Thầy Smiled Happily

Going to watch Journey to the West

Dear Thầy,

I remember how the teaching tours through China in 1995, 1999, 2000, and 2002 brought great happiness to Thầy. You had told us that in the past, the spiritual ancestors from China came to Vietnam to share the teachings, and most of the Buddhist scriptures and books in Vietnam were written in Classical Chinese.

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Going to watch Journey to the West

Dear Thầy,

I remember how the teaching tours through China in 1995, 1999, 2000, and 2002 brought great happiness to Thầy. You had told us that in the past, the spiritual ancestors from China came to Vietnam to share the teachings, and most of the Buddhist scriptures and books in Vietnam were written in Classical Chinese. You returned to China to teach so that you could repay the debt of gratitude to the ancestral teachers. Your offerings to the ancestors were many of your books, translated into Chinese.

Every tour had a full program of retreats and days of mindfulness for monastics and lay people. I remember a moment one day during the 2002 tour when we were all on the return bus after a day of activities. Brother Pháp Niệm and I were Thầy’s attendants, so he sat beside Thầy and I sat behind them. Brother Pháp Hải, who is fluent in Mandarin, was behind me, and he always had many funny stories to tell the rest of us—stories about the temples and about the world outside. That afternoon, Brother Pháp Hải invited us to go and watch the opera Journey to the West at the Beijing Opera House.

We were whispering and discussing this excitedly when suddenly Thầy turned around and asked in a loud voice, “Định Nghiêm, why don't you invite Thầy to come watch the opera with you all?” I was stunned, and thought, Wow, Thầy, will you also come to the theater with us? Before I had a chance to stop being stunned and reply, Thầy repeated the question. I quickly joined my palms and said: “Dear Thầy, we would like to cordially invite Thầy to come and watch Journey to the West with us.”

Thầy smiled happily.

Brother Pháp Hải and I were overjoyed. Not only were we not reprimanded for daring to discuss going to the theater, Thầy had responded and agreed to go with us. What could be greater than having our teacher join in the fun with us? In the end, we did not go—we all went back to rest and prepare for the upcoming long day. How could we have time to go to the theater? Yet both teacher and disciples were filled with happiness and satisfaction as if we had just returned from the show.

Still of Thích Nhất Hạnh from Mindfulness: Be Happy Now; courtesy of Larry Kasanoff

Opening a nursery

Dear Thầy, it was rare for you to be in Plum Village France during the autumn because that was the season of long tours in North America or Southeast Asia. But one autumn, you stayed home with us, and it was the most special and enjoyable autumn for all of us.

You took a lot of time to lead us on walking meditations in the Lower Hamlet through the alleys of poplar trees under their golden leaves. You often stopped by the New Hamlet to lead us in walking up Plum Hill, where the air was infused with the scent of ripe plums. Usually we did not pick the plums but let them ripen and fall naturally to the ground. At that time, the plums were becoming really sweet and juicy. But some sisters preferred to eat the crunchy, unripened plums, so Thầy cut open a plastic bottle, tied it to a stick of bamboo, and used this homemade tool to harvest the crunchy plums directly from high up in the tree—very effective and convenient.

In Upper Hamlet, Thầy loved most to practice walking meditation in the forest of red oaks. From afar, I always thought it looked like a forest of flame-red flowers. In the Hermitage, every potted flower, every tree was happy, because they received Thầy's care each day. Late autumn in France is the season of chrysanthemums. Thầy waited for pots of large, round, crimson chrysanthemums to bloom, as well as the elegant ones with petals that curled inwards and outwards like bodhisattvas’ hands performing mantras.

One morning in the Hermitage garden, Thầy went around to gather the wilted chrysanthemums from the previous year while I gathered the old plastic pots. Under Thầy's guidance, I prepared the pots with soil for you to replant the chrysanthemums. Sitting on a white iron chair under the linden tree, Thầy worked leisurely with utter peace and enjoyment. When one pot was done, you passed it to me so I could add another layer of fertilizer to it. At the end, the two of us turned on the hose to water all the pots at once.

