In the Spirit of Animals
If you had asked me such a question some years ago, I probably would have given you some theoretical answer based on things I have read in books or seen in movies or gotten from the Web. But the issue became a very real and personal one for me a year ago, with the passing of our family’s dog, as I wrote about in this blog space.
Since the passing of our golden retriever, Marron, exactly one year ago today on 6 April 2015, that question has been on my mind a lot. And a year later, looking back, I’m convinced there is indeed something to the idea that animals have souls just like we humans do.
The passing of Marron back then was about more than losing a pet — for us she was part of the family and we grieved her absence from our lives. And because we were in grief, I attributed that as the reason why occasionally I would feel her presence in our house or yard. I must have just been imagining things, I thought, and let it go at that.
Then late one evening, a few weeks or so after Marron’s death, I was in my upstairs studio working on some writing project. My wife and son had gone to bed an hour or two before, and with late evening/early morning hours often being the only time I can really get any writing work done, I was busy typing away.
In the silence of our home, in this quiet suburban neighborhood at night, you can literally hear a pin drop, both inside and outside the house. Even so, I hadn’t paid much attention to a noise that was coming from behind me somewhere inside the house — from the downstairs front-door area, to be exact. And when the sound finally broke through my concentration, I froze my typing in mid-sentence and I just stopped and listened, holding my breath.
What gave me chills was the fact that it was a sound I was very familiar with: the snoring of our dog, Marron. And it was coming from the very spot where she used to have her bed and where she had died with me at her side. I used to joke when she was alive that she must have had the DNA of bears somewhere in her bloodline because that’s how loudly she used to snore at night. She wasn’t a great watchdog — she trusted humans too much for that — but I used to say laughingly that if any robbers tried to get into our house, Marron’s bearlike snoring would probably scare them off, so we had nothing to worry about.
And though our dog had only been gone a few weeks, here was the unmistakable, familiar sound of her presence right in our home.
I listened to the snoring sound over my shoulder for a long while, glued to my chair in front of the computer, and then could take the suspense no longer. I got up as quietly as I could, tiptoed over to the top of the stairs…and looked down to the front-door entranceway. And as soon I did, the sound stopped.
Of course, our dog wasn’t there and I hadn’t really expected her to be. But how to explain the sound of her snoring? I couldn’t explain it, and kept the episode to myself, chalking it up to my mind running away with me out of the sadness I had been feeling over the weeks since she’d been gone.
But when the sound happened again and again on other late nights, in just the same way I described, I began to think there were other forces at work here. I also decided not to tell my wife about it for fear that she would probably think I had lost my mind and have me committed to a mental-care facility.
One day out of the blue, though, my wife brought it up first without any prompting from me: From the downstairs bedroom, she said, she had sometimes heard the sound of Marron snoring in the front entranceway at night and was sure it was our old dog. The hair stood up on the back of my neck again. It was only at that point (with some relief) that I told my wife I too had been hearing the same thing from upstairs. “So, Marron’s still here with us,” we both agreed, and left it at that.
We often hear stories about people’s relatives coming to “visit” in dreams or in sounds or translucent images after the loved ones had passed away. They say that some human spirits linger for a while in the earthly place where they died before moving on in their spiritual journey. If it could happen to humans, then why not animals too?
The answer to that question was reconfirmed for me not along after the snoring episodes, when I began hearing another familiar sound coming from the same place as before. This time, it was the rustling sound of our dog getting up from her bed. When she was alive, we used to put newspapers on the floor and on top of that a small padded mattress and a blanket as her bed. And whenever she would get up from her bedding, there was always a bit of a rustling sound of the newspapers and mattress and blanket.
After she died, we got rid of her bedding and there was nothing there now to rustle. And yet here was that same rustling sound again late at night, which I would sometimes hear as I was about to come down the stairs to get ready for bed. And like before, I was sure my wife would think I was going crazy so I didn’t breathe a word about it.
And just like before, my wife, unprompted and out of the blue, one day told me she had sometimes heard the sound of Marron getting out of her bed late at night. And replaying the same scene as before, I finally opened up again and said I had been hearing it too.
