The Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh died last month, at the age of 95. It’s impossible to overstate his importance in the Buddhist world—he popularized mindfulness practice and normalized engaged practice, and in doing so, he established a warm, gentle approach that will inform how we understand Buddhism for generations. He was a giant.
I never met him, but his were some of the first Buddhist books I read, and I eventually had the pleasure of meeting some of his students. I sometimes found him challenging. As a young person, I was drawn to the Zen language of practicing like there’s a “red-hot iron ball,” in my gut, or like “my hair is on fire.” I wanted to be immovable like iron, powerful like a dragon. And here was Thich Nhat Hanh, telling me to slow down, to hold the world with the delicateness of holding a flower, to taste and savor every single breath, every bite, every step.
But even then, I knew (or at least sensed) that the things we resist might be things we should explore, so I kept going back to the books, back to the retreats taught by his students. I would pick up his approach, then put it down, then pick it up again. I couldn’t stay still.
But one thing I received from him that I’ve never put down is his love of gatha, verses that bring a mindful awareness to whatever we’re doing. In monastic practices, there are gathas for brushing your teeth, opening doors, putting on clothes; Thich Nhat Hanh took them out of the monastery, expanded them, and shared them with everyone. Every time you flip on a light switch, there’s a verse for that: Forgetfulness is the darkness; mindfulness is the light. I bring awareness / to shine upon all life. When you wash the dishes, there’s a verse for that, too: Washing the dishes / is like bathing a baby Buddha. The profane is the sacred. Everyday mind is Buddha’s mind. I found them hard to remember, so I’d write them on little cards and stick them on the wall, next to the sink, everywhere. They’re wonderful.
I memorized just one—it can be used almost anytime, but it’s really for meditation: Breathing in, I calm my body; breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment. I used to sit entire periods with this, and later, when I’d taken up a more formless practice, I would pull it out for a few breaths when I was especially distracted. I still do. And the main reason—though I like to feel calm, and I want to dwell in the present moment—is “breathing out, I smile.”
Thich Nhat Hanh was clear that this was not supposed to be a big smile; it wasn’t about showing teeth. It wasn’t glee. Rather, he’d instruct students to look at a statue of the Buddha—he always looks so, well, okay. His smile is barely a smile; in most cases, his lips aren’t even turned up. But we register his expression as a happy one, as a look of contentment. “Breathing out, I smile” is that kind of smile, one that you feel and that others can perceive because you feel it, not because you’re actually showing it. It’s that subtle.
Try it. What struck me then, when I was 18, and what still impresses me now, is that if I go looking for that smile, I can find it. It’s in there. When I’m watching all the painful things on the news, or when I can’t find my keys, or when someone close to me is hurting, it’s easy to forget that a smile is available. It’s hard to remember to even look for it. Yet there it is. For thirty years, when I’ve been far from calm, I’ve been able to sit down and start: “Breathing in, I calm my body.” Does that always make me calm? No, and certainly not right away. And when I dwell in the present moment, do I always know it’s a “wonderful moment”? No, though I’d love to. I have those moments, but I also have moments when the many counterarguments get in my way. But “breathing out, I smile”—amazingly, miraculously, I can always do that. It doesn’t erase any of the rest of it. It doesn’t make me calm, and it doesn’t make me see the wonder of everything. But thanks to this simple teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, I have a way to pull myself back to right here. I can remind myself of something I can easily lose, something delicate. And that, perhaps, is wonderful enough.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.