To Celebrate the Wonder-Filled Life of Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022) – A Poem of Jane Hirschfield and One of Mine

The Caligraphy of Thich Nhat Hanh, from This Moment is Full of Wonders, Chronicle Books, 2015

A Golden Shovel to Celebrate the Life of Thich Nhat Hanh

The most beautiful place of Heaven is on Earth.

—Thich Nhat Hanh from This Moment is Full of Wonders, Chronicle Books, 2015

Breathing in, I calm my body
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.

—Thich Nhat Hanh, ibid

And the most beautiful breath I breathe in is the
one I breathe in now, on the day of your death, and the most
beautiful Sun is the one that reached the most beautiful
lake I walked by today, its burning silvers, water and ice, a place
never commonplace but especially, not this day after weeks of
cold and snow and gray, its ten thousand tones of gray, and heaven
will be open for gray won’t it Lord? I pray it will be if it is
to be true that heaven is also here on earth but on
this day, no gray, only a sun sharing heaven in a lake on earth.

Richard Osler, previously unpublished, January 22nd, 2022

Caligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh, Chronicle Books, 2015

The extraordinary ninety-five-year life of the Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, ended today in the village of Hue in  central Vietnam in the Tu Hieu temple, the temple he entered as a novice monk at age sixteen. His last years after a stroke were spent in Vietnam, a country that exiled him two-fold when it was North and South Vietnam. Both countries banned him. That ban, because of his peace activism against the Vietnam war, lasted for thirty-nine years.

My mindfulness practice this month is writing a poem a day with six other dear friends, the eleventh year I have written a poem-a-day in January, and, today, hearing of the death of Thich Nhat Hanh I though I would write a poem in his memory and honour. So, I picked up the gorgeous volume of his calligraphy and looked through the sayings and koans there and found this: the most beautiful place of Heaven is on Earth. What a great epigraph for my poem I thought and then I thought I could go one better, use that saying to make a Golden Shovel poem (a form introduced by American poet Terrance Hayes). Thich Nhat Hanh’s line can be found vertically by reading the last word of each line in my poem from top to bottom.

As you can see I added another epigraph to my poem which begins his introduction to his book! These four lines sum up for me the heart of his practice and his life. If anyone in our time represented the practice of mindfulness, being in the moment, it was Tich Nhat Hanh. His close to one hundred books, his teaching on multiple continents, the way he lived his life committed to his mindfulness practices. What I didn’t know was that another practice of his was exquisite Zen calligraphy featured in his 2015 book, This Moment is Full of Wonders. And in this book he celebrates as he did for most of his life the idea of inter-being , that  everything in this world is interconnected.

He reminds me in his introduction to his book that when I look at his calligraphy I am looking at so much more. To paraphrase him he began his calligraphy sessions by drinking tea, and in looking into his tea he saw a cloud, one of tea’s former lives, and then it became rain, the rain became water for the tea and then when the tea dispersed inside him it transformed into his calligraphy. But also literally the tea was in his calligraphy, he mixed it into his Chinese ink! There is a saying that poetry is unmixed attention, well what a heart of a poet he had. His extraordinary attention!

In his celebrated book Peace Is Every Step (Bantam, 1992) he expands on just how interconnected the world is, we are. And if only, in our present time, we could see how true this is, especially when so many of us are disconnected from the earth and each other. And since this is a poetry blog I love how he begins the paragraphs below with the phrase: If you are a poet…

Thich Nhat Hanh. Photo credit: Uncoiled Depths of Solitude Magazine

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 rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. It the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. Without sunshine, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. The logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

At a time here in the Pacific Northwest where I live and where I have strong feelings about loggers cutting down old growth trees, he makes me pause. Makes me wonder how do I focus much more on figuring on ways to stay connected with those I disgaree with! Not easy, but….

When I think of Thich Nhat Hanh I think of the great American poet Jane Hirschfield who has practicised Zen for almost fifty years. In a recent interview with Krista Tippett on the radio program, On Being, she wonderfully characterizes mindfulness and attention to the world:

And the actual practice of Zen, for me, all those years when I was in formal training, a great deal of that, I think, was about the courage and the experimentation to simply sit down and be permeable to the world — the inner world, the outer world, the world of events and stories, the world of a single birdsong as the light comes up becoming.

And Jane captures so well in the following comment she made to Krista, Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion: this moment is full of wonders. And Jane and Thich Nhat Hanh help remind me of that even when it the world is (dare I say?) magnificently gray!

But I hope there is no human being who has not had one moment, at least, when they stood in the world, undone by awe and radiance, and the small self vanishes, and you understand the world as immense and yours, and not yours.

And in honour of Jane’s  fellow Zen practioneer, Thich Nhat Hanh, I add this poem from Jane’s most recent poetry collection, Ledger. Too bad Thich Nhat Hanh could not have written it out in his hand, in his remarkable calligraphy.

My Wonder

    That it is one-half degree centigrade.
    That I eat honeydew melon
    for breakfast.
    That I look out through the oval window.
    That I am able to look out through an oval window.

Jane Hirschfield from Ledger, Alfred. A. Knopf, 2020

May we never lose OUR WONDER!!!


  1. Sheila Conner
    Posted January 23, 2022 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Breathe…the world will certainly miss this brilliant light. I love the shovel poem! How cool is that! 🙂 Thank you for remembering him.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted March 18, 2022 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    Blessings to you Sheila!

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