Thích Nhat Hanh, with children, leading walking meditation. Open Heart, Open Mind retreat, Vancouver, BC, August 2011. Photo © Dzung Vo.
Eileen Kiera is one of Thích Nhat Hanh’s first North American Dharma heirs, having received Lamp Transmission from him in 1990. She reflects on the retreat he led in Vancouver this summer:
Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhat Hanh visited Vancouver, British Columbia for the first time in 1987. That spring he led a retreat for 40 people. He returned to Vancouver this August, 24 years later, and the retreat he led at the University of British Columbia was attended by over 800 people, with a waiting list of equal size.
Thay, as he is fondly called by his students, speaks a message of peace, a message born from his own experience of decades of war. The message he shares, although rooted in Buddhist practice, touches people of all faiths and all nationalities. He teaches a practice of meditation and mindfulness as a path that leads to a peaceful heart. In his deeply peaceful presence he offers an embodied example of the fruits of this practice. He is a man of peace and the example of his life and teaching gives hope and inspiration to the thousands of people he touches.
Although Thay teaches sitting meditation, his emphasis is on mindfulness in all areas of our lives. He teaches mindful breathing so we can be present to touch the world around us, to touch the trees, the mountains, the water, and our friends with our awareness. He teaches mindful eating to be aware of the taste, smell and source of our food. Most important, he teaches walking meditation, how to touch the earth with our peace as we touch the earth with our feet. On the beautiful campus of the University of British Columbia we had many opportunities to practice mindful walking.
In the early morning hours, as the dawn sky silhouetted the night-dark trees, we walked across campus to a large gym for sitting meditation. We sat for 45 minutes in stillness, the quiet of 800 people in meditation. Following a reading of the sutras, we went quietly to breakfast, continuing our meditation as we walked back to our dorms. Later we returned to the gym for Thay’s Dharma talk and afterwards joined him in walking meditation across campus. The energy of 800 people walking together in quiet and peace attracted the attention of workers and students and many joined us, some out of curiosity, some for the pleasure of our peacefulness. Some joined because they had heard a great master was there and they hoped to catch sight of him. Others just seemed perplexed by the crowd and wondered where everyone was going.
In the afternoons we met in small groups for Dharma discussion, to explore the teachings as they lived in our own lives. Afterward, we once again walked in meditation across campus, back to our dorms, back for supper. The lines for meals were long. We practiced standing meditation, staying focused on the breath and keeping our awareness in our bodies. Many people reported that they may never again find themselves waiting impatiently, as every moment is an opportunity to come back to the breath and to come awake in the moment.
Ringing the meditation bell, Open Heart, Open Mind retreat, Vancouver, BC, August 2011. Photo © Dzung Vo.
Perhaps the most striking thing about a retreat with Thay is the quiet joy that arises from being together, many people sitting quietly, walking mindfully, breathing and smiling. It is that feeling of happiness that inspires a lifelong practice of mindfulness, knowing that happiness is the ground of peace.
D.J. Lower, a student of Thích Nhat Hanh and Eileen Kiera, also attended the Vancouver retreat:
This is my second retreat with Thay. With 850 in attendance it seemed a little more intimate than the one I attended at Deer Park two years ago, with over 1,000! I'd like to convey the power of one image I have from this retreat.
It's traditional to walk together after the Dharma talk with Thay leading, usually holding the hands of a couple of children aged 6-10 or so. His attendants are close by along with several nuns and monks. The huge crowd follows. We move slowly in complete silence. After 10 or 15 minutes Thay sits down on a cushion with the children gathered close around him.
On one particular day I was able to stand fairly close to where they were seated. I watched Thay show the children the "5 Mountain" mudra with his two hands. The young ones copied as best they could. Occasionally Thay would reach out and pull together two fingers on a child's hands to correct the mudra.
All of this was done without words. After a few minutes of "instruction" an attendant poured a cup of tea for the master to sip mindfully, fully focusing now on that action. The child I could see most clearly watched Thay. He was about seven years old. He didn't fidget or look around with distraction as if wanting something else. His expression showed how I imagine perfect mindfulness and joy in the moment might look. I feel touched even now remembering this. I, myself, felt perfectly contented and joyful as well.