I haven’t seen her in years—a feisty, mama-bear, older woman selling books to tourists in a sleepy Thai town by a river.
Kanchanaburi is not far from Bangkok, famous for its River Kwai and immortalized in the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” inspired by the horrible events surrounding the building of the bridge during WWII.
It’s a serene kind of place to find a hammock and veg out for a few days (or lose track of time entirely), though it can jam up with tourists given its history, proximity to Bangkok, and gorgeous river views.
I used to live in Bangkok, and would make the short trip to Kanchanaburi often, to get away from the screeching city (that I love dearly). It had everything I needed: an airy, if sparsely furnished room dangling over the river; delicious food, and long, winding roads, both along the main drag and along the river—great for ambling walks.
And then there was the bookshop, conveniently located near my guesthouse. You could call this junction where the bookshop met the sprawling guesthouse entrance a “hub” the way a saloon is the hub of a Western movie situated on the frontier to nowhere.
It was perfect.
The books on offer were mostly English, stacked inside and outside the shop like faded jewels in various states of disrepair, and each transported me to a far-off world (including the world of memories), reading many of these same titles back home, which seemed such a great distance away.
The owner also had three ancient computers people used for the Internet. They often broke down, and when she couldn’t fix them, she’d ask her grandson, a boy of about 10 who hung around after school, to get to it. He always triumphed, as long as we could wait for his videogame to end.
She and I would only occasionally chat, notably during one visit soon after being bitten by a rabid dog in Indonesia. I had to get shots monthly for a while, and there was a good hospital nearby. She fussed over my small wound, let me use the computer much longer than I was supposed to, and fed me bananas.
Once, I offered to alphabetize her books, and she happily agreed, plying me with more bananas as I worked.
She was friendly in a no-nonsense kind of way, a tiny wisp of a thing. I never learned how long she’d been running the shop, how she found her way into this business, or how she felt about so many tourists hanging around her town.
One evening, I started out for the bridge later than I was normally out. As I rounded the corner, I saw her outside, taking books off a tall unit of shelves fastened to the wall. I suddenly realized that every single evening, she had to take hundreds of books off their shelves, and store them inside the small shop. Every morning, she had to put them back on the shelves.
Everyday, she was collapsing and rebuilding a significant part of her shop.
I guess I thought she’d merely cover them with tarp, or maybe I didn’t guess anything at all. But I was shocked at this twice-daily task that formed part of her modest business.
This time, I was just back from my first 10-day meditation retreat, a few hours away near the Burmese border. I had spent hours agonizing over how the time would ever pass, and how I would survive day after day doing nothing but follow my breath, which I grew to seriously dislike for at least a few minutes hourly.
I learned that in my raw, unfettered state, I was a person with very little patience; what a thick veneer between my functioning public persona and the caged animal within—that’s how it felt at times, anyway. I feared I would never learn how to treat myself, or others with kindness. Instead, I observed myself constantly wanting to be anywhere other than where I was, even if I didn’t have a clue where.
Now, here I was, watching a woman, for the thousandth time or far more, patiently picking books off shelves—a few at a time—to lock up for the night. She moved methodically, rhythmically, spritely. I don’t want to pretend I know what she was feeling inside or romanticize her life in any way, but to me, it seemed she was embodying a great practice in the art of living.
I was humbled and inspired. What a great teacher to have met.
Sometimes, when I find myself slipping into not wanting to do what I perceive to be tedious or undesirable, I think of this remarkable woman, and remember that patience—which, ultimately, is kindness, compassion, belief and love—can breathe everywhere, if I let it.
Life is our great stage for spiritual practice and growth, and that means that everything in life becomes part of this practice.
How wondrous it can be.
The heady first moments of love are a vortex. They cause swirls of emotion, the forgetting of time…and the writing of gushy letters to the object of our love.
Once we step off the perches of this dizzying elixir, we see that our relationships with others and the love that emerges must be founded on our relationship with (and love for) ourselves, and who are we, if not creatures intimately bound up with the Earth, as a geographic, environmental and spiritual space?
Throughout our lives, we are moving with the tides of our primary relationships. We have these with our parents and siblings, certainly, as well as other key, early influences. We also have this, essentially and always, with nature.
It’s no wonder writers have long expressed, through their poetry, letters and other form of writing, their wonder—rapture, really—at the bounty of Earth’s offerings. Earth is where we can be nourished, sustained, reclaimed.
Sometimes, in my own writing, I struggle to find the words to express the magnitude of what bubbles up inside of me—the muse is a fickle, if brilliant and cathartic one!
I love turning to the inspired writings of others, who capture in so many different voices and so beautifully, what it means to live among the elements that shape and define us and accompany us on our life journey.
