Go As a River

As you probably know by now, Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen master, and activist considered to be a father of mindfulness in the West, passed away more than a week ago. He was 95 years old.

I received the news of his passing and subsequent memorial updates via emails from Plum Village, a global community of mindfulness practice centers and monasteries in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh (affectionately called Thay by his students).

Often news of deaths are announced, “with a heavy heart” or “with great sadness”. However, the Plum Village email began: “With a deep mindful breath, we announce the passing of our beloved teacher…”

When I saw the email heading announcing his passing, I experienced an emotional reaction that felt like a jolt of sadness in my body. Then I read on and remembered to breathe.

During the memorial week, I spent a lot of time engaged with the comprehensive Plum Village memorial resources, which includes chants, meditations, teachings, readings, songs, calligraphies, photos, and live-streamed videos. Although there were invitations to connect through the Facebook group, I’m on a month-long Facebook fast, so I didn’t partake in that. However, I imagine much deep, inspired sharing took place there throughout the week.

Invitations for the memorial week from the Plum Village website included:

  • Practice sitting and walking meditation together
  • Reflect deeply on the impact Thay’s teachings has upon our lives and on the world as a whole
  • Generate the energy of mindfulness, peace, and compassion in his memory
  • Generate loving gratitude
  • Come back to mindful breathing.

I witnessed via YouTube the daily, memorial events and breathed with the monastic and lay communities gathered to honor him. There were so many chat comments streaming during the live videos, and I felt tapped into and immersed in a global community dedicated to mindfulness, peace, and compassion.

It was a blessing. Like a balm in the midst of the world-as-it-is right now. There is all that topsy-turvy stuff, but there is this, too. How gratifying and enlivening to be part of it.

Honoring Those We’ve Lost

I’ve reflected quite a bit on the losses I’ve grieved in recent years and how my relationship with deceased loved ones has continued to deepen and blossom after their passing. I feel so much more intimately connected with their essence, which is deeper than the shell of personality that has fallen away. 

It seems to me the best way to honor and memorialize our loved ones who are no longer with us physically is to become a little more of what we loved about them. To receive some of their beautiful qualities into our own being and radiate them into the world. Doing so allows their essence to continue being expressed in the world. In this sense, we are their continuation – which is an idea that came up a lot during the memorial week and in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.

We are the continuation of our beloveds’ flowering in this world. The relationship continues on (and can even improve), along with their essence. Realizing this would make the dying process easier for everyone involved. Death does not the end the person or the relationship.

The River of Life

In addition to being an internationally renowned Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh was also a calligrapher and poet. His calligraphies and poems captured the essence of his mindfulness teachings. The Plum Village website offered some of his calligraphies to download, and I was especially drawn to:

  • Go as a river
  • Smile to the cloud in your tea.

I really appreciate the river and nature imagery in his teachings, especially those related to the water cycle, seeing as I’ve lived on the Hudson River for the past 13 years. One thing I’ve learned from talking with others who have lived on a river at some point is that the river becomes part of you and can even form or enrich your spirituality.

It’s been a very cold month here on the Hudson, and I’ve watched the river transform with the arctic temperatures. The frozen parts have expanded further from shore on both sides of the river. However, in front of our house there is still a channel of water flowing visibly down the center, uncovered by ice and snow. Today it’s deep blue, reflecting the clear, blue sky. 

Looking out the window, I see flowing water, snow, ice, clouds. As the sun rose this morning, there was peach fog, as well. So many manifestations of the water cycle, which is my favorite metaphor of the our cycle of birth, life, and death. 

Thich Nhat Hanh offered a lovely “Story of a River” that resonates deeply with this “river girl”. Here is an exquisite musical meditation of the poem, along with the written text.

Returning to the Breath

During the memorial and funeral services, the commentator reminded us gently to return to the breath. It’s there, like a thread (I see it as a red thread) that runs through our entire life. We lose it as we get immersed in daily life but can find it again in any moment. It’s a lifeline that brings us back to something deeper and more spacious than our personal and collective dramas and the stream of non-stop thinking.

How often are we aware that we are breathing? How often do we actually enjoy it? 

I use the Mindfulness Bell in the Plum Village app to remind me to stop and pay attention to my breathing throughout the day. Each time the bell rings (I have it set for every 20 minutes), I become still and take three deep, conscious breaths. I’m grateful for the Mindfulness Bell practice inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.

He described a mindful breath as “the treat you get to enjoy” when you attend fully to your in-breath and out-breath and offered several gathas, or verses, to accompany breath awareness. For example:

Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

There are many breathing verses found in the body of his work, that can help us to practice present moment awareness with the breath.

He also taught the art of mindful living, which is bringing mindfulness “off the cushion” and into daily life, to become more aware of what you are doing from moment to moment. In this way, mindfulness is not something you have to try to fit into your life. Instead, you remember to bring mindful, loving awareness to what you are doing, whether it’s brushing your teeth or having a conversation. This helps us cultivate joy and gratitude.

Witnessing Cremation

Although it’s not common practice in our society, I showed up for two cremations: my mother’s and my father’s. Both times I was alone. Nobody else was interested in attending the cremation and probably thought I was out of my mind to even ask permission to do so. But the funeral director didn’t bat an eyelash and made arrangements with me about where and when to meet so I could follow the hearse (both times) to the crematory in Bennington. Which looked like a garage attached to the back of a funeral home. (Very different from the imposing mausoleum and crematory I used to walk by every day when I worked at Syracuse University.)

I was invited to push my mother’s cardboard casket into the crematory retort and then push the button to start the flames. After that, I wasn’t invited to stay and didn’t think to ask if I could. I was told when to return. For a while, I sat in my car in the parking lot next to the crematory, visualizing my mother’s body dissolving into light and any impurities or negative karma being transformed and purified into wisdom.

