Thay is still Thay

Sister Chân Định Nghiêm

After a major stroke like Thay’s, seven years could seem like an endless span of helplessness, sorrow, and despair to a non-practitioner. But with his experience and realizations, Thay remained the Teacher—proactive in each decision and continuously guiding us in the practice. Thay reminded us to practice dwelling in the present moment, instead of missing him as the Teacher we knew in the past or mourning for him now, or fearing for the future. Thanks to his teachings, we enjoyed countless moments of joy and happiness with him throughout those seven years.

Thay taught us to practice mindfulness with the entirety of our store consciousness and not merely with mind consciousness. Since my first day in Plum Village, I have never seen Thay take a single step without mindfulness. With his ceaseless practice over the years, mindfulness has followed Thay into his store consciousness. Before falling ill, Thay once told us that in his dreams he saw himself in walking meditation, enjoying nature, cherishing each green palm leaf.

While in a coma due to the stroke, Thay continued to breathe in mindfulness, never once losing his mindfulness. That morning, the doctor looked at the scans, shook his head, and predicted that Thay had only a day or two left to live. The monastic children of Thay immediately flew to France from all directions to pay their respects to Thay, one last time.

The doctors were surprised to see that Thay’s blood oxygen level was still high at 96% to 99%, and his breathing remained deep and regular without the need for a ventilator. This is the breath that nourishes, the breath that heals. Two days passed. Thay still lay quietly, breathed evenly, and radiated such an indescribable energy of peace that the doctors and nurses liked coming into his room. One resident doctor often came to Thay’s room whenever she was exhausted or stressed. She simply stood looking at Thay for a long time, quietly and relaxed, before continuing to work.

Days passed. Thay continued to lie quietly and breathe evenly. The doctors and nurses could not do anything in terms of treatment. They could only watch and wait. Wait for Thay’s decision.

On the fourth night, Thay suddenly opened his eyes. He looked intently at each of the attendants surrounding his bed. His first movement was to lift his left arm—weakly—to pat the head of the attendant closest to him. From that moment on, Thay slowly came out of his coma with clear consciousness. Three days later, Thay looked and smiled at each attendant—a smile that was familiar and filled with love.

Just two and a half weeks after his stroke and coma, Thay independently began to practice moving his arms and legs at night. Exactly one month later, Thay’s digestive system returned to its regular functioning. The chief doctor arranged for physiotherapists to come daily to train Thay in exercises for his arms and legs, practicing sitting up, and swallowing food. After that, Thay was transferred to the hospital’s rehabilitation center for further practice in pronunciation, eating, standing, cycling, and skillfully controlling his limbs.

During the first few days, the nurses fed Thay. But only a few days later, Thay took hold of the spoon and scooped food for himself. Every day, Thay gave the doctors and nurses one surprise after another. There were moments when Thay laughed out loud, very happily. When his attendants along with the doctor and nurse helped Thay to sit up for the first time, they saw that he had already tried to find a way to sit cross-legged on the hospital bed. He continued many more times to practice sitting crossed-legged like that.

Sometimes, Thay sat in meditation on a cushion placed directly on his bed, at other times on a chair for 30 to 45 minutes. If any of the training exercises seemed to be designed for children, Thay shook his head and refused them right away. He even waved his hand to greet the doctor and then invited him to leave the room. Gradually, Thay stopped following the instructions of the physiotherapists; and instead, the physiotherapists had to follow Thay. After witnessing the miracles that occurred in Thay every day, the chief doctor—Dr. Rouanet—declared, “Now I know that I do not understand anything about the human brain!”

When Thay decided to leave the hospital and return to Plum Village, Sister Chan Khong panicked! Back in Plum Village there would be no doctors or nurses by Thay’s side, nor a rehabilitation gym with physiotherapists. What would we do? But the doctors were not overly worried. Dr. Rouanet said, “Thay has his own program.” Indeed! Back at the Hermitage, Thay revisited every single room despite having to go up the long staircase to the upper floor carried by his attendants. Every day Thay went out to enjoy each tree, the blades of grass, and each rose. He relaxed on the swing under the shade of the three pine trees, which he often called our “three elder brothers.” Thay went to visit the growing squash, practiced walking outdoors with the assistance of his attendants, and even meandered with them through the densely woven grove of green bamboo.

An unplanted young dogwood sapling was still sitting in a bag, waiting to be planted. The sisters knew that Thay liked the dogwood flower and had bought it. Thay immediately “commanded” the attendants to dig a hole at a chosen spot, plant the sapling and provide it with ground cover and water. Thay also indicated for the brothers and sisters to restore the old wooden barn, and to hire workers to build a meditation hall at the far end of the Hermitage grounds. Every morning he went out to survey the project.

