Welcome to a short bonus episode 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.
On the eve of the anniversary of Thay’s passing, the presenters – Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and journalist Jo Confino – recorded this episode from his former residence, the Sitting Still Hut in Upper Hamlet. Here, they mark this memorial day by recollecting the events of the past year – “a year of deep interbeing”.
Together, they share how life unfolded for the monastic and lay communities around the world after the passing of the Zen Master, and discuss the transmission of the practice; the true continuation of Thay’s legacy and vision; the significance of the spreading of Thay’s ashes by the Fourfold Sangha, and the many fully-booked retreats with lay practitioners; and the challenges, lessons, and blessings along the path. There are also heartfelt sharings by Brother Phap Huu from his time as Thay’s attendant. And a special dream full of hope.
The episode ends with Brother Phap Huu reading a deeply personal appreciation of Thay on behalf of the entire community.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
The Way Out Is In: ‘A Cloud Never Dies: The Passing of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’
The Way Out Is In: ‘Deep Reflection: The Calligraphy of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’
Memorial Practice Resources
How To: ‘Begin Anew’
Find a local group (or sangha)
“Our theme last year was, ‘Now I have a path, there’s nothing to fear.’ And it’s just to remember that the transmission that we receive from Thay is profound, and if practiced, can really lead us to inner peace and transformation.”
“There’s always this fear, when a spiritual leader passes, of a period of chaos or of diminishment where things start to go wrong. But I know from my perspective and from watching this community and being part of this community, that the opposite has happened. Rather than vacuums of power and ‘who’s in charge’, Thay built a very, very strong community that is based on common wisdom, common understanding, and coming to decisions as a collective. And what I’ve seen is more people coming to Plum Village, more sisterhood and brotherhood and, actually, no diminishment at all.”
“I don’t think Thay expects all of us to be him. He never wanted us to be him. He wanted us to learn from him and to have our own experience, our own insight in our practice. But he has been so generous in sharing profoundly and putting together the dharma, the teachings, the practice, which is so easy to understand.”
“Thay wanted to help spread the seeds of mindfulness in the world, so that all of us can wake up and be the change that we want to see in the world, be the peace that we want to have for our planet, and ourselves, and our future generations. Thay once said, ‘If I have to let go of Buddhism for world peace, I will, because I’m not attached.’ His deepest wish was for us to continuously build communities, [to build] collective awakening.”
“Thay always taught us, if you want to become a good elder brother, you first of all have to know how to be a good younger brother. And if you want to be a good elder sister, you also have to be a good younger sister. So he’s always teaching us about interbeing. And very naturally, leaders will appear in the Sangha, and we’d like to see that all the leaders in the Sangha are still a part of this forest, and that is what keeps us safe and keeps us humble.”
“In our modern time, one Sangha is not enough. One Buddha is not enough anymore. We need a collective awakening so that all of us can have inner peace, can accept our suffering, can transform our suffering, and can build a society that is compassionate and that has the ability to transform suffering and take care of happiness.”
Hello, dear listeners, I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And welcome to a short bonus episode of the podcast The Way Out Is In. We are currently sitting in the Sitting Still hut of Thich Nhat Hanh, where he lived in Upper Hamlet in the Plum Village Monastery in the southwest of France. And at a very important moment, actually, because this is the eve of the anniversary of Thay’s passing. And there’s a special ceremony in the monastery. And so we just wanted to mark this important moment. And Brother Phap Huu, as the abbot of the monastery, you’re going to be leading this commemorative sort of moment of time. But before we talk about specifically about what you’re going to be saying and I think it would be lovely for our listeners just to, you know, understand what’s happened in the year since Thay passed. I know for myself there’s always this fear that when a spiritual leader passes, that can be a period of chaos or of diminishment where things start to go wrong. But I know from my perspective and watching this community and being part of this community, rather the opposite has happened. Rather than vacuums of power and who’s in charge, Thay built a very, very strong community that is based on common wisdom, common understanding, and and coming to decisions as a collective. And what I’ve seen is actually more people coming to Plum Village, more sisterhood and brotherhood and actually no diminishment at all. So, brother, what’s your perspective? What’s the last year been like?
