It has been said that "there are no proofs for the existence of God and the Holy. There are only witnesses.” One of those great witnesses, Thich Nhat Hanh, died today, and I am compelled to write about how important his life was to me and to many thousands - perhaps millions - of other people across the planet.
I have been memorializing Thich Naht Hanh's (“Thay” or “teacher") life today primarily as a tribute to his witness to the power of nonviolence. His courageous, humble life provided a universal vision of compassion and peace to counter the violence of war and the importance of seeking reconciliation from the political, social, gender, and economic divisions that threaten peace. And he accomplished this not so much through strategic political strategies and campaigns like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Tutu, but through a practice that primarily led to the transformation of the mind and heart. When we speak about the existential crises of our times, we often say it is really a spiritual crisis that needs a spiritual response. Thay provided just this kind of profound transformative spiritual vision, and his legacy of quiet, profound awareness of the immediacy of the spirit of life that leads to peace will forever change the minds and hearts of the people of the world.
He taught a philosophy of mindfulness that leads to an awareness of the holy, the sacred unity of life, that in turn grounds ethics and morality in a spirit of practicing peace and reconciliation. And by extension, on the other side of reconciliation he witnessed to the “beloved community,” a term he learned from MLK, Jr., the mutual, respectful love we are capable of expressing to one another. His Plum Village experiment was such an expression of this vision.
But perhaps the even more important part of his legacy is that he made his profound teaching available for use in our everyday lives. Meditation practice and techniques have been part of every religious tradition for millennia in its many forms, available primarily to selective groups expressly committed to its use. But Thay made meditation accessible to each of us in our every day lives. He taught us to eat each section of a tangerine with a consciousness of the taste and pleasure and sustenance it provided. And by extension we were invited to appreciate the whole of life in similar terms, to slow down, to be aware of the life and wonder all around us in the interconnectedness of all of creation. And when we do so we become more compassionate and empathetic which is the basis of peace and justice. And thousands of people today have followed his teaching as more and more people practice various forms of meditation.
But his witness was more than his teaching. He spoke quietly, weighing his words, using simple examples we could all understand like the tangerine. Even after a severe stroke in 2014 that paralyzed the right side of his body so that he could not speak or write and could only resort to gestures, it is said that his very presence continued to be his witness, his teaching.
For me this evening, during this troubled and disconcerting historical time,Thay’s life and witness mean something much more than his writing and teaching and political activism. It was his whole personal presence. His witness represents an enormously hopeful example of the possibility for our human species to be able to adapt to a transformative, nonviolent way of life. We might ask how this humble Buddhist monk, coming from a war-ravaged, unknown country, could ever have had such a profound impact on the world? Where did he find the spiritual strength to bear his witness? And then we need to ask a more personal question: How can we, too, follow his witness, to be more mindful and keenly aware of the wondrous life around us, more compassionate, empathetic, peaceful and just?
I think we know the answer. We need to slow our busy, frenetic and often despairing, and destructive mindsets and learn instead to hold the hope that we are, indeed, capable of the kindness and nonviolent witness of Thay’s amazing life. May it be so!
Thich Naht Hanh, Presente!