Thay began to eat more and more, starting with pureed apple and pureed vegetable soup while he was in the hospital. After his return, one day Thay passed by the kitchen and saw a lemon on the table. Straight away Thay pointed to it and indicated that he wanted to taste sourness again! Soon after, Thay wished to try avocado, then rice, then crunchy baguette with all kinds of dishes such as Vietnamese noodle soup (pho, bun rieu)… Every meal of Thay’s was a moment of peace and happiness.

Once in a while, Thay and his attendants went into the kitchen and opened the fridge to check what was inside. Sometimes he took a piece of cake or enjoyed some yogurt. The doctors had scheduled to see Thay in two months to assess his eating, and to determine when to stop the nutritional supplements through the stomach tube. A month before the appointment, Thay quietly pulled out the tube and did not let anyone know.

From time to time, Thay visited New Hamlet, Lower Hamlet, Son Ha, and Upper Hamlet, and sometimes stayed for a few days. Thay did not forget to lead us in his wheelchair on walks again along the straight row of fir trees, on his legendary paths.

While visiting the brothers working in the Upper Hamlet office, Thay came across a bronze statue of the Buddha on a shelf. The statue was very artistic with the body and legs gently bent. Thay held the Buddha statue close to his heart and brought it back to his hut. On the wall in the center of the hut hangs one of Thay’s Zen circle calligraphies and underneath it stands a wooden table. Thay directed the attendants to clear everything on the table and to place the statue there, to one side of the calligraphy. Thay even indicated to the attendants to turn the statue slightly so that its curvature could be clearly seen.

Waking up the next morning, Thay changed his mind. He was happier when the Buddha statue was centered in front of the Zen circle. The attendant poured a cup of tea for Thay, and temporarily placed it on the table before offering it to him. Straight away Thay signaled to the attendant to remove the cup—do not put anything on that Buddha’s table! Since then, every time an attendant forgot this, Thay would remind him.

In July 2015, Thay decided to go to the US to follow the rehabilitation program at the Physical Therapy Center of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

And six months later in January 2016, Thay decided to return to France. Then in December of the same year, Thay decided to go to Thailand.

In August 2017, Thay went to Vietnam to visit his Root Temple, the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue. Less than 24 hours later, Thay left his Root Temple to return to Thailand, arriving while the sangha was in the midst of the Closing Ceremony of the Annual Rains Retreat.

In October 2018, Thay returned once more to his Root Temple.

At the end of 2019, Thay went again to Thailand for his medical check-ups and afterwards, he returned to his Root Temple and lived there until his last day.

Within those eight years, Thay made eight airline flights and each time, he clearly made the decision. Once a decision was made, Thay always wanted to realize it right away without any hesitation. He stopped eating, stopped drinking, and just went around with his attendants to see how the attendants were doing in preparing the luggage. We young ones who did not wish for Thay to travel far tried all kinds of ways and reasons to persuade him otherwise. But no matter how sharp our reasoning, within moments of coming before Thay, we bowed to him in defeat. No one and nothing could impede or change Thay’s decision. Sometimes, within only three nights and four days, the attendants had to do whatever it took to complete all the formalities and arrange everything for Thay’s trip.

Thay was always decisive when he needed to go somewhere or do something, as well as when he saw that there was no need to go somewhere or do something. For example, during one Monastic Day at the Hermitage (in Plum Village, this is a day of practice reserved for the monastic sangha), the attendants tried to convince Thay to go on walking meditation with the sangha. But no matter how much they begged, Thay shook his head “no,” even though the sangha was waiting. In the end, the sangha walked without Thay. (Perhaps Thay wished for the sangha to be prepared for Monastic Days without him?) On another occasion, it was the day of Thay’s regular medical check-up. The ambulance, and the police car that came to clear the way for the ambulance, the cases of kitchen utensils, and Thay’s luggage… all were ready and waiting for Thay. But Thay shook his head and refused to go, even though the attendants took turns to try to persuade him. After two hours, the ambulance and police car had to leave. In the same way, once Thay refused to take a medication, no one could persuade him otherwise, not even to take half a pill.

Thay was always the one who decided and took responsibility for his health, his living, and his dying. In San Francisco, Thay boldly signed the consent form to the doctor’s recommended treatment plan. In a hospital in Thailand, Thay signed with his fingerprint in front of the doctors and nurses. On so many occasions, the doctors had to bow in respect when they saw that Thay was still the one who knew his body and health better than anyone else. There were times when the doctors could not do anything except to monitor and observe him, when Thay’s body would suddenly change and stablize. The doctors understood clearly that Thay was always the one who decided; the doctors just followed and supported him.