The last year has been very magical, powerful and also moments of sorrow in the community, like the grieving that monastics still hold in their heart, are still practicing to see Thay in like Sangha, see Thay in this living community, in the trees he’s planted, as well as in the practice that he has transmitted to us. We are so fortunate to have been embedded by Thay’s guidance through his years as a teacher, to work together and to build brotherhood and sisterhood, siblinghood continuously through the years. So even after Thay’s passing, we continue that in a very organic way. If anything, it became even more present because I think for those who live with him physically, there was an emptiness that was manifesting in our hearts or just the idea that his physical body is not here anymore. So the coming together of our community reinforced the brotherhood and sisterhood. And we were able to hold very heartfelt ceremonies for spreading Thay’s ashes in Plum Village, and we did it collectively with everyone who was in Plum Village, not just the monks and nuns were able to spread Thay’s ashes, but we included everyone who was there. And I felt so, so happy for those moments because for me, like Thay is not just my teacher, or the monks and nuns teacher, but Thay is so many people’s teacher. And as Thay has returned back to the earth, to be with Thay was not a separate thing just for the monastery, but it was for everyone. And in that light, we were very passionate about creating a lot of retreats in Plum Village to make sure that Thay’s legacy and his transmission of practice is still alive and that people know that it’s here and to not have fear that the teachings and Plum Village will die out. So our theme last year was Now I have a path, there’s nothing to fear. And it’s just to remember that the transmission that we receive from Thay is profound, and if practiced, it can really lead us to inner peace and transformation. So in the last year, we have been mindfully and joyfully active in in continuing his legacy. And at the same time having very special moments within just a monastic circle to honor our teacher, and to share, to be present, to hug, to cry when needed. And I would explain it like just a year of deep interbeing. Yeah, of deep interconnectedness. And so, so warm, so cozy. And at some times I would be lying if I would say fear didn’t come up in my heart, like, are we capable… Like, are we good enough? Are we sure? And for me not to drown in the negativity of it, but to use it maybe as a koan just to reflect and not to be too sure with oneself also. And also to give ourselves space, and to be also kind to ourselves. And I think for myself to not try to be more than I cannot offer. And I don’t think Thay expects all of us to be him. He never wanted us to be him. He wanted us to learn from him and to have our own experience, our own insight in our practice. But he has been so generous in sharing profoundly and putting together the Dharma, the teachings, the practice, that is so easy to understand. And very grateful. Many times I’ve met difficulties. We’ve had deep beginning anews lasted for 4 hours, and our joke was like, Wow, Thay’s practice really works. So I think not to also forget the treasure that we have here.
And brother, I think it’s important for our listeners to recognize how magical it was to give the four fold Sangha, the sort of monks, the nuns, the lay practitioners, the men, the women, the chance to spread Thay’s ashes, because actually that was very much in keeping with his wishes, because I think in the tradition of Buddhism, often the ashes are kept and put in a stupa. And I remember many years ago sitting with you and Thay when I was interviewing him for The Guardian, and he said, I had just received a letter from a supporter in Saigon who said, Thay, I want to build you a stupa. So when you pass, we can put your ashes in there. And Thay said, Well, that’s not what I want. And he said, You can build the stupa if you want, but if you do, I want you to put a sign outside saying I am not in here. And he said, if people don’t understand that, they can put another sign outside saying, I’m not out there. And then he said, And if they still don’t get it, put another sign saying, You may be able to find me in your breath or in the wind, through the leaves. And that’s exactly what you did. You spread his ashes through the leaves and the wind, and people were able to experience Thay in the absolute, in the sky, and on the ground, and to feed and nourish the nature that has been around and that he’s been lovingly supporting for the last 40 years of Plum Village’s experience. And brother, just because we don’t want to spend a lot of time now, but one other question I have for you briefly is… As I said, in a lot of traditions, spiritual traditions, the master dies and things fall apart and that can be a power grab and who’s actually in charge and things can go very badly wrong very quickly. It has been known, it has happened. And I’m just wondering if you could explain what it is about Plum Village that has allowed that change to be so effortless. And I know, you know, one reason is Thay had been ill for a number of years, but it’s beyond that. His very teaching was about community.
