An incredible tribute from Jon Kabat-Zinn on the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh. Jon explores the great work of Thay, as his friends called him, his work with Martin Luther King Jr and more.
Jon reads a passage from Thay’s book from the 70’s, The Miracle of Mindfulness.
We are proud to offer a free Dharma Talk in tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh, It is Touching Peace – the iconic Dharma Talk that was the basis of his seminal book, Touching Peach. You can download the free dharma talk here
Please do leave comments and remembrances below of how Thich Nhat Hanh has made an impact in your life.
So just to say, Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen master poet peace activist, passed away not long ago at his monastery in Hue in Vietnam. Thay was a major source of horror and suffering, which I remember directly myself in the sixties during the Vietnam War. And so it left me feeling just the poignancy of, of Umthan no longer being here, having given so much to the planet over so many years.
And you know, in, in his last year, Martin Luther King, who’s who came in touch with Han when he was a young activist, you know, anti-war activist, actually nominated Ty as he was called for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. And there was no Nobel Peace, peace Prize awarded in 1967, but he would’ve been a wonderful person to do it because you had the Vietnam War raging.
We dropped more bombs on this tiny little country of Vietnam during the Vietnam War than we dropped on all of Europe in World War ii. For nothing really, for just ideas that turned out to be horrible and not really of any major consequence. And so many hundreds of thousands of people killed and maimed and, you know, as our country doing it. So his voice in the world was really,
really profound in many ways. And, and his message was basically to be peace. Not to get peace, but to actually be peace and let that inform how you act. And so part of it was like to, to act, to engage that meditation’s not just about sort of passivity and just sort of taking it all in and being a wise person,
but not in some sense, putting everything on the line in the face of enormous greed, hatred and delusion, and the kinda suffering and violence that pours out of it. That is not done by bad people. It’s done by ignorant people. And any country is capable of it, including the home of the free and the land of the brave and the,
and the righteous. And then, you know, it takes us 30 years to wake up and we swore after the Vietnam War that we would never make that kind of a mistake again. And then we just did it again in Afghanistan for even longer. And we’re humiliated again in having to exit because we, you know, if you don’t know why you’re fighting and you’re not fighting for wisdom,
then you know you’re bound in a way to, you know, fall to the forces of the inhabitants of whatever territory you happen to be occupying. And so there’s the poignancy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s legacy, and, and I sat down and I reread his very small book that I first read in 1976. I have my copy of it, the Miracle of Mindfulness.
I mean, it’s less than a hundred pages and it’s all in here. You know, there’s been the explosion of interest in mindfulness and a lot of science on mindfulness, much of it quite useful and valuable, and still just scratching the surface so far. But in this tiny little book, the Miracle of Mindfulness, which calls a man manual on meditation,
I was so impressed when I reread it because I hadn’t read it since it came out, really. But he starts right in with daily life. And you know, a father that he was traveling with who was talking about his son and how much time he has to devote to this and to the household chores and everything else in his day is all divided up into this and that.
And he has almost no time for himself. And then Thay says to him, points out to him the possibility that what about seeing it all is time for you? You know, that it’s not like Thay for your son is not separate from time for you time doing the dishes is not separate from time for having a cup of tea as he like to put it,
or doing anything else that you need to get done, that everybody’s given the same 24 hours. And so can you actually be alive in any of that time, or you zoning along on autopilot, try to get the dishes done so that you can get to a cup of tea. But then if your mind isn’t with the dishes, why do you think it’s gonna be with a cup of tea?
And it’s just like such beautiful, simple pointing out of how easy it is to go zooming through your entire life without actually being present for any of it. And in the process, of course, straying a little bit from your own authentic being. After all, usually when you have children, you appreciate that you have children, you know that it’s impermanent that that’s not gonna be forever,
and they’re not gonna be three forever or five or 15 or whatever. So can you wake up to the actuality of it and sometimes get out of the narrative of, oh, I have to do this, and then I have to do that, and then I have to do that so that you don’t have any time to be free, because you always have to.
But if you give up the have to, then this is it and everything’s yours, and then you are free now. So this is just incredibly beautiful. And then he was here in this country in 1967 and 60 when the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, by the way. And I guess in 66 and 67, he had profound influence on Martin Luther King to the point where,
and I remember this very vividly, and I went to the demonstration in New York City, but Martin Luther King spoke in public, in Central Park or someplace in New York City about the need to not just deal with the, the racism towards African Americans, but capitalism and also the Vietnam War militarism. And he was uncompromisingly powerful about it. He got the Vietnam War piece Fromt Han,
and really understood that you can’t just deal with racism without dealing with all of the other ways in which the country loses its mind and its heart, and then perpetrates these institutional injustices that, and violence, whether it’s racism or whether it’s war that only are very few people ever benefit from. And I mean, what kind of business is gonna benefit from a war like the Vietnam War?