I guess by that time, most people who experience such a paranormal-type event in their homes would be spooked out of their wits and consider moving to a new abode. But that never even crossed our minds. We just thought that Marron was still staying a while with us before moving on to Rainbow Bridge, as pet owners everywhere call the animal otherworld. It was even kind of reassuring, at least for me, to know that our dog was still kind of hanging around and watching out for us, even if she wasn’t here in physical form.
The sounds stopped coming at some point, a few months or so after Marron’s passing, and the house went back to being totally quiet late at night, as it still is. But to tell the truth, I kind of miss those nocturnal dog noises — and the smile they would inevitably bring to my face whenever I heard them.
So today, one year after Marron’s passing, if you were to ask me if I think animals have spirits like we humans do, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer yes. After all, many spiritual traditions around the world believe in animals residing in the Great Beyond, just like people do, so it seems natural. But more than that, I can tell you from personal experience that there does seem to be life after death where animals are concerned, especially lovable golden retrievers with a strain of bear’s blood in them.
A Place Called ‘Motomenai’
But what most of the media here didn’t report in their brief stories on Kajima were the kinds of things I had gotten to know personally about him in recent years: how he had been among the up-and-coming literary figures in Japan after World War II, how he became a renowned scholar and translator of English-language classics (especially by the U.S. author William Faulkner), how he found a new form of expression in watercolor painting, and how, later in life, he rediscovered his Asian roots in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and had become known as a respected Taoist philosopher in Japan.
You see, Shozo Kajima for me was a kind of mentor and a literary father — the kind any son would be proud of. And to think it all began with a single newspaper story and two books….
It was a late spring morning, a Saturday I remember, in 2008 when I opened the newspaper and read the English-language version of this story in the Asahi newspaper in Japan. It showed a bearded elderly Japanese man sitting in a windowed patio of his house with a wide vista of nature behind him.
The article said that his 2007 book Motomenai, a book of Japanese short poetry verses based on calligraphic paintings he had done, was a blockbuster in Japan, selling around 400,000 copies. It was especially popular among younger generations of Japanese readers, who apparently connected with the book’s subtle message of giving up the material clutter of life in favor of a more spiritually based existence.
Kajima had for years been living and working alone in a cottage in the rural Ina valley in Nagano Prefecture, near the Japan Alps mountain range, far from the urban madness of Tokyo, where he used to be based. These words by Kajima in the newspaper story caught my attention and made straighten up in my chair:
“It takes me five years to write a book of poetry. I have to wait for the high energy necessary to write poems and draw pictures. While I’m waiting, I lack all ambition. I waste whole days at a time. Art emerges from the unconscious. It doesn’t happen according to a plan.”
As something of a poet myself, I knew exactly where he was coming from. I had self-published my own bilingual (English and Japanese) book of poetry in 1999 titled Inochi, the Japanese word for “life”, and I never charged anyone a cent for the book. It was my first published book, and I wanted to write it purely from the heart and soul without any thought of making money off it; I donated any money I did receive for the book to charitable causes.
Why haven’t I heard about this bestselling book Motomenai? I thought to myself, as I read the newspaper article. And who in the heck is Shozo Kajima?
I bought the book soon afterward — a small, square-shaped book with a humble-looking cover — and carried it around with me throughout my busy day, reading the simple poems within it whenever I could. I instantly fell in love with it. Unlike most books of poems, here was one that really said something to me. I soon understood why readers all over Japan had connected with it too.
I decided to try and write to Kajima, tell him how much I loved his book, and send him a copy of my own book of poetry. But I could find no definite street address for him anywhere. So I just mailed it to the general neighborhood where he lived in rural Nagano Prefecture, hoping against the odds that the package would somehow find its way through the postal system to his rural home.
By some miracle, it did.
One day, not long afterward, I received in my home mailbox a reply letter from Kajima, brush-painted on traditional rice paper. Watashi mo anata no nakama da to kanjimashita, it read in Japanese: “I felt a kinship with you as well”. He invited me in the letter to make a trip to his home someday in rural Nagano Prefecture. I was humbled, to say the least, that he would even write back.
