Meeting Thay’s Life Force
Sister Dang Nghiem
May 06, 2019
I had the opportunity to see Thầy at the root temple, Từ Hiếu, on March 16, 2019. Thầy was eating breakfast when I walked in. He looked at me intently as I knelt with joined palms. “Dear Thầy, I am Dang Nghiem, your child and disciple,” I said. Thầy nodded several times. I settled on the floor by his feet as Thầy returned to his breakfast. Occasionally, Thầy looked into my eyes with his Zen Master’s penetrating gaze, and I smiled brightly in return. It seemed Thầy was checking, “Are you here?” and my smile confirmed, “Yes, I am absolutely here!” At one point, Thầy held out his left hand to me. I held Thầy’s hand with both of mine. I closed my eyes and breathed mindfully as I felt the softness and warmth emanating from Thầy’s hand. The stillness in our connection was profound.
Thầy eats each morsel of food slowly and mindfully. He closes his eyes while chewing, alternating from his left jaw to his right jaw consistently. Although his food is puréed, Thầy takes around 45 minutes to finish each meal. There is much wisdom in Thầy’s mindful eating. Because he chews on both sides, muscles on both sides of his face are exercised, and thus his face remains proportional, relaxed, and serene. Moreover, chewing the food carefully allows Thầy to swallow small quantities, preventing him from choking and getting pneumonia. Thầy has a good appetite and appreciates his food thoroughly. While Thầy eats, one Brother sits on his right to assist. At least two or three Sisters also eat with Thầy. The two Sisters who cooked that day join in to see how Thầy likes the food and decide what to cook for his next meal. Twenty-four monastic Brothers and Sisters take turns caring for Thầy. Sisters cook, and Brothers attend to Thầy’s needs. These Brothers and Sisters care for Thầy with so much joy, attentiveness, and tenderness that I cried out of gratitude, happiness, and reassurance. Day or night, every gesture Thầy makes is acknowledged and responded to. Deep love and affection flow between teacher and disciples. The transmission continues uninterrupted.
“Right away, I realized Thầy is not simply trying to hold on to life for our sake. Thầy’s vitality is potent, and he continues to experience life in the deepest way.”
One morning some of us Sisters wanted to make lotus tea for Thầy to see. To start, we each placed a gigantic lotus leaf on our head, held a lotus blossom by the stem, and walked slowly one by one in front of Thầy’s window. Thầy watched us pass, with interest and amusement. Then, settling outside his room, we filled each lotus bud with black tea, wrapped it in a lotus leaf, placed the stem in a bucket with water to pull water into the tea, and finally, froze them all so the tea could absorb the lotus fragrance. At one point the attendant brought Thầy to the door in his wheelchair to watch. I was afraid Thầy could not see well through the glass door, so I gently opened it and spoke through the slit door: “Would a Sister bring it closer for Thầy to see?” Immediately, I felt Thầy’s hand on my right elbow. His clutch was sudden, firm, and powerful, like thunder! It was a moment of profound stopping for me. When I turned around, Thầy was already wheeled away. I was stunned because I did not expect that Thầy could reach out that quickly. Moreover, I was in touch directly with Thầy’s steady, powerful life force. Right away, I realized Thầy is not simply trying to hold on to life for our sake. Thầy’s vitality is potent, and he continues to experience life in the deepest way.
Witnessing Thầy’s life force fully manifested in these monastics and in the practice is humbling and inspiring. I sincerely hope there will be enough collective awakening in Vietnam and worldwide so that Plum Village practice centers may thrive in Thầy’s homeland. Young people yearn for the practice, and people need spiritual guidance now more than ever.
Thay’s final mindfulness lesson: how to die peacefully
In 2014, Thay had a stroke at Plum Village. He was unable to speak after the stroke, but continued to lead the community, using his left arm and facial expressions to communicate. In October 2018, now 92, Thay informed his disciples that he would like to return home to Vietnam to pass his final days at the Tu Hieu root temple in Hue, where he became a monk at age 16. Thay had been exiled from Vietnam for his antiwar activism from 1966 until he was finally invited back in 2005. But his return to his homeland is less about political reconciliation than something much deeper. And it contains lessons for all of us about how to die peacefully and how to let go of the people we love. Brother Phap Dung explains it this way:
“He’s definitely coming back to his roots. He has come back to the place where he grew up as a monk. The message is to remember we don’t come from nowhere. We have roots. We have ancestors. We are part of a lineage or stream. It’s a beautiful message, to see ourselves as a stream, as a lineage, and it is the deepest teaching in Buddhism: non-self. We are empty of a separate self, and yet at the same time, we are full of our ancestors.
“He has emphasized this Vietnamese tradition of ancestral worship as a practice in our community. Worship here means to remember. For him to return to Vietnam is to point out that we are a stream that runs way back to the time of the Buddha in India, beyond even Vietnam and China.
“The first thing Thay did when he got there was to go to the stupa [shrine], light a candle, and touch the earth. Paying respect like that — it’s like plugging in. You can get so much energy when you can remember your teacher. He’s not sitting around waiting. He is doing his best to enjoy the rest of his life. He is eating regularly. He even can now drink tea and invite his students to enjoy a cup with him. And his actions are very deliberate.
“This transition period is his last and deepest teaching to our community. He is showing us how to make the transition gracefully, even after the stroke and being limited physically. He still enjoys his day every chance he gets.
Letting go is a practice not only when you reach 90. It’s one of the highest practices. This can move you toward equanimity, a state of freedom, a form of peace.”