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Teachings with Thich Nhat Hanh

By Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg

 

On a cool summer evening in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, rows of meditators sat on bright red cushions, all eagerly awaiting the arrival of the venerable Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh. When Hanh at last entered the room and silently took the stage, the first impression he made was of a small, softly-spoken man, dressed in simple brown monastic robes. But almost immediately it became apparent that this diminutive, humble person possessed an enormous and captivating presence.

Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (“teacher”) as he’s affectionately called by his followers, is an individual of great international standing and tremendous moral stature. Nominated by Martin Luther King Jr., his friend and admirer, for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, Thay has worked tirelessly throughout his life for peace—as an activist working for peace throughout the world, as well as a teacher helping individuals to discover their own peace within.

Although one could easily spend years soaking up Thay’s teachings, the three-day retreat that we were attending at Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, was a great place to start. As we quickly discovered, a single hour of listening to Thay can change your perspective, if not your life. His message is at once disarmingly simple, and endlessly profound: by learning to be present with each breath you take, you can discover your own true nature, and travel your own personal path to peace. By becoming more peaceful within yourself, you become a force for peace in the world. In these troubled times, Thay’s words resonate all the more strongly.

Peace is Every Step

Thich Nhat Hanh was born in central Vietnam in 1926. He was inspired to become a monk when as a young boy, he came across a picture of the Buddha on the cover of a magazine. “I saw the picture, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to be happy and relaxed like him,’” Thay recalled in one of the talks he gave. Thay never forgot this original inspiration, and was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1942, at the age of sixteen.

Thay first came to the United States in 1961, studying and teaching comparative religion at Columbia and Princeton Universities. In 1966, Thay again came to the U.S., giving talks trying to educate Americans from his firsthand perspective about the sufferings of his people due to the Vietnam war.

It was at this time that Thay met The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1967 nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying “I know of no one more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle monk from Vietnam.” Due to his anti-war efforts in the United States, Thay was exiled by the Vietnamese government, who refused to let him return to the country. He sought refuge in France, where he has lived ever since.

In 1982, Thay established his monastic retreat center near Bordeaux, France, called Plum Village. Thay still lives and teaches in Plum Village when not teaching and traveling around the world. Students at Plum Village can partake in the monastic life as lay followers, continually practicing Thay’s unique approach to living in the present moment.

A prolific writer, Thay has written more than fifty books and has also recorded many video and audio tapes. He has a gift for taking the most complex and seemingly unfathomable ideas of Buddhist thought, and making them clear and accessible to the average reader. He also is able to take what might sound like a dry philosophical concept on paper, and turn it into a daily practice that is extremely doable, rich, and rewarding.

For example, one of the first things Thay always teaches is the very simple practice of watching your breath with mindfulness. “Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.” Though this might sound like the most basic of contemplations, in actuality, practicing it can have a profound affect on your life, and on your peace of mind.

The Sounds of Silence

At Shambhala Mountain, during the first evening’s talk, Thay guided us in understanding the simplest steps we can all take to become present with each breath. Because, as he says, “Life is in the here and the now. If you are not conscious with each breath—in the present moment—you miss your appointment with life.” Thay explained that as sunlight on a flower enables the flower to grow, so mindfulness is an essential (though often unacknowledged) ingredient in our ability to grow and transform.

During the weekend, Thay gave us a very simple method for remaining present and bringing mindfulness to our actions: simply to stop and ask ourselves, “What am I doing?” Just by contemplating the question, we practice thinking deeply. This practice of stopping and looking can help us break patterns of unconscious habits that keep us stuck in our actions, causing suffering both to ourselves and others. Mindfulness, Thay reminded us often, is the first step to freeing ourselves from suffering.

The retreat at Shambhala Mountain was conducted partially in silence, with participants remaining silent after the evening talk until we finished lunch the following day. This practice of staying silent was the underlying technique used to teach us how to stay present during the retreat. By remaining silent—mindfully watching the in-breath and the out-breath—we learned to really focus on whatever we were actually doing in each and every moment.

We’d begin our days before sunrise by doing a walking meditation, bundled up, breathing in the crisp, fresh mountain air and listening to the sounds of dawn. We’d then all join together as a group to do sitting meditation before breakfast. We walked in silence to breakfast and we’d eat together, with an occasional reminder by the sound of the mindfulness bell to be conscious of what we were doing as we ate. Following breakfast each day we listened to a talk from Thay, and then again participated in a group walking meditation until lunch time. Between lunch and dinner mindful talking was encouraged, and we listened to talks by some of the monks and nuns who travel with Thay. In the evening, Thay gave another talk, and afterwards we once again settled into silence until lunch the next day.

