Essays, Subscriber Access

A Cloud Never Dies: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community Reflects on the Zen Master’s Continuation in the World

You have said that “Time is stilled in eternity, where love and the beloved are one.” Dear Thay, you are present here with us in this very moment, as we climb the hill of the 21st Century together. What you have not yet completed, we promise to complete for you. We would like to express our deep love and gratitude as we make the vow to carry your teachings, compassion, and insight far into the future.
Excerpt from eulogy written by disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh1

A FEW DAYS AFTER Thich Nhat Hanh’s death, following the morning meditation service at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, a man walked up to Brother Pháp Dung, joined his palms, bowed to the monk, and asked if he could share a story.

The man said that he had been watching the live-streamed ceremonies honoring Thay (“teacher” in Vietnamese) from his home, but then felt an over- powering urge to drive to Deer Park and be there in person. Not so he could be with other mourners, necessarily, but because he needed to find a particu- lar rock. The man had attended a retreat with Thay at Deer Park many years ago. At one point, perhaps during walking meditation, he said the Zen master paused in the shade of an oak grove and sat on a large rock right next to him.

Being in Thay’s peaceful presence, the man told Brother Pháp Dung, changed his life forever, and so he was compelled to drive to Deer Park after Thay’s death to find that particular rock and relive that poignant moment.

“All he wanted to do was to come up and sit next to the rock, and he was so grateful that there’s a place for that,” Brother Pháp Dung said. “The man got the same healing that he got the first time he was here.” Brother Pháp Dung continued, “Thay talked about being a cloud, but Thay is not just a cloud. He’s a rock. He’s a boulder down there. So I have been walking around Deer Park with awareness that every rock, every pathway, every pepper tree—there’s our teacher.”
By any measure, Thich Nhat Hanh lived a remarkable life. Born Nguyen Xuan Bao in central Vietnam in 1926 and ordained at the age of sixteen, he would become one of the world’s great spiritual leaders, author more than 100 books, establish 11 practice centers across the globe, persuade Martin Luther King Jr. to join his call for an end to the Vietnam War, and transform Buddhism into a publicly engaged and accessible practice available to everyone, regardless of belief or background.

One of his many gifts was a remarkable ability to share deep Buddhist in- sights and practices in simple, often poetic language. According to Thay, living things are not separate from one another, they inter-are; they are as intimately connected as an ocean and its waves. Suffering, he taught, is a natural aspect of our lived experience, yet we have the power to transform it into peace and joy the way mud gives birth to a beautiful lotus. Death is not an end, but rather a fleeting moment in the “ultimate dimension” of life. We continue the way water continues in the form of a cloud; it falls as rain, gathers in a lake, becomes a cup of tea, and in time, reunites with the sky as a cloud yet again.

In the months since Thay’s passing, numerous monastics and lay practitioners have shared deeply about the many and profound ways their teacher touched their lives, and they’ve asked themselves: how are we continuing Thay? What follows are anecdotes from several of Thay’s monastic Dharma teachers, drawn and adapted from talks at monasteries, conversations, and articles over the past year, exploring that question in their own words.

Sister Chan Khong2

I am twelve years younger than Thay. I see myself as a tiger cub. My role is to fill in the missing parts, however small, of the tiger master Thay. If the tiger master is missing claws, I will be those claws. Whatever Thay needed help with, I would do. Whatever Thay was unable to do, I would do my best to realize it for Thay. Sometimes I would even sing, just so Thay could breathe.
One time, a group of French senators invited Thay to give a Dharma talk. I drove Thay there. Of course, there were others who went along, but as I am most familiar with what Thay needed, I could be of help in whatever situation. Thay had just returned from a trip to Switzerland the day before, so he was very tired and could not speak much. A quarter of the way through the Dharma talk, Thay suddenly said in French, “Sister Chan Khong will now come up and sing a song for everyone.”

I was so surprised because Thay had hardly shared anything yet. I quickly went up to Thay. He quietly said to me, “my dear, you can sing three, four, or even five songs for me. I am so tired that I find it hard to breathe.” So I sang one song after another, and turned around from time to time to see when I should stop. Thay told me to keep singing. After a while, he smiled and looked better. Thay gave a wonderful talk that day. I am happy to play a small part in complementing Thay’s career of spreading the teachings.

