Ven. Thich Nhat Hahn and the Coma

Has Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn, 88, left his

most important teaching to this time in his life?

Buddhists worldwide venerate the Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn, the 88 year old Buddhist teacher from Vietnam, for his exceptional wisdom, unshakeable kindness and gentle expressions of mindfulness.

His teachings have impacted upon millions through his discourses, filmed public talks, interviews and numerous books. An important voice for mindfulness, non-violence and wisdom, he has steadfastly developed an international network of Dharma practitioners in his Sangha, including monks, nuns and laypeople.

We cannot overestimate his immense contribution to a caring way of life, a respectful tolerance and generosity of presence. He has travelled year after year to various continents offering teachings eminently suitable for people of all backgrounds.

Monks, nuns and householders in his Sangha love him dearly – as their teacher, as a respected elder and loving father figure. Usually referred to as Thay (it means Teacher), he receives numerous endless accolades with heart-touching humility. We know we are in the presence of one of the Gods of the Earth when listening to him.

Not surprisingly, Thay became a nominee for the Nobel Prize in 1967 and has received worldwide recognition for his public service. In the Buddhist world, he is the best known figure after the Dalai Lama, 80. Thay will have his 89th birthday on October 11, 2015.

An abrupt halt

Thay’s ongoing speaking engagements came to an abrupt halt in November, 2014, when he experienced a severe brain haemorrhage leaving him in a coma. Many devotees felt a genuine widespread concern that his life would quickly fade away.

Thay had reached such an age where he would be naturally vulnerable to a stroke, a cancer, a haemorrhage, organ failure or heart attack. Nevertheless, there is a lingering thought that his frequent flights and numerous car journeys, along with countless public and private meetings, may have acerbated the demands upon his body and mind.

Concerns have been quietly expressed for some years about his annual programme having its toll upon him. I recall him telling me a couple of decades ago that his periodic health issues affected his sleep. He endured all this with a resilience worthy of a trained and disciplined Buddhist monk.

This massive stroke last winter left Thay with a very severe weakness and immobility down one side of the body dramatically affecting throat, speech and movement. After five months in Bordeaux University Hospital, France, he returned to his monastery at Plum Village, Sainte Foy La Grande, 85 kilometres east of Bordeaux in southern France. In the monastery, monks and nuns gave him round the clock loving support.

Senior French doctors also gave their expertise so Thay could develop the capacity to improve his ability to swallow food and drink. Thay remained unable to say a word and could only offer a smile of appreciation for the moment to moment acts of kindness from his Sangha in his monastery and the regular visits of the medical staff.

As a former Buddhist monk in Thailand, I know only too well the importance of the relationship of a monk to the monastery. “Monks die in monasteries, not in hospitals” is a regular refrain of Buddhist monks and nuns.

The monastic Buddhist tradition of dedicated meditators looks at impermanence and death squarely. Corpses of men, women and children will stand in glass cabinets in certain monasteries in Thailand. Laypeople bring bodies of loved ones to burn for a funeral on a pile of wood for monks, nuns and householders to witness while the ordained chant about the impermanence of existence. There are meditations on ageing, pain and death to free the mind from any suffering over physical pain. There are teachings and practices to overcome fear of death and teachings to dissolve any desire to perpetuate the notion of the self.

The Buddhist tradition does not attempt to cover up death, no desire to do everything possible to perpetuate life. Birth, ageing, pain and death belong to the field of human existence.

The desire to do everything possible to preserve life certainly indicates a well-meaning intention but such desires may obscure the inter-connection of life and death and the willingness to allow organic life to take its natural course. Thay has engaged in a lifelong Dharma service into nearly his 90th year, which represents a remarkable commitment.

A Flight from Plum Monastery

In early July, 2015, senior monks and nuns made the decision for Thay to leave Plum Village and fly to San Francisco. A very wealthy American (a prominent TV personality or a Silicon Valley CEO – depending on the source of information) sent over to France a team of doctors and nurses with a privately owned plane to take Thay to San Francisco.

