Opening the Door to a Life of Peace and Purpose

Dr. Lilian Cheung

Born into a family practicing Buddhism in Hong Kong, my journey with mindfulness started at an early age. My young self took notice of the premise that our world is full of suffering, and that we needed to be compassionate towards others and help each other. Although this was an important message, at the time, it failed to resonate with me.

I didn’t truly grasp the lessons or practices of these teachings until decades later when I was introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh. Once I met Thay and received his teachings, I began to live a life of peace while fulfilling my purpose in public health. For that, I am forever grateful.

Knock, Knock. Are You There?

In August 1993, I received a multi-million dollar grant from The Sam & Helen Walton Family Foundation to conduct a four-year nutrition and physical activity study in 14 Baltimore Public Schools. While this was an incredible opportunity, the project was one of the most challenging periods of my career. My to-do list grew longer by the day - as did my list of worries. In an effort to keep up, I was waking up earlier and earlier despite having difficulties falling asleep. In addition to commuting from Boston to Baltimore once every two weeks, I was juggling care for my three children aged four to fourteen.

I will never forget one evening over dinner when my oldest son was trying to share the challenges he was facing at school. Suddenly, I heard him saying: “Knock, knock, Mommy. Are you there?” The moment pierced my heart as I saw I could not even be fully present for my son. I recognized that change was necessary. As I was suffering from sleep deprivation and mounting worries, I found myself becoming more withdrawn with feelings of emptiness and hopelessness.

I was faced with the need to take one-year of leave as I was not able to function, and at times, I could not even leave my bed. My doctor prescribed anti-depressants, but they did not work well for me. During a dinner party celebrating my middle son’s elementary school graduation, a very dear friend whispered in my ear, “Please come and try meditation with my meditation group.” I accepted her offer and meditated for thirty minutes with four other ladies. That night, for the first time in what felt like forever, I slept like a baby.

An Open Door to Transformation

In the fall of 1997, I received a flyer announcing a special seven-day retreat on the teachings of Buddhist psychology, Opening the Door to Healing & Transformation by Thich Nhat Hanh. I did not know who Thich Nhat Hanh was, but my mind returned to my son’s “knock, knock” plea years earlier. I figured this was definitely a door I should open! The retreat took place under a big tent at a golf course and when the monastics entered the stage, I was astonished that they ranged in ethnicity beyond Asian. I would later come to realize and appreciate the inclusive nature of Thay’s teachings, reaching people of all faiths, races, and nationalities from around the world.

Thay appeared on stage walking calmly towards his cushion. Without even hearing him speak and only through his presence, I recall my initial impression of Thay as a divine being. As I listened to his words and lessons, I began to feel a shift within myself. In one Dharma talk, Thay taught us that suffering is always there. “We need to look deeply into ill-being and find a way out. We cannot escape it. Happiness and well-being must be found in the heart of suffering.” Having been a worrier my whole life and often finding it difficult to be happy, I was moved by this lesson. The retreat was completely transformative for me, and when Thay bid farewell to us at the end of the Key West retreat, he made a special comment, “Many of you may have touched some peace in this retreat, but if you return home and do not practice, you will lose all your peace.” This message became deeply rooted in my brain and I set out to apply his advice in my life at home. I began to practice mindfulness daily - even if I could only manage for three percent of my waking hours to start. However, eventually a habit began to form, and I was increasing my degree of mindfulness practice year after year!

The Genesis of Savor – Mindful Eating,
Mindful Life

During the week in Key West, Thay taught us about mindful breathing, mindful walking, and mindful eating. Mindful eating? Despite studying nutrition throughout my academic training and career, I had never encountered this concept. It was profound for me to learn that we need to eat mindfully, not only for health purposes, but so there will be enough food to feed future generations.

When I returned to Boston, I was interested in exploring whether the concept of mindful eating had been applied in personal health and public health. Searching the scientific literature, I found that mindful eating had been used clinically to help people with eating disorders and binge eating tendencies. However, there were no studies focusing on mindful eating for both personal and planetary health. As I continued to practice mindfulness and reflect on Thay’s teachings on mindful eating, in 2008 I decided to write a book integrating both the scientific aspects of mindful eating and Buddhist philosophy.

One afternoon, I was meeting with Thay, Sr. Chan Khong, and Sr. Chan Duc (Annabel) at their Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont to share the outline of Savor - Mindful Eating, Mindful Life. In what was truly a spur of the moment question, I suddenly asked Thay, “I’ll be citing you every other page…why don’t you co-author this book with me?” I saw the surprised looks of Sr. Chan Khong and Sr. Annabel, while my husband, Lee, covertly elbowed me as he considered the question inappropriate. After a long pause, Thay turned to me and said, “Why not?!” I was totally astonished by his reply…and thus the Savor journey with Thay began!

Savor – Mindful Eating, Mindful Life was released in 2010, has been translated into seventeen languages, and was even featured in a three-page mindful eating spread in The New York Times food section in 2012. I was so impressed that the article’s author, Jeff Gordinier, spent a day at Blue Cliff Monastery so that he could experience the authentic practice of mindful eating and mindfulness.