Sister Chan Dieu Nghiem (Sister Jina)3

After three years in a Buddhist temple in Japan, where I was already ordained as a nun in the Sōtō Zen tradition, I had a great need to study the Dharma because my Japanese was not good enough to follow all the teachings that were given in Japanese. I came to the West and at another Zen center I saw a copy of a magazine called The Mindfulness Bell (a journal published by Parallax Press, part of the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism). I opened the first issue and read an announcement about a three-week retreat on Buddhist psychology in Thénac, France, and I thought “that’s where I want to go.”

It was 1990, one of the first retreats in English at Plum Village, and when I first saw Thay, I was very impressed. I wondered whether this teacher was touching the earth at all; he seemed to be floating just above it. What really struck me was that Thay used very simple language for a very deep teaching, and I realized, “I understand the words, and I need to be careful not to [assume that just] because I understand the words that I have realized the teaching.” I knew that to realize the teaching it would take a life of practice and looking deeply at what’s behind those words. So, I felt a lot of gratitude for a teacher like Thay, for someone who was able to teach in that way.

It was the most diverse group I had ever encountered in a retreat, and the atmosphere was one of sisterhood and brotherhood—a family of people from different traditions and nationalities. By then I had been living my life moving from country to country because of my own choice, not because of a job. At the end of the three-week retreat at Plum Village, one of the sisters approached me and said that Thay wanted me to consider staying at Plum Village indefinitely. I thought, “indefinitely is not a word in my dictionary.” But all these years later I am still here.
One of the reasons I stayed was because it always feels new in some way or another, or maybe I have learned through Thay’s teaching to look at all there is as always new and never the same. It is the teaching on impermanence, maybe, and non-self. And this teaching is really expressed in the Sangha that continues to evolve here, which changes the environment year after year. I think back to the beginning of the era, when the summer retreats had more internation- al guests coming to Upper Hamlet, and Vietnamese guests coming to Lower Hamlet. You get a sense of different rivers coming into the community, and the international river is growing every summer.

When I see all the faces at a retreat, I think, “Thay is so happy right now.” I do not think one person can continue Thay, but as a Sangha, we can continue Thay. I see the Sangha as the most precious gift that Thay has offered us, and I am so grateful to him for that.

Brother Phap Dung (Dharma Embrace)4

Our task is not to feel like we’re losing something. That is natural for us to feel. When I touch the earth, it is very easy to cry. There is a little tinge of sadness, but actually, mostly when I cry I feel Thay’s love. It is not like a sadness, like Thay’s no longer with us, it is a different kind of crying, and it motivates me to continue Thay.

This is what Thay has taught me. He has prepared us—all the monks and nuns, his students, and lay friends all over the world. Whatever that path that helped us to become a better person was, this is what we are continuing.

My father, before he passed away last year, often had to visit the emergency room at the hospital. I watched and listened with a kind of amazement at all the medical personnel, the doctors and nurses, and I thought of all the things they have had to deal with during the pandemic. I saw that much of what they contend with is not medical, but psychological. This is a struggle throughout our society. A lot of the people coming to the hospital do not have love, and the medical staff does its best to ease their suffering, both inside and out. Observing this gave me a lot of energy not only to aid people in the healthcare profession, but also people in general, to find out that what people are missing is actually this connection, this care.

One thing that has given me energy during this time, both with COVID, and then with Thay’s passing, is to reflect on the meaning of the Vietnamese word, nhà thuong, which means “hospital.” The same word thuong is used to mean both “love” and “injured.” Nhà means “a house.” So nhà thuong means the place you go to when you have been injured and you need love. So beautiful and poetic. At the hospital, I asked one of the nurses, “What keeps you going?” She said they have no choice, “if I quit, who’s going to take care of them?” This has been helping me reframe my idea of the monastery. This is sacred land here. There is still evidence of the native people who once lived here; you can still feel that energy. This is a place for healing, and for getting in touch with love. It is our responsibility to maintain this space so that people have a refuge.


