Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh Dharma Talk

My husband and I attended a Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on October 9 at Beacon Theater.  I received tickets for the event as a birthday present. 

Quoting from the printed program we received, "Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most respected and recognized Zen masters in the world.  A poet, peace activist, and human rights advocate, Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Vietnam in 1926.  A Buddhist monk since the age of 16, he was one of the founders of the "engaged Buddhism" movement, choosing to live a contemplative life while working outside the monastery helping villagers suffering from the devastation of the Vietnam War.  In the early 1960's, he founded the School of Youth Social Service, a relief organization for survivors of the war.  Thich Nhat Hanh has been an expatriate since 1966, when he was banned from reentering Vietnam after a peace mission to the United States and Europe.  In 1982, he founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community in France, where he lives and teaches today.  A prolific author, Thich Nhat Hanh has written more than 85 books, including more than 40 in English."

Thay, as he is known by his close followers, is a gift to all who read or listen to his teachings.  His birthday is today, October 11.  Monks and Nuns from his monastery accompanied him on his visit to New York, singing and giving prayers and lessons before and after his appearance. 

For my husband and myself, the most penetrating lessons of the evening were centered around a better definition of the Kingdom of God and of the role that suffering plays in building a loving and compassionate society.  Thich Nhat Hanh said that he does not envision the Kingdom of God as a place with no suffering.  As a Buddhist, he does not hold a dualistic view of the world.  On the other hand, he did quote from the Gospel in his talk and he has written in his books that he has both Jesus Christ and Buddha at his personal altar in his place of meditation.  He wrote the book, Living Buddha, Living Christ.  He explained his personal view of the Kingdom of God in this way; suffering is necessary to produce the seeds of compassion.  He said, "No mud, no lotus.  One cannot grow a lotus flower from marble."  Suffering is the mud that produces the beautiful lotus flower.  He said that he would not want his own children to grow up in place where there is no suffering and no affliction, because it would be impossible for them to learn how to love unconditionally and to develop compassion. 

Thay often evokes the image of a new flower in his teachings.  In his talk, he likened babies and children to flowers, saying, "His face is like a flower.  Even his hands are like flowers."  These simple words touched my heart as I envisioned the faces and hands of my very small boys--even their little feet are precious objects to me.  We can learn so much about love from our children.  He spoke of how our love for one another is also like a flower, and if we do not care for it well, the flower quickly turns into garbage.  However, we should not despair when we have lost our love and have only garbage, because, "as a flower can turn into garbage, garbage can also be used to build a flower."  He spoke about gardening compost, and then invited us to think of our capacity to love and our human errors in this way.  The co-existence of war and peace, of sickness and health, and of love and hate do not have to be part of a dualistic, Good vs. Evil, Heaven vs. Hell perspective of the world.  I personally believe that as humans we do not have the capacity to fully understand the complexity of our existence.  So often we live in anger, fear and resistance to the phenomena that surround us, rather than cultivating peace within ourselves.  Peace can come from an acceptance of all experience.  This is the teaching that enlightens my mind and brings peace to my soul. 

During this visit to the US, Thich Nhat Hanh spent two hours speaking with Oprah Winfrey.  There should be an upcoming audio or visual presentation of their encounter.  Additionally, his Flower Fresh Meditation can be found on Oprah's website:

I would like to close with a prayer which was sung by the monks and nuns on Friday night.  It is called, Breathing In, Breathing Out:
Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am blooming as a flower
I am fresh as the dew
I am solid as mountain
I am firm as the earth
I am free
Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am water, reflecting
What is real, what is true
And I feel there is space
Deep inside of me
I am free, I am free, I am free


  1. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for sharing. Saturday was really spectacular. Since it was from 9:30 - 3:30 I will just share 3 highlights:

    1. Thay spoke a lot about Martin Luter King's desire for peace. Thay knew MLK and saw him just days before he died. He shared his stories and how he was deeply saddened when MLK was assasinated. His real point to this story was to tell us that we needed to support Obama on his journey towards Peace. He brought up the Nobel Peace Prize, saying that this is the world's INTENTION. That we need to create a Beloved Community because Obama needs our support for peace. He said that Obama will face many obstacles and he needs our support so that peace is his deepest desire.

    I must admit that I needed to hear this message. I am an Obama supporter and worked hard to get him elected, and I thought his award of the Nobel Peace Prize was just silly. I can name many others who are alive and desrving. But when Thay said that the prize was his intention -- that he now knows that he must make peace his deepest desire, and that we must support that intention -- well his words changed my mind. Obama does need a Beloved Community. And I plan to be in it.

    2. Mindful Eating. So we had a mindful lunch, which sounded like a nearly impossible feat with 2,000 people. And yet it worked and was a truly wonderful experience. We bought $10 vegetarian lunches. Thay and the Monks and Nuns sat on stage with their lunch. And Thay then explained why Mindful eating is so important to the natural order of the earth and the environment. When we eat mindfully we are less likely to just CONSUME. We will eat less. We will have gratitude. And we are more likely to remember that 44,000 children die each day from hunger. And he took it one step further -- if we mindfully eat meat we will recognize the sacrafice of the animal. We will feel the sacrafice in our food. So he gave that talk, said a prayer for gratitude, and then we quietly ate lunch together. It was unbelievable, I tasted and savored every bite.

    But here's the scary part -- I had chicken on Sunday night. It was award winning from Barbuto. Truly finger-licking good. And I was mindful because it was a dining experience and just delicious. However, I felt a little odd eating meat, hearing Thay's words in my mind. I felt like I was eating an animal. But it went down just fine. Licked fingers and all. Then at 3:30 in the morning I woke up with the biggest stomach ache. I ended up calling in sick today because my stomach has hurt so much. Mindfulness works -- and it's not always pleasant.

    3. The last highlight of the day was a Deep Relaxation Meditation. If everyone in the world did this, it would be a different place. One of the Nuns led us in a 45 minute meditation and at the end she said, "Now focus on your body. What hurts? What aches from stress?" For me it was my neck and shoulders. They were throbbing. We had to breathe into the pain to reduce it. Which did help. Then the day was over.

    I promptly went home and fell asleep. And my neck and shoulders hurt no more. I was so relaxed that when I went to go watch the Dodgers game I had the energy of a child. And proceeded to stay out until 3:30 in the morning.

    Probably not what the Nun had in mind.

    It was a great day!

  2. Thanks so much for your summary, Elaine! I also needed to hear the mesage about the Obama Nobel Peace Prize, because I too was very skeptical. Seeing it as "intention", confirmed to Obama himself and to the world, makes sense. It sounds as if you enjoyed an amazing Saturday with Thay! Looking forward to seeing you again and hopefully we can encourage one another in our development.

    Much Love,