Encounter with a Spiritual Master


During the half-term holiday at the end of May 2001, I went with an old friend to hear the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and spiritual ‘master’, Tich Naht Hanh.  He was speaking to a huge audience at the great Methodist Central Hall at Westminster, with its old-fashioned, heavy, leather-bound ‘cinema seats’ that sprang slowly back when you got up. 

There was this tiny figure sitting, cross-legged, at the front of the stage, dwarfed by the scene, yet radiating grace and ‘light’ in his stillness and the beauty of his face.  Here was a new and different kind of power!  It seemed to come from the quality of his attention.  The great pipes of the organ loomed behind him and his group of ‘monastics’ (monks and nuns) and the hall was overhung at the back and sides with enormous balconies.  The seats and doors creaked and groaned from time to time and the microphone, on its arm, had to be re-positioned at least once, very close to his mouth, as he was very soft-spoken and eight hundred people were straining to catch every word of his faltering, broken English.

“Even the microphone is impermanent!” he said at that moment, making laughter out of an interruption that could have seemed intrusive.

He taught us about the three ‘Dharma Seals’: Impermanence, Non-self and Nirvana.  The same teaching is in one of his books that I bought at the time: “Cultivating the Mind of Love”.  Without impermanence, he said, life is not possible.  How can your daughter grow up into a beautiful young lady?  If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent.  It is because you believe things are permanent.  Even more tellingly, he linked this to our fear of death and loss and showed how a true appreciation of impermanence leads to more happiness, not less.  When we accept the truth and know that our beloved will pass away, looking deeply into impermanence, we will do our best to make her happy right now.  I was reminded of John Keats: the way his odes explore transience, deepening joy through heightened awareness of its passing.

Where impermanence is understood from the point of view of time, Non-self is from the point of view of space.  “We are a child of the earth and sky, linked to all other beings, both animate and inanimate.  We are like the water in the river.  That is our true state.  We are part of the flow of life.  When we mistake our existence for that of the river itself, we wrongly think of ourselves as the same person that we always were and find it hard to imagine not being here.  In fact, we have no permanent self, in space, any more than we do in time.  We are part of an interconnected existence and there are no boundaries between self and non-self, person and non-person.”

He looked down at a flower in a vase beside him and paused a while, as if he was appreciating its beauty for the first time.

“When I look at a flower,” he said, some moments later, “I see a cloud in the flower.  It has been made of the rain and the sun’s light and warmth.  We cannot remove the cloud or the sun from the flower.  It would cease to exist.  They are part of it.”  He gave a name to this insight, calling it ‘inter-being’.

In the book, he says, “When we take a step on the green earth, we are aware that we are made of air, sunshine, minerals and water, that we are a child of the earth and sky, linked to all other beings, animate and inanimate.  This is the practice of Non-self.”  For all my reading into Buddhism and the thought I had given to this difficult aspect of its teaching, it had never become so clear to me before. 


Tim Small (…from my journal, June 2001)