Thay not only led the way for his healing and recovery, but he also continued to lead us on the path of daily practice. On the first full moon day, while lying on the hospital bed in Bordeaux, Thay pointed to the full moon shining through the glass door. It was also there that the Teacher and disciples enjoyed the fireworks of that New Year’s Eve.

There were times when Thay would indicate to the doctors and nurses to look out the hospital window and see the blue sky, the white clouds, or two birds playing on a tree branch. Likewise, no matter where Thay was, whenever he saw the sunrise or sunset, he would ask everyone to watch it with him. Thay continued to love the times when the Teacher and disciples sat together to drink tea, and enjoy the cactus flowers slowly blooming, whether it was at the Hermitage or at the Looking Afar Hut (in Thailand).

Whenever Thay felt unwell in his body, the attendants would push his wheelchair outside to practice walking meditation. Moving slowly and calmly this way, Thay would feel better right away. The young monks and nuns often visited Thay at the Hermitage where Thay had planted a ylang-ylang tree brought from Vietnam. Thay brought them to pick the flowers and would then lift a flower right up to their noses for them to enjoy the fragrance.

When summer came, Thay went to admire the hill of golden sunflowers blooming brightly right behind the Hermitage. And when it was the chrysanthemum season in France, teacher and disciples went together to the chrysanthemum market. Then during the Lunar New Year celebrations in the ancient capital of Hue, the Teacher and disciples went to enjoy the plum blossoms in the local market.

Following Thay, we did not miss any opportunity to enjoy the four seasons. After arriving in Plum Village Thailand, and resting for just a few days, Thay instructed the attendants to push him in his wheelchair up to visit all the hills within the monastery precinct. The sangha gathered in groups and followed Thay up those hills. Whenever Thay appeared, the most ordinary activities on the schedule became legendary moments - walking meditation, sitting meditation, breakfast, lunch…

We still remember when for the first time, while sitting on the sofa in the Hermitage, Thay suddenly started to chant “Namo Avalokiteshvara” with us. In the following days, Thay sang one song after another, from Vietnamese to English to French. Every day, Teacher and disciples went on walking meditation while singing. Sometimes we sang long songs like “Looking for Each Other.” Then Thay went into his library to reread the documents there. He practiced to read the poems he had previously written. On calligraphy paper, he practiced to draw circles, to write the word “breathe” (in Vietnamese: “tho”), and to write Chinese characters, all with great joy.

One time in San Francisco, Thay was listening to a recording of his poems read by himself and he waved his hand and used his facial expressions to describe the poem’s ideas. The most exciting moments were when Thay practiced on the exercise bike. It involved riding the bike, listening to music, and enjoying the scenes on a screen in front of him. The scenes were there to make Thay feel as if he were cycling on a beach, or on country lanes in the midst of charming nature.

Sometimes Thay was tired, but he persisted and pedaled non-stop until he fell asleep while pedaling! The most spectacular moments were when Thay could stand on his own without an attendant supporting him from one side. The day it first happened, Thay wanted to eat lunch while standing up! There was such radiance and excitement on the faces of Teacher and disciples. Then there were the times when Thay stood up very straight on a standing chair and the attendants moved it in slow circles in the Looking Afar Hut. It was rather strange. Thay didn’t say anything, but wherever he was, the place became a place filled with warmth, joy, and love.

During the times when the Root Temple was being restored, to avoid the dust and noise, Thay agreed to go to the Thuan An and Da Nang beaches many times. He also went in the water with his attending brothers. Perhaps it had been a long time, 60 or 70 years, since Thay could immerse himself in warm seawater. Thay wanted to go further and farther out into the sea, farther and farther and farther. Those were the days when Thay was at his most playful, and for both Teacher and disciples, the most fun days at the seaside. Isn’t that so, Thay?

By 2020, Thay was much weaker. He no longer went around the temple or visited the hut of Grandfather teacher (Thay’s master). But, breathing in, we were aware that Thay was still alive. Breathing out, we cherished and smiled to life. We continued to enjoy every moment by Thay’s side and did not allow regrets or worries to take hold of us. Thay demonstrated that even with an aging, ailing, and weakening body full of aches and pains, Teacher and students could still live happily in any situation. This was possible with the practice of dwelling happily in the present moment, taught by the Buddha.

Throughout those seven years, we recognized that every action of Thay was a manifestation of a transformed store consciousness, one filled with the fruits of a true practitioner. Those fruits could completely change the surrounding environment. Whatever needed to be done, Thay did it with all his love. At last, with clear awareness, Thay decided to become a cloud, as quietly and decisively as he had made decisions in the past on countless occasions. Thay’s cloud has embraced his Dharma children in an atmosphere of warmth and stillness, then, now and forever.