Thich Nhat Hanh, Noble Truths
Today, August 13, 2017, I saw an online photo of Thich Nhat Hanh arriving at an airport in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh is a poet, scholar, gardener, a great soul and a wise and generous Zen Master from Vietnam who came to the US during the Vietnamese War; his purpose was to persuade Americans to withdraw from the hideous carnage among his people. He seemed, to many Vietnamese, to join the "Imperialists" who had oppressed Southeast Asia for centuries. Remember, before the U.S. jumped in, the war was meant to drive the French colonizers out and achieve national independence and reunion with North Vietnam, to reunite the country after European/U.S. forces had divided it.
Then the U.S. made it a "war against Communism" and all that political confusion cast Thich Nhat Hanh as the pro-Imperialist enemy to Vietnamese freedom fighters. When the U.S. at last withdrew, the whole region--Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia--had been turned into a vast Killing Field, and US propaganda still blames "Communism" and refuses to acknowledge all its own genocidal guilt.
Because of this complex history, so poorly understood by Americans in the 21st century, Vietnam, the new reunited Vietnam, refused to allow Thich Nhat Hanh to return until 2005, forty years after he left. In 2008 he visited once more, and yesterday, August 30, 2017 (in the U.S. time zone) he arrived for what seems almost inevitably a final visit. For in the late fall of 2014, "Thay" (a term of endearment used for a teacher, and the brief name for him among thousands of Buddhist students worldwide) suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. In the nearly three years since then his health stabilized but he had suffered some paralysis and a limiting aphasia. He could express his wishes and he could inspire with his deep and radiant happiness, but the long walks together with his students, lay and monastic, and his beautiful haunting long dharma talks in the softest truest voice would never return. He would never again tell the story of accidentally hitting his left hand with a hammer in his right hand--and how quickly, instantly, both hands gave each other love. "My left hand," he always smiled at this point, holding back the punchline, "never said: 'I want justice! Give me that hammer!'"
Seeing the photo of him this morning, sitting in a wheelchair at an airport after a long, long trip, broke my heart, again, and yet inspired me. Thay's face so still, so quiet, so inward. His body so obviously letting go, retiring, becoming an inadequate container for his great heart and spirit. Like an inflated balloon slowly leaking its air through and old soft skin. And because he taught so well and so much about the interbeing of all creatures, ad the illimitless "recycling" of all the separate elements that we mistakenly see as apermanently unique and separate "things"--whether person, plant, star, idea, or emotion--I can also see this process as a grief to those of us who love as a human must, on the 'historical' level. While I also consent to That Which Is on the 'ultimate level, as a perfect illustration of No-Self and Impermanence, of Nirvana perhaps.
He has talked so much and so wisely of how the raincloud cannot disappear into nothing. We see the raincloud in every manifestation that contains water. The raincloud has not died; it has changed. It is in the sunflower and the infant child; it is in the mud and swamp where orchids and lotus grow. It is in you, in me. And Thay is not disappearing; as he empties his physical body, he continues. His mark may be perpetual. His thoughts and words and actions were magnificent and may they find continuation in each person, each flower,each calligraphy, each book, that has been touched by him.
My Poem's sources
The most recent Zen Scholarship Thay was working on was a new translation of the Sutra (a dharma talk by the Buddha some 2600 years ago) called "The Heart Sutra" or "The Heart of Perfect Understanding" or "The Prajnaparamita Sutra." The poem I transcribe here is based on my understanding of the Prajnaparamita linked with my experience sitting alone beside my father during his last three days of life. In the Sutra, a Boddhisattva voice says repeatedly, "Listen, Shariputra: Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form. Form is not other than Emptiness; Emptiness is not other than Form." My understanding of the apparent contradiction underlies my Buddhist practice of the last thirteen years: meditation leading to concentration, concentration revealing the concrete reality of the existence of things and beings on one level while on the other there are only transient assemblages of that which is neither particle nor wave, neither matter nor energy.