Yeah. So I think Thay embedded in us that after his passing there will not be another Thich Nhat Hanh, so don’t try to look for that. Meaning there will not be another like superstar like that. And it’s so easy to like try to take refuge in one person. And then individuals, they try to be that, and so he broke that view already and he said, my true continuation will be the community, will be each and every one of you. And so Thay has been practicing the fourth element of true love, which is equanimity, and he’s given that to us. And so, I believe that none of us in the Plum Village community that is a resident here even had the thought to try to, like, raise our hand and say, Now I’m the leader, everybody listen to me, because that was never part of our training and that was never promised and that was never a part of the building of this community. And where the strength comes from is that we take refuge in one another. Thay has taught us to look at the community like a wonderful forest. Each tree is different size with different leaves, different fruits, are some with flowers, some are still small, some are grand. But as a whole, we are a big refuge for all living beings. And then not to have complexes if you’re big or small. But as a whole, the roots all interconnect at the soil. And to really touch my happiness is your happiness, my success is your success, my shortcomings, your shortcomings, my suffering is also your suffering. And as a teacher, when Thay was alive, he never looked for special treatment. Like after his talk, you remember, he joined us in the walking meditation. Sure, Thay was at the front, but he didn’t have a red carpet in front of him or anything like that. He would walk through the same door as everyone, he would sit at the same level during meditation with everyone. So Thay’s way of being already showed us this is the power of presence and the power of leadership, to have virtue, but not to crave for it. I think, in different ways, that has been transmitted to us, maybe some of us not even knowing. And so we were very fortunate that we we didn’t have this power struggle. And we were taught that if the Sangha doesn’t have harmony, Thay told us to close the monastery. Don’t offer anything. Because if then then you’re only offering fake items. And Thay said, If we have true harmony and there is happiness and there is stability, even if it’s just 70% or 60%, we need to look deeply. But Thay said, Don’t ever look for a perfect Sangha. That doesn’t exist. And 70%, 80% is more than enough. And with harmony and brotherhood and sisterhood, Thay said, Anything is possible. So I think whenever fear comes up for me at least, or I have some doubt that reminder becomes very alive, like, okay, we can talk, we can meet, we can discuss, there is harmony, we’re okay. And not to allow our fear to overtake. And I think we still have to maintain this mentality because everything needs food to survive. So if we don’t, then one day maybe someone will look for power and look for status and look for special treatment, etc.. And there is also a beauty in the monastic tradition, because we are a very old tradition, that there is a reverence to the community of those who have come and those who are teaching and those who have the responsibility of also practicing in order to teach. So there is a real responsibility that we have also been embedded in Thay’s tradition. Thay always taught us, if you want to become a good elder brother, you first of all have to know how to be a good younger brother. And if you want to be a good elder sister, you also have to be a good younger sister. So he’s always teaching us about interbeing. And very naturally in the Sangha, leaders will appear and we’d like to see that all the leaders in the Sangha is still a part of this forest, and that is what keeps us safe and keeps us humble. Yeah.
And brother, how have you personally, how’s your personal experience Thay being in you? Because for those listeners who don’t know, you were his personal attendant for more than 15 years, so you were… he was almost like a father figure. And you were able to watch him up very, very close for a long time. I’m wondering how he lives in you, personally.
I think each time I go before a Dharma talk, he becomes very alive for me. I remember Thay teaching, sharing with me when he does calligraphy, sometimes he would invite like the Buddha to do the circle or he invites his teacher to write calligraphy in different languages because his teacher never had a chance to learn those languages. And so that interbeing of the teachings I saw Thay live it through his daily action. So for me, every time before a Dharma talk, no matter how many talks I offer, I still get nervous a little bit, I still get like some butterflies in my stomach, and maybe some complexes come up like, am I good enough, etc. And I would say, Thay, give the talk, Thay. I entrust myself to you. And this entrust meant is not like idolizing or not like worshiping, but because everything that I’m going to offer is what you offer to me. And in that very moment, I always come back to walking meditation. And I always invite Thay to walk because I always walk with Thay from this hut here to the hall. And those footsteps is eternal for me now. Those footprints that have been left, it will live through me and will be transmitted through my footstep and hopefully to the future generation. So I think that is one moment that I feel Thay very alive. And because Thay, it’s only been one year, sometimes because we’ve been so active in the Sangha, I forget like Thay just passed away not so long ago. And to invite Thay to see the Sangha now, through my eyes. I remember in the summer retreat when I offered the first talk during the second week, and I was sitting at the bell for the Namo’valo chant, and that was like, I don’t know, 800 people in the hall. And I just felt so happy. And I just had a moment when I said, Thay, you’re still here. Nothing is lost. And I think I got quite emotional during the chat and luckily I wasn’t chanting, so I was just doing the mudras and I was like inviting the bell, so I allowed, I think, tears to just be present during those moments and just to let the energy that Thay has created, become renewed through all of us. And Thay is there, for me is very real. And whenever we go on tour, countries where Thay have not been yet, I always invite Thay. I was in South America, so I invited Thay to be in Ecuador. I invited Thay to be in Colombia, and I invited Thay to be in Costa Rica. And there were moments like I led walking, and for some reason in my store consciousness, I said, this is exactly where Thay would sit if he’s leading all of these folks. And I sat there and I just felt, I felt him present. And also just to allow that to be, and just to embrace that present moment like that. And then also to let go and not to be caught in that. And because I am breathing, I’m walking, I’m sharing, I’m living with this Plum Village community, he will never be gone. And whenever I want, he can be there. And I have this very particular dream. I think I shared to you once, Jo, but I haven’t had a chance to share it to the world yet and to this podcast… It’s that one of our tasks was always to have, as an attendant, we always had to have a recorder for Thay’s Dharma talks, and sometimes Thay’s interviews, so we would record them because for us they are treasures for his students and for generations to come. And in that dream that I had, I met Thay and he was very healthy at that time. And I asked Thay, Thay, where did you put the recorder? I need to find a recorder. But it was a very interesting moment because I was asking it for the future in the dream. And Thay looked at me and he said, It’s always in your bag. Because I always had a bag, a shoulder bag, whenever I’m his attendant. And when Thay said it’s always going to be in your bag, I wanted to run to look for the bag. And Thay said, Phap Huu, before you go, can I hug you? And we embraced each other in the dream, because I’ve had hugs by Thay before, so it was very vivid. And that hug and that image of Thay in that dream was a moment of passing, in a way. And he entrusted, like my teachings will always be in the bag. My teachings will always be there. So don’t look for it outside. And after that, I woke up.
