The Mud for the Lotus
A “love letter” to the Plum Village monastic and lay community from Ocean Vuong, a celebrated young Vietnamese American poet and novelist, written shortly after Thay’s passing.
Dear monastic and lay practitioners in our Buddhist communities far and wide—
In the days following Thay’s continuation, I have been asked by various media outlets, as a Buddhist author, to speak on this momentous occurrence in our community. But I declined—for what have I to say that Thay’s teaching has not already solidified, already made so self-evidently clear? His practice and life’s work were always to prepare us for this moment and, in this way, prepare us for us. For our own grief in Samsara. I have always felt that to do nothing was wiser than to do something without strong intention or proper conditions in place. But when Denise Nguyen, executive director of the Thich Nhat Hạnh Foundation, reached out asking me to share directly to our community, this call made sense to me, to speak to you as one among you.
Language and sound, as we know, are one of our oldest mediums of transmission. The root of the word “narrative” is “gnarus,” Latin for knowledge. As such, all stories are first and foremost the translation of knowledge. But not only that, they are the transmission of energy. And, as Thay taught us, energy cannot die. As a poet, this is a truth I live with every day. Because to read a few lines of Gilgamesh or The Iliad or the Tale of Kieu, is to receive the linguistic energy of a mind working up to over four thousand years ago. In this way, to speak is to survive, and to teach is to shepherd our ideas into the future, the text is a raft we send forward for all later generations. We know this because we have all clung, are still clinging, to the raft of Thay’s and Buddha’s teachings. How lucky we are, as a species, to have such a vehicle. I do believe that language, despite major developments in medicine and science, is still our most advanced technology. We owe it to ourselves to commit to building new rafts for all sentient beings. Our work, as was Thay’s, is part of a long tradition of liberation that spans multiple epochs and myriad realms.
Yes, energy, and even people, do not truly die. But I must speak, too, as a lay practitioner, who does not yet possess the merit to devote to a monastic life, and must admit that my heart breaks to see Thay’s body prepared for cremation, to know his journey through death and dying, which, as the Buddhas taught us, is one of the passages of suffering all sentient beings must move through. And because I am not strong enough in my practice, I watched the procession for Thay’s funeral with tears in my eyes, both for the beauty of the community he built but also for the immense sadness in my heart. I weep for myself and others who do not yet have the wisdom and merit to bear this pain well.
When my own mother was dying of cancer in November 2019, on her deathbed, she said to me, her voice weak, and the heat energy already fading from her limbs, “My son, now that you know this sickness, you must take this knowledge to help people.” My mother, though illiterate, memorized Vietnamese Buddhist sutras and would listen to Thay’s teaching on her iPhone with regularity. I told her, "Yes, I will not let this pain be experienced in vain." And since so many of us are feeling pain about Thay’s continuation, I think it is helpful to see sadness, too, as energy. May we let the sadness come and teach us how to live. Let it be the mud for the lotus, as Thay says. Let us sit with it and let it pass through us so that it might be transformed to something like love. My mother, having learned from Thay, knew that pain can be recycled into knowledge. Isn’t that what language is?
And I ask now, specifically of our monastics brothers and sisters, folks, and elders, as you have Xuất Gia, or “gone forth,” and therefore are the true pioneers of human phenomena, I ask you humbly, to seek, in your practice (as I am sure you have already done), all the ways sadness might be transformed. And we, the lay practitioners who have “remained,” will follow your path. This is why monastics are, to my mind, the true embodiments of courage, are warriors more grounded and determined than anyone who has ever raised a sword: you have chosen to shave your heads and march into the vast unknown, beyond the cliff of human knowledge, while we remain here in relative safety and comfort, awaiting your discoveries, ready to go forth.
It is said that grief is actually love—but with nowhere to go. In a quest that might very well take up the remainder of my life in this form, I ask of myself and also of you, dear community: where shall we go, both within and outside us? Now that we have such a capacious raft, one that can hold so many, fortified by Thay’s teaching, there might still be sadness, yes, but there is no more fear.
Knowing you are out there, mining the answers when you sit down, when you follow your breath, when you make offerings, knowing you are just ahead of us, and that I can glimpse your bright robes along the road, like scraps of sunlight among the grey detritus, how can I ever be scared? But more so, how can I ever be lost?
I am sad, yes. And I will be so for some time. My heart aches—but despite, or perhaps because of that, I have found you. And in you I have found myself.
That is the narrative, that is the knowledge.
Yours, in hope and word,
Ocean Vuong (Dharma Name: Đức Hải)