Pho Tam, journalist and Buddhist follower
"Every bird likes its own nest" might be the best way to describe the homecoming of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
The Master is back at the Tu Hieu Pagoda – the place he studied and practiced Zen Buddhism from 1942, when he was 16.
Now sitting in a wheelchair, a sequela of cerebral hemorrhage, his eyes are still bright and full of inner strength, and every gesture he makes to communicate is still clear. And although he sits still, he never stops looking around, observing. As he has written: "Sitting still," to see things clearer.
I experienced that stillness with the Master more than once between 2005 and 2008, when I had the opportunity to attend talks between him and leaders of the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, as well as dharma talks and meditation courses in which he guided intellectuals and entrepreneurs in Vietnam.
In two "Breathe and smile" courses in Ho Chi Minh City and the ancient town of Hoi An back in 2008, the Zen Master spread the energy of peace and awareness to everyone just by putting his right hand on his heart and then looking down at the audience in the hall. As he sat in the lotus position and talked, I felt the peacefulness fill up every corner of the large hall and turn into a stream that flowed into me. I did not want to break that state. And when I looked around, hundreds of people were all silent and attentive.
Sitting still is one of the core topics that the Master has talked about often.
"Normally when we pour apple juice into a glass, the juice would be cloudy. And if we want to have a glass of clear apple juice, we would have to leave the glass still for five-ten minutes so that all the dregs in the juice will have time to sink down to the bottom of the glass. Also, if you allow your body to sit still, keep your spine straight, relax both the mind and the body and observe your breath with mindfulness, you can calm your body and mind and find inner peace.
"Sitting still and focusing on our breath, being aware that we exist is a great happiness. Sit still and don’t try to become another person. When our mind is at rest, we can get in touch with the miracles that have always been there around us."
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh waves at monks and followers after he arrives at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue on October 28, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh
During talks with the Master, Vietnamese entrepreneurs said they were too busy and always found themselves in a race against time with mountains of work that they can never say when they can finish. Some of them said they could not find anyone to do the jobs on their behalf, so they did not even have time to have breakfast or other meals with their families.
The Master said it is because of such people, who always have to rush and cannot have time to be aware of each step or each meal they take, that we "all have to support each other to take a break."
If we miss our moment in the here and now, we lose our life, he said.
We all understand that. But the problem is that we still live our daily life as though we had never known or heard of this miraculous tenet. We have fallen too deeply into worries, fear and the race against time.
Thanks to the Master, I have learned how to deal with sadness and pull myself together, through each and every behavior and gesture I make. I have learned that our true home is here and now, on the island of the self.
"Every day, each person should spend five-ten minutes and if you can, make it 20-30 minutes, sitting still to recognize ourselves. Sitting still to celebrate life," he said.
He guided us on how to have our meal with mindfulness: swallow slowly and be aware of what we are eating. He guided us on how to meditate while walking on a grass field in Van Thanh Park in Ho Chi Minh City and the beach in Hoi An.
Intellectuals and entrepreneurs who’d heard of the Zen Master for decades and only known him through books and video clips shone brightly as they were guided directly by him.
Other masters from the Plum Village gave psychological advice to each attendant and guided 500 of them to relax their mind and body, let them lie down on the grass and observe their breath. Some attendants could not fight back the smooth feeling and fell asleep halfway.
We left the courses feeling grateful and joyful, absorbing a significant amount of positive energy - the energy of self-awareness, and knowing how to breathe and smile.
These days, every time I look at pictures of a paddy grain sprouting in a bowl, the symbol of "breathe and smile," I always smile to myself.
Many Vietnamese later expressed the wish to have more meditation courses with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in Vietnam, but it was a pity that for some reason, all such programs closed since 2009.
But now, his homeland has him back.
As he famously said:
I have arrived, I am home
In the here, in the now
I am solid, I am free
In the ultimate, I dwell.
His condition has changed much after the cerebral hemorrhage, even though his recovery has been called miraculous by the American doctors who treated him.
But for a meditator who has awakened, found peace and true happiness like him, obstacles caused by sickness are just one of the obvious stages in the process of "being born, growing old, getting sick and dying" that the Buddha had pointed out, a process that all living creatures in the universe have to go through.
Now at 92, the journey of the Zen Master from the Plum Village has turned to the origin of spirituality, going back to the principle he endorses: no birth, no death, no fear, in which he recommends ways to let go of fear and grief: nothing dies, it only changes form.
I have promised myself that I will visit the Master at the Tu Hieu Pagoda in the central town of Hue, to once again absorb the priceless peace he has gifted, not just me, but humanity as a whole for over 40 years, planting the seeds of mindfulness.
*Pho Tam is a journalist who practices Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. The opinions expressed here are his own.