The cloud, the wind and the rain never die: Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, the man Martin Luther King, Jr. called ‘an apostle of peace and non-violence’, passed away peacefully in Vietnam last week at the age of 95

Bhuvan Lall January 28, 2022 18:12:42 IST
The cloud, the wind and the rain never die: Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh with the Dalai Lama. Image courtesy Bhuvan Lall

“Kiss the Earth

Walk and touch peace every moment.

Walk and touch happiness every moment.

Each step brings a fresh breeze.

Each step makes a flower bloom.

Kiss the Earth with your feet.

Bring the Earth your love and happiness.

The Earth will be safe when we feel safe in ourselves.”

—Thich Nhat Hanh

On that cloudy and windy mid-September morning in 2006, we were driving through the early morning rush on the 405 South freeway. As we crawled out of the maze of Los Angeles the traffic news on the FM radio confirmed that we would be late for an important appointment. Our destination was the 400-acre Deer Park Monastery, mindfulness practice centre and monastic training centre in Escondido about 50 miles east of San Diego.

And the man we had set out to meet that day was Thich Nhat Hanh (also known as Thây), one of the most important spiritual leaders of our time.

Zen Master, poet, peace and human rights activist, Thich Nhat Hanh was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in central Vietnam in 1926. He was attracted to Buddhism from an early age and joined the monkhood against the wishes of his parents at the age of 16. Seven years later he took the full vows of a monk and received the name Thich Nhat Hanh.

As a monk, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Services (SYSS), a grassroots relief organisation that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centres, resettled homeless families, and organised agricultural cooperatives.

Rallying some 10,000 student volunteers, the SYSS based its work on the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action. Despite government denunciation of his activity, Thich Nhat Hanh also founded a Buddhist University, a publishing house, and an influential peace activist magazine in Vietnam.

In the early 1960s, he accepted a fellowship to study comparative religion at Princeton in the United States. He became a pioneering voice of the anti-war movement and made the case for peace to federal and Pentagon officials including Robert McNamara. He may have changed the course of world history when he persuaded Martin Luther King, Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War publicly, and helped galvanise the peace movement. The following year, King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize stating, “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle monk from Vietnam.”

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk gently urged Americans to stop bombing and offer reconstruction aid free of political or ideological strings. Banned from returning home to Vietnam and granted asylum in France he led a courageous life for the next 40 years.

In exile (1966-2004) Thich Nhat Hanh became the most beloved Buddhist teacher in the West. He offered a practice of ‘mindfulness’ to help us resist and transform the speed and violence of our modern society. His talks were clear, profound, and original. He addressed the personal and global challenges humanity faced. His key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment — the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world. He helped take Buddhism out of the monasteries and temples into every aspect of our lives today.

His teachings and practices benefitted millions of people of all faiths and various backgrounds.

He published more than 100 titles, including more than 40 in English: Peace Is Every Step, Being Peace, Touching Peace, and many more. He has sold over three million books in America alone. Revered throughout the world for his powerful teachings he has created a worldwide community of more than six hundred monastics and tens of thousands of lay students. The globally recognized spiritual leader is affectionately referred to as ‘Thay’ (Vietnamese for teacher) by his students.

On our arrival at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, in September 2006, we were escorted to the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall where many monks sat with their eyes closed, facing each other, and practicing meditation to the sound of silence led by Thây. My eyes were intently focused on him through my viewfinder and lens as the camera recorded the teachings that would lead us into a peaceful future. Just months earlier, I had the rare privilege of receiving Thây with folded hands for the first time in my life, at a railway station in the South of France.

I later hosted and produced an event with him at the Festival de Cannes and on the 5th anniversary of 9/11, on 11 September 2006, I had the honour of hosting Thây and His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the World Peace for Cinema event in Beverly Hills. It was a historic morning as the two leading lights of the Buddhist faith had met only once before decades ago. Hollywood superstars in the audience were enthralled as the exiled Buddhist scholars, like the Dalai Lama and Thây became important teachers, writing and lecturing, spreading knowledge of Buddhism worldwide. Needless to say, their teachings have deeply impacted my life.

As the evening approached, Thây taught us the subtle art of walking meditation by focusing on the most important thing for the human body — the breath.

“I am in the present. I don't think of the past. I don't think of the future…Peace is possible. Happiness is possible. And this practice is simple enough for everyone to do”, Thây explained as we walked towards a magical sunset on top of the hill.

Finally, the sunset majestically over the Pacific, the skies were lit in shades of orange and red, the waves loudly washed to the shore, the gentle breeze bend the trees, a flock of birds headed home, the clouds dispersed as they always do, the barking dog could be heard at a distance, someone somewhere was enjoying a hot cup of coffee as the symphony of nature was in full play.

Then walking very slowly towards me, Thây asked me, “Bhuvan, are you happy now?” I nodded and then held my hands together and bowed. There was nothing more to add. And from that moment onwards my life was never the same again.

Our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a stroke in November of 2014 and retreated to Vietnam to recover. Then late Wednesday night, as the raindrops softly caressed the window panes of my library and the tall trees outside were fast asleep, I read on my digital device that Thich Nhat Hanh had passed away peacefully at Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam, at 00:00hrs on 22 January 2022, at the age of 95.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the man Martin Luther King called “An Apostle of peace and nonviolence”, addressed the idea of his death in his book, At Home in the World, stating: “Even when the cloud is not there, it continues as snow or rain. It is impossible for the cloud to die. It can become rain or ice, but it cannot become nothing. The cloud does not need to have a soul in order to continue. There’s no beginning and no end. I will never die. There will be a dissolution of this body, but that does not mean my death.”

“I will continue, always.”

And his lifetime of work will continue to bring happiness to millions.

The writer is the author of ‘Subhas Chandra Bose: The Man India Missed the Most’ (2017), ‘Har Dayal: The Great Indian Genius’ (2020) and ‘India on the World Stage’ (2021). His book on ‘The Life and Times of Vallabhbhai Patel’ is coming soon. The views expressed are personal.

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