John P. Hussman
John Hussman (Genuine Friend of the Heart) is the Director of the Hussman Foundation, which is engaged in projects to improve lives and reduce suffering among vulnerable populations, including the areas of education, human rights, global health, homelessness, hospice, and neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Since 2002, John has helped to establish and support numerous projects for the Plum Village monastic sangha. John and his wife Terri live in Maryland, and have four children – Julianne, J.P., Michael, and Christina.
“If someday, someone tells you that I have died,” Thay paused, smiled, and continued, “don’t believe them.”
We have the tendency to honor the life of someone we love with an inscription of its boundaries – “Thich Nhat Hanh: 1926-2022.”
Thay would undoubtedly whisper, “That is not very accurate.”
I first met Thay 20 years ago, after years of reading about his teachings and eventually attending a retreat. Our charitable foundation was working to support vulnerable children in numerous schools along the Thailand-Burma border and in Vietnam. Thay, already contemplating his continuation, wished to protect and continue the training and support of his monastic sangha. In our conversations, the clarity of his intention and the resolve of his decisions gave the impression that he saw ahead a hundred possible futures extending from each moment, choosing one deliberate step along a mindful path.
Even ordinary actions with Thay were grounded in mindfulness and appreciation. I remember walking with Thay and Sister Chan Khong along a grove of trees, each of us finding an apple, and the world becoming suspended in the simple experience of enjoying them, without words, in each other’s presence. Present moment, only moment.
Each time we met again, Thay took my hands in his, and we faced each other for a moment, breathing, smiling. He would often begin those visits by offering a short teaching. Though we only saw each other face-to-face perhaps once a year, Thay’s voice gradually became part of my own inner voice, and over time, the inner voice of my children, wife, family and friends. His teaching has done the same for a multitude of others – calling us to our better selves; gently bringing us back to the present moment; inspiring us to treat others, and ourselves, with compassion and understanding; encouraging the next deliberate step along a mindful path.
The name “Thay” – teacher – was something he embraced with a combination of joy, seriousness, study, and deep meditation. He drew examples from the Buddhist sutras one day, and from great philosophers, novelists, and theologians the next. Anyone who has taught a classroom full of students could sense his delight as he stood at a chalkboard, teaching about bija (seeds) in the basement of our mind (our store consciousness), understanding as the foundation of love, and the importance of being truly present for others – “I am here for you, and I know you are there.”
Thay’s examples were full of nature – trees, leaves, seeds, sunshine, waves, rivers, clouds, rain, sky, and moon. In each of them, he saw a lesson. Yet no less important was that in every aspect of nature, and in every person, Thay always saw the best in them. The qualities that he found in the world mirrored the goodness of his heart, and bent toward what he called their “true nature.” Listening to Thay’s words, one came to understand that ideas like non-self, impermanence, continuation, compassion, non-violence, reconciliation, non-discrimination, and love are not separate concepts or ideals, but only conclusions that naturally follow from mindfulness of our true nature – that we are of the same substance; that we “inter-are.”
“All of us are empty – but empty of what? Empty of a separate self, and full of the whole universe.” Waves of the same water. Thay’s commitment to peace, compassion, and non-discrimination – even toward those that others might call the “enemy” – came at the personal cost of decades of exile from his home country of Vietnam. Yet there is no doubt that amidst all its conflict, the world is more beautiful and compassionate because of Thay.
Because he was a true teacher, Thay was not inclined to make concepts impenetrable, or to hold enlightenment at a distance from his students. One mindful step was enough to say “I have arrived. I am home.” It was enough to live in mindfulness one percent of the time, then two. Instead of treating imperfection as failure, Thay pointed them toward the north star, and offered practices filled with compassion, healing, forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and growth. No mud, no lotus.
