A good friend invited me to spend a Sunday in Balboa Park with a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. I knew very little of him but Sundays in September in San Diego can be glorious and there are few better places than the park for them.
I think it was promoted as a Day of Mindfulness, another subject about which I knew very little.
The day was pretty much a total immersion. We were blissfully adrift in a gentle sea of brown-robed Buddhist monks and nuns. There were dharma talks and long periods of meditation. Some were led by Thay in his soft, barely audible whisper of a voice. Some were led by his followers.
Thich Nhat Hanh led the 50 of us on an agonizingly slow, meandering, mindfulness walk through the park. For me, it was also agonizingly self-consciousness. I could not ignore that this walk was a strange sight – strange even for Balboa Park – to the other visitors there that day.
What must they be thinking of us? I had much to learn. Others still held too much sway over my self-worth.
We all shared a simple but drawn-out lunch in mindful silence, another foreign experience for a newspaper deadline writer.
The closest thing that I could relate to all this was the two years that I spent in a Catholic seminary for a missionary order of priests. Life there was spent mostly in silence, contemplation, prayer and education. There was also the meditation practice that I had pursued sporadically since 1970.
The seminary, my meditation, and mindfulness weren’t so far apart. By the end of the day, I felt confident that I had found the path to order, peacefulness, clarity, and being a good person in the practice of Mindfulness. I’d only found the path, the first steps on a life-long journey that holds no promises at the end. I am still on that path today.
I left the park that day energized. I was aware in some inarticulated way that we had been in the presence of greatness, either the man or the message. I felt like we had been given some basic operating instructions on how to get on with this life in dignity, grace, awareness, and compassion.
In short, we left Balboa Park that day as kinder people than when we had walked in.
That was September 9, 2001.
Two days later, all that bliss was blown away. If a handful of us were changed people on Sunday, two days later, everybody in the world was different.
Horror replaced bliss. Anger supplanted compassion. A jittery agitation undermined any lingering whiffs of dignity and grace. I shifted to the news side of the online newspaper website where I worked and took my daily shift in the editor’s seat – a role that meant you could not look away when the images grew too horrific, when the news grew sadder than anything you’d experienced in your life, when the tragedy became more than you could bear.
At the end of each day, I would go home to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, broken by all that I had seen and read. I would walk down the long, steep road, cross the railroad tracks, and pick my way down the bluff to a quiet corner on the beach.
There, I would sit with legs crossed, in absolute stillness until the sun had completely set and the tide was lapping at my ankles. I would each evening make a yin-yang mandala out of rocks and twigs and seaweed, knowing that the incoming tide would obliterate it by the next evening.
The message was clearly about impermanence, though I probably did not fully understand it at the time.
As I sat before the beachcomber’s mandala, I would try to recall the mantras presented by Thay only days earlier, then repeat them over and over.
I have arrived. I am home.
In the here, in the now.
I am solid, I am free.
In the ultimate I dwell.
I knew I didn’t have the mantra “right,” but I also knew that there was no magic to unlock in getting the wording exactly correct. It was the practice, not the incantation.
The mantra eventually became my own, which I use to this day, every day:
I am here.
I am present.
I am home.
I have arrived.
So, on the beach, I created a ritual each evening to exorcize the madness, to recharge the spirit to face the next brutalizing day.
And I embraced the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh because I do believe that his Day of Mindfulness in Balboa Park came when it did for a reason. It did not save me but it saved a part of me.
Since that time, I have been blessed to sit at the feet of Thay on numerous occasions and in a variety of settings – an aging theater in Downtown San Diego, the University of San Diego auditorium, a verdant park of rolling hills in Rancho Santa Fe, and at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido among them.
Each encounter was a spiritual way station. Each encounter patched someof the broken pieces. Each encounter nourished my soul and gave me the guidance and encouragement to resume the mindful walk along life’s path. Each encounter was a measure — Thay was always the same; I was a pilgrim buffeted by whatever life tossed my way. Each encounter let me ask, “Am I better? Worse?” without seeking a definitive answer.
The 400-acre Deer Park monastery was Thich Nhat Hanh’s home-away-from-home, his beloved Plum Village in France. It was one of several of the monasteries established in the Plum Village tradition. It was barely 20 miles from where I lived. When Thich Nhat Hanh would visit, he would either hold a large public dharma in the region or smaller sessions at the monastery.
For a while that was as often as twice a year. I felt truly blessed to spend so much time in his presence.
There were the books, of course, and the dharma talk transcripts online that could be downloaded and read at leisure. During the Covid pandemic, the practitioners at Deer Park would hold live online mindful walks.
Thich Nhat Hanh and his teachings and practices are as close as you want them to be. And always will be.
I can not say that all the exposure to the Buddhist teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh have made me a good person. Because of him, I am a better person than I might otherwise have been. I am more aware when I do not act in good spirit, when I lack compassion. I am aware of my weaknesses and try to repair them.
When I ask myself “What would Thay do?” I can readily find an answer.
That is a true blessing. (Then, on my own, I must resolve to embrace that answer.)
Thich Nhat Hanh’s whisper of a presence will always be with us, through his teachings, his example, his followers, his books, his videos. The human shape has expired and the spirit has moved on but the essence remains of all that is good, can be good, will be good.
The first steps on the right path will always be clear.
Take them and the good monk will be walking beside you forever.
A poem by Thich Nhat Hanh that speaks eloquently to what this current moment means (courtesy of Simon Bartholomé):
“This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
and I shall never die.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
manifestations from my wondrous true mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,
sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.
So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say goodbye,
say goodbye, to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.”