By Thich Nhat Hanh on
Dear brothers, sisters, and friends,
In this moment, each one of us is embracing the loss of Thầy in our own unique way.
To his disciples, Thầy is a teacher whom we dearly love, respect, and always take refuge in. Even those of us who have been by Thầy’s side for many years, we still feel like a child—a young, innocent, and often unskilful novice. In more than sixty years of practicing and teaching the Dharma, at key moments, Thầy would usually write a letter or a poem to encourage or support his disciples. In this solemn and sacred moment of the cremation ceremony, our wish is to receive such a letter from Thầy.
While preparing for Thầy’s funeral, we read through old letters Thầy had written, full of love and care for his disciples. Throughout his whole life, Thầy never stopped transmitting the Dharma. These Dharma gems are as majestic as jeweled mountains, and deep and wondrous as the vast ocean.
In 2020, on the occasion of commemorating our ancestral teacher Master Nhất Định, we asked Thầy for permission to select some gems from his old letters and compose one just like the ones he used to write to us during the past sixty years.
May this letter—a garland of Dharma gems—be a torch that shines and help us overcome our most difficult times.
Deep Listening Hut,
Từ Hiếu Temple, Huế
November 20, 2020
To all my beloved children—monastic, Order of Interbeing, and lay members near and far.
Today is the memorial day of the ancestral teacher who founded Từ Hiếu, our root temple. His first name is Tánh and his second name is Thiên, but he is also known by the name of Nhất Định. Today it is sunny, and in the freshness of Huế’s mid-autumn, thousands of descendants of our ancestral teacher from all over the country have returned to the root temple in order to pay their respects to him. In the previous days, hundreds of people had also come to the root temple to rake leaves, tidy up the monastery garden, clean up the stupas, and prepare for today’s ceremony. The descendants of our ancestral teacher all over the world are also turning toward him during the day of his memorial. Our Sangha is very wide, and it is present in all five continents. Thầy is so happy to see that our Sangha is continuing the career of the Buddha and of our spiritual ancestors.
Lighting up our heart of gratitude
Thầy has often taught that with gratitude in our hearts, we can be happy right away. In the past few days, Thầy has had so much gratitude for the Buddha and our spiritual ancestors for offering such a beautiful and clear spiritual path, a path for us to go on for our whole life. Vietnam is a very beautiful country with beautiful people. I am very grateful to the country of Vietnam and to my blood family for having given birth to me. Two years ago, this country once again opened its arms and welcomed me to return. In the past two years, I have been so happy living with my brothers, sisters, and disciples on the ancestral land. I often visit the room of my teacher or do walking meditation down the Half-Moon Pond together with my disciples, where some nights we watch the moon rise above the gate of the monastery. The path from the main hall of Từ Hiếu going down to the Half-Moon Pond, round the Morning Star Pond, and up the Dương Xuân hill or back to Lăng Viện—the eunuchs’ cemetery1—has already become a legendary path.
Do you know that my happiness is very great? Sometimes it is so great that I have the feeling I cannot hold it all.
Do you know that my happiness is very great? Sometimes it is so great that I have the feeling I cannot hold it all. Whenever I see my students attending me, my heart is filled with love and gratitude. I am deeply grateful to all my students. I think that our Sangha should renew the practice of the Four Gratitudes (gratitude toward parents, teachers, friends, and all living beings), so that they become the Five Gratitudes. We can add gratitude for descendants and disciples. This includes monastics, OI (Order of Interbeing), and lay members who have helped Thầy and the spiritual ancestors to realize the work of spreading the Dharma and helping living beings.
Not only have my attendants brought me much happiness, but all of you—wherever you are and whatever you are doing to transform suffering within yourself and others, to engage and offer your services to humanity—each and every one of you has offered me so much happiness. This is why I am so grateful to you. I can see very clearly that wherever you are, you are my continuation, and in one way or another, you are carrying me into the future. We, teacher and student, will continue to climb the hill of the century, offering our love, understanding, freedom, and solidity to the world, today and ever after. And, when our mahasangha climbs the hill of the century, the scenery is truly spectacular.
Sangha is a beautiful community
Among you, there are monks and nuns; monks, nuns, or lay members are all practitioners. “Xuất”—the first part of the word “xuất sĩ” for “monastic” in Vietnamese—means “going forth.” Going forth here means to go join a monastic community. As a member of the monastic community, we go wherever the Sangha needs us to go; we do not have a permanent residence. Among you, there are lay practitioners. “Cư”—the first part of the word “cư sĩ” for “lay practitioner” in Vietnamese—means “staying.” Another word for lay practitioner in Vietnamese is “xử sĩ,” which means that you have not gone forth to become a monastic because you have family or other obligations. However, as lay practitioners, you still have the opportunity to practice. With the presence of lay practitioners, we can have a complete multifold Sangha. The monastic Sangha and lay Sangha rely on one another and support one another, practicing to transform and serve all living beings. “Sangha is a beautiful community, walking together on the joyful path, practicing to liberate ourselves and to bring peace and happiness to the world.” Taking refuge in the Sangha is our basic practice, helping us to overcome our worries, fears, and anxiety.
