Updated: Mar 24, 2022
There exists in our lives moments that are so profound and impactful they change the path one walks, the thoughts one thinks, and the breath one breathes. Some may fall deeply in love with the person who will eventually become a life long partner, for others it may the birth of a child, maybe for some it is overcoming an addiction or disease, and some may find these sacred experiences in spiritual renewal. Eight years ago I read a book that completely changed my paradigm of life. It is named, "Living Buddha; Living Christ", and it was written by a small giant named Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk that I had never heard of.
I devoured the book.
It spoke of things I had tried to verbalize in my life, but never could. The pages spoke lovingly about unity, inter-faith harmony, serving humanity through acts of kindness and compassion, and something that would soon revolutionize my life, a self-contained tool called mindfulness. The words of Thich Nhat Hanh within "Living Buddha; Living Christ" were a salve for my soul, they brought me to a deeper and more respectful understanding of Gautama Buddha and introduced me to the Christ I had been searching for my entire life, but could never quite catch up to. With each turn of a page, I felt one less burden and one new insight. What had always been so complicated because of dogma, painful shame at my failed attempts to be perfect, and confusion because of the constant din of who was right and who was wrong in regard to my spiritual journey, was suddenly made so simple, so alive and uncluttered by a Buddhist monk.
"Living Buddha; Living Christ" was my first peek behind a curtain that contained the freedom and the undeniable peace that passes all understanding, as the Christ taught. A peace that I had never been able to achieve fully, because instead of simply being still, and allowing it to happen organically, I continued to tie myself up in dogmatic and religious knots. After finishing the book, I knew in my heart I wanted to continue to learn as much as I could from this man. Thich Nhat Hanh is affectionally known as Thây to his monastic disciples and lay practitioners that follow his path of mindfulness. Thây is Vietnamese for teacher. It also holds the connotation of male teacher, and in northern Vietnam it can be used for father. I became a student of Thich Nhat Hanh.
I soon came to discover he was so well known around the world he was mentioned in the same breath as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Mahatma Ghandi, St. Francis, Nelson Mandela, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was a peacemaker and seeker of the highest order. So it was of no surprise in the least when I learned Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had forged a deep and abiding friendship in the 1960's. So impressed by the efforts of the humble monk in the areas of racial and social justice in the United States, and bringing to end the horrible war in Vietnam, Dr. King nominated him for the Noble Peace Prize in 1967. In his nomination letter, Dr. King offered the following about Thây:
"I do not personally know anyone more worthy of the Noble Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam."
The two remained close friends until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. So troubled was Thây at the death of his friend he seemed to have lost hope for humanity. He wrote a letter to a close friend in the United States the day after Dr. King's murder and expressed great frustration and sorrow:
"I did not sleep last night.... They killed Martin Luther King. They killed us. I am afraid the root of violence is so deep in the heart and mind and manner of this society. They killed him. They killed my hope. I do not know what to say. This country is able to produce King but cannot preserve King. You have him, and yet you do not have him. I am sorry for you. For me. For all of us. I prayed for him after I learned about his assassination. And then, I said to myself: You do not have to pray for him. He does not need it. You have to pray for yourself. We have to pray for ourselves."
From that day forward, their lives would be inseparably linked.
A few years after my introduction to Thich Nhat Hanh, mindfulness, prayer, and chanting had become part of my daily life. I had joined a Sangha in Beaumont, Texas. A sangha is a community of Buddhist monks, nuns, novices and laity. In other words, it is a spiritual family. It was then I discovered that Thich Nhat Hanh’s home monastery, Plum Village, which is located in France, had established several satellite monasteries here in the United States to bring the Zen way, and mindfulness to the West. One of these monasteries, Magnolia Grove, was located just an 8 hour drive from Beaumont in Batesville, Mississippi. Batesville is located just an hour south of Memphis, where Dr. King had died, and it is also the location of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where Dr. King gave a sermon and speech on civil rights just two weeks before his assassination. When I realized that the Magnolia Grove Monastery offered an array of specialized retreats for monastics and lay persons alike, I made the decision I wanted to attend one.