Making a long story short, I eventually did take Kajima up on his invitation in 2008, setting out by bus for half the day through a part of Japan I had never seen before. The bus wound its way through the majestic Japan Alps, awing me with the sheer natural beauty in abundance. I finally made it to Kajima’s spacious rural home, which also functioned as his personal library and creative studio space — Banseikan [Clear Evening Hall], as he had officially dubbed his two-story wooden quarters. I felt, somehow, like I had was being welcomed home again.
We agreed that I would translate his Motomenai book into English, and in the subsequent trips I made to the Banseikan, he and I would spend hours going over my translations poem by poem. It was not my first time to translate Japanese documents into the English language, but it was the first time for me to translate Japanese poetry into English, which turned out to be far more difficult than I had anticipated.
Kajima coached me well, telling me to forget a strict translation of his poems and aim for a very loose translation instead. “Make them your own”, he advised me one day, and from then on I did. My translations became more organic and naturally flowing, much like the fresh air and water of the mountains and surrounding farmlands that were his home.
In all I made three trips to visit Kajima up in the high plains of Nagano over the course of 2008 and 2009 to work on our draft of Motomenai. It was a wonderful way for me to spend a few days each time, just walking the country roads where he lived, photographing the rich natural scenery of the area, taking in the crisp, clean, mountain air, and watching the evening sun set over the Japan Alps on the other side of the valley from us. It filled my spirit with renewed energy and an even deeper love for the Earth.
One memorable evening after dinner, I never will forget: The conversation at Kajima’s dining table over tea casually turned to spiritual matters, and he asked me if I believed in the channeling of spirits. I said I did. That was how the calligraphic poems that became Motomenai were conceived, he told me: “They just kept coming to me, one after another, like they were being channeled through me by some force”. Over weeks and months, the inspiration for the poems had come through him and onto the paper, he said. He had never had such a profound experience before in all his years of writing. He was in his 80s at the time this all happened.
During the months that Kajima and I were working on my translated draft of Motomenai, the Tokyo-based English Journal, a monthly magazine geared toward young professionals and readers wanting to brush up their language skills, approached Kajima about publishing some of his Motomenai poems in a special series. He asked me to do it, as a first step in possibly getting the whole book published somewhere someday. I jumped at the chance.
So, for one year from spring 2010 to spring 2011, each monthly edition of English Journal magazine featured Kajima’s original Motomenai poems and watercolor paintings, along with my English-language translation of them. The CD that came with each issue of the magazine also featured audio tracks of my reading of the selected poems, which we had recorded in a professional studio in Osaka.
You can view images of the entire yearlong series of Kajima’s Motomenai poems, together with my translations, exactly as they appeared in the pages of English Journal, on this website’s POETRY page.
We eventually finished the back-and-forth work on the draft of his book Motomenai around that time. I was hoping that he would be able to find a suitable publisher for it in Tokyo, and looked forward to one day seeing it in print. I guess Kajima never did find that publisher, as I heard that a couple of years back he had suffered a stroke, which had left him bedridden and unable to create anymore.
And an eerie thing happened some time after that: On 25 December 2015 — Christmas Day — here in Japan, I remember waking up with a feeling of grief and deep sadness. It stayed with me the whole day, a blue mood that I just couldn’t get rid of: Where’s this coming from? Did someone I know die? I felt sure that some person close to me must have gone. I got on the Internet and checked, but found no deceased relatives in the States. As it turned out, I was looking in the wrong place.
The next thing I heard in early January of this year was the news media reporting in Japan about Shozo Kajima’s passing of old age. The obituaries placed his dying day as 25 December 2015 — the same day that I had inexplicably felt the death of someone close to me. Now I understood.
I heard from one of Kajima’s family members that he had died peacefully in bed, “almost like sleeping”. I was saddened beyond words to hear of his demise, yet comforted to know that there was no suffering for him at the very end.
Although I had joined Kajima only in the final years of his life, I was supremely grateful for having walked that last road partially with him. It changed me forever. The sadness of losing him, a source of so much creativity and wisdom, is somehow soothed by a feeling of enrichment within me in having known and worked with him as an apprentice of sorts, even for a short time.
