The Great Pause Week 98: Thich Nhất Hạnh (1926-2022)
Voluntary simplicity is a superpower anyone can access.
This week we lost a great mind that had dwelt among us these past 95 years. His health had been declining for some time and his passing came as no surprise, but for us it is nonetheless a loss. We are all diminished a little by his absence.
Of course, that is not something he would ever say. “Since I was never born, how then can I die?” he might ask. “Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a lifespan beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die,” he told friends. But that is not a correct understanding.
“The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.”
I was compelled to re-read the writings and lectures of Thich Nhất Hạnh when I was diving into the world of quantum entanglement and the role that epigenetics plays in shaping our destinies. In his seminal 2016 book, Designing Regenerative Cultures, my friend Daniel Christian Wahl reminded me that Thich had a term for quantum entanglement—“interbeing.” Whenever I attempt to express a viable path for human survival or articulate some useful engagement, given our very uncertain and dangerous future, I tend to fall back upon the indigenous wisdom and pantheism that has guided my footsteps since youth, its terroir picking up notes of Zen, Tao, and beat dharma along the way. It is difficult to find words to explain what I mean when I say quantum entanglement, but interbeing probably expresses it better than most words.
Erwin Schrödinger in a letter to Albert Einstein used the word verschränkung which is close. The two physicists were discussing correlations between two particles that interact and then separate, in which it appears that one particle of the entangled pair "knows" what action has been performed on or by the other, and with what outcome, even though there is no known means, or time, for such information to have been communicated.
“Cherish no notion of separated individuality,” I read in Lāma Kazi Dawa-Samdup's translation of Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines by kerosine light in a canvas tent on Sumac Road in 1972. I was four months out of law school and a month into my vow of poverty but this idea of no ego was hard to get my head around despite all the riffs I had heard by then from Alan Watts, Swami Satchitananda and Baba Ram Das. Conceptually the notion is not hard—no more so than, say, understanding the amount of empty space in and between atoms of one body and the atoms of another, or, for that matter, the amount of emptiness within the double helix arrangement of DNA, which may have as great role to play in our daily lives as do the nucleoprotein structures we ken to map.
When Thich Nhất Hạnh paid a call on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to urge him to come out publicly against the Vietnam War, King made a decision some historians, and the King family, believe augured his assassination in Memphis a year later. After that meeting, Dr. King nominated Thich for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“I do not personally know of anyone more worthy than this gentle monk from Vietnam,” MLK wrote to the Nobel Committee in Norway. Given the controversial nature of the duplicitous, neocolonial war at that time and the fact that Thich had been exiled from his own country in 1966 for his outspoken views (unbecoming a monk in the eyes of many) the Committee chose not to award the Peace Prize to anyone that year, itself an elegant signal of protest.
Author of more than 100 books and a world traveler, Thich Nhất Hạnh was perhaps second only to the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis among best known religious influencers in our time, but his message has always been of a distinctly different quality. In part that was because he did not carry the burden of institution or legacy, which is liberating. In the main, tho, it was because he was a rebel. At the Plum Village monastery, Brother Phap Dung explained:
One of the most powerful teachings that he shared with us before he got sick was about not building a stupa [shrine for his remains] for him and putting his ashes in an urn for us to pray to. He strongly commanded us not to do this. I will paraphrase his message:
“Please do not build a stupa for me. Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside, and limit who I am. I know this will be difficult for some of you. If you must build a stupa though, please make sure that you put a sign on it that says, ‘I am not in here.’ In addition, you can also put another sign that says, ‘I am not out there either,’ and a third sign that says, ‘If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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