By Amy Caldwell
As we entered our second year of the pandemic, early in the spring of 2021, I was reviewing the changes and additions the monastics of the Plum Village Center for Engaged Buddhism had made for our revised and expanded edition of Thich Nhat Hanh’s classic collection of meditations, The Blooming of a Lotus. Upon hearing of Thay’s death last Friday, my mind returned to my reading and that time.
It was still cold here in New England, and yet the winter, for a New England winter, had been oddly warm and snowless. I was delighted not to be shoveling snow—and unsettled. We had a new president, but we’d also had an insurrection. The vaccines were just rolling out, but it had been a long year of too much isolation, too much anxiety, too many Zoom meetings, and too much streaming. I felt deeply disconnected and yet over-connected, tethered to my laptop.
You know. You had your own version of 2021. You may even be still living it.
Working on The Blooming of a Lotus during this time was a gift. It was medicine of the highest order. Sometimes, I took the time to practice one or two of the early meditations in the book before diving into the next section of editing, focusing on my breathing, connecting mind and body, tasting the sensation of simple presence before my mind inevitably darted elsewhere. Other times, I found myself returning to one or another of the brief prefaces Thay had given at his 2004 Rains Retreat.
After each of these prefaces, the retreatants would meditate in silence for forty minutes. I, too, meditated upon them, if with less rigor.
Some of the Rains Retreat meditations are meant to help calm one’s mind, others to look deeply and contemplate a subject—which requires a calm mind. They praise the Buddha for teaching us to generate joy and happiness; and they bring us to dwell in the present moment, for it is the only moment in which we can be alive and fully present.
But they also describe the practice of loving speech and thought, that of right action, and the internal knots—the fetters—that bind us. (And much more.) As ever with Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist practices and fetters are not merely individual; they ripple through communities.
I am, like most of us, fettered—sometimes more so, and sometimes less. I need practices that connect me to the wellspring of joy that is within me when that wellspring feels like a fantastical creature long unseen. I need to be not only urged toward loving speech and thought but reminded how it can, properly done, break down barriers, external and internal.
As one flawed human to my fellow flawed humans, then, I am deeply grateful to the monastics of Plum Village Center for Engaged Buddhism for ensuring that we all have access to so many of Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditations and teachings. And as much as we need them now, we will need them long after the pandemic ends.
About the Author
Amy Caldwell is the editorial director at Beacon Press. She acquires in religion, with special emphases on interfaith issues; the relation between politics, culture, and religion; and how Americans live out their religious beliefs. She also acquires in science and society, as well as narrative nonfiction/memoir.