Brother, one of the things that was very important to Thay was the four fold Sangha, that it’s not just a monastery on its own, but it’s about the lay practitioners as well. And we’ve seen in the last year, actually, the retreats becoming more and more popular. I think the biggest retreats of the year, the summer retreats with the families, they sold out in 40 minutes. It was a bit like a mini Glastonbury sort of get on the… People want to know exactly what time the tickets would be on sale, what time they could book up. And also we’ve seen sort of I think there’s not a week that goes by without seeing a note that some family wants to move here, someone wants to come and live here. And a lot of our listeners, some may not consider themselves students of Thay, but some of them do. Well, what would you say about the health of Thay’s vision beyond the monastics? What’s your feeling around that?
Thay wanted to help spread the seeds of mindfulness in the world so that all of us can wake up and be the change that we want to see in the world, be the peace that we want to have for our planet, and ourselves, and our future generation. Thay once said, If I have to let go of Buddhism for world peace, I will, because I’m not attached. And so his deepest wish was for us to continuously build communities, collective awakening. Thay said, In our modern time, one Sangha is not enough. One Buddha is not enough anymore. We need a collective awakening so that all of us can have inner peace, can accept our suffering, can transform our suffering, and can build a society that is compassionate, that has the ability to transform suffering and take care of happiness.
And brother. Just finally, you’ve written for the ceremony, a sort of, in a sense, a deeply personal appreciation of Thay on behalf of the entire community. And I think it would be very fitting for those who won’t be present in the monastery to hear it, to just allow you to read it out, and for people just to sit quietly as though it is a meditation because, actually, what you have written is a meditation. And just to breathe, to be aware of your breath, be aware of your body as you read out what you’ve written for Thay.
Breathing in, we light up the awareness that you are still present for us in each mindful breath. Breathing out, we breathe peacefully with you, dear Thay, most respected and beloved teacher. In this solemn moment, all of us, your students worldwide, would like to express our deepest gratitude for the profound impact you have had on our lives. Your teachings on mindfulness, compassion and joy have guided us on our own paths to inner peace, understanding, healing and transformation. We, your spiritual children, have truly arrived and are at home in this precious moment. We are blessed to belong to such a diverse and rich spiritual family coming from so many countries, cultures and backgrounds. Thank you, Thay, for renewing Buddhism and transmitting the fire of bodhicitta to us and to future generations. Your wisdom and guidance have helped us to live in the present moment, to see the interconnectedness of all things and to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. Your words have comforted us in times of sorrow and inspired us to make positive change in the world. We are determined to practice to keep this fire alive in our hearts, this mind of love, mind of awakening, so that as a Sangha, we can continue to enrich and widen our tradition and continue to renew Buddhism for it to continue to take root in the West. We vow to do our best to be worthy as your continuation. We know there is a path. We have a community for our roots to grow. We know how to value and protect these conditions, and therefore the present and future is bright. We will always cherish the memories we were able to spend with you. Your legacy lives on in the countless lives you have touched, and the world is a better place because of your teachings. Today, on the occasion of your Memorial Day, we honor your life and teachings and are committed to continuing to practice and share your wisdom with others. With deep gratitude and reverence, we, your students.
Thank you, dear Brother Phap Huu. And thank you to our listeners for being present for this moment.