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Lions Roar : January 2016
was born almost ninety years ago in Central Vietnam, there was nothing like Plum Village anywhere in the world and the word “mindfulness” rarely used in the West. Life in Plum Village is based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s principles of Engaged Buddhism—the idea that Buddhism should be a daily practice in the midst of life, not an escape from it. Practice isn’t just a response to the world; it’s the way to be involved in it. “Buddhism means to be awake,” Nhat Hanh wrote in 1989. “It means to be mindful of what is happening in one’s body, feelings, mind, and in the world. If you are awake you cannot do otherwise than act compassionately to help relieve the suf- fering you see around you. So Buddhism must be engaged in the world. If it is not engaged, it is not Buddhism.” Thich Nhat Hanh has, for many years, embodied this kind of engaged practice. He is equally present when resting in his hammock, walking through a crowded airport, or giving a talk to thousands. Wherever he is, his presence is the model of his teaching, as he radiates equanimity and concentration, a rare and compelling relaxed curiosity. As I write this, Thich Nhat Hanh, now eighty-nine, is in San Francisco, and working daily at rehabilitation after a brain aneurysm that occurred in late autumn of 2014. The aneurysm was serious enough that many people began writing eulogies, expecting him to pass on. Instead, he has exceeded each doctor’s expectations, first finding consciousness after months in an induced coma, and then small ways of communicating nonver- bally, and, finally, saying a few words: In, out. Happy. Thank you. So happy. This is the revolutionary truth of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teach- ing. It’s not just that you can be happy and still be engaged in the world. It’s even better: there is no boundary between your happiness and the suffering and happiness of the world. You have only one job on this planet, he teaches: to be fully in the present moment and experience whatever is happening, including the sorrow and joy in you and around you. You can’t wait for things to get better to be happy. Nor can you wait to be engaged in the world until you’ve fully realized your own awakening. While Thich Nhat Hanh’s recovery is much greater than any doctor expected, his focus now is on comfort and further healing. Sister Chan Khong, his closest confidant and the nun who has been by his side since they first worked together in the School for Social Service in Vietnam, has said that “Thay,” as his students call him, is not trying to prolong his life. “If it’s Thay’s time to go, he will go. He’s not trying to have more time in life, but he still has energy and a desire to live a life that is as full and without pain as is possible.” The trajectory of his recovery isn’t clear, but the public part of his work is over. He will no longer be teaching to crowds of thousands, as he was just two years ago. He will not be travel- ling around the world to give talks or lead retreats. He will no longer be counseling governments, high-level tech executives, or aspiring monks and nuns. He will not be writing any more books. That time has passed. Let’s Do a Book After thirteen years as his editor, I can’t help but think that the change in Thich Nhat Hanh’s health and level of activity won’t change our relationship as much as one would expect. Even if I’m not working with him in person, his words are in my head all the time, even when I sometimes wish they weren’t. “Let’s do a book on leadership,” he would say at one of our annual meetings, somewhere between my home in the Bay Area and his in France. He’d jump up from the circle where we would be sitting with our tea to show me the latest book he’d read and enjoyed, a leadership manifesto by a former business CEO. The author with Sister Chan Khong, who has been Thich Nhat Hanh’s closest collaborator for almost sixty years. SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2016 68