Not long after the media reports of Kajima’s passing, he was constantly on my mind and one day it dawned on me where he actually was now. Out in my backyard, I had a silent conversation with Kajima, the way people sometimes do with lost loved ones. Well, you’ve finally made it to that place of “motomenai” you always wrote about, I said smiling. Where you are now, there’s no more wanting, no more desiring, no more material things. Now you’re at peace.
And to think it all started with just two books of poetry, Kajima’s and mine, which had unexpectedly brought us both together back in 2008 — books from two different generations of writers and so different in appearance and style, yet containing the same simple message: Life is the most precious thing of all. Treasure it and live it well.
Who knows? Maybe our English version of Motomenai will be published someday. I had wished all along that Shozo Kajima would live long enough to see the book printed up in his lifetime. But now he’s gone. With his departure, I feel a renewed sense of wanting to share with the world that treasure of a book that had moved and inspired so many people all across Japan.
And with a literary father’s help from a faraway place called motomenai, maybe, just maybe, I will get it done after all.
‘A Love Supreme’ at 50
That, for me, would be the classic jazz album A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. I can think of no better way to start a new year than by sitting down and once again giving a close listen to this magnificent recording that has inspired so many people around the world since it was released back in 1965.
But not just the original version of that record — what I’m listening to now as I write these words is A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters, a new three-CD set that commemorates the 50 years since its release by Coltrane to instant, and lasting, public acclaim. This repackaged edition of A Love Supreme is a true musical treasure for the ears and feast for the soul.
What is it about A Love Supreme that makes it so warmly embraced by so many people of differing walks of life all over the planet? I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. Of course, there is the very high level of craftsmanship that all four members of Trane’s classic quartet brought to the table: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums and Trane himself on saxophone — all of them playing at the peak of their prowess and communicating intently with each other on literally every note.
Yet chops alone don’t explain it. Then, could it be the sound? Many professional musicians know about a thing call the Universal Tone, that special something that somehow penetrates all barriers and boundaries and hits people right in the heart and unites them in their humanity. Few musicians ever reach that plateau in their lifetime, but Trane’s sound on A Love Supreme is at that universal level, no doubt. But is that all?
Maybe it’s also the pulse of spirituality that A Love Supreme resonates, a reflection of that deep inner place that Trane was at when he composed this four-part suite: “Acknowledgement”, “Resolution”, “Pursuance” and “Psalm”. Popular music is not generally known for its spiritual pursuits; monetary profit is usually the more immediate goal. Yet this record was exceptional in showing that something spiritually nourishing could also do well on the popular charts.
Or perhaps it’s something simpler that most people who listen to A Love Supreme tend to overlook: Coltrane’s direct message to each owner of the record.
The original liner notes on the album’s inner jacket, written by Trane himself, are very honest and open about how he was moved by his relationship with God (or however you want to define that entity) to share A Love Supreme with the world as a new direction in his musical development. Most liner notes of jazz records back then were written by so-called professional jazz critics, and there often seemed to be a gap between how a critic explained the music to you in a particular album’s liner notes and how you, the listener, received the music and felt about it. Trane, as the artist, bypassed that critique completely and addressed you personally in writing. How often does that ever happen on a major record label?
In the end, it’s not any one of these factors but rather all of them put together, I think, that set A Love Supreme so far apart, above and ahead of other musical recordings, both in and outside of jazz. And this newly released, three-disc commemorative edition of A Love Supreme shows that the reverence in which people have held Coltrane’s landmark recording is as high as ever.
The first disc in this new edition includes the original 33-minute stereo version of A Love Supreme and a couple of mono versions of the tunes that were in Coltrane’s personal possession.
Disc 2 is where most of the new stuff is: assorted studio outtakes from the recording of A Love Supreme back in December 1964 — both a sextet session (featuring additional players Archie Shepp on tenor sax and Art Davis on bass) and the quartet session, which Trane eventually decided to go with in publicly releasing the record.
The third disc features the Coltrane quartet performing A Love Supreme at a jazz festival in France in summer 1965, which is reportedly the one and only time that the entire Love Supreme suite was performed in concert. You can view a video clip of that rare performance here.