Seniors at Plum Village asked Thay if he wished to go to California for treatment, and, I am told, he smiled and nodded on various occasions. It was taken as a signal of affirmation. Those at his bedside had to take into account that a severe stroke damages temporarily, or in the long term, the discriminating faculties of the mind/brain.

Neurologists, cognitive rehabilitation and complementary medicine form an intensive programme of therapy, largely run by the UCSF Medical Center, San Francisco for Thay’s rehabilitation. Various kinds of training belong to the programme, as well as day and night support from the Sangha. Top professionals address his condition week in and week out. They believe he will make progress towards recovery this way including being taken to the hospital for regular checkups. The Sangha as well as professionals welcomed news earlier this month that he spoken a few short words, not sentences.

The hospital provides robotic rehabilitation techniques, physical training and specialist therapists. Therapists visit and train with him at his residence during the other days of the week. Thay’s Wikipedia page describes his current treatment as an ‘aggressive rehabilitation programme.’ The total bill to the benefactor for six months of US treatment for Thay could run to $$$$ per day for comprehensive treatment in one of the top private hospitals in the USA. It is certainly a generous dana (donation) from the patron of Thay. We can appreciate these numerous acts of kindness for a beloved spiritual teacher.

Yes, it is all too human to want one’s beloved spiritual master to live longer and make a full or partial recovery. Perhaps this ‘aggressive’ rehabilitation programme will contribute to a measure of renewal of some vital faculties or equally important to his long term rest in his monastery.

Addressing Life and Death

Society experiences immense confusion and dilemmas about a wise way to treat people on the edge of existence. Decisions are frequently left in the hands of doctors and cultural needs to prolong life under all circumstances. Many may prefer to pass from this world rather than be kept alive through hospital treatments. The patient may not have a voice in these decisions.

The Buddhist world needs to address death rather than resist it. The best of the Buddhist tradition faces up to these issues of mortality rather than cling onto continuity because of fear of change, loss and death. This massive stroke that currently has crippled much of the mind and body of Venerable Thich Hahn reminds us of our own mortality. It is hard to know whether this intense treatment will speed up his healing or not. Medicine holds to a commonly held view that “we always have to do something.” This view takes priority rather than allowing organic life of the person to run its course in such situations as Thay.

The exploration of presence and absence in matters of life on Earth shift the priority from preservation of life to the wisdom of the embrace of life and death.

Ven. Thich Nhat Hahn is a fine teacher of non- self, a core teaching of the Buddha. In one of his most famous statements, he said on various occasions in his public talks:

“In Buddhism, there is no such thing as an individual.

“Just as a piece of paper is the fruit, the combination of many elements that can be called non-paper elements, the individual is made of non-individual elements. 

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper.

“Without a cloud there will be no water; without water, the trees cannot grow; and without trees you cannot make paper.”

In some of the lines in his best known poem, Please Call Me By My True Names, Thay wrote:

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—

even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

 

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin a bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

 

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.

Buddhist practitioners leave no stone unturned. Every blind spot, any clinging to the past or holding to views deserves attention and reflection. I have no doubt that Thay meant every word when he referred to the non-self of paper, the non-self of the individual or the poetic language of the self in the self of all.

  • Would Thay wholeheartedly approve of this massive amount of attention given to every effort to perpetuate and improve the condition of his existence?
  • Would Thay prefer such a significant sum of money for his personal treatment be spent on supporting the traumatised Syrian/Iraqi/Afghani and Libyan families fleeing to Europe from the horror of war?

The Sangha of Interbeing takes seriously the wisdom and poetic insights of their beloved teacher. Thay told them on many occasions that the next Buddha is the Sangha. His Sangha now steps into the teaching role to replace the voice of Thay, while he spends his days silent, and mostly still, abiding with all the frailty of a man recovering from a major stroke. These are times of major change at Plum Village and its sister monasteries. The ongoing inquiry into ageing, pain and death have now taken on a poignant significance. The Sangha has the opportunity to go even more deeply into this issue, as it affects the vast majority of  human beings and animals on the Earth.

