By David Jones
It was a busy work day, trying to fill requests for records from folks who want to come to the US.
It’s an honor to help others in their quest, and even with all the agitation we have in this country, people still want to come.
Then my phone buzzed, the latest notification in the string of deaths that have jumbled in my mind, but this one was different. I had to take a moment to reflect on this news as it was more personal.
Because during another agitated period of American history, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh came to America for a visit, looking to help where he could. And while I never learned at his feet, his writings taught me more than he’d ever know.
On my spiritual journey I’ve had to go my own way; any other way wouldn’t have been mine anymore. It often meant leaving places I had called home in a spiritual sense, because I didn’t understand what my spiritual journey—or my home—really was.
Nhat Hanh walked with me and taught:
“[The] Sangha is the door of our true home. Therefore, Sangha-building must be our daily practice. We practice mindfulness in order to realize that everything around us can be an element of our Sangha. Everything around us can be part of our true home.
We know that in every society, every nation, the problem of giving each person a home is important. There are so many homeless people. Spiritually speaking, many of us do not have a home to go back to. That is why the practice of taking refuge is so important. We have to learn to go home every day, and our home is available in the here and in the now. Our living faith is our home.” – Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers, page 65
Our living faith is our home. As a person of faith, I felt that.
John Shelby Spong spoke to my heart with teachings of how to be a Christian authentically when so many negative examples of the faith got all the attention and became what the world considered a real Christian. Thich Nhat Hanh soothed my aching heart by letting me know that sincere Christians and Buddhists were brothers and sisters united in love trying to serve others as our teachers taught.
Now both of these teachers have left here for the other shore.
Jesus taught his followers to build community and take refuge in him and that community. Buddha likewise taught the importance of taking refuge in him and in their community. Whether it’s called Sangha or Congregation, we seek refuge to this day. Whether in nirvana or the Kingdom of God, we seek liberation.
There is no division in this.
In a world where some Buddhists and Christians see nothing but disdain for each other, Nhat Hanh reminds us that we’re all waves. The individual wave can be sad and angry and jealous because she sees herself as a separate wave and has forgotten that she is still water like all the other waves, that she is just as much a part of the ocean as they are.
By focusing only on bad examples or experiences with others, we cause ourselves more suffering because we’re so focused on division we’ve forgotten we’re all waves, all part of the ocean.
A couple of weeks ago I finished reading The Other Shore in which Thich Nhat Hanh discussed the Heart Sutra. His down-to-earth phrasing and cogent reasoning on deep things made the teachings settle into my mind and heart, not telling me what to think or believe or understand but inviting me to wade into the experience with him. He is one of many modern Wisdom Teachers I sit and listen to, because his words ring as true in my ears as any I could ever hope to hear.
I read one comment in a social media thread that reminded folks Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing is a lesson in impermanence. I agree, but I think it’s also a lesson in responsibility. A teacher can pass on wisdom to a student, but it shouldn’t just stop there; the students then take on the responsibility of passing wisdom on as well. Maybe it’s not the way we normally think of Dharma Transmission, but that’s how Wisdom Traditions work: it’s not only masters who teach.
Or as Thich Nhat Hanh put it:
“Transmission isn’t organized by a ceremony with a lot of incense and chanting. Transmission is done every day in a very simple way. If the teacher-student relationship is good, then transmission is realized in every moment of our daily life. You don’t feel far away from your teacher. You feel that he or she is always with you because the teacher outside has become the teacher inside. You know how to look with the eyes of your teacher. You know how to walk with the feet of your teacher. Your teacher has never been away from you. …we are a true continuation of our teacher.” [https://www.mindfulnessbell.org/archive/dharma-talk-true-transmission]
I’m not in any line of succession for anything. But I have received wisdom, so I must try to teach wisdom. I’ll never be the teacher my teachers were, but I’m not supposed to be. I don’t have to replace anyone, I’m just me trying my best. That way my teachers live on, in me and all who receive their teachings with a grateful heart.
I’d like to close with this thought:
He is gone.
He is gone.
He has gone all the way.
He has gone all the way to the other shore.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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