And to top it all off, the inner packaging of the new edition includes some archival handwritten notes and compositional sketches by John Coltrane himself, including the album’s original liner notes and Coltrane’s direct message to the reader. The accompanying booklet also has some rarely seen photos of Trane and (believe it or not!) a well-written essay by Ashley Kahn, who I consider to be the only jazz writer worthy of critiquing this subject matter and capable of doing a good job at it.
So, A Love Supreme has now turned 50. And I can’t imagine a better way for me to spend my own 57th birthday, today, than by listening to it once again and taking in all the feeling and deep vibes that have made this record the very special gift it is. The perfect way to begin a year.
And if you’re looking for a recommendation on how to kick off your own New Year in a meaningful way, you’ve got it right here. Just listen…and enjoy.
In the Spirit of John Trudell
His voice on the new CD now coming through my stereo speakers, right after his passing, seemed to cast things in a new light for me. It really felt for the first time like it was not him personally, but rather his spirit that was now doing the talking.
Coming from the Santee Dakota nation in the United States, John Trudell had a lot to say about First Nations issues and I was among many who had listened to him. I knew that he had helped organize the occupation of the former prison at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay starting in late 1969 to call urgent attention to Native issues; it was Trudell who had set up a broadcast from the island called “Voice of Alcatraz” and got the word out to the wider public through a local radio station. Trudell was a person who was good with words and could communicate naturally to an audience. Check out this interview by local Bay Area media around the time of the Alcatraz occupation to see what I mean.
Trudell served as the national chairman of the American Indian Movement from 1973 to 1979, some of the group’s most active and visible years. Trudell withdrew from AIM activities for a while after that and eventually made his way into musicians’ circles on the U.S. West Coast. Though not a trained musician, through music and spoken word recordings Trudell would find a way to keep his voice out there for the people to hear for the rest of his days.
Listen to a spoken word recording he put out just a few years ago, DNA — Descendant Now Ancestor, and you’ll see what I mean. He was a natural communicator and a serious spiritual thinker.
I always paid close attention to what Trudell had to say, ran his words and ideas over and over in my mind, thought about how they might apply to my own life. He had an influence on the way I viewed things, to be sure.
He talked about the difference, for example, between believing and thinking: Believing (which, he noted, contained the word “lie” within it) is a passive, almost mindless action, while thinking is an active, forward-moving action that makes you mentally challenge things. After hearing Trudell break it down like that, I never again used the words “I believe that…” or “I believe in…” to get my point across. That holds true even today. For me, it’s always “I think” or “My thought on that is…”.
Trudell also drew a clear distinction between power and authority. Authority, he maintained, was some entity outside of us that exerts control over our lives, such as the government, police, military, corporations, etc. Power, on the other hand, is something that is inside of us: will power, for instance, or mental and spiritual power. Power in its very purest form, Trudell pointed out, was something within each of us that we could tap into at any time — the power of life, the power of the universe, in other words. And once again, after thinking that concept through deeply, I came to understand what he was getting at. I am now much more careful in my own thinking and writing when dealing with any issues involving “the powers that be” or “centers of power” in society. True power indeed comes from within; authority is something that comes from outside.
A 2007 documentary film about him, titled Trudell, tells his story much better than I ever could. Check out the full film here or get a copy of the DVD for yourself and listen to what this man had to say. Likewise, I encourage you to listen to the various recordings he made over the years. His voice was, in many ways, the voice of us all.
“I’m just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of being human,” Trudell used to say. Well, he’s in another world now, having left us to make sense of this world we’re still in. I honor the spirit of brother John Trudell, in both his past journey among us and his current journey beyond us, knowing that somehow we haven’t yet heard the last of him.
The Zen of Climate Change
“Together, humanity must act on the root causes of this environmental crisis, which is driven by our use of fossil fuels, unsustainable consumption patterns, lack of awareness, and lack of concern about the consequences of our actions,” the statement reads. “We call on world leaders to recognize and address our universal responsibility to protect the web of life for the benefit of all, now and for the future.”
This, I have to confess, sent my spirits soaring. It was a significant move that helped put Buddhists the world over on the right side of this issue, especially at this critical moment in human history. The statement by Buddhist leaders was obviously meant to influence the planned United Nations climate talks in Paris, France, and it was right on time.