I hope you enjoy these stunning expressions of love for the nature that permeates our lives.
1. A Letter to Nature by Sue Monk Kidd
I love this tree.
I love the light filtering through the moss and the leaves.
I love all your earth songs — the breeze rustling through the grass, the rhythm of the crickets, the beating of the wings.
Here, surrounded and permeated by your creation, I feel you. I feel life. I know myself, connected.
O God, is there anything you’ve made that can’t pour life and healing into me?
When I think of the simplicity and extravagance of creation, I want to bend down and write the word “yes” across the earth so you can see it.
2. Excerpt from his book, Love Letter to the Earth, by Thich Nhat Hanh.
We can be like the Buddha, and in difficult moments touch the Earth as our witness. We can take refuge in the Earth as our original mother. We can say, “I touch the pure and refreshing Earth.” Whatever nationality or culture we belong to, whatever religion we follow, whether we’re Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, or atheists, we can all see that Mother Earth is a great bodhisattva. When we see her in this way, with all her many virtues, we will walk more gently on her and treat her and all her children more gently. We will want to protect her and not harm her or any of the myriad forms of life she has given birth to. We will stop wreaking destruction and violence on Mother Earth. We will resolve the question of what we mistakenly call “the environmental problem.” The Earth is not just the environment. The Earth is us. Everything depends on whether we have this insight or not.
When you’re able to see the Earth for the bodhisattva that she is, you will want to bow down and touch the Earth with reverence and respect. Then love and care will be born in your heart. This awakening is enlightenment. Don’t look for enlightenment elsewhere. This awakening, this enlightenment, will bring about a great transformation in you, and you’ll have more happiness, more love, and more understanding than from any other practice. Enlightenment, liberation, peace, and joy aren’t dreams for the future; they’re a reality available to us in the present moment.
3. Excerpt from her poem, God the Artist, by Angela Morgan.
God, when you chiseled a raindrop,
How did you think of a stem,
Bearing a lovely satin leaf
To hold the tiny gem?
How did you know a million drops
Would deck the morning’s hem?
Why did you mate the moonlit night
With the honeysuckle vines?
How did you know Madeira bloom
Distilled ecstatic wines?
How did you weave the velvet disk
Where tangled perfumes are?
God, when you thought of a pine tree,
How did you think of a star?
4. Morning Rain, by Tu Fu.
A slight rain comes, bathed in dawn light.
I hear it among treetop leaves before mist
Arrives. Soon it sprinkles the soil and,
Windblown, follows clouds away. Deepened
Colors grace thatch homes for a moment.
Flocks and herds of things wild glisten
Faintly. Then the scent of musk opens across
Half a mountain—and lingers on past noon.
5. “Nature” is what we see, by Emily Dickinson.
“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.
6. The Endearing Sea, by Dobashi Jiju.
As I lived far away from the sea,
it gradually passed more out of my mind every day,
like its distance.
After days and days,
it became like a dot, no longer looking like a sea.
I felt compelled to go the movies
to see the sea
on the screen.
But when I slept at night,
the sea came to me, pushing down my chest
and raising clear blue waves.
I just slept, even in the daytime,
the sea kept mounting big waves
on my chest,
covering me with spray from a storm.
And sometimes it washed up beautiful white bones,
which had sunk to its bottom,
up around my ribs.
Bonus: How can I resist including a Kerouac quote here?
“Maybe that’s what life is … a wink of the eye and winking stars.”
Sleep, I want to climb
Into your dark softness, find
Everything in dreams.
“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer him or her is your presence…how can you love, if you are not there?” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is in the hospital after suffering a severe brain hemorrhage. He’s 88 years old.
According to a news release, he is surrounded by disciples and supporters, and is still responsive.
Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (teacher in Vietnamese), as he is known, has spent his life in spiritual practice—he says knew he wanted to be a monk since he was seven-years-old in his native country of Vietnam—and in guiding others passionate about following a spiritual path. He has been living and acting as spiritual teacher at Plum Village, a monastery in France for monks and nuns and a practice center for lay people, since its establishment in 1982.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s name is practically synonymous with Zen, the Buddhist path and the road of compassion, so tireless have his efforts been, and so global his reach.
Buddhist monk, poet, author and peace activist (and Nobel Peace Prize nominee) are some of the hats he has worn, with over 100 books in publication, and innumerable talks, lectures and retreats given and held around the world.
Watching him give an interview, even through the filter of a TV or computer screen, gives one the feeling of being in the presence of all-encompassing peace, kindness and compassion.
I remember being on top of a mountain in Dharamsala, India, in the middle of a 10-day Buddhist retreat and course—I sat on a balcony after lunch on a clear, sunny day, reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Novice,” feeling so hopelessly like one myself, which is why I think that title caught my eye at that time.