Encouragingly, the book and Thay’s teachings continue to resonate. Mindful eating for our health and the health of our planet was recently featured by Our Planet Our Future in their ten-year campaign to reach 1.5 billion people worldwide. The organizers were all inspired by Savor - Mindful Eating, Mindful Life and Thay’s all-faith approach. They told me that because everyone eats, mindful eating is an ideal pathway to get people around the world to change their behavior for their own health as well as for the health of our planet. Moreover, a mindful eating approach will help ensure that there will be enough food to sustain future generations. This is the Buddha’s prescient lesson from his sutra, Eating the Son’s Flesh.

Teaching Googlers How To Eat Mindfully

One day in 2011, I got a call from Olivia Wu, the Executive Chef at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, who was eager to get Googlers to eat less desserts. I suggested numerous ways to improve the nutritional quality of the desserts and reduce the portion sizes. However, Olivia noted she had already tried these modifications without much success as all the food offered in Google is free! Then I asked her whether they have been coached on how to eat mindfully as described in Savor – Mindful Eating, Mindful Life? She hadn’t, and then asked if I could get Thay to speak at Google.

Fortunately, Olivia’s request came at a time when Thay was leading a retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery. I had the opportunity to meet with Thay and Sr. Chan Khong and asked him to consider giving a talk at Google. Thay seemed to be amused by my request. After a long pause, he smiled and nodded and said he would give a talk if Google allowed for a half-day retreat led by him and his monastics. Olivia was elated with Thay’s positive response; and Thay also seemed to be delighted about going to Google. The Google retreat was transformational for the campus culture. The Google community meditated, listened to Thay’s precious teachings and singing by the monastics, walked mindfully around the Google campus, and ate a dinner mindfully together in silence. The magic of the Google retreat has been captured by a wonderful video recording, Mindfulness as a Foundation for

Thay and His Monastics Flowing Through Boston

Later that year, in the winter of 2011, I got a call from Dr. Judy Reiner Platt, Director of Continuing Education in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance, asking if Thay could offer some teachings at their upcoming annual Meditation and Psychotherapy Conference. Judy asked me if I could help as they found Thay unreachable as he does not have a public relations office!

Again, when I reached out, Thay said that he would be happy to speak as long as he could bring some monastics to join the conference. He stressed the importance of flowing as a river. Held in the ballroom of Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel, the event was packed with over 1,000 registrants - all eager to listen to Thay’s teachings.

During the Q&A session, myself, along with Jon Kabat Zinn and conference organizers Christopher Germer and Ronald Siegel had the opportunity to ask Thay a question. My question was, “Thay, what is the most challenging and desperate situation that you have faced in your life? And how did you cope with it?” His answer, and the story he shared, resonates with me to this day:

“I think the worst thing that can happen to a person is despair. And in a situation like the war in Vietnam, people can easily become the victim of despair.

“During the war in Vietnam, we tried our best to help people. We trained young monks and nuns and lay practitioners, to help them rebuild regions that had been destroyed by the bombs. We tried to help peasants to heal, and to continue to rebuild. Many of our workers have been killed, because we followed the line of non-alignment. We didn’t want to take sides in the war. Our voice was that we do not want war between people living in the same country. We want to stop the war. We want negotiations, we want to reconcile.

“That is why we stood in the middle, and that was a dangerous situation. Because this side thought of us as being with the other side. That is why many of us, monks, nuns, lay social workers, were killed. Just because of misunderstandings, wrong perceptions. And then the war went on and on and on. It didn’t seem to stop. Young people came and asked me, ‘Dear Thay, do you think the war will end one day soon?’ I saw their despair. Despair is the most dangerous thing for a man, for a woman, for a people.

“And that is the most difficult thing in our life-to continue always. That is why I told the young people who came to me and asked that kind of question, ‘Dear friends, the Buddha said that everything is impermanent. So, the war should be impermanent also. It will have to end one day.’ I tried to prevent despair from overwhelming them. It was very difficult. But we made it.”

Coincidentally, my colleague Dr. Walter Willett, who had invited Thay to his medical school at Michigan University in 1968 to speak up to stop the Vietnam War, asked me if he could meet with Thay during his Boston visit. During the conversation, Thay exclaimed, “The Harvard School of Public Health should be a Center for Mindfulness!” Walter and I looked at each other in amazement. I also agreed that our school of public health, full of mission-driven people seeking to improve the health and wellbeing of others, would indeed be an ideal place for such a center. Thay brought into focus that everyone in the school should learn mindfulness practices to nurture peace in oneself and peace in the world.

Thay’s Continued Presence

I feel so blessed to have been taught by Thay and his monastics. He was a wonderful, effective teacher who modernized the 2,500-year-old Buddhist teachings. Through his lessons, we are able to gain the benefits of mindfulness practice and recognize the importance of interbeing and interconnectedness of all in the 21st Century. Though Thay is physically transformed, he forever lives on! Our world is truly blessed to have been endowed with Thay’s teachings and energy.

Today, whenever I hear The Beatles’ song Let It Be, Thay’s presence emerges:

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Thay’s teachings come to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be
…breathe mindfully, walk mindfully.
And in my hour of darkness,
he is sitting right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be
…No mud, no lotus.
Let it be, let it be, whisper words of wisdom
…A cloud never dies!