Learning About Death From The Spiritual Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh standing in front of a body of water with eyes closed and thumb and index finger of his right hand touching.

In less than a week, the hillsides below the Apennine Mountains in the Italian town where I am staying have turned from dull brown to vibrant green — a sign that winter is ending and spring’s unfolding has begun.

A theology teacher of mine once commented that nature’s cycle of death into life mirrors the Christian belief in the Resurrection and the promise that new life awaits us beyond death. I remember being somewhat skeptical back then. While this is true for plants and flowers that might appear dead in winter, I’ve never known a human being to reappear — fresh and renewed — from the dead.

Thoughts of life and death have been on my mind lately. Within the past three months, my husband and I have learned of the deaths of six people we knew. All died of different causes. None them were particularly old. The losses felt particularly acute because we are living abroad and weren’t able to pay our respects in person or grieve among a community of friends.

What brought a measure of comfort was watching the funeral services for the beloved Buddhist monk, poet, peace advocate and spiritual guide, Thich Nhat Hanh, who died January 22. There wasn’t a single service. A series of memorials and rituals took place over nine days at the Buddhist temple in Vietnam where he died, and Plum Village in France where he had lived and taught in exile for decades.

Several monks carry the bier containing their spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

The ceremonies represented a collective release of love, gratitude and esteem for a beloved teacher and friend. As Buddhist nun explained in one of the funeral videos, each day’s chanting session, each reading, prayer and meditation session were meant as offerings “to generate the energy of mindfulness and peace.”

I was particularly struck by one of the breath meditations, guided by Buddhist Sister Tue Nghiem, who called Nhat Hanh by the honorific, “Thay,” or “Teacher.” With slow deliberate movements, she sounded a bell-shaped gong and softly prayed:

“Breathing in, I am aware that Thay is not his body. Breathing out, I am aware that Thay is not caught in his body.”

“Breathing in, I am aware of Thay in millions of galaxies arising from consciousness. Breathing out, I am aware of Thay in mountains and rivers.”

“Breathing in, I smile to Thay. Breathing out, I sit for Thay.”

“Breathing in, I wave goodbye to Thay. Breathing out, I meet Thay in every moment of daily life.”

Fellow monks, students and friends also remembered Nhat Hanh through a walking meditation— breathing in and breathing out with each step. They said they could “feel Thay’s mindful steps continue in our own mindful steps.”

Such beautiful ways to honor and remember someone we’ve lost.

These days, I try to walk more mindfully, breathing in and breathing out, as a way of remembering those who have died. Looking out over the Apennine hillsides today, I was aware of my friends in the shimmering green shoots.

This week, can we remember those we have loved by looking at the moon and the stars? As the breath meditation suggests, can we smile for them and sit quietly with them? Can we see them in rivers and mountains, and meet them in the ordinary moments of our daily lives?

The rolling green hillsides surrounding the town of Guardiagrele in the Abruzzo region of Italy, signaling the coming of spring.

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