Collage by Karen Hilsberg

The monastics are lucky. We live here and nourish one another with the Dharma and with our practice, so we can heal ourselves. But the doc- tors and nurses, and the rest of soci- ety, because of the way it’s organized, are easily injured mentally, spiritually, and psychologically. I know this personally because sometimes I drive from the monastery to Los Angeles to visit my family, and just driving on the freeway can stir up a lot of things. When Deer Park was established, Thay said that, as with all of America, the West Coast is very lucky to have a center like this. More and more I see how true it is. I see people coming up here and finding what they need to find. Outside of the dining hall there is a hill that looks down into the valley. I have seen many people sit there in a chair, not even touch their food, and look out over the valley. And I watch their faces and I see how they are nourished and transformed by what they see, by being here. Seeing
that nourishes me. You have to find good food.

I have seen it over and over again. People come and touch the practice and know what to do. This is a beautiful thing that Thay has taught us: how to take care of ourselves, how to take care of our emotions. This is how we can continue Thay’s legacy, with our practice. Each one of us came to this practice because something happened, because of some form of suffering, usually. Thankfully, many of us have found the path through a particular doorway that now helps us see a better way to be in the world, a different direction. And this is what Thay has been transmitting to us, the importance of the Sangha body. Without a community, we will be overloaded, and life will be very difficult.

Brother Phap Huu (True Dharma Friend)5

Dear Thay, do you remember our conversation in Hong Kong? You said you wanted us to continue to renew Buddhism; that you have been able to do 60 percent of the work, but there is still so much more to do. You gently reminded me that it is up to us, your monastic and lay descendants all over the world, to keep the Dharma wheel turning, to translate the practices and teachings into the language of our times, and to make them accessible and practical for use in our world today. Dear Thay, thank you for trusting us and taking refuge in us. When we take refuge in each other, we know we are continuing you.

There are moments, dear Thay, because I am still young and have much to learn, when I feel overwhelmed with the task and responsibility of being your continuation. But then, I remember that I do not have to do it alone, that with the support of the Sangha, I am never alone! Great action comes in many forms, big and small, and with the Sangha, your continuation is a collective effort. We can each focus on our own spheres of influence, whether we are with our families, friends, classmates, or colleagues. No matter where we are or what we are doing, we have the opportunity to build a beloved community and to generate the energy of mindfulness so that healing can be possible. Thay, when I feel there is too much to do, or that the task is too big, I know I can take rest and refuge in the Sangha body. Like you have taught us, Thay, we are each a drop of water, contributing to a vast, flowing stream.

I have often been asked, “what’s next?” Each time someone asks me this, I can see you gently holding your teacup with a warm smile on your face because I know that instead of asking “what’s next?” you would point towards the “what’s now,” Now is what has always been and will ever be. Now is where we get the chance to walk with Thay, to sit, speak, build community, drink tea, smile, laugh, and cry for Thay. Now is where the beloved community will meet each other, to care for each other, to embrace each other, to support each other, and to slow down together so that we can recognize and transform the sufferings of the world with limitless compassion and wisdom.

You have helped us learn how to be human, how to connect, how to love, how to see each other as flowers in one garden of humanity. Through your daily practice, you were able to see your continuation. You taught us that if you saw someone walking with mindfulness and compassion, you knew they were a continuation of Thay and the spiritual ancestors.

This is it, right, dear Thay? This is the legendary moment. We have a beautiful community full of talent and vitality, and we will carry the torch of wisdom you have handed to us into the here and now, and towards the future for generations to come.

SISTER CHAN KHONG is the first fully ordained monastic disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh. Born in 1938 in Ben Tre in Southern Vietnam, Sister Chan Khong began social work in the city slums as a teenager. After meeting Thich Nhat Hanh in 1959, she helped him set up the School of Youth for Social Service, training thousands of young social workers to bring aid to remote, war-devastated villages. She organized the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace Talks in 1969, and in the 1970s assisted Thich Nhat Hanh on his world tours calling for peace. She was instrumental in directing emergency humanitarian efforts to rescue Vietnamese Boat People from the high seas and led sponsorship programs for more than 14,000 orphans in Vietnam. She helped establish Plum Village Monastery and today is the elder nun of the international Plum Village community. Her autobiography, Learning True Love (2007), stands alongside the spiritual autobiographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as a remarkable story of one woman’s search for social and spiritual change.