Then I walked around Bennington for hours, alone. I gravitated to a river that runs through town. Later, I walked past a children’s clothing shop with a pretty dress in the window and burst into tears because it’s a shop my mother would have loved. It was surreal walking around an unfamiliar town by myself while my mother’s body burned. I felt sad and lonely. Eventually, I picked up her cremains and drove for an hour back home.

For my father’s cremation, I pushed his cardboard casket into the crematory retort, pushed the button, and then was invited to stay as long as I wanted and to come and go as I wished. I was alone, but it was very meaningful to be there. I was not with my dad when he took his final breath, and being present for his cremation was an opportunity to show up for him and reflect on my life with him and our relationship. After a long while, when it felt complete, I left the crematory and took a walk and a drive. I ended up at the poet, Robert Frost’s, grave, which I didn’t even know was in the cemetery I was drawn to magnetically. Then I received the call to pick up his cremains and returned home.

My two cremation experiences were in stark contrast with Thich Nhat Hanh’s very public cremation and cremation rituals in other countries. It was profound to witness his funeral procession and cremation along with a global sangha. A sea of monastics sat and breathed, chanted, did walking meditation, and listened to poems and songs shared in his honor as the fire burned. They sat and held space the entire time – from one day into the next.

It was a beautiful, albeit somber, shared experience. The commentator reminded us to put our palms together and follow our breath in certain, poignant moments. Which is good advice for life in general.

I lit incense and candles and breathed throughout the whole procession. I was touched by the loveliness of the procession itself and the lush greenery along the route through the monastery grounds. I wondered what it was like for the photographers there and anticipated many incredible images.

When the procession switched from walking to driving, I stood in front of the TV screen, as if I were one of the many bystanders along the route in Vietnam. I felt part of a global community.

My son was home when I watched the funeral procession to the cremation site and the cremation itself. He had plans to be out of town, but the weather kept him home. At times, he sat with me, asked questions, and listened to anything I wanted to share about how Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings helped to form my mindfulness practice and aspiration to teach mindfulness meditation. He was in and out of the room and after a while sat down and asked me how I sense witnessing this will change me.

Great question. I aspire to be a deeper expression of mindfulness, peace, and compassion.

That night, a bitter cold wind howled outside, shaking the trees and the house. I fed logs to the wood stove in the living room as a sacred fire burned on the other side of the planet. The time difference was exactly 12 hours. In Vietnam, it was morning as the cremation began, and the weather was warm and sunny, in stark contrast to our frigid, blustery night.

Just like the community-witnessed cremation was in stark contrast to my solo experiences holding space for my parents’ cremations…which could have been beautiful experiences of sharing, reflecting, storytelling, appreciation, and mindfulness if anyone else had joined me. If our culture wasn’t so standoffish, let-the-professionals-take-care-of-it when it comes to death rituals.

Another answer to my son’s question arose a couple days later: Thich Nhat Hanh’s funeral services and memorial resources have awakened in me new ideas for how we might honor and memorialize deceased loved ones (on a much, much, much smaller scale), beyond the traditional funeral services and obituaries. 

Prioritizing Community

I’ve spent the month of January envisioning the new year, becoming clear about what’s most important to me and what wants to be expressed through me. Both a five-day, solo retreat at Light on the Hill Retreat Center and Thich Nhat Hanh’s memorial week took place during my envisioning time and truly enriched the process.

Spiritually-supportive community and friendships came out right at the top of my list of what’s important. It became clear to me that trying to do so much on my own isn’t the way forward. I’m inviting more collaboration and community into my life. 

By the end of the memorial week, I had chosen my inspired word for the year: Connect.

I aspire to have more connection and community in my life that values nature, befriending the planet, and cultivating mindfulness, peace, and compassion. I had plenty of spiritual community for a few years, when I participated simultaneously in the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach and the Hidden Treasure program at Light on the Hill. 

While involved in those programs, I also sat with a local dharma group weekly for a while (until it resumed meeting in-person again during the pandemic). As both programs wound down and I had begun teaching mindfulness meditation, I began sitting with another local sangha (spiritual community) in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. My commitments often conflicted with the weekly sits, so I let that go for quite a while. However, realizing how important it is for me to be part of a local sangha and resonating so much with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, I returned two weeks ago.

That was the day before he passed away. What auspicious timing! The universe nodding yes.

Reflecting on Intention

I often invite participants in my mindfulness meditation programs to bring to mind what drew them to the session and to having a meditation practice. In other words, what’s your Big Why?

Remembering this can really benefit your practice and motivate you to practice when you might not feel like it.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing inspired me to remember what and who inspired me to begin meditating so many years ago. He was one of my earliest influences, whom I discovered more than 30 years ago. My spiritual mentor (who is the spiritual director at Light on the Hill) gave his book, Being Peace, to me as a wedding present in the early 90s. I appreciated his emphasis on sitting beautifully, as if on top of a lotus flower, and mindfulness being a source of happiness. Very different from the image of a whack of the Zen master’s stick bringing you back to the here-and-now when your posture slacks! 

Throughout the past week, I revisited his books, including several children’s books, that were written in practical, accessible language. These books have been part of my personal library for many, many years. Opening them feels like connecting with an old and very wise friend on the path.

It reminds me that we are participating in a conversation that began before we were born and will continue after we are gone. 

And how blessed we are to be part of it.

© 2022 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. You are welcome to share this post or excerpts of it as long as you give proper credit to Susan Meyer and SusanTaraMeyer.com. Susan Meyer is a photographer, writer, and spiritual teacher who lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

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