Please enjoy Fred's sharing about his recent visit with Thich Nhat Hanh in San Francisco in December 2015.
Completely out of the blue, in early November I received an email about the possibility of visiting Thay Nhat Hanh in San Francisco. He was being given rehabilitative treatment there for the debilitating effects from a stroke that occurred in 2014. As I had not been in contact with him and his monastics for several years, I was totally taken by surprise and joy at the invitation. My visit was facilitated by Br. Phap Linh, a wonderful monastic who was serving Thay as one of his attendants while receiving treatment in SF. He suggested that I plan to stay for several days, as sometimes Thay’s health does not permit visits on certain days.
I flew to SF the second week of December and stayed at a hotel about a ten minute walk from where Thay, Sr. Chan Khong and a large group of monastics were living. My son, Ty, who has known Thay since childhood also joined me. We arrived the first morning at the home where Thay and monastics were staying for 6:30 am meditation. There we found that Thay had gone to the hospital several days before due to digestive difficulties, but would hopefully return later that day.
After morning meditation, we joined Phap Linh for tea and was surprised to discover that he and my son had met nearly 15 years ago at Plum Village when Phap Linh was still a layman and they had had several quite involved discussions then, while being in the same family group. My son was “blown away” when he was able to link this deeply composed, wise and peaceful (and hairless) monastic with the confused and opinionated young man he had interacted with 15 years ago. It was a meaningful reconnection for both of them. I was also able to share with Phap Linh and Sr. Chan Khong the development of our Florida Community of Mindfulness and photos of our Tampa practice center. Phap LInh was sincerely interested in our urban mindfulness practice center and saw it perhaps as a model for other such communities in the future.
The next morning we again showed up a 6:30 am for meditation. It was still dark out and the monastics were using a large barely lit living room for their meditation hall. When we entered I saw a wheel chair ramp was in place and in front of the room the dark figure of someone in a wheelchair. Thay had returned!
After meditation and chanting ended, Thay was wheeled over to us. Paralyzed on half his body from the stroke and unable to speak, Thay communicates through movements of his head, his eyes, and left hand, but his comprehension seems fully intact. Sr. Chan Khong told him who we were and shared some stories from past experiences in our relationship with him and he seemed to remember and understand. I was able to share a little bit about my gratitude to him personally and for the great benefit he has brought to untold sentient beings in this life and how happy it made me to see him again. After, five minutes, his attendant rolled him away for his morning regimen to begin.
Again, we had tea with Phap Linh and Sr. Chan Khong and I was so happy to deepen my connection to this monastic brother and to share news of our community and my personal family with the sister who has known Ty and Karuna since childhood. All of sudden everyone stood up as in rolled Thay with his attendant saying that Thay wanted to say goodbye to us before we left.
I was very moved by unexpectedly seeing him a second time and found myself spontaneously expressing deep gratitude to have encountered him in this life, my remorse at being such a poor student of his, and expressing my deepest aspiration to meet him early in the next life in order to serve him to the best of my ability. I also was able to share the video presentation about our sangha and mindfulness practice center with him which he seemed to enjoy.
What can I say about my encounter with my teacher when he is wheelchair bound, immobile and without the ability to speak words. Profound! To be in Thay's presence, I always felt his deep peace and total attention, but this time, for me, it was all about his eyes, his gaze. Words that come to mind are penetrating or piercing, as it being pierced to the core. Just being with him and feeling his direct gaze upon me was so powerful and liberating.
After Ty and I left their residence and we were walking in the Presideo, I realized that it was just about forty years ago to month that I first met Thay in Paris. Seeing him again in San Francisco was like a bookend for me in my relationship with him in this life. I have just heard that Thay has left SF to rejoin his monastic community in France. Knowing how much he loves his community and they him, I am so happy that he has returned to their care and nourishment and the Plum Village land that he has walked mindfully and lovingly on for over thirty years. Before his beloved presence, I touch the earth deeply.