Thich Nhat Hahn

Thich Nhat Hahn—“Thây” to his students—died a few days ago on January 22. He was one of the great Buddhist monks and figures of the 20th century. And I was very blessed to have had him as one of my earliest teachers when I started practicing in the 1990’s.

In any life, you have to feel blessed to have just one person in your life like a Thich Nhat Hahn. I have been extremely blessed to have had more than one of them. That is why it is impossible for me to live even one day without boundless gratitude.

There is a famous passage in the Pāli Canon in which the Buddha’s attendant Ānanda says that good friendship is “half of the holy life.” The Buddha replies that it is, in fact, the entire holy life:

[Ānanda:] “Venerable sir, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”

[Buddha:] “Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.”
— [SN 45.2]

In a Buddhist sense, good friendship is friendship with an arahant, someone who is fully awakened. This is because an arahant opens us up to the possibilities of life. We can see a living manifestation of the Dharma. “Oh,” we say, “life could be like this. I could be like this.” All those ideals of the Dharma go from being vague possibilities to being living realities.

Thây was like that. He was a living embodiment of the Dharma. He didn’t express lovingkindness, he was lovingkindness. The Dharma didn’t come from him, it flowed through him.

I watched his funerary rites last evening on YouTube, and I was struck by several things. First and foremost was simply how beautiful it all was. The monks and nuns were wearing pristine robes. The Dharma Hall was immaculate. The lay people were neat and clean and reverent.

But I also did not detect any sadness. This was not grief over something lost, but the celebration of something great. Death has a central role in Buddhist practice. There is this old joke that Buddhists spend their entire lives preparing for death, and there is some truth to that. It was the contemplation of death that led, in fact, to the Buddha’s own spiritual quest.

The Buddha famously was born into a life of wealth, power, and privilege. But when he considered the inevitably of his own death, all of this seemed meaningless:

But I too am subject to death, not safe from death, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is dead.’ When I considered this, the vanity of life entirely left me.”
— [AN 3:38]

Ajahn Brahm says that when he was in Thailand, his monastery was the only place in that area that could perform funeral rites, so he got to see a lot of them. But he also says that in the many years he was part of those rites, he never saw anyone express grief.

For a Buddhist death is simply a part of the cycle of life. According to the Buddha’s teachings, we are born, we live, we die, and then we are reborn. To mourn death is like mourning the winter. Spring always follows. There is nothing to mourn.

And when someone passes out of our lives, no one can take away from us the goodness and kindness we received from that person.

There is this lovely story in the Pāli Canon that speaks to this issue. It is an exchange between the Buddha and Ānanda after Sāriputta died. Ānanda and Sāriputta were very close. They famously solved a dispute at the monastery at Kosambī. And Ānanda revered Sāriputta. He was very devoted to him, But Ānanda—at the time of Sāriputta’s death—was “only” a stream-enterer. He was not fully awakened. He still had defilements. And when Sāriputta died, Ānanda was overwhelmed with grief.

This is from my biography of the Buddha:

Once when the Buddha was staying at Jetavana, Sāriputta’s younger brother Cunda came to visit him. He gave the Buddha the news that Sāriputta had died. Ānanda was particularly distraught. The Buddha gave Ānanda some particularly compassionate but poignant advice:

[Ānanda] “Venerable sir, since I heard that the Venerable Sāriputta has attained final nibbāna, my body seems as if it has been drugged, I have become disoriented, the teachings are no longer clear to me.”

“Why, Ānanda, when Sāriputta attained final nibbāna, did he take away your aggregate of virtue, or your aggregate of concentration, or your aggregate of wisdom, or your aggregate of liberation, or your aggregate of the knowledge and vision of liberation?”

“No, he did not, venerable sir. But for me the Venerable Sāriputta was an advisor and counselor, one who instructed, exhorted, inspired, and gladdened me. He was unwearying in teaching the Dhamma; he was helpful to his brothers in the holy life. We recollect the nourishment of Dhamma, the wealth of Dhamma, the help of Dhamma given by the Venerable Sāriputta.”

“But have I not already declared, Ānanda, that we must be parted, separated, and severed from all who are dear and agreeable to us? How, Ānanda, is it to be obtained here: ‘May what is born, come to be, conditioned, and subject to disintegration not disintegrate!’? That is impossible. It is just as if the largest branch would break off a great tree standing possessed of heartwood. So too, Ānanda, in the great Bhikkhu Saṇgha standing possessed of heartwood, Sāriputta has attained final nibbāna. How, Ānanda, is it to be obtained here?

“May what is born, come to be, conditioned, and subject to disintegration not disintegrate? That is impossible.

“Therefore, Ānanda, dwell with yourselves as your own island, with yourselves as your own refuge, with no other refuge; dwell with the Dhamma as your island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge… Those bhikkhus, Ānanda, either now or after I am gone, who dwell with themselves as their own island, with themselves as their own refuge, with no other refuge; who dwell with the Dhamma as their island, with the Dhamma as their refuge, with no other refuge – it is these bhikkhus, Ānanda, who will be for me topmost of those keen on the training.”
— [SN 47.II.3]

The word translated here as “island” is the Pāli word dipa. It can also mean “lamp.” This passage works equally well either way. Be a lamp unto yourself. Be an island, a refuge unto yourself. The Buddha may have once again used the double meaning of a word to poetic effect.

In this particularly beautiful passage we see Ānanda’s reverence for Sāriputta. But the Buddha gently reminded Ānanda that this is the way of the world. Sāriputta’s “attaining final nibbāna” did not deprive Ānanda of any of the merit he had gained through his own efforts. The Buddha urged Ānanda to be his own island, to be a refuge for himself, and to use the Dharma as a refuge. This is one of the most famous passages in Buddhism.

It was very beautiful for me to see that Thây’s funeral was just such a celebration. He influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Mine was one of them. Thây may be physically gone, but the great gift that he gave to me and so many others can never be taken away. Thank you, Thây. Safe travels.

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