S3E2 Thich Naht Hanh

January 2022, one of the most influential Buddhist monks, transitioned to the next life. He was 95-years-old and after being ordained a monk at age 16, he went on to live a life dedicated to educating the world on peace and living compassionately. Dr. Pete discusses the role of death in eastern traditions, and what this means to his community. It made sense that Dr. Rubin would bring this episode to shed light on the tremendous impact he has had during this lifetime.




Pete: Well, here we are with another of those tribute episodes. Hey Nikki.


Nikki: Hey Pete. Yes, I was thinking how odd that we've just in such short succession lost another very wise old great teacher from the things that we talk about. Obviously, today we're talking about Thich Naht Hanh.


Pete: Yes, so Thich Naht Hanh brings us some of the eastern side of our East meets West and what we're also referencing is our episode on Aaron Beck. And so today we're going to bring to you some of the legendary teachings and just the story of Thich Naht Hanh, who recently passed away in 2022. And, Nikki, of course, this was her brilliant idea. You’re the brains.


Nikki: Well, why don't you tell our listeners who he is, just very briefly, because I'm sure some people actually don't even know.  When we're saying that name, they're probably like, who passed on, who are we talking about?


Pete: Well, he is a Buddhist monk. He's from Vietnam and I think certainly in our description note will have a link to his Sangha, which is the Plum Village tradition. And so in Buddhism, which might be helpful for some listeners, Thich Naht Hanh is probably one of the most, probably second to the Dalai Lama, if not even arguably above, but of course in Buddhism, there are no rankings.


Nikki: Right, correct.


Pete: That would just go against the intentions.


Nikki: Kind of go against the intentions.


Pete: It would go against the intentions. He's well known. He was certainly a scholar, a Buddhist monk. He was ordained at a young age, at the age of 16. And he published, I don't even, do you know how many books?


Nikki: I don't, but I recommend his books quite a bit to patients. 


Pete: Me too.


Nikki: I would say he had a very eloquent yet simple way of speaking. We talk a lot about them on the podcast, these concepts are brain herders. Not an eloquent way of saying that I use them quite a bit. The things that Buddhism is addressing can often be very hard for our minds to understand or integrate. And I think he had such a gift for communicating those concepts with eloquence and simplicity for anyone to access, myself included.


Pete: Very accessible, I like to use that word. Anything he wrote was very accessible, I didn't find a number of books, but I'm sure there are many of them. All of them are good, but also other teachings and so, over this past week, I found they were streaming a lot of the services. So we'll remind our audience that you're not big into social media, and so you didn't get to see it.


Nikki: I did not.


Pete: There's a fault, there's a potential negative.


Nikki: Pros and cons to everything, right?


Pete: Pros and cons to everything.  But they were streaming the services which is really beautiful to be able to watch it because, Buddhists look at death much differently than we do here in the West, and we'll talk a little bit about that today. But this linking of these two episodes, we had this episode honouring Aaron Beck who really was the founder of our cognitive world here in the West. And then Thich Naht Hanh we can really think of him as founder of the Eastern world that was really landed well in the West. A lot of what's important for listeners to understand is that while Eastern traditions have been around forever, since the beginning of time, I'm not a historian.


Nikki: I think we can say, we can probably make that educated guess because, you know, it's like, we could say Buddhism that's been written down or passed orally, has been about twenty five hundred years, but the stuff extends beyond that.  In yoga, presumably some of the teachings are like 5000 years old. And then where did that come from? This stuff is old guys.


Pete:  This stuff is very old.


Nikki: This stuff is very old.  


Pete: And hasn't always landed well in the West. I think there's been lots of scrutiny around it, certainly like religious warfares.  But what's the first kind of yoga gentlemen that brought yoga to the West? I'm picturing the book.


Nikki: Oh, I know who you're talking, I'm also being blank. He actually came to Los Angeles. 


Pete: He did that. 


Nikki: There was a great article about him in the Los Angeles Times a few months ago. I'm forgetting that name. But that was about 100 years ago, actually.


Pete: So we'll have that by the end of today. “Autobiography of the Yogi” is it that one?


Nikki: Pete’s working in real time? He’s our hero. I think the point that you're trying to make is that, these concepts haven't always been well understood or received in Western culture. Obviously, we're speaking around the United States, or specifically speaking to our American culture. And I think part of that, again, has to do with again, not in a right or wrong way, just in terms of the way Western approaches to thinking have historically been very linear.  They're very


Pete: Rigid


Nikki: Often times rigid. Yes, often times rigid. And so we all have linearness in us. It's just that Eastern approaches are actively addressing this and instead of viewing it as the right way to do things, sort of approach it with skepticism. Thich Naht Hahn I think, one of the first, I didn't by the way know this, until I was reading some of the obituaries about him. He came to the United States and did a lot of work with Martin Luther King.


Pete: There is a link between some books, because a lot of that was around peace. Some of the first kind of Buddhist teachings were really around peace, which is why in today's world I get a little stuck where in Sri Lanka, there are some Buddhists that are really forging war upon Muslim or Islam practitioners. And so that goes against the teachings and so certainly, that's why I Thich Naht Hanh worked closely with Martin Luther King. So really, a lot of his commitment has been around peace, compassion, trying to help people also just learn about meditation, in a very basic way.  Also, like ecology, learning about a lot of stuff around your environment and keeping peace within the environment, but also just sustainability of the environment.