SISTER CHAN DIEU NGHIEM was ordained as a novice nun at the Hokyoji Temple, Fukui, Japan in 1985, with the ordination name “Ji Na” (“Loving Kindness”). She joined the Plum Village community in 1990 as one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s first European monastic disciples. Sr. Dieu Nghiem received full bhikshuni ordination from Thay and the Lamp Transmission to become a Dharma Teacher in January 1992. She was the abbess of Lower Hamlet at Plum Village from 1998 until 2014. Each year, Sr. Dieu Nghiem leads mindfulness retreats around the world, including her ancestral lands of the Netherlands and Ireland. She is a beloved elder in the community, tirelessly offering her time to listen, reflect, and guide her younger Dharma sisters and brothers. She loves to relax in nature, and enjoys mountain-hiking, birdwatching, and folk-dancing.

BROTHER PHAP DUNG was ordained in 1998 at Plum Village France. He received full bhikshu ordination in 2001 and the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh to become a Dharma Teacher in 2004. He helped establish Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, and served as its abbot from 2001 to 2010. Born in Vietnam in 1969, Brother Pháp Dung came to the United States when he was nine years old. He received a professional BA in architecture from the University of Southern California and worked as an architect/designer for four years before becoming a monk. He has created meditation programs and retreats for children, teens, families, and young adults, and he has led mindfulness retreats in North and South America, China, Hong Kong, India, Bhutan and Germany. He is most inspired by meditation as a method of examining and cultivating the mind, of the individual, and of the collective community.

BROTHER PHAP HUU is a senior Dharma teacher and abbot of Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, founded by Thich Nhat Hanh in southwest France. Born in Vietnam, he emigrated to Canada as a child and began training as a monk with Thich Nhat Hanh at the age of thirteen. Thich Nhat Hanh gave him the name Chan Phap Huu, meaning “True Dharma Friend.” For more than ten years, he accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh as his attendant on international teaching tours. Today, Brother Phap Huu is deeply committed to building community and continuing Thich Nhat Hanh’s legacy, bringing his teachings in particular to families, young adults, and businesspeople. He is passionate about basketball, music, and developing new approaches to teamwork, leadership, mentoring and coaching, and he co-hosts the popular Plum Village podcast, The Way Out Is In.

STEPHEN PRADARELLI is the Communications Director for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. Based in Iowa, he previously managed communications at the University of Iowa and worked as a journalist and newspaper editor. He was editor of As Far As the Eye Can See: The Promises and Perils of Research and Scholarship in the the Twenty-First Century (University of Iowa Press) and a contributing writer and editor for Chunghi Choo and Her Students: Contemporary Art and New Forms in Metal (Arnoldsche Verlagsanstalt). An aspirant in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, he founded the Winding Path Sangha in Iowa City in 2016.

NOTES 

  1. Plum Village, “A Eulogy from Thay’s Disciples in Plum Village,” in Plum Village Articles & News, January 28, 2022, https://plumvillage.org/articles/a-eulogy-from-thays-disci- ples-in-plum-village/.
  2. Sister Chan Khong, Lá thu Làng Mai, January 30, 2022, 35-36.
  3. Plum Village, “40 Years of Life in Plum Village: Panel Sharing from Residents and Dhar- ma Teachers,” June 8, 2022, YouTube video, 2:15:03, https://youtu.be/AhiSNCKlaU0.
  4. Brother Phap Dung, “Continuing Thay’s Aspiration,” Deer Park Monastery, January 28, 2022, YouTube video, 1:48:00, https://youtu.be/2EbhHafr2CY.
  5. Brother Phap Huu, adapted from “What’s Now,” Lá thu Làng Mai, January 30, 2022, 27-28.