Remembering Thich Nhat Hanh

Jan 26, 2022


To be beautiful means to be yourself.

You don’t need to be accepted by others.

You need to accept yourself.


– Thich Nhat Hanh


Like many of you perhaps, I have been contemplating the teachings and impact of Thich Nhat Hanh, the beloved Vietnamese Buddhist Master, since his passing last week.

 His book Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life was the first spiritual book I bought in the early 90s when I was about 21. Shortly after I read it, I went to see him speak at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived at the time. Riverside Church is so enormous it’s more like a Gothic cathedral than a church. I sat way at the back in the highest balcony. I couldn’t have been farther away from where he was to speak.

 Still, the moment he walked onto the stage a wave of compassion washed over me. Even now, as I recall the tenderness that I experienced in that moment it feels so alive and present. There he was, appearing as a tiny speck in the distance, radiating pure kindness. My whole being softened as I listened to him speak. I don’t remember what he spoke about, but his presence said all I needed to hear.

 Reflecting on this experience, I see myself sitting in the back of the church that night, a young woman working as an office temp who felt lost and insecure, not loving, or even liking, herself very much, feeling out of sync with her peers who were already on their way to successful careers, seeking and suspecting that there was more to life than a big paycheck and a fancy job.

 But that night, in the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh, all that self-hatred and confusion dissipated for a little while and I felt compassion and complete acceptance for myself as I was. I think it was the first time I remember consciously wanting to be gentle with and kind to myself. It was the beginning of what launched me on the path of cultivating self-respect and love through the practices of yoga.

 Perhaps the most astounding thing is that today, as I remember that evening and the person I was at the time, I can experience the same feeling of compassion and love that Thich Nhat Hanh sparked within me almost 30 years ago.

 Soon after that experience, I started practicing yoga in earnest and came to understand that postural practice could be a way of nurturing the seeds of love and self-respect in me that were planted that evening. And although yoga rather than Buddhism has been my path of self-discovery and inner growth, the importance of cultivating compassion for all beings, beginning with oneself, is at the heart of both traditions. As it does for so many others, Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings and life remain an invaluable support for me in my journey.

If you were to ask any great spiritual teacher how they would most want to be honored and remembered, I think they would tell you it’s by genuinely taking their teachings to heart, continuing to cherish the wisdom they’ve imparted, and endeavoring to live and embody their message in your own life.  


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