It came on the heels of the Pope, representing the Catholic religion, making a similar pronouncement not long before. Finally, I thought, religious leaders are taking a stand for the Earth and getting their followers behind them. If we could get all of the world’s religious faiths and factions to do the same thing, we might actually have a chance at dealing with the ecosystem breakdowns and environmental disasters that have become all too common in recent years. We have indeed arrived at “a crucial crossroads where our survival and that of other species is at stake as a result of our actions,” according to the Buddhist statement, and the time to commit to action and follow it through is now facing us all.
The statement was also heartening in another sense for me: It showed how the notion of “engaged Buddhism”, a term coined and put into action by Thich Nhat Hanh during the American war on Vietnam decades ago, has taken root and been accepted by Buddhists of various factions and nationality on issues of international concern. People are coming together, recognizing a common destiny among humans and other living beings, and taking action to try to make positive change happen.
Engaged Buddhism, like the idea of liberation theology in Christianity, for me signifies a moving away from organized religions as enslavers of human thought and judgers of all things right and wrong. Religions have traditionally been safe, comfortable havens that deal only with matters of the spirit and getting a seat beside God in the hereafter. With planetary destruction on a level never seen before upon us today, religions are also showing that they can be houses of social change and urgent action on matters happening outside the temple doors — matters affecting every single living species on the Earth at a vital juncture in time.
Whether such bold steps by organized religions are too little, too late to save the planet at this point is something we will find out soon enough in the coming years. Yet it is a good start, and we should applaud those religious leaders, wherever they are, who dare to stand up and call for action. The world is full of problems at the moment and each problem is important to for us to deal with and try to resolve. But surely the biggest one of all, the survival of our own selves on our only home, has to rank at the top.
“Cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion, we will be able to act out of love, not fear, to protect our planet,” the Buddhist statement reads. Yes. Love has to be the primary motivation here, and compassion and interconnectedness the practical tools we can use to help us move forward — right now, today — on the critical issue of global climate change.
Much more can be found here on the Buddhist response to global warming, a website providing plenty of useful resources with which to follow up and follow through.
Given the times we live in, the recent Buddhist leaders’ statement on climate change is truly impressive and inspiring. But it won’t mean a thing in the long run if leaders of other religious faiths and other Buddhist factions around the world do not step up to the plate and make a commitment on this as well. That’s where we all come in, working from the grassroots up to make sure that leaders everywhere get the message loud and clear and are emboldened to act. And act they must, for the sake of us all.
Healing for the Healer
He is also now, at age 89, bedridden and recovering from a severe stroke that he suffered about a year ago. He has come out of a coma, and with the help of qualified medical professionals and the love of his Buddhist students and colleagues, he is slowly learning to do basic things like move his body and speak words again.
The man who has given the better part of his life to sharing the Buddhist spiritual ideals to help heal that which ails us — our own fragile egos and selfish human desires, in other words — is now the one who needs some healing. Could we find some time and space in our busy lives for that?
I can. Master Thay (the Vietnamese word for “teacher”), as he is affectionately known, has been regularly in my thoughts and my nightly prayers since I, like many others around the world, received the jolting news that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage in November 2014. We seemed to hold our collective breath until word came that he would live after all, though just barely.
I look back on his life with humility and respect. This was the man who spoke out, like many other Buddhists in Vietnam, at the risk of their own lives against the U.S. genocide in their country during the Vietnam war (but which the Vietnamese people have always referred to as the “American war”).
During a trip to the United States in 1965, Nhat Hanh wrote and sent a letter to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., calling for him as a man of peace to join the masses of people worldwide who were raising their voices against the Vietnam war. “I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights,” Nhat Hanh wrote to King, “you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people.”
King understood. A Nobel Peace Prize recipient himself from just a few years before, King in turn nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the peace prize in early 1967. “[C]onferring the Prize on Nhat Hanh would itself be a most generous act of peace,” King told the Nobel prize committee in Oslo, Norway. “It would remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction. It would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace. It would help to revive hopes for a new order of justice and harmony.”