Although life is impermanent although there is birth, sickness, old age, and death, now that I have a path of practice, I have nothing more to fear
Human rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. yearned to build a beautiful community— a happy community with solidarity and the capacity for activism and engagement. He called such a community “the Beloved Community.” Unfortunately, he was assassinated at the age of thirty-nine in Memphis, so he could not realize his beautiful dream. We have continued the aspiration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and every day, our practice is to generate brotherhood and sisterhood, to set up Sanghas everywhere, so wherever we go, we can feel at home. Every day with our Sangha, we practice to cultivate joy and the capacity to help people. The Sangha body is everywhere; my true home is right here. This is a concrete way to realize and continue that dream. But more than that, the problems of our time have become global. The Buddha of the twenty-first century can no longer manifest as an individual. “One Buddha is not enough.” If Maitreya, the Buddha to be born, will manifest in this century, Thầy believes that he will manifest in the form of a Beloved Community.
Today is the day to commemorate our ancestor who established the Root Temple, and Thầy would like to remind you again about his true aspiration so that we, as teacher and disciples, can continue to climb the hill of the century together. Thầy is very happy whenever he remembers that in the present moment, we are climbing the hill of the twenty-first century together. We have climbed together for twenty-one years (it is 2021 this year). By the year 2050, we will stand on the peak of the hill and the view from there will be very beautiful, no less beautiful than the view from the Vulture Peak.
Bodhicitta—Greatest Aspiration—Deep Love
First and foremost, Thầy wants you to remember that bodhicitta—the mind of love—is the deep aspiration, the dream of a true practitioner. Once the mind of love is eroded, we have no energy to realize our dream. We ordain in order to generate great love, great understanding, acceptance, forgiveness, and inclusivity, and we are ready to offer ourselves at the service of our fellow humans and all living beings. We ordain in order to free ourselves from craving, attachment, hatred, fear, doubt, misunderstanding, ignorance, and wrong perceptions— about ourselves, about other people and life itself. And beyond that, as Zen Master Linji had put in his opening speech of “Teachings for the Sangha,” we ordain in order to transcend birth and death, to set foot on the path to vast horizons, and to go beyond the Three Realms.
We must take care of our bodhicitta, to keep it bright and beautiful. We should not lose ourselves in consumption, nor be satisfied with holding certain positions or status in the Sangha or in society. We must learn to see ourselves as a drop of water in the river of the Buddha and the multifold Sangha. We are the continuation of the Buddha and our ancestral teachers, among them Trúc Lâm Đại Sĩ, Zen Master Linji, Zen Master Liễu Quán, and Zen Master Nhất Định. We are flowing together as a river and at the same time, climbing the hill of the century with great joy. However busy you may be, train to be present for one another during the formal meals, to recognize your place in that river of liberation, and to practice living harmoniously with all of your brothers and sisters, and with the OI and lay members who come to take refuge and practice with us. Practice so that you do not become a drop of water separated from the river. Not being caught in status, money, praise, or position, knowing how to go as a river, we have a bigger chance to realize our dreams.
To Light Up the Awareness of Love
We must truly nourish our brotherhood and sisterhood, and our love for humanity. We must truly love one another as siblings in a blood family, learning to respect our elders and yield to those younger than us. At times we may be unskillful and inadvertently hurt one another. Thầy is sometimes unskillful but Thầy knows that you are always willing to forgive me. Thầy feels deeply grateful to you. You have given me a lot of happiness, and Thầy’s happiness grows bigger each day when he sees that you are able to love and forgive one another. Each one of us knows that the more we love and are in harmony with one another, the more we are able to heal and become a place of refuge for many people. Thầy sees that every one of us has made a lot of progress on the path of practice and transformation. Whether that progress has been quick or slow, we have all experienced transformation.
The practice of eating formal meals together not only helps us to integrate into the river of the Buddha and the multifold Sangha, it also nourishes our humility and our deep vow to serve living beings, so that we—monastic, OI, or lay member—can continue as true descendants of the Buddha and ancestral teachers. The monastic life is both humble and simple. Your great-grand teacher, Zen Master Thanh Quý, was someone of great humility. In the old days, there were venerables who would hesitate to bow in greeting our great-grand teacher because he would bow back very deep and low to express his humility and respect for them. He did not like others prostrating to him, but as a teacher, he had to let them do it. When Venerable Chí Niệm built the stupa for our great-grand teacher, he had asked the venerable to put a statue of the Buddha at the very top of the stupa so that when anyone came to prostrate, they would be prostrating to the Buddha and not to him. At Từ Hiếu, everyone knows this story well. We must learn that attitude of humility from our great-grand teacher, Thanh Quý. That virtue of humility will always allow us to stay true to ourselves.
