Being Peace – Living with Thich Nhat Hahn
In 1989, when Thich Nhat Hahn was not yet well known, I came to his monastery in Plum village, to learn from this Buddhist monk, Zen master and spiritual teacher, about living mindfully in every day life. I had read one of his books: “Peace with every step” which inspired me, because of its simplicity and the practical message about kindness and being present.
When I arrived at the village, at first I saw nothing but sunflowers. I had to smile and felt warmly welcomed already before I entered the sanctuary, where monks and nuns lived peacefully together. The first sign I saw said:” Smile. Breathe. You have arrived.” I slowed down in my steps, became aware of my breath and indeed that got me smiling again. The air was soft; summer in southern France is beautiful. Everything at the monastery looked simple, with a touch of sweetness and care even in the old stone buildings. The big bell outside rang. Already time for dinner? No. Odd, everybody stopped what they were doing, whether it was chopping wood, walking, talking or cooking food. All was still for moments, just consciously breathing–“Being Present. Being Peace.” The bell sounded three times and then everyone went back to their activities with mindfulness. This happened every hour. A simple practice with a profound effect. It even stopped me talking.
Already after one day of being here, I noticed that my mind slowed down, that I actually was aware of my breathing and much more present in my body, with the surroundings and the people. I saw peoples faces more clearly, heard the birds singing, could smell the different flowers…A whole world opened up for me, one that had always been there, but I had not been aware of it. All felt so much more real. It was like coming home to life, to myself. “Simply being here” became my main mantra.
I needed it especially for Sundays, when we had a lazy day. Nobody was supposed to work. Imagine that in America? It was a day for resting. Just being. Just here. Sounds easy enough. Not for me. My German work ethic got seriously in the way. People lay in the grass, watching the clouds pass bye and seemed to enjoy themselves. I got restless instead, because there was nothing to do. I wasn’t used to that. It took many Sundays before I looked forward to a lazy day and enjoyed doing nothing mindfully. Try it, if you like for a whole day.
My favorite times were the early mornings. I would always join Thich Nhat Hahn on his mindfulness walk. He would walk slowly, present with every step he was taking and smiled. It made me smile and warm just to be walking beside him. We would stop for moments to consciously breathe together and to take in all what is nourishing about life. I found there was so much and it was always simple–like a flower blossoming, the wind swaying a blade of grass, the warmth of the sun touching my face…”Breathing in–present moment, breathing out–it is a wonderful moment” is one of Thai’s main practices. Simple and profound. For the past is gone, the future has not arrived. What is really here is the present. And that is the gift. Worries had no chance to survive. People’s wrinkles smoothed out. Being fully here felt like the only true and actually the best place to be. Where are you when you are not present? I think I missed out on a lot of real life, when I was somewhere else than in the Now.
I remember how Thich Nhat Hahn related to the children, who loved to flock around him. Even a little 4 year old would walk slowly beside him, holding his hand. Children are naturally more in the present. They loved being with him, because he too was fully present with them and he brought joyousness, gentleness and kindness that called everyone to him like bees to honey. He truly saw them and was there for them. He began his dharma teachings always with a story that even small children could understand. To be honest, I loved his stories best and remembered them most. One time he taught about real love. He told the story of how a friend gave him a gift to show his appreciation. It was a Durango fruit. Thai related how he wasn’t fond of Durango’s. (When I had been in Indonesia, I was offered one and to me it tasted horrible). He spoke about the importance of looking deeply and seeing what the other person, whom we want to express our love for, really likes. And not to base it on what we like. It means to go beyond our selves and really see another. In that way we can better love others. I guess some people like Durango fruit. Just check first though!
He taught by example, less than by endless words, really embodying peace. There is no separation between enlightenment and being human in his way of living and teaching. Sometimes I have encountered a form of spirituality that cuts off from our basic humanity and thereby becomes another form of violence, which is cold and hard. His teaching embraces the whole. It touched me, when he taught about how to relate to our feelings. I had a lot of them and was particularly curious about how to be with them without getting swamped. “May I take good care of my pain, my anger…” which meant you turn toward your feelings like a kind mother or father and tend to them with friendliness and presence. You may already be feeling a sense of friendliness, when reading this. That friendliness was extended to the people who lived here, those who came to visit, the creatures and the land.
One evening we all joined at the river. An honoring ceremony was being held for those who had died and suffered in the Vietnam War. We chanted songs in Vietnamese and lit candles, which were placed into tiny woven baskets. Watching all these lights in the night, lit for many people, floating down the river, singing with the nuns and monks made the truth of our interconnectedness with all beings come alive for me. Suffering must not be swept under the rug, indulged in, or risen above, but needs to be met with compassion. In the morning and evening meditations we practiced: “Looking deeply and being present” as a basis for real compassion to flower.
Living with Thich Nhat Hahn for several months and learning closely every day from him, taught me to be present in life and it helped me to discover peace. I have used the practices in my parenting, relationships and work for many years. To this day I find them very beneficial. I am grateful for his simple teachings, which can be applied everywhere and in every moment of our lives. May it continue to benefit all beings.