Remembering Thich That Hanh

Today I would like to pay respects to Thay. His books had a big impact on me when my mom started having them around the house in the mid 80’s, which was how I started to get interested in Buddhism. Thay gave me the Dharma name Great Patience of the Heart during a 3 week retreat I did in 1991 at Plum Village, his community in Southern France. While I’ve never used the name formally, and don’t put that much stock in such ceremonies, it does occur to me every time people comment on my patience as a teacher, which happens often. While it may be true that he was choosing a name based on qualities I had, I think it is more likely that he was pointing out qualities he thought I’d need at that time, when I was a young and ambitious 20 year old yogi in a hurry.

I especially was influenced by his commentaries and (re)translations of canonic sutras, beginning with Breathe! You Are Alive, his commentary on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. I was introduced to that text during one of the first courses I took with Larry Rosenberg and the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center circa 1986. I also was influenced and impressed by his commentaries and translations of Mahayana texts like The Heart Sutra (The Heart of Understanding) and The Diamond Sutra (Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion.)

The retreat I did at Plum Village was centered on Diamond Cuts Through Illusion. It’s not an easy read, compared to his other books. I was surprised to learn how much of a scholar and an intellectual Thay was from his talks at that retreat. I was coming out of studying critical theory in an exchange program in Paris as an exchange student and that was up my alley at the time. Not everyone was so thrilled. I remember one woman I spoke with at the retreat who told me that her reaction to learning that the Diamond Sutra was going be the focus of the retreat was negative because she had seen “So much hiding behind the Diamond Sutra” when she lived at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center outside San Francisco. Her comments on the gendered nature of that hiding were one of the most impactful teachings I heard at the retreat.

As the retreat progressed, her concerns subsided. The retreat emphasized dialogue and community building in a way that was completely foreign to me following after experiences I had practicing Vipassana and Zen in the United States. There, the practice was very oriented towards silent intensive sitting and walking meditation, with periodic interviews with the teacher and evening dharma talks where people asked questions of the teacher, but didn’t really relate that much to each other. Here, we only did sitting meditation a few times a day, and spent much more time speaking with other yogis in small groups about the teachings that Thay gave in his dharma talks, and how they related to our lives. People exchanged contact information so they could stay in touch after returning home, which I had never seen happen at a retreat before.

Larry Rosenberg attended the retreat as a research project to try and learn how to change the individualistic culture at CIMC and the Insight Meditation Society, or IMS. Because of the emphasis on dialogue and the mostly un-silent nature of the retreat, I ended up talking to him quite a bit during the retreat just as fellow yogis. It was an interesting shift in a relationship that had been more formal when he was leading programs I was attending as a student.

Larry was concerned that people were paying to come to retreats at CIMC and IMS and then walking back out the door without learning anything about how they functioned in relationships, because of the emphasis his school of teachers placed on silent practice. He thought that consumer culture was leading people to chase highs that can come from intensive concentration without being committed to the Buddha’s teachings on community building and ethics, or to the Buddha’s teaching on the illusory nature of a separate self. He hoped to learn from Plum Village some ways to change that, and I think that he did.

I personally agreed with reservations he developed during the retreat, however. He felt that Plum Village went too far in the other direction – a lot of group dialogue but not enough formal meditation practice – “In my opinion, and you can capitalize the O and underline that word, Plum Village needs more formal sitting and walking meditation practice, and IMS needs more community building of the kind that they do here.”

Larry was also concerned that yogis at the retreat were not getting the support they needed for mental health problems they were experiencing. At that time, a hot topic in dharma circles was how to think about the boundaries between Buddhist practice and therapy. Larry and others at CIMC felt strongly that it was important for dharma teachers to realize that mindfulness “Wasn’t enough,” as another CIMC teacher said, to deal with the kinds of mental health problems their students frequently brought to them. It helped me to have heard that when I got to a juncture like that myself in the late 1990’s.

Sometimes they would intervene to check if a student presented certain challenges was working on them with a therapist, and clarify they weren’t trained in therapeutic methods they would probably need to address what they were going through successfully. Larry complained that Thay would ask him to meet individually with students who were presenting with mental health challenges. This was frustrating for Larry because he didn’t feel he could meet their needs. He also complained that the decision making process in board meetings at Plum Village went like this: “We talk about the issue on the agenda and then we just do what Thay wants anyway.” He could say that, but at the same time, if we hadn’t been openly talking so much as Thay encouraged students to do, I never would have known that Larry felt that way. In retrospect I appreciate how this taught me not to put any dharma teacher on a pedestal. The lesson was also brought home by seeing some of the students go through the “Crush and crash” cycle over the course of the retreat.

The Vietnam war was very present as an almost tangible event those 3 weeks. The sangha was a mix of mostly Vietnamese diaspora folks and Americans who had been young during the days of the war, and there were a few US veterans who lived at Plum Village permanently. One of them gave a pretty harrowing talk about his experiences during the war, about what today we would call PTSD. He said he usually didn’t like to talk in public much, that he hung around in the background watching like a cat, because of what he had been through. I’m glad he came out and talked that day, and Thay gave him a big hug that was pretty powerful in the context of the mixed audience of the retreat. It made me think about how the peace agreement that ended the Vietnam war was negotiated in France. I wondered how much of the appeal the program had for people who had been affected by the war had to do with the opportunity to process and heal that trauma.

My life these days is more involved with left politics communities than Buddhist circles, and I do not relate to how cozy most of the followers of that movement got with corporate America, e.g., the post Jon Kabat-Zinn McMindfulness phenomenon. But I will always remember Thay for pointing the way to how to integrate my two main interests by saying “This Buddha has learned a lot from Marx,” even in the middle of a 39 year term spent in exile from his home country imposed by the Communist Party of Vietnam. I will forever admire Thay for telling Robert McNamara, in person, “Liberate us from your liberation.” Most of all, I will forever remember Thay’s line “There is no first world without the third world.” That truth is among the most important ideas I try to convey to students as a social studies teacher each year. I wish more dharma teachers would apply the Buddha’s teaching on interdependence, (or interbeing, as Thay calls it) to the massive inequality we see in our world with that perspective.

I’ll also always remember the debate that happened when Thay made a patriarchal remark, something like that a wife would defer to her husband when there was a conflict in the relationship. I can remember quite clearly how people reacted, and how hurt some of the women I talked to at the retreat in particular were by that. Thay later walked back those comments by saying that he was referring to Vietnamese culture and that “Just like we eat with chopsticks and you eat with a fork, you don’t have to follow those customs.” Larry afterwards said that “He went further than that,” meaning that he didn’t just present it as a Vietnamese thing. I remember some of the folks from the Vietnamese diaspora – many lived in Australia – telling the rest of us that we didn’t realize how many radical changes Thay had made to traditional Buddhist culture as they had known it growing up in regards to gender. I remember one of them referring to a procession where some of the nuns walked ahead of monks and told that to them that represented “A revolution” in how gender roles worked in their sangha, one that they took pride in and didn’t want us as Westerners to devalue. It was a teachable moment to see how different power dynamics can be operating at the same time when there is a conflict.

I am very glad to hear that Thay was able to spend the last few years of his life in Vietnam at his favorite temple. When I was at Plum Village, he told us that we in the west would have to continue the practice without him because he wanted to go back to Vietnam, like a chicken returning to the nest to tend to its eggs. I’m sorry it didn’t work out that way for him until much later. By the time he was able to move there permanently, he had lost the ability to speak due to a stroke. But I’m sure he taught those who were there with him all the same.

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