The Nobel committee ended up giving nobody the peace prize that year — a sign, perhaps, of just how divided the whole planet was over the U.S. killing in Vietnam. In any case, Rev. King went on to speak out against the war, and was assassinated exactly one year to the day after he first did.
A few years later Nhat Hanh was barred from returning to his country, with the South Vietnamese government considering him a traitor of the highest order. Nhat Hanh spent most of his years in exile in France, where he went on to co-found Plum Village, a Buddhist meditation center and retreat that has been his home base ever since. (He later founded a few such Buddhist study/retreat centers in the U.S. as well, most notably the Deer Park Monastery in California, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York state and Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi.)
He also founded a publishing company, Parallax Press, for helping to spread the word of the Buddhist teachings, and in so doing, has gained a worldwide following of loyal readers, of which I proudly include myself. As a Buddhist (though not of the Zen school), I have always respected Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep understanding of the causes of human suffering — and the path of reflection and reconciliation that he wisely promotes as a positive way forward in his writings.
He was transferred from France to the United States for physical therapy following his debilitating stroke a year ago, and is reportedly making slow but steady progress. His loving circle of supporters call this progress his “continuation” — a beautiful way of putting it, I thought. The wise elder, in just being alive, is continuing his lifework one small step at a time. Read this emotion-filled update on Nhat Hanh’s progress as of a couple of months ago for the latest news on his continuation at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.
For those who would like to donate or contribute something tangible, as I have, toward Thich Nhat Hanh’s medical treatment and physical therapy, you can do so here. And if the spirit moves you, as it often does me, you can always send your own wishes and prayers for Master Thay’s recovery via the direct line (that is, your mind).
In the meantime, there is a treasure trove of information about Thich Nhat Hanh on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to read or watch them. One of the interviews I like best is one that U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey did with him a few years ago — one of the highlights of Winfrey’s long and storied career, in my opinion. (video version here) (print version here)
This blog space you are now visiting, dear reader, is not only a place where I can rant and rave about all the important goings-on of the world (which, as time goes on, I think are not really so important in the long view of things). No, this blog space is also intended to be a place where I can help send out some positive vibes to the people, and help spread a little love and light around whenever possible. And this is one of those times.
Thich Nhat Hanh stands as one of the great spiritual leaders of our time, and he has done it all with compassion, humility, perseverance and grace, and without resorting to philosophical dogmatism, religious fundamentalism or any other kind of “-ism”. All have been welcomed in his house, and many around the world — regardless of religious faith or spiritual belief — have indeed been healed in some way, thanks to his writings and spoken words.
Decades ago, when a world at war with itself most needed a gentle, wise soul of a healer, it got one in the person of Thich Nhat Hanh. Now that the healer himself needs healing, we can be there to send some back to him. Let us do so in whatever way feels right to each one of us, and make his “continuation” on this path of life that much more joyous in the precious time that this wise elder still has left with us.
Of Soil, Soul & Society
Kumar, a former monk of the Jain religion in India and follower of the nonviolence teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, is perhaps best known today as a peace activist, ecologist and editor of the magazine Resurgence based in England, where he lives with his family.
Yesterday’s event started off with the showing of a promotional DVD (video clip here) featuring Kumar in conversation with some well-known Japanese personalities. He then took the stage with interpreter Shinichi Tsuji, a Japanese university professor of cultural anthropology and a proponent of the fledgling “slow food” movement here in Japan.
The 77-year-old Kumar tends to teach in spiritual “trinities,” and he summarizes his ecological worldview with the triple concept of “soil, soul and society.” It goes something like this....
Soil: The first step in each one us making sense of our place in this world begins with the earth, our natural mother in every respect. We have lost touch with what it means to walk on the planet as a human being. The best way to get back to that is reconfirm your own personal, individual relationship with nature. That can mean spending time gardening in your yard, taking long walks in nature, hiking, farming, whatever. In the process, you make nature a part of you again. Take soil in your hands and feel again what it means to be connected to nature and the wider natural world.
Soul: Find out those things that spiritually fulfill you, make you feel whole, put your heart and mind at ease and at peace, and work them into your daily life. That can mean meditation, prayer, fasting, yoga — whatever helps you to go inside of yourself just a little deeper and find out what makes you tick on a very soulful, spiritual level.
