Inspiring Lessons from Thich Nnat Hanh (and one of his great poems).

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

“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.



The Art of Mindful Dying: Japanese Death Poems Illuminate Life.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone


“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:
Spring sun
Snow whiteness
Bright clouds
Clear wind

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,
‘Without saying.’
Nothing more,
Nothing more.

Gesshu Soko (died 1696, age 79)

Inhale, exhale
Forward, back
Living, dying:
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
From another.
One carries it always
By oneself.

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.