I attended my first retreat in 2017 and the following year I returned as well. Looking forward to making this an annual pilgrimage, I encountered unexpected personal struggles in 2019, and not long after, the world, as a global community experienced an unexpected calamity in the guise of the COVID-19 pandemic. So it was with great joy that toward the end of 2021 I received an email from the monastery informing me that the retreat season was in full swing for 2022, as long as COVID-19 was kept at bay. I signed up for the "Silence that Heals" retreat from March 16-20, and my dear friend and spiritual brother, Mark Berard would be joining me for the five day retreat. Mark is, in my opinion, one of the finest human beings that is leaving footprints on our planet presently. He serves as a deacon for the Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and represents the true nature of the compassionate and loving Christ. He has been there for me in my darkest days, so it was with great joy that I looked forward to this happy and light-hearted excursion with him. Another wonderful caveat to our friendship is that both Mark and I are deeply in love with Mississippi Delta blues music, and how fortunate it was we would be driving straight through the heart of the blues on our way to the retreat.
However, the trip was tempered by one unavoidable reality. One that would resonate with all those attending the retreat. Our beloved and venerable teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, surrendered his physical body on January 22, 2022 at his root monastery in Huê, Vietnam at the age of 95. I was mindfully meditating on the realization that this would be my first interaction with the monks and nuns of Magnolia Grove Monastery since Thây had physically passed away. I soon realized after my arrival that it was business as usual for them. We were greeted with the same positive, loving and enthusiastic energy I had always experienced while on retreat there. My heart and spirit were lifted, however, something was about to take place that would be one of the hallmark moments of my life.
I am a professional photographer and have been blessed to travel the world doing what I love to do most, and that is documenting our planet and its people. I sent an e-mail to the monastery two weeks before the start of the retreat, offering my photographic services if needed. The monastery sits on 125 acres of beautiful northern Mississippi farm land, and given I was going to have my cameras and equipment anyway, how nice it would be to include the monastics. What I was not aware of, and in no way have prepared myself for the honor, was that the last day of our retreat, the monastery had a ceremony planned to welcome and receive relics and ashes of Thich Nhat Hanh. I was absolutely stunned.
What an incredible blessing awaited me to be included in the final homecoming of Thây to one of his monasteries. How fortunate I was to have decided to attend this specific retreat. How lucky I was to be able to photograph what turned out to be a beautiful and moving ceremony. The entirety of that Sunday was very emotional, many times I was near tears, however, as a photographer, emotions must be put aside and your entire focus must be put on the task at hand. This in, and of itself, is a wonderful discipline in mindfulness. I was also professionally excited to be working alongside Paul Davis, an incredible photographer from Cincinnati, Ohio who has done extensive work for the monastics at Magnolia Grove. Paul is a gentle and talented man that inspired me greatly while on retreat with him. The ceremony started at 8:00 AM, after breakfast. We all waited with sacred anticipation for Thây's relics and ashes to arrive from Houston, Texas. Once they did, I experienced the entirety of the ceremony through the different lenses of my cameras.
The procession serpentined through the campus, from the main gate to Thây's hut he used when he visited the monastery, to the large meditation hall and finally to a small grove toward the back of the monastery that was home to a beautiful statue of Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My understanding was that the monastics and novitiates were to receive some of Thây's ashes in their hands and would spread them around the monastery. However, my heart filled with joy, and the tears I had been holding back for several hours started to drop, when I realized anyone at the monastery could receive some of Thây's ashes and return them to the soil from whence he came. I put my cameras and backpack down after several hours of carrying them throughout the grounds and joined the long line of people waiting to return Thây to the earth. I knew immediately where I was going to spread his ashes after receiving them, I walked mindfully, quietly and sacredly as I could until I was swallowed by the shadow of two giants that had walked our planet, making it more just and peaceful. I looked up at the statue of Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and knelt quietly in front of it. I whispered to the ashes, "Thây look....your friend has been waiting patiently for you for all these years. It is time you both are together again." Gently, I released the ashes in the flower bed at the base of the statue, then I reached up and lovingly touched each man on the cheek and the heart and said, "You two have much to catch up on."
Grab a camera and tell a sacred story!!!!
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