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Honoring our Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh
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Honoring our Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (13 min.)
Transcript of a talk delivered by Terry Cortes-Vega
November 16, 2014 - Dallas, Texas

I would like to share just a little about our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and then I would like to invite you to share if you have followed his teachings, to share your experience on your heart about Thich Nhat Hanh. So, Thay was born in Vietnam and became a novice as a teenager. His mom and daddy actually were not in favor of that decision. Thank you, mom and daddy, for not keeping him from doing it.

He was a monk then during the time of the American-Vietnam War, and he was part of the Unified Buddhist Church, the government Buddhist church in Vietnam. But when the government split, it was the North and the South. Thay made it clear he was from the middle way, from the center. And so neither side really wanted much to do with him. They thought he should choose sides.

So what he did, he actually coined this term and then introduced the practice of engaged Buddhism. So at the time, monks and nuns were kind of hanging out in temples praying and adding peace to the world, but Thay said, "We need to get out and help the people." So he and the monks and nuns would go to the villages and help rebuild the villages that we destroyed and set up church schools and also temples, little places where people could go to gather together to practice praying, chanting, and singing.

And there was a lot of resistance to that because it is a new idea, and you know how we are with new ideas. We resist them at the beginning. But he just felt that the role of monastics was to support the community, and so they spent 5 days out of the week working in the villages. So the US would bomb the village, and they would go rebuild it. And the US would bomb it again, and they would go rebuild it again. There you go.

It was unusual, because of his determination and commitment to the people, but he did say to the monastics that joined him, "We can't work 7 days a week. We need to rest one day a week." And they said, "Oh no. Thay, people will be out there dying if we are not out there helping," and he said, "No. We need to restore ourselves." And that is what the Buddha taught, to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.

So he organized a day of mindfulness, and those days of mindfulness continue. You all have days of mindfulness now. It'd be a kind of combination lazy day and day of mindfulness, where people, the monastics would get together and just rest, maybe sit together in meditation, walk together in meditation. So, engaged Buddhism and days of mindfulness are kind of the marks of Thay's teachings, Thay's practice.

And another is walking meditation. He taught us, and I know it is one of ChiSing's favorite ways to meditate, too, to be able to walk in meditation. So there are 2 ways, like we did tonight. So beautiful walking with our friends. Inhale one breath, exhale the next breath, and just feel the friendship and the being slowed down enough to where we can also notice our own big hearts.

And then Thay invented another kind of walking meditation where he says anywhere you walk, you can walk with mindfulness. That is a mindful meditation as well. And we don't walk so slowly because people would think we were goofy. So in that case we might take 3 or 4 steps with an in breath and 4 or 5 steps with an out breath wherever we are going. When we leave this room, we can walk in meditation to our cars. And if we remember when we get home, we can walk in meditation from our cars to our house. So wonderful, so specific and practical, Thay's teachings.

He was ill in October, but he recovered and started giving teachings every day again and then had this setback. So we can learn from that, his diligence and his devotion to us, to teach. He was really well known. He was nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is known for bringing Eastern teachings to the West and adapting them. So, he has gathas for turning on our computer and gathas for turning them off as well, gathas for driving the car, for watching television. It is really very practical, very simple teachings.

ChiSing: For those who don't know what a gatha is, just give us an example.

Terry: Okay. A gatha is a little poem. One is, "Brushing my teeth"—he is really specific. "Brushing my teeth, I clean my mouth so that the words I speak during the day will offer hope and joy." "Opening the window, I smile." Another good one, when the phone rings, we say, "Listen. Listen. That wonderful sound brings me back to my true home." And then we answer the phone.

A little poem. There are poems for washing your hands and so on. Taking the first step in the morning. I will share another gatha. It's the morning gatha. So you're laying down in bed—

ChiSing: By the way, I think we are very connected because I just thought that.

Terry: No way.

ChiSing: I thought, Terry needs to talk about the morning gatha.

Terry: Well, thank you. You don't need a telephone. So, when I wake up in the morning, before I get out of bed, I just recite this little morning gatha. "Waking up this morning, I smile." And some mornings, I will wake up not so cheerful, but I make myself smile. "Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand-new hours are before me. I vow to live them in mindfulness. I vow to greet each being with eyes of compassion." And by the time you get to that last line, you feel like smiling.

I volunteer in the prisons, and so I taught this wonderful gatha to the inmates, and one of the guys said, "Wake up this morning and smile? I am in jail. How can I wake up and smile?" And one of the other guys who had been coming more often and been in jail longer and had come more often said, "Well, you woke up. That is why you smile."

ChiSing: I will share something. I am so grateful for Thich Nhat Hanh because I think he was really the only teacher I could have listened to to come into this practice. I don't think I would have come into it another way. Everyone else was too foreign to me, too esoteric. But Thich Nhat Hanh, he made it so simple, accessible, modern, relevant, and to the point, and I am so grateful that he did because I don't know what I would be doing right now if I had not encountered him 15 years ago. And this place may not exist either. So I am very grateful.

But, you know, in the early years of the Dallas Meditation Center, I tried really hard to get everyone to read all the Thich Nhat Hanh books and go to retreat and go see him, and only a fraction of people took the time and money to go to retreat. So then I realize, well, maybe I need to change my strategy. Maybe I need to live the practice so that the majority, if they are not going to go to Thich Nhat Hanh, in a way, I need to be Thich Nhat Hanh for them.

Terry: The continuation of Thich Nhat Hanh.

ChiSing: Exactly. So I need to be there for the sangha as much as I can and encourage other people who have been with Thay to also be that for the sangha, because the reality is the majority of people don't go see him. It is only a small minority. And then when I heard that Thay was very, very ill again—and he has been ill many times over the years, but this time it seemed like oh wow, this might be it. I felt so sad in my heart that I might not get to see him one more time, and I also felt sorry for all the people who might not ever get to see him. But I remembered that it is okay. We have to try to touch the practice through each other. The sangha has to be the Buddha's continuation.

But you know, even when Thay passes away physically, he has left so much for us, for centuries of practice. And there are monks and nuns that are going to continue the solid energy of the practice of the monasteries, and there are hundreds if not thousands of lay communities, small and big in many major cities around the world. We will hold that energy for centuries. So even though I may feel sad that Thay may be passing—who knows when, but he will eventually, like we all will. Yet his true self, his true body, his true heart, his true spirit continues in me, in you, and all of us, in our practice. Anywhere that there is mindfulness being practiced, there is Thay.

Thank you.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

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