As a Shakespeare scholar and theatre artist, I found semantic memories of Prospero's words arising in conjunction with the Sutra. A particular passage from The Tempest helped me "sing" about the mystery of life and death: in the play, Prospero, an exiled king and a great wizard, has caused an assembly of his loved ones and his former enemies to witness a heavenly pageant, literally a performance by gods and goddesses in the clouds. When it ends and one, at least, of the onlookers expresses confusion and concern, Prospero chides--or reassures--them:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, --the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve.
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Act IV, Sc. 1, lines 148-158
So I am adding my own ponderings to that stunned witnessing. Here, as a tribute to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, is my own poem. You may want to print this out and let yourself take it slowly; it is meant to be a song, maybe a contemporary chant.
Sutra on the Baseless Fabric
"Ga-te, Ga-te, Paraga-te, Parasamga-te"
(Going, Going, Almost going, Almost competely gone)
("An actor is a sculptor carving in snow.")
Ice statues, carving ourselves in a substance
of endless deliquescence, struggling for permanence,
the illusion of perpetuity, delusions
of existence: Vivo, ergo sum.
Ice melts as it warms. We melt
As we cool. Ice blooms as heat recedes:
Thick atoms slow and crystallize.
But we form when heat quickens:
Our solidity not solid, but crystal motion.
We are not ice but flame. All melts. All trembles.
Dancing and flickering, wavering over ashes,
Moulten in soft dust, and blown away, blown out:
Sandcastles labored, compulsive structuring,
Shoring up ever-evanescing towers,
Anguished at imperfections, the annual
Losses, anxious labors to make fixed,
To firm up artifacts among these windblown drifts,
These our actors, were all Spirits, men and women
Of snow: Les neiges d'antan.
Watching, then, permanently, my permanent father
Disappear, slip away, the very body diminishing
Hour by hour. The flesh goes first, a layer of stuff
We think is meat, solid-- the person incarnate,
We think--but yet it disappears. Its absence
Alters suddenly the person, enacts a stranger,
Leaves a body but the skin sinks onto bone
And reshapes, redesigns: an alien emerges,
The gaunt death-ikon appears in place of face:
Jaw, skull and shoulder sockets extrude—
As cheek, mouth, and biceps vanish.
Knee-joints and hip-bones, elbows and ribs
Grow monstrous and huge: no thighs, no calves,
only jagged lines, only bones. O scarecrow, skeleton.
O staggering weak collection of rods and sockets
Above the swollen talons that were feet. Leave not a racke behinde.
We are such stuffe (A pageant, apparition) as dreames.
He shrank before my eyes--
Like the snow outside those dim December days--
Dispersed, becoming pale and then invisible.
The snow was melting in a winter sun, a slow
and ceaseless warming, and his was cooling,
his life that had been flame, had blazed and sparked,
had spit and glowed, became a pale translucent glow,
Still vaporizing till the heat was gone.
And then go thoughts, attention, all
But a faint trace of person dissolves—
a smoke dispersed in air;
mere indistinct wisps remain.
O pale, pale: --where goes the blood
That its tint not lingers beneath the skin,
The tinge of living in transparency?
And the face like an infant in winter, in having
No person, no tension, no history etched, or hope:
Habitual frown, wry grimace, lifted eyebrow,
Winked eye, flashed frown-- all erased:
What you thought they looked like in the flesh
But that was not flesh, but the imprinted power,
A present strength of will. . . all Spirits.
The chest looms over this rickety scaffolding.
The thin claws of hands that clasp nothing.
His feet had lost the ground; he tipped in some
Gravityless ether. His hair, bleached and
Blushing straw, on end.
Like candleglow, he flickered at the last,
Like wisps of spark, he sank, dispersed, and sighed.
So easy this extinction, eternity's bland mask of death.
Even in sleep, expression remains.
Not here: this country from whose Bourne
At last, not human, further gone in time
To fish or lizard, a mouth that opens slowly
To no air, once and once and once again
And then the tiny skeletal foetal curl.
So silent, gradual. Where was the line crossed,
when did the bolt slip into the slot,when was the door so closed it sealed into wall,
why can't it come back, why can't we reach through,
why can't we return, why can't we see further?
The bottom of all runs out. The hole disappears.
There isn't. Not. None. Gone. Done.