Nikki: He spoke to, I think in those examples, you're giving, encouraging curiosity about our experiences in the world, both in relationship to other people also to nature and the planet that we inhabit. Just going back to what you said, a moment ago, about where there are some, maybe we would call them fundamentalist Buddhists, potentially. I think that's actually important that you're sharing that with listeners because it's another example of how humans can become dogmatic about literally anything.


Pete: Anything. 


Nikki: So you're saying it’s the teachings. We could say that about any well intentioned set of practices or rules or guidelines.  We could say this about any of the world's major religions I would say, preach compassion and connectedness. And yet every major religion in the world, I think, has also engaged in discrimination at minimum and war or harming other people at maximum, at worst. So I say that only to bring in, I think sometimes it's funny, on the flip side, I think in the West, we can also sometimes, put Buddhism on a pedestal. The teachings are just saying, let's just get curious. Let's just understand how we work. It's just a way to access and understand our brains, but the humans doing the interpreting and the practicing are messy. 


Pete: I love that you bring it into the West that was really helpful. Because that's the struggle that people have and they're able to do so I'm going to read this quote how Thich Naht Hanh defined Buddhism, I think it would be helpful for listeners. “So Buddhism means to be awake, mindful of what is happening in one's body, feelings, mind and in the world. If you are awake, you cannot do otherwise then act compassionately to help relieve some suffering you see around you. So Buddhism must be engaged in the world. If it is not engaged, it is not Buddhism.” So that's really beautiful because I think that that probably sums up When East Meets West, most succinctly.


Nikki: Or what we're trying to share.


Pete: It's about coming into contact with what is.


Nikki:  Yes. Our little tagline, Be present Be brave, is actually that, coming into what is and then engaging. 


Pete: Engaging with what is.


Nikki: Right, engaging with what is, and that's what we know the Western interpretation or practice of a lot of what Buddhism teaches us in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Act. And what is that about? Engaging in the world, connecting with the world while simultaneously accepting that there is pain and discomfort in this world and in this life.


Pete: And believe it or not Nikki, those teachings barred him from Vietnam in the sixties.


Nikki: Say more about that, it's unbelievable.


Pete: I don't know if I could say more other than I mean, what's the word, expelled?


Nikki: I'm in the middle of my work day. I’m a little tierd, I forget.


Pete: Anyway, because of the teachings that he was doing, during the Vietnam War he was not allowed to come back into the country, so this was eventually lifted. But that's because what he was doing was trying to be anti-war and trying to bring peace and connection into the environment. And the gifts that he gave us, again, will be around forever, which is really quite beautiful that we'll have that.


Nikki: Maybe that is an opportune time to talk a little bit about how Buddhism understands or talks about death and even how Thich Naht Hanh did, he’s written home. He has written books on this as well. Can you share a little bit about that? Because, you know, again, I think it's important. We're looking at it as he has died. He has passed on but I think he might not have said it that way.


Pete: So teachings within Buddhism. I was trying to find the book that he wrote, I think it was “No death No fear.” It's not sad; it's a transition into your next life. And so, Buddhism has the belief that energy doesn't die, and that our body is just a vehicle to bring us between life and death in this life. But that we transition into another life, into another being, once we are no longer alive in this life to the reincarnate, I don't actually know the story. He was ordained as a monk and at 16 I don't think he was seen as a reincarnate. I'm not sure if that's a reincarnation. So like the Dalai Lama, is identified as somebody who was reborn as a previous Dalai Lama or as a previous noble holy person. Now, I can't totally get there, my brain still tries to understand that.  Because then, there's other human beings who are meditating and practicing identifying who the person is that was reborn from a previous life.  But there's the idea that they can connect with that. That's amazing. I guess I need to meditate a lot more to get [Inaudible 13:16].


Nikki: Ample opportunity. Maybe, to be decided, we’re assuming so.


Pete: So I recently gave a talk because I Thich Naht Hahn, again, has a tremendous impact on the world. And anyone listening who's lost somebody knows that anyone that they've lost has had a tremendous impact on their world. And that's important for listeners to connect with, and for me, that drives my passion to do this work. Because all of us live holding on to something that we suffered from the past or worry about the future.  And that's like the underlying tenant of mindfulness and how to live mindfully. And then we're afraid of death. You know, Eastern traditions are not afraid of death. And so frankly, you know, his celebrations have been ones of celebrations so they've just been honouring him. They've been meditating together, bringing gifts up to the altar, to the Plum Village. Tradition has really done a lot just to celebrate that life that he had in this body.