The stupa of interbeing and interpenetration
We did not ordain in order to gain respect and donations from laypeople, nor to live in luxury or have power and status. In fact, it is quite the opposite, because we understand clearly the nature of interbeing and interpenetration. We appreciate, love, and respect all the different manifestations of life. “Reverence is the nature of my love.” We have ordained because of the true joy and happiness that comes from being liberated from our suffering, from our wrong views and perceptions. Life is impermanent, but we think that it is permanent. And the biggest mistake is to see ourselves as a separate self entity, not interbeing with the whole cosmos and all beings.
In the past, the venerable nun Đàm Nguyện had built for Thầy a stupa at Đình Quán Temple in Hà Nội. She had already built it, so Thầy instructed her to inscribe a few words on the front saying, “There is nothing inside.” Because for sure Thầy is not lying in there. If people do not understand, then there should be another sentence, “There is nothing outside either.” And if people still do not understand, then the last sentence should be, “If there is anything, then it is in your footsteps and in your breath.” For Thầy, the practices that can help to transform and to heal the people of our time is Thầy’s stupa. At Pháp Vân Temple or the Root Temple Tổ Đình Từ Hiếu, or at any Plum Village meditation practice center in the world, there should be such a stupa. A stupa not made of brick and mortar, but a stupa made of practice. Everyone who comes, whether a monk or nun, an Order of Interbeing member, a Buddhist or friend of Plum Village, will be invited to enter this stupa. Meaning, they have to learn to walk in mindfulness, to drink tea in mindfulness, to speak using loving speech and to listen deeply.
Thầy does not want to have a stupa because he sees clearly that he does not have a separate self, and there is not a single moment that Thầy stops manifesting. In the poem “Please Call Me by My True Names,” Thầy wrote:
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—even today I am still arriving. Look deeply: every second I am arriving, to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone. I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive . . .
Two years ago in Thailand, Thầy taught the elder brothers and sisters that when the time has come for Thầy to pass away, you will organize a funeral of the heart for Thầy according to the spirit of this poem. During this time we will have a noble silence retreat so that everyone can contemplate Thầy’s manifestation in every second and every minute. So you can see that Thầy will always be present in every manifestation of life. Thầy really hopes that all of the monastics, Order of Interbeing members, Buddhists, and friends of our community will build for Thầy a stupa made of your own practice in every moment of your daily life. In this Noble Silence retreat we will walk in mindfulness, drink tea in mindfulness, and use loving speech and deep listening. After the cremation ceremony, please bring my ashes to spread on the earth to nourish the grass and trees. Don’t stop the continuation of my ashes.
During the teaching tour in China in the autumn of 2001, in Beijing, Thầy received news from Sister Trung Chính that Brother Giác Thanh, the abbot of Deer Park Monastery, was taking his last breaths. Thầy had written this gatha for Brother Giác Thanh and sent it to him just before he passed away:
That you are a real gentleman is known by everyone The work of a true practitioner has been accomplished When your stupa has just been raised on the hillside The sound of children’s laughter will already be heard
Thầy had comforted and offered guidance to Brother Giác Thanh with a lot of love and trust. Thầy had said, “You just take your time to rest. You and I will meet each other again, and we will work together again, holding each other’s hands to climb the hill of the century.”
In the past Thầy had spoken these words to Brother Giác Thanh, and today on the commemoration day of our ancestral teacher who founded the Root Temple, Thầy also wants to tell you this. The Buddha, our ancestral teachers, you and I, we will continue to hold each others’ hands to climb the hill of the twenty-first century.
Look again, you will see me in you and in every leaf and flower bud. If you call my name, you will see me right away. Where are you going? The old frangipani tree offers its fragrant flowers this morning. You and I have never really been apart. Spring has come. The pines have put out new shining green needles. And on the edge of the forest, the wild plum trees have burst into flower.
Thầy sees in you Thầy’s continuation; Thầy will never die
Thầy prays that the Buddha watch over you all so that you can be protected in body and mind, and be able to nourish your joy and be a refuge for the Sangha and for all who come. Thầy sees clearly that you are the continuation of the Buddha, the ancestral teachers, and of Thầy. Through you, Thầy is immortal. Thầy has faith in you, and this faith is so solid and unshakable. Thầy holds you all in his heart, with all his love and trust. May the Buddha and ancestral teachers offer you great strength and energy.
With love and trust,
Originally published on January 28, 2022, on PlumVillage.org.