It was just like being a little kid a long time ago in my garden at home! I only noticed my two hands happily playing with the soil. Sometimes I looked up to see what Thầy's hands were doing. The year's last rays of sunlight were trying to peek through the leaves to gently touch your two hands. They also wanted to give a hand to Thầy! Occasionally a few ripened leaves fell lightly onto your shoulders, as if to draw your attention: “Dear Thầy, we are here, let us play with you!” Those leaves slowly hopped to your feet, then to the earth, to form a pale golden carpet. In a few days or a week, the golden carpet would be thicker and softer for Thầy to place your mindful steps upon.

On the other side of the Hermitage, the pines that Thầy had planted in the past were now tall and strong. They retained their green robes for the season. The Hermitage in autumn is full of colors and forms, and that year, Thầy was home. The earth, sky, and trees were all excited and competed to show off their most beautiful paintings for you to enjoy.

There were not enough pots for Thầy to finish repotting. I had to go to New Hamlet to find more pots. In the end, that afternoon, pots upon pots surrounded teacher and disciple—more than a hundred of them. Suddenly, I saw that in just two months, these stems of chrysanthemums would grow strong and healthy and produce many big, round flowers. Excitedly, I said to you, "Dear Thầy, if the two of us are successful, we could open a plant nursery!"

Thầy smiled happily.

I felt so happy right in that moment, as if we really did just open a plant nursery!

I will lead the retreat, Thầy, just come for fun 

In 2006, after the Summer Retreat, the sisters of Lower and New Hamlet organized a trip to the Pyrénées. During the day, we hiked in the mountains and enjoyed being in nature. At night, I pitched a tent with Sister Anh Nghiem beside a stream that flowed from a waterfall. On the day of return, we still hadn’t had our fill of mountains and forests, so we stopped at a small village called Gavarnie. We walked toward the mountain for a few kilometers. At first, we heard only the wind whistling and the birds singing. But the more we walked, the more clearly we could hear the sound of water echoing from afar.

Then all of a sudden, we stopped in amazement before a vertical mountain range arcing around us. No one said anything. We all stood still, admiring the view before us. Hundreds of waterfalls rushed down the mountainside. Some were high and large, splashing water as they gushed down. Others were thin and ethereal, like long silk strands suspended in air, then blown aside by the wind halfway down. Wow … some waterfalls even seemed to fall from the clouds! The mountain was so tall that mist and clouds shrouded the top. If anyone had wished to count the waterfalls in front of them, it would not have been possible. Hundreds of waterfalls, each its own painting, no two alike. Yet, all of them were continuously flowing in the same direction, synchronizing with each other to create a grand symphony without repetition.

After standing in silence and taking in this scene for a long time, we called each other to return. But even though we were only at arm’s length from each other, and even though we called out with all our strength, no one could hear the others; we could not even hear our own calls. Never have we felt so small, in space and in the world of sound.

After returning to Plum Village, as soon as I met Thầy, I told you about this most rare and majestic beauty in the world. You must see it! I wanted to bring you there. I thought about how I could bring you there. But I was certain that Thầy would not go anywhere just for sightseeing. Thầy's Pure Land was the Hermitage, the Sitting Still Hut, Lower Hamlet, New Hamlet.… If Thầy went anywhere, it was only for retreats. And Thầy often said that you did not have much time left, which is why you only accepted invitations to lead large retreats for thousands of people. If we held a retreat in a small village like Gavarnie in France, there would only be room for a hundred people at the most. Suddenly I had a great idea. Dear Thầy,” I said, “I will go and lead a retreat at Gavarnie. I would like to invite Thầy to come with me. You just need to come and have fun; there's nothing for you to do. I will do it all for Thầy and you simply need to visit those amazing waterfalls.”

Thầy smiled happily.

As for me, I felt satisfied that I had found a way to bring Thầy to see the beautiful scenery.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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