It gives me a lot of energy, it gives me a lot of motivation. And that dream is very simple is to continue this beautiful legacy of renewing Buddhism, and helping Buddhism take root in the West, as well as take root in today’s world. And for it to be a living tradition. And I see myself as one of the small elements of this beautiful legacy that Thay has offered us. And I have youth. I’m still young. Jo?
Thanks, brother. I’m only twice your age. It’s only two times.
You know, Thay always said ‘Thay is still young at heart.’ And to be honest, Jo, I think you are. Sometimes I feel more mature than you.
I would say pretty much most of the time, Brother Phap Huu.
Paz is nodding her head.
She says I’m more like a six-yea-old.
And I have days of happiness. And that is true. You know, sometimes whenever I do get in these moments of difficulties, I forget all of these wonderful days that outgrow the suffering, actually. And then we have this tendency to kind of like just narrow ourselves into this tunnel of darkness, whenever we’re in it and we forget all of the beauty around it. So this calligraphy, for me, it’s a compass for me. Every time I feel lost, I check in, and I say, ‘Where’s my ideal? Where’s my aspiration? Where’s my dream? Am I still nourishing it? Or am I nurturing another dream?’ Right? And then I am still alive, and life is energy, and that can be called youth or maturity, as long as I’m alive, there is energy and there are days of happiness. And today that I am alive, I can make this a beautiful day. So this calligraphy really, right now still a direction for my life.
So, brother, this session has lifted my spirits, actually, because it’s… We all need to be reminded, don’t we? That when we have dark moments, however short, that there are bright moments that can come and meet it and share that. Brother, just before we finish, and I want to just talk about your calligraphy because, actually, on our bedroom wall is one of your calligraphies you gave us, which is…
I feel very honored.
Yes, which is ‘Wake up this morning, 25… 24 brand… 25 brand new — I’m on a different time zone — 24 brand new hours, et cetera, et cetera, and about to see with the eyes of compassion.’ But tell us about the journey of your calligraphy because you started off by talking about your practicing after Thay had left. But where are you with it now?
So I love doing them now, and I do a lot of calligraphies for our community now, and they carry the kind of style of our teacher. So a lot of the times the community would ask me to write the calligraphy for the New Year, or for a book, or even, sometimes, I offer it as a gift to friends who come to Plum Village so that they can bring home and be reminded of the practice. And sometimes I miss Thay, and I start doing calligraphy. Sometimes I feel like I want to connect to him. So I would, I would just sit down, have a cup of tea, pour a little bit of tea into the ink, and then I would invite him to write this calligraphies. And I have also had my calligraphies have evolved through the years. Oh, looking back four years ago, wow, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, those were my calligraphies?’ But I can also say that our teacher’s calligraphy, when he started, was also much, much more rigid and much… The strokes were stronger, when, through the years, and I think it comes with his practice, his grace, his ease, the calligraphy became more softer, more graceful, and also powerful at the same time. So I think I’m still developing it, I’m still growing it, and I feel that the calligraphy is also a representation of the mind, the representation of the present moment. So a lot of the times when the calligraphy turns out to be, what I’m most happy about is when I have no expectation, I just enjoy the process. And so my calligraphies today, I would say, is a continuation of Thay. I think there’s a few words that I’m doing a little bit different, and I’m allowing it to be different just so that it has my character in it. I can’t do the Zen Circle yet. That’s still a tough one. I’ve been practicing with that. And we talked about this, and what does it mean, right? So everybody has a definition for it, but I think my real practice is the circle. Normally we want it to be so perfect. It’s this beautiful circle that has no end, no beginning, and it’s just circular, it feels whole. And so when you practice that, you really have to let go, and you really just got to trust, also, trust your art, trust your capacity. And if it’s not perfect, it’s OK, it’s part of the process. But I also see the circle, it represents emptiness, and emptiness it means it can mean anything. I can create a story today, Jo, and tell you what it means, but I also like, I love the fact of no beginning, no end, where life is also in our insight is like there is no beginning and no end. We are a manifestation. When conditions are favorable, we manifest. When they are not, we don’t exist, but we still continue in other forms. So this circle represents so many things. And sometimes I like to just look at an empty circle because it also reminds me that sometimes I just need to be simple, and just be an empty circle.
A good moment to stop, brother.
So, dear listeners, we’ve hoped you’ve enjoyed this episode. If you want to listen to more, you can catch The Way Out Is In on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts, and other platforms that carry podcasts and also 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 future episodes of the podcast and the work of the international Plum Village community, please visit www.tnhf.org/donate. Thank you very much.
And for those who have carried this podcast all the way through to this moment, the moment you’ve now been waiting for, on every episode, Brother Phap Huu is going to do a short meditation to bring us back to ourselves. So, brother, whenever you’re ready.
So, dear friends, let us enjoy a few moments of mindful breathing. Wherever you are, you sitting on the train, on a car, on a plane, or if you’re going for a walk, a jog. Are you doing the chores of your home? If you can just allow yourself to have a moment of pause, a moment to stop, to become aware of the body. Bring your attention to the sensation in your body. If there’s any tension, allow the body to relax. If your fists are clenching, can you open your fists? Your hands? Let the muscles relax. If your shoulders are tight, breathe in. You can lift up your shoulders. Breathe out. You can release your shoulders, letting your body rest. And now let us allow ourselves to be mindful of the inbreath and the outbreath. Breathing in, I’m aware of my inbreath. Breathing out, I’m aware of my outbreath. Aware of inbreath. Aware of outbreath. The breathing is present because we are present. Breathing in, I take refuge in my inbreath from the beginning to the end. As I breathe out, I take refuge in my outbreath from the beginning to the end. Inbreath. Outbreath. Breathing in, I’m in touch with my body, from my head, my face, my shoulders, my upper body, my lower body. How grateful I am to be alive. As I breathe out, I relax my body. Relaxing any of the tension on my forehead, in my face, my shoulders, my chest, my abdomen, my back, my lower body. I give myself time to just relax my whole body. In, aware of body. Out, I relax my body. Breathing in, I am here for my body. Breathing out, I take care of my body. And now let us bring into our mind someone who is dear to us that we would like to let them know that because they are there, everything is possible. Breathing in, I see him, her, or they, our friends, present. Breathing out, I am grateful for their companionship, their love, their understanding, their support. In, aware of the support. Out, I’m so grateful. Breathing in, I know you are there. Breathing out, and I am so happy. Breathing in, I don’t take for granted this very moment of being alive. Breathing out, I believe deeply this moment in the here and now. In, grateful to be alive. Out, this is at deep moment. Breathing in, I bring my attention to the cosmos, to nature, to the beautiful planet, Mother Earth. I let Mother Earth know you are there and I am so happy. Breathing out, I am one with the Earth. In, Planet Earth. Out, so grateful.
Thank you, friends, for practicing. If you allow yourself to text someone that is very dear to you this calligraphy, this mantra, ‘I know you are there, and I am very happy.’ I am sure it will offer a smile to that person today. And see you next time on our podcast.
The way out is in.
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