Listening to Thay, one did not need to contemplate the sound of one hand clapping to see that life is found in the present moment and to see the reality of interbeing, not the notion of a separate self. The closest thing to a koan that I remember Thay posing was at a retreat, when he visited the kitchen as his students were making dinner. Thay invited them to the present moment, asking, “What are you doing?”
“Thay has good eyes,” he smiled, “he can see that you are cutting carrots. What are you doing?”
Like the master asking a student to contemplate the cypress tree in the courtyard, Thay led his students to moments of enlightenment by encouraging mindfulness, insight, and appreciation of interbeing. One could imagine Thay looking for someone to hold up a piece of carrot, smiling like Mahakashyapa.
His students came from every background and religion, and Thay taught in a way that embraced all of them. Instead of being caught in dogma, or pitting one set of beliefs against another, Thay guided his students to the well of interbeing. He didn’t hesitate to talk about the universe, God, Nirvana, and the Pure Land of the Buddha in the same breath. Thay did not discriminate. If all of us emanate from one source, its greatest wish would be for us to be enlightened enough to recognize our common humanity.
Even when Thay spoke about a notion like “death,” his teaching was beautiful and light. He once shared a story of a little girl who asked him, “Thay, have you decided what to be in your next life?” After some reflection, Thay answered her, “I see that I will be many things. I will be a butterfly. I will be a cloud. I will be that yellow flower.” Then he playfully added, “and if you are not mindful, you may step on me.”
Some of the moments that I remember most are the simplest. When Terri and I were married in Plum Village, Thay held up a lotus leaf and showed how two parts of the stem remained connected by strong fibers, even when they were separated.
As we sat for lunch one time, Thay momentarily broke the silence, and spun his chopsticks backward, as he picked up a little fried object and laid it on my plate.
“It’s a leaf,” said Thay, smiling with an enthusiastic light in his eyes.
Sharing happiness in something as simple as a leaf reminded me of something Thay wrote in the foreword to Sister Chan Khong’s book, Learning True Love:
It was in 1966, when the war in Vietnam had become unbearable, and I was so absorbed in working to end the war it was hard for me to swallow my food. One day, Sister Chan Khong was preparing a basket of fresh, fragrant herbs. She asked me, “Thay, can you identify these fine herbs?” Looking at her displaying the herbs with care and beauty on a large plate, I became enlightened. We spent ten minutes discussing the herbs, and that encounter took my mind off the war, allowing me to recover the balance I needed so badly. Years later, a friend from America asked me, “Thay, why do you waste your time planting lettuce? Wouldn’t it be better to use the time to write poems?” I smiled and said, “My dear friend, if I do not plant this lettuce, I will not be able to write poetry.”
Thay sometimes talked of the moment he stopped to contemplate a leaf.
I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don’t worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’ ”
That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from the leaf.
Like the leaf, Thay was not worried about his continuation. “We are all of the nature to grow old. We are all of the nature to have ill health.” Instead of avoiding such statements, Thay used them to teach us how to live deeply and with gratitude. When he was unable to walk, he was supported by his sangha, surrounding him, in Sr. Chan Khong’s words, “like joyful bees.” I was reminded of a little sign in Thay’s hut, “When you walk, you walk for Thay.”
In one of our later visits, it was difficult for Thay to speak. We stood face to face, breathing, smiling, but this time, no words of Dharma. I said “I am here for you, and I know you are there.” His eyes brightened, and he laughed.
We have the tendency to imagine that we have “lost” Thay. He would undoubtedly whisper, “That is not very accurate.” He is there, in the butterfly, in the cloud, in the little yellow flower, in the leaf, in countless manifestations of the Pure land; the ultimate reality. All of them hold Thay for us.
“This body is not me. I am not caught in this body. I am life without boundaries. No birth, no death.” Thay had no fear, because he saw his own endless and beautiful continuation clearly – in his beloved monastics, in his students, and in the countless actions he inspired; every smile, mindful breath, act of compassion, and word of peace, rippling like waves from his teaching, his life, and the lives he touched.