Dedicated practitioners pay tribute to Thay and each other through the willingness to explore the challenges when death brushes up against the life of a loved one.

Thay would not want the Sangha to fall into the danger of making our Gods into cult figures, a kind of adoration of their personhood. We might gain some sense of self-worth through attaching ourselves to a figure who we wish unconsciously to become a God of immortality. Our desires, projections and illusions generate a mythical narrative about sustaining life at all costs. We must surely question the wisdom of such an approach when any person dwells on the very edge of life and death.

Thay has given us deep and profound teachings, decade after decade. Perhaps, he now indirectly encourages us to start an inquiry in the Buddhist world into addressing issues on the application of wisdom to the end of life.

His stroke and the subsequent events could trigger an enquiry into the

  • genuine benefits and genuine limits of the professionals
  • handing over too much of a person’s diminishing life to experts
  • our desire to perpetuate life and resist death
  • write our personal wishes to family, friends and professions before the advent of a stroke or life threatening illness
  • express our preference for the environment, such as home or monastery, for our death
  • develop the Sangha to recognise its authority in matters of life/death.

If we can come to a full realization that death complements life rather than destroys it, we might free ourselves up from the attachment to existence and free ourselves up from resistance to non-existence.

Liberation from being ensnared in existence and non-existence, being and non-being, constitute the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.

Thay would surely fully endorse such an enquiry. Meanwhile the beloved monks, nuns and householders will welcome with open arms the return of their spiritual master. Plum Village has a wonderful reputation for showing immense kindness and hospitality to the thousands that visit the monastery every year. The Sangha knows the ‘self’ of Thay is the ‘self’ of all.

May all beings enquire into existence and non-existence

May all beings embrace life and death

May all beings know liberation



  • Dear Friends,
    Goenkaji left us too soon. He had diabetes which is fully treatable. Ayya Khema left us too soon. She had breast cancer, also fully treatable. I respect their respective decisions to forego available treatments, but I struggle with the fact that they could both still be here with us, at a time, as all times, when the world needs them. I also struggle with the foregoing of solutions which are simple and can make a big difference. I struggle with the excessive judgement we wield with our noble teachings, in this, as in so many other areas, and inevitably, we each use them in such different ways, for such different purposes, in wild variations, according to our understanding of them, where we learned them, who we listen to: the guru or our own hearts.
    I also struggle with the disproportionality of giving in some poor countries to Sangha that amass enormous wealth at their expense, and we know these are many, in many Buddhist countries.
    Stroke is not the end of life. Ajahn Chah continued to teach for a long time after he had a stroke. I believe Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh could be with us another ten years, and teach us in his way. Who is to say he could not? Who can put a price on the value of having Thay with us another 10 years? What the outcome of this might be is not for me to speculate. I respect Thay’s decision and the community’s offering whatever it may be.
    I am speaking a someone who contracted an illness that was incurable according to the “experts” and would leave me useless and debilitated for the rest of my life. It would have, had I listened to them. I did not listen to them. I found the right treatments for me, and am fully restored, at great expense. How do you feel about this, not knowing how old I am? How would you feel about this if I said I were 20″ And then, 40? And then 80? If I were an architect? If I were a nurse? If I were a President of a country? If I were the last Buddha? May these efforts I made to heal, be of service to countless beings, in ways I may not yet know. This precious human birth. It is precious indeed. Let us each not waste it, and support others, who are doing what they can not to waste it. With a deep bow. _/\_

    • At one of several conferences I have attended involving the Dalai Lama, a question came to him once, that he did not have the answer to. People in the audience, and the host, were sort of stunned. The Dalai Lama said, that is my dignity. It is my right, to not know something.
      This captures the heart of this matter, for me.
      The other heart of this, is for you, Mr. Titmuss, to consider spending some time on one of the PV North American retreats. Here is the tour schedule. http://www.tnhtour.org/tour-dates/ Spending time in the PV community might enrich your perspective on the things of which you speak, and offer a lot of brotherly and sisterly love. _/\_


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