It’s about a young woman who finds her spiritual calling and wants to be monk during an era in Vietnam when only men could ordain. Her devotion causes her to leave her marriage-bound life and disguise herself as a man so that she can practice and serve as a monk. She does this for years until she is accused of fathering a child, which puts her in a position of having to either pretend she has done this, or out herself as a woman.
The young woman-monk’s unwavering devotion to her path and the pure heart she developed as a result of her practice, which she draws upon during a most challenging time so that her kindness and compassion touches everyone around her, fill me with such inspiration to this day.
I am not in any position to speak of Thich Nhat Hanh’s life or teachings with any degree of authority, but by way of honouring this great man, I wanted to touch on a few impressions—things that have influenced me deeply.
He speaks of beginner’s mind, that beauty that comes from being fully awake to the present moment and all it can bring.
And what does it mean to be truly present?
As Thich Nhat Hanh explains it, to be present is to not be hindered by thoughts of the past or future. It is a reflection of the ability to be in the here and now. This is a fundamental part of the awakened mind, that it rests where it is, not where it has been or will be, which is, fundamentally, nowhere at all.
Why do we want to be present? For our personal development, of course, but also to be able to be fully present for others, and especially others in need. These are the seeds of compassion, and it is only in full presence that we can act as a loving and listening being for those around us.
In full presence, we are in a state of deep listening, and we can cultivate this ability to really listen, to ourselves, to others, to the stillness within, so that we can both become and generate a stillness and peace to serve others, and the world.
Thich Nhat Hanh evocatively spoke about death through the analogy of a cloud. According to my best memory, he said that before it rains, all we see is a cloud, but that once the rain comes, we feel the cloud has disappeared. But if we look closely—with deep listening, with presence—we can see that the cloud never disappeared at all, because it is in the rain, or the snow, or whatever has come after the cloudy period.
It’s a matter of perception, of being really tuned in to the present moment moment and all it offers.
It’s the same with death, he says. Nothing really dies, but continues to be present in other ways. With practice, we can come to see that we can’t go from something to nothing, from being to non-being. And this is what nirvana is about—not reaching somewhere, but removing wrong-perceptions about being, so that we come to a dissolution of these ideas.
And finally, a poem I love by Thich Nhat Hanh:
Call Me by My True Names
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
Please see the elephant journal published version here.
“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”
~ Edvard Munch
I came across a book, almost lost among Japanese recipe and travel books, with the words “Death Poems” written on its spine. I was immediately intrigued.
There is a tradition in Japan, I read, that upon one’s death, one would leave a will behind, but also a “farewell poem to life.” These death poems are called jisei, and the practice was long adhered to by Zen monks and haiku poets.
What might be contained in a few lines uttered by a spiritually advanced human at the time of death, to encapsulate a life in learning? What do the dying awakened ones want to leave behind for the rest of us?
The words ring like chime bells in autumn wind, and also cut like a blade. This, for me, is the paradoxical beauty and magic inherent in Japan’s ancient history.
Here are some of these last words, a death practice full of observation, contemplation and also humour, but also a gift to the living. So much to savour here!
Bassui Tokusho (died in 1387, age 61)
Look straight ahead—what’s there?
If you see it as it is
You will never err.
Daido Ichi’I (died 1370, age 79)
A tune of non-being
Filling the void:
Dokyo Etan (died 1721, age 80)
Here in the shadow of death it is hard
To utter the final word.
I’ll only say, then,
Gesshu Soko (died 1696, age 79)
Arrows, let flown each to each
Meet midway and slice
The void in aimless flight—
Thus I return to the source.
Hosshin (died 13th century)
Coming, all is clear, no doubt about it.
Going, all is clear, without a doubt.
What, then, is it all?
Kaso Sodon (died 1428, age 72)
A drop of water freezes instantly—
My seven years and seventy
All changes at a blow
Springs of water welling from the fire.
Mumon Gensen (died 1390, age 68)
Life is an ever—rolling wheel
And even day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death,
Adds frost to snow.
Tetto Giku (died 1369, age 75)
The truth is never taken
One carries it always
I found more of these incredible poems here. Here are a couple of them:
The death poem of Matsuo Basho, one of the greatest haiku poets of all time:
On a journey, ill;
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.
Zoso Royo (died 1276, age 84)
I pondered Buddha’s teaching
a full four and eighty years.
The gates are all now
locked about me.
No one was ever here—
Who then is he about to die,
and why lament for nothing?
The night is clear,
the moon shines calmly,
the wind in the pines
is like a lyre’s song.
With no I and no other
who hears the sound?
* This was originally published in elephant journal.