At the end of September, I took my vacation in Batesville. Unbeknownst to many--including the majority of Mississippians, I imagine--Batesville is the home to the Magnolia Grove Buddhist Monastery and mindfulness meditation practice center. For five days, 850 participants shared living quarters, meals and the teachings--dharma talks--of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. The subject was cultivating the mind of love.
Thay (teacher, pronounced "tie" or "tay") was nearing his 85th birthday or "continuation day," which he celebrated Oct. 11. He is marvelously prolific, having authored about 85 books--40 in English--the newest of which is "The Novice: A Story of True Love." He speaks three languages fluently that I'm aware of--Vietnamese, French and English--along with at least a smattering of Chinese and other eastern languages. He does beautiful calligraphy; he is a poet. He is also a joyously light spirit whose instruction, while seemingly simple, has a way of sticking with you.
Every morning after breakfast, participants practiced walking meditation with Thay, where he led us through the manicured green fields and lush woods of the property for about a mile, stopping midway to impart a lesson to the children attending the retreat. Children surrounded him, drawn like moths to the light of his gentleness and compassion. Thay instructed us to breathe deeply and smile slightly, feeling our connection to the earth and enjoying the beauty surrounding us.
In the afternoons, we gathered in small groups for discussions, and later under a huge white tent for a two-hour talk by Thay. He was serenely energetic, unlike any 85-year-old in my experience.
By the second day, I experienced time slowing down. Teachers reminded us through each of our activities--whether during sitting or walking meditation, eating our meals or simply brushing our teeth--to approach whatever we were doing with mindfulness of the present moment. Doing so, I realized quickly how much energy I expend by anticipating the future or dwelling on the past.
As I became more in tune to the present moment, I found I was no longer rushing; everything took exactly the time allotted to it. Despite a packed agenda, I had time for everything I wanted to do. I stopped rushing to eat, instead tasting all the various flavors and enjoying the textures of the food. Doing nothing other than what I was doing at that moment, my impatience with people dropped away as I listened deeply. My questions found answers organically when I allowed them to be instead of striving to answer them.
I learned to love the sound of a bell ringing, reminding me to return to the present moment and breathe. All activity stopped at the sound of a bell, whether it was walking or chewing or working. All of us worked during the retreat to help prepare meals or wash pots or plates, or clean communal areas.
As I sat under the huge old oak trees eating my lunch on the third day, I looked around at the people, each of them stopping at the sound of a bell to just breathe. Deep in my bones, I knew that this silent group dwelling mindfully in the present was a path for peace.
The experience had nothing to do with religion and was as profound as anything I had ever experienced in a church. Through performing even simple acts mindfully, we moved away from our automatic judgments and evaluations of others and ourselves into a space where love and peace surrounded us.
This, I thought, is an antidote for a world out of balance: breathing, being present, seeking understanding and compassion.
During the Vietnam War, Thay helped found "engaged Buddhism" by helping his people through the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action. He also pursued a life of deep contemplation. He knew people could do both.
In 1964, Thich Nhat Hanh helped found the volunteer School of Youth Social Service in Saigon, a grassroots relief organization that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families and organized agricultural cooperatives.
What he never did was side with either the communists or the anti-communist factions, which managed to piss off both groups. Vietnam banned Thay from returning to his country while he was on a U.S. and European peace mission in 1966. Despite his country rejecting him, he continued to work toward bringing it peace. He influenced Martin Luther King Jr.'s decision to publicly oppose the Vietnam War, and King subsequently nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thay led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris peace talks.
In Vietnam, Thay's followers continue to experience persecution from political factions, although Thay's exile from Vietnam ended in 2005. Many of the two-dozen or so monks and nuns who reside at Magnolia Grove came to the United States after a vicious campaign against them in 2009. Throughout it all, Thay continue to teach non-violence and compassion.
At September's retreat, our ranks reportedly swelled to about 1,200 by the final Sunday. On Saturday, Thay invited questions and answers, first from the children, then from teens and finally from adults. I couldn't help but be moved to tears when a Vietnam veteran spoke of his guilt and torment and years of post-traumatic stress, and Thay responded by embracing him with words of love.
It really doesn't matter what your faith tradition is, or even if you have a faith tradition. If we want to create a peaceful world, we simply cannot continue to follow a path of violence toward each other or our planet.
As a modern spiritual master, Thich Nhat Hanh doesn't stand alone in his work for peace. Many such masters exist. Also exiled by his country, Fethullah Gulen, whom I profile in "Imam in the Middle," is another such visionary. Unable to exert their control, political factions criticize him and his followers.
Thay writes in "The Novice": "I deeply feel that the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and all our spiritual teachers of many generations are behind you, supporting you, and would like you to continue their work into the future for the sake of all the living beings on this planet."
The mind of love is peace, and peace is God's work, regardless of your name for God. Continue the work.