If you’re not used to observing silence, it can be quite a challenge, because normally so much of our daily lives are spent talking or making noises whenever we wish. So, even though being silent may be interesting and fun at first, there soon can come a period when silence becomes very difficult. It can be particularly trying when in the midst of your silent observation, suddenly you become seized with a great insight that you’d just love to verbalize to someone. But as we experienced during the retreat, the practice of mindfulness through silence can be unspeakably (!) transforming.

Coming Together in Nature

Shambhala Mountain Center was a fitting place to receive the simple beauty of Thay’s teachings. Embraced by the majesty of the natural surroundings, it was much easier to trade in the worries and distractions of everyday life for an awareness of what’s happening in the present moment.

Shambhala Mountain Center is located on 600 acres, nestled in the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains of Colorado, just three hours northwest of Denver. Shambhala Mountain was founded in 1971 by the Shambhala Buddhist organization, to provide a retreat center at which students could come to learn to meditate, and explore firsthand the teachings of Buddhist philosophy. Today, the center has extended its mission to serve as a retreat center for a wide variety of spiritual traditions, offering retreats on yoga, Judaism, and Native Shamanism, to name just a few.

Shambhala Mountain has always placed a strong emphasis on retreats for families and children, providing a community where families can join together to participate in various spiritual practices. The center’s dramatic setting amidst red rocks and Ponderosa pines makes it an ideal place to connect to what is real and genuine in life, as you rest and revitalize.

As a visitor to Shambhala Mountain, you have a variety of lodging options, and therefore price points to choose from. You can elect to stay in the luxury of the newly completed Shambhala Lodge, the more Spartan dormitories, or the rustic “cabin tents.”

For those who select the lodge, the experience is one of luxury, restfulness and comfort. Meticulous attention to detail has been given to every corner of the lodge’s construction and ambiance. In the communal lobby there’s a fireplace, surrounded by elegant and comfortable, overstuffed chairs, which look out onto a Zen style patio and garden. The guest rooms are simple, yet spacious, and also have been finished with attention to detail. All the furnishings reflect a tasteful, Zen aesthetic, and provide such welcome luxuries as down comforters to snuggle under in the cool mountain evenings.

If you’re looking for the most economical option, you can choose to stay in one of the spacious and comfortable tents. These are semi-permanent canvas tents, which have been erected over large wooden floors, and furnished inside with twin beds. The tents are scattered throughout the grounds and make for the perfect “almost camping” experience (“almost” in the sense that you don’t have to pitch the tents, you’re able to share the hot shower and toilet facilities, and the dining hall is just around the corner).

Aside from enjoying the breathtaking views and mellow walks within the expansive grounds, one of the most compelling activities at Shambhala Mountain is a visit to the Great Stupa—a sacred Buddhist building, designed after traditional Tibetan Buddhist structures. It stands 108 feet tall, and is a stunning work of art, with a gold leaved dome, gorgeous sculptures, paintings, and colorful marble inlays. It is both a sight to enjoy with the eyes, as well as a sacred space in which to experience quiet contemplation. The Great Stupa alone is well worth the trip to Shambhala Mountain, and is open to the public every day.

During the retreat, at the request of Thay himself, the food served was all vegetarian. There were always ample amounts to eat, but the meals were a little hit or miss in terms of tastiness. (Which was interesting to note as we were eating every bite with particular consciousness.) As Shambhala Mountain continues to expand, however, they plan to enlarge their kitchen and dining facilities, hopefully making consistently good vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals part of the retreat experience.

Your Address is the Present Moment

Shambhala Mountain provided the ideal environment for studying with Thich Nhat Hanh. The quiet, peaceful surroundings made it easy to hear and reflect on Thay’s message of peace and mindfulness by living in the present moment. The cool, clean alpine air made being mindful about every breath a most gratifying practice. And listening to the soothing sounds of nature was a natural inducement to tuning into the experience of observing silence.

We both left the retreat renewed by Thay’s words and his presence, delighted by his genuine concern for mankind, and his unique ability to foster spiritual growth. Thay’s gentle yet powerful character, his twinkling eyes, and encouraging laughter will long continue to serve as an inspiration for both of us.

address book

Rates vary depending on retreat type, length, and choice of accommodations. (970) 881-2184. www.shambhalamountain.org

May/June 2003

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