“Make of yourself a light / said the Buddha / before he died.” – Mary Oliver
Today, August 21, 2009, is the first day of our retreat in Estes Park, Colorado. The retreat was meant to be led by our beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). But Thay is not here. He is in a hospital in Boston, receiving intravenous antibiotics for a problem with his lungs. His lungs? The one who taught us all to breathe so beautifully? My lungs are aching for him. Is he in pain? Is he able to breathe comfortably? My heart is hurting for him too.
Two very strong feelings are in me. The first is grief, not only for Thay’s absence, but for his mortality. Someday he will be gone from bodily form. Along with 900 retreatants, I came here to practice mindfulness, but also to bask in the light of his presence. His awakened Being ignites our own awakening. In his embodiment of sweet, pure love it is natural to feel the love in us, the love that we are. I anticipate many tears, profound disappointment, and grief from the 900 people gathered here.
In truth, Thay is never gone; he always exists in some form. So, besides grief, I am experiencing another strong feeling. It is a powerful sense of Thay’s presence in me. His Being is wakefulness, and it exists not only in his physical form, but in many other forms too. As Thay’s students, we contain wakefulness. With our Being we carry on his purpose, his energy of Being. All sangha members are emissaries, vehicles, for Being.
Now that he is absent, we have a chance to practice more fiercely, with sharper focus and deeper compassion. It is time to find and become the Buddha within ourselves. No one can do it for us. Awakening can’t be externalized. We must abandon the hope that Thay, or anyone else, will hand it to us, or be it for us. It’s up to us. It’s up to me.
I imagine Thay was in this position, too, when his teacher passed away. The Buddha’s students were in this position when their teacher left his form. The Buddha’s last words to his disciples: “Be a lamp unto yourself.” Today each of us is faced with a choice: we may see the absence of our teacher as a form of darkness. Or we may realize our own nature of illuminating light.
Here we are, nine hundred strong, transforming together into lamps. With so many of us alight, the face of the earth will be beautifully illuminated.