Well, if you’re making bombs and we drop more bombs on Vietnam, you gotta replace the bombs. So there is a perfect business plan. If you’re completely unethical and out of integrity, you don’t even know why you’re dropping those bonds to save, you know, south Vietnam from North Vietnam. It’s like, come on. And there were all sorts of rationales for it.
And there’s a story, and this is the last thing I’ll say about it, but there’s a story at the end of the book that’s written not by Han but by it’s recounted, by a fellow who was traveling with him, an American named James Forest, who’s, I’ve never crossed paths with him, but this is, we’re talking about in story that had happened in 1968 where he was very active in the peace movement,
and he was giving talks all over the country in the United States, this Vietnamese, no one had ever really seen a Vietnamese person in the United States. And he was this simple monk dressed in, you know, his robes and shaved head, and he was giving talks in churches and at ecumenical meetings and so forth. And at one point during a q and a session,
a man at the back asked them, well, if you know, you care so much about your people, why are you over here? You know, was really an of iterative answer. It was like there was a lot of aggression and violence. Why are you over here? Why aren’t you back with your people taking care of them as the bombs have falling?
And the way the story unfolds that this fellow James is telling, he kind of dropped into silence for a moment or two, a lot of anguish on his face. And, and he said, you know, it’s not sufficient to, for the rain to water the leaves of a tree, for the tree to survive, for the tree to have life,
you have to wander the roots, the roots of the Vietnam War are not in Vietnam. They are right here. And I’m doing everything I can to address the root causes of this violence to in some sense attenuate the violence for my people. And then as soon as that was over, I mean, it was like an electric atmosphere, the way he described it.
Ty ran out of the building. I mean, he excused himself and he just like, you know, there was supposed to be more program, but he ran out of the building and he was like on the sidewalk. And the way this fellow describes it, he was, you know, almost hyperventilating, breathing really deeply, and then like, you know,
in a lot of pain. And, and, and James said to him, what, what’s going on? He’s, he was like, he said, when that man spoke in that way, I got incredibly angry. And in order to control the anger, I had to use my breath by slowing it down and expanding it. And, and in an effort to get out that response.
But when that was over, it was like I had overdone it and I had to get out of there. And he was like hyperventilating on the sidewalk and recollecting, recollecting himself. And so here’s an example of like, oh, you’d think he was in total equanimity and he could handle that kind of violent, aggressive questioning, but he got angry. He said,
here’s a, a zen master admitting he got angry. And he also saw that if he responded with anger to anger, that it would just be the exact opposite of what was called for to come from some place of greater humanity in the face of aggression and violence. But the cost to him, he had to get out and then recover his breathing in a certain way,
and in some sense, let that energy that he absorbed dissipate. Now, the honesty of that really struck me when I reread it, and I hadn’t remembered it from when I read it in the mid seventies when it came out. But it’s really important to recognize that all the meditation teachers are human beings, and all meditation teachers can get angry and be overcome with grief and sadness and,
and despair. Even it’s not those mind states that matter. It’s how we are in relationship to them and knowing how to actually hold that kind of energy so that as I sometimes put a, we don’t lose our minds just at the moment, that we most need to not lose our minds and to inhabit and embody wi wisdom and wakefulness even in the midst of all of the dissipated forces like anger and,
you know, self-righteousness that naturally sometimes arise. But when you know the true nature of self, the righteousness doesn’t become that much of a problem. It’s the self that’s the real problem. And, and so I, I just wanted to say these few things about Ty because I, I crossed paths with him on a number of different occasions over the past 40 years and was just deeply touched by his personal generosity to me and what he said about folk catastrophe living,
which, you know, he offered as a preface to, to that book before it came out. And then again, another preface when it came out again, 20 years later in a revised edition, and then the several retreats that I sat with him and just appreciating his community. And I think the real reason to note these kinds of passions is because we are left,
we who still are breathing are left. And he is very strong about, like, he’s not, there’s no such thing as dying that he’s in the clouds, he’s in the air, he’s in the water. Just the way the raisin exercise in MBSR is like, you know, we took it from some of it from Thai. Can you see the,
the, the rain in the raisin? Can you see the earth in the raisin? Can you see the cloud in the raisin? Can you see the farmer in the raisin? Can you see the, the great pickers in the raisin? Can you see the pain of the, you know, farm laborers picking all these raisins? Can you see the truckers that get,
have to get it to market all of those kinds of things in the one tiny little raisin? Well, it turns out it’s in everything, everything is inter embedded in everything else in an fully interconnected universe. And it, that is what we have is a fully interconnected universe. And when we experience disconnection, it’s really, in some sense, we are being diverted or distracted from the profound realization of interconnectedness,
which is literally and metaphorically right under our noses in every moment. So as Ty likes to say, you know, he’s not going anywhere. He’s in all of us, he’s in nature, and we are all in each other. And the question is, might it not be possible on this earth for us to wake up while there’s still time to the possibility of maximizing benefit and wellbeing for all in minimizing harm at a time when you know the planet is on fire and experiencing not just drought,
but also floods and every kind of turbulence imaginable. And time for us to wake up as a species and take care of our home any way we can and every way we can.