Society: While we are finding our way back to nature and back to our own selves, it is important to participate in life and not shut ourselves off. We take steps to nurture the relationships around us: family, friends, communities and so on. Your natural and spiritual growth go hand-in-hand with your social life, with your strengthening of relationships in society.
I was amazed to hear Kumar put that so clearly; I have often felt the same way. It brought to mind the closing lines of a poem I remember jotting down a few years ago....
The social is the spiritual
The spiritual is the social
Another trinity that Kumar used in his lecture last night was that of “head, heart and hands” as a way to mentally, emotionally and physically create new things in our lives.
“We have become shoppers and consumers, and are no long creators and makers,” he told us: Our educational systems need to be changed to include more creating and making of things — more kitchens, more gardens and more arts — instead of just memorizing facts out of books or from computers. Kumar’s own experiment in this, an alternative school he founded in Britain called The Small School, seems to be a successful alternative model for education.
Kumar also had a few words to say about Shinzo Abe, the extreme right-wing politician who was recently reinstated as prime minister of Japan. Abe promises to push ahead with nuclear power development in Japan even after the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011 and despite current public opinion that stands high against nuclear energy.
“The real change, the real leadership, is not going to come from Mr. Abe. You are the real leaders. There is no hope for leaders” to do what is right, Kumar said. “...You all have to become an activist and say to people, ‘We need a new way forward’.”
Personal empowerment in the face of often-dehumanizing technology and Big Money was a theme Kumar turned to again and again in his lecture:
• “Do you want to be a free man or woman, or do you want to be a slave man or woman? If you want to be a free man or woman, then learn to use your hands” to create things in life.
• “You are the CEO of your life, and your job is to be happy.”
• “Money is not wealth; money is only a means of measurement. The real wealth is your skills. ...Let’s not put money in the dominant position. ...Economy becomes money because it destroys imagination and the skill of human hands.”
As Kumar spoke, I tried to instinctively, intuitively gauge how the Japanese audience as a group was feeling and reacting. After all, Kumar was here speaking in a workaholic society, Japan, where technology and money reign supreme and shape every facet of our lives, not to mention Japan’s place in the international community.
At some points in the lecture, I could just feel the Japanese audience contract or resist, such as when Kumar encouraged young Japanese people to forget about going into the job market after university (!) and instead go out into the world beyond Japan’s borders and “experience life as an adventure.” Uh-oh, I thought, smiling to myself.
At other times, the audience laughed uproariously at what were sincere suggestions for social change by Kumar; perhaps the ideas seemed too far out there to take seriously. I could just imagine the inner reaction of some audience members: “Well, that might work over in India or the UK, but this is Japan. We’re not like that. That just wouldn’t be practical here.”
While it is true that Japan can be resistant to new ideas and new ways of doing things, it is also true that right now, Japan as a society is starving for spiritual direction. The rise of “new religions” — cults, essentially — in Japanese society in recent decades is a scary thing, though certainly understandable. After all, several other rich, materialistic societies, especially the United States, seem to have this spiritual starvation among the people as well.
Overall, the audience in Kyoto last night seemed warm and receptive to the bold ideas that Kumar shared, and I thought that that kind of spiritual hunger and a need for some kind of hope after Fukushima may have been one reason why. In any case I was glad that many young Japanese people in the audience were hearing such new ideas. Would those ideas take root in some of those young people’s minds and embolden them to change for the better the course Japan takes in the future? I dare to hope so.
I returned home uplifted, inspired and impressed last night from the words of this humble yet passionate teacher from India. But more than that, I somehow felt that I had rediscovered an inner place of my own from which to work, both idealistically and realistically, for the future. I’ve finished a book of Kumar’s that I was reading, Spiritual Compass (highly recommended) and have watched a few videos featuring him, including the beautifully made documentary Earth Pilgrim, which was aired by the BBC, Britain’s public broadcaster.
Change can be a complicated thing if we let it be, or change can be simple. If Satish Kumar is to be believed, social change and spiritual change begin with a simple act of reaching into the soil. What happens after that, of course, is up to each one of us.