Nikki: Well, and I'll just add, you're correct it's “No death, No Fear Comforting Wisdom for Life,” that's the title of the book. I will say, again, I very much like the concept of transition and celebration, though I also think it's important, when a moment ago, you said it's not sad. I think a lot of people might listen and go like, there can be a judgment, so I'm not supposed to be sad that I've lost somebody? This shows up in other religious contexts. I think in a lot of Christian traditions, there can be a saying, person went to heaven, we should be happy that they're there. And so, when you've lost somebody on Earth, and you're suffering, and you're in the midst of grief that I think saying it’s not sad can be quite invalidating.  And so what I would wonder is if maybe, tell me if I'm incorrect here, if that concept of not being sad as it is maybe more around like, allowing the sadness will dialectically, recognizing that you never lose the connection that doesn't go away. That even though the physical body is no longer here, whatever one believes, the spirit or soul or whatever is still present in a literal way the energy doesn't go anywhere. It just transitions or am I wrong to understand it that way?


Pete: I mean, it's a dialectic you're not right or wrong. 


Nikki: Okay, fair enough.


Pete: I'm going to be running for office soon. Honestly, I think that you're gorgeous Western brain interpreting and so I think it's accurate. I think that these monk practitioners.


Nikki: Don't feel sadness about it. There humans.


Pete: They're humans still.  And through all the sitting they do, mind you, it's important for listeners to know it's not like, you and I might do a yoga class every day or we might do 30 to 60 minutes in a good day. These are people that are doing like eight to 15 hours a day.


Nikki: Of meditation, deep, deep [Inaudible 16:38].


Pete: Deep sitting silence. I just want to highlight that these are people that; none of us are aspiring to be because we don't have envy. [Inaudible 16:46] attachment.


Nikki: Well, remember attachments are to outcomes. So it's like, we can still have envy because we're humans and we're going to work with that.


Pete: Within the Four Noble Truths this is about letting go of anything.  So frankly, when my mom or dad dies, I will be sad, because they will die and I have attachment. If I was a monk and I shaved my head and I was just living this world. They've gotten to a peace of understanding life in a way that means that they are truly unattached to anything. They don't take vows of poverty or anything like that, but it's really just simple living and so there are no materials. That's where I'm really flawed in a way because I love Lululemon.


Nikki: I would say, it's one of my favourite sayings, they're not flaws they're features like imperfections. And so what we're talking about is, these I think are very unique and I must say unusual. I don't mean that as a judgment, I mean, in the span of like 7 billion people it's very unusual to have the capacity to devote that level of training to connecting with reality as it is which I know we're always edging up on this consciousness. So I think that what you're saying is really important to highlight that a lifetime of practicing these contemplative practices, I’m saying practice again, is going to impact one's experience of reality and understanding it. Though again, I think we all have to be careful not to then say we don't feel sad. We're wired to feel sad that grief has a function. Grief connects us, and maybe my understanding at least once before myself, is that it's just an ability to also celebrate the transition.  To not stay attached to the concept that our physical bodies are not going to be here forever, they're temporary.


Pete: And again, I just want you to gently notice that your western brain is trying to protect feelings or emotions.


Nikki: Oh no, 100% of that. But I'm more saying it as I actually don't mean it so Western, I'm actually meaning it more like, I'm thinking of it actually, in my mindfulness practice, this is just what comes up.


Pete: So, this is where I always struggled, because we're really intellectual. I mean, you are way more intellectual than I'll ever be.


Nikki: Humans are very cognitive.


Pete: We are very cognitive. And so that's where I struggled because my teacher is the biggest victim of that deceptive word. We're really doing good for word finding. This is all he does, every time he's teaching, always linking four or five different books in one talk, he'll link the four or five books. And so when I'm encouraging listeners to do what I do in my Dharma is really encouraging to let go of learning, and to let go of trying to understand.  Actually, here's a quote on death from Thich Naht Hanh. “Our greatest fear is that when we die we become nothing. Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a lifespan, beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die. We believe that we are born from nothing and then we die and become nothing and so we're filled with fear.” So he says “The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that “birth and death are notions, they're not real.” The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that “there is no birth, there is no death, there is no coming there is no going there is no same there is no different, there is no permanent self.” And so that's where I want us to get to and that will be like a future episode because obviously you and I can talk about this a lot more, can't we?


Nikki: Oh, a 100%, and I definitely think we should continue the conversation. And I love that quote, because I think it's interesting. I connect with what he's sharing there because it's actually saying, especially, “there's no coming, there's no going” it just this moment. And so I think, maybe I'm not being very skilled at communicating it. So what I mean, well, speaking of the limitations of language. That in this moment, whatever that moment is, maybe it's joyful, maybe it's sad, maybe it's neutral. It's just this, that's where there's freedom.


Pete: That’s beautiful. And there don't have to be words Nicky, and so you just said exactly what I want listeners to think about. It's just the sitting, it's just the being, it's just the doing. I gave a talk on this last week about death, and we don't have any time for that today, one of the other teachers referenced it and basically was saying how she had no words other than the fact that after this talk that I gave on death, realized just to sit a little deeper. Thank you Nikki for this, I think clearly we'll have to have another episode that will do on death at a certain point. Thank you Thich Naht Hanh for everything.  And I'll leave you with this last quote that Nikki brought to us before we started. That Thich Naht Hahn brought to us “no mud no Lotus.” 


Pete: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Pete Economou.


Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present, Be brave.


Pete: This has been When East Meets West. All material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors, Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.


Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.