THICH NHAT HANH No. 1: ‘In the Hills of West Virginia’

Thich Nhat Hanh listens at a 1993 retreat at Claymont Court near Charles Town, WV, as retreatants spontaneously share.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Jan. 24, 2022 issue of

By Douglas John Imbrogno |

In the old photograph, Thich Nhat Hanh gazes kindly in the direction of the camera. In the foreground, the back of a person in a blue sweater with white markings is visible. Thay—a word pronounced ‘tie’ that means “teacher” and how students affectionately addressed Thich Nhat Hanh—looks my way. I’m in the sweater, holding a microphone, about to sing a cappella the ethereal tune “Appalachian Round.”

It is September 1993 and it is a curious thing to be serenading one of Earth’s leading Buddhist teachers of mindfulness and “engaged Buddhism”—his term for walking the talk of spiritual training in daily and worldly life. The better part of a hundred of us have come to a West Virginia retreat led by the world-renowned Vietnamese Buddhist guide.

The silent event, with twice-daily talks by Thay, unfolded at Claymont Court near Charles Town, West Virginia, a sprawling estate once home to George Washington’s grand-nephew. It’s a trifecta of oddball confluences: a Zen Buddhist icon leading silent people in walking and sitting meditation in the West Virginia hills, at Bushrod Washington’s stately old stomping grounds.

Thich Nhat Hang leads retreatants in a mindfulness exercise at a 1993 retreat at Claymont Court near Charles Town, WV.

I’ll leave to others detailed homages to the remarkable swath Thich Nhat Hanh cut through his notable life. (I recommend Tricycle’s obituary by Joan Duncan Oliver.) I wish only to cast a few rose petals from Appalachia in his wake as we mark his leavetaking.

I had no intention of singing that day. Yet as we gathered beneath sheltering trees, with anthropologist and now Upaya Zen Center abbot Joan Halifax at Thay’s side, a microphone appeared. He asked us to share something. The first thing that seemed appropriate in my head—a song I had just begun singing publicly with a trio—came out.

There was this open-door quality to Thay’s teachings that seemed to welcome such spontaneity. There was also a whole lot of silence once the microphones flicked off. The combination could affect the direction of your daily life.

Joan Halifax looks on as Thich Nhat Hanh invites retreatants to speak from the heart at a 1993 retreat at Claymont Court near Charles Town, WV.

“That was a relief for me. No need for chit-chat, just the calming silence,” says my friend, Yvonne Farley, who also attended. “That retreat was ‘it’ for my spiritual life. The teachings have stayed with me. That retreat changed my inner life.”

What do we recall from epochal encounters in our spiritual journeying? Little things, often. For Yvonne, it was planters full of red geraniums in the great octagonal Claymont Court barn, where we gathered daily for dharma talks and quiet meditation.

“I got genuine insight there,” says my friend. “A revelation of the power of the moment. And, thus, those red geraniums. It was amazing to me that he conveyed an experience like that.”

I recall sitting on a cushion in the same large space. So many bodies, so many breaths in and out. Thay had a great old bell, big as a footstool, etched with inscriptions. He tapped it and it was so resonant it reverberated for minutes.

There was this open-door quality to Thay’s teachings that seemed to welcome such spontaneity.

As the bell fell quiet that Sunday morning, I heard an approaching sound. Above the roof, out of sight but clear as the ring of that bell, an arrow-line of Canadian geese came honking across the sky.

Then they were gone.

These 30-odd years later, when Canadian geese traverse the skies in my corner of West Virginia—which they do a lot—the sound stirs some of the deep peace of that moment in the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Here’s one last petal of small yet big things he left behind in these hills.

Routinely, but randomly, a bell ringer would appear during the retreat workshops or during our silent meals. The bell ringer would hold up a small, resonant bell, tap it, and then, as Thay instructed, we’d let go of whatever grand important thoughts we were thinking. Dropping them to attend completely to the bell’s reverberations in the room.

Until silence returned.

Ken Lewis, another friend who came to that retreat, told me about teaching a meditation course in rural Roane County, West Virginia, last week, when the world learned of Thich Nhat Hanh’s death.

“I was telling them about the mindfulness bell that was used at that retreat,” he said.

Meditative geese calling in the sky and mindfulness bells rung in the Appalachian hills.

Thank you, Thay. Peace.

THICH NHAT HANH, Part 2: ‘Call Me By My True Names’

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

~ SOURCE: From this site

THICH NHAT HANH, PART 3: ‘When the Buddha Lived in Hell’ illustration

Below is an excerpt from a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in France on August 6, 1998:

A Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

TODAY I WOULD LIKE TO SPEAK A LITTLE BIT about Heaven, or Paradise, and Hell.

I have been in Paradise, and I have been in Hell also, so I have some experience to share with you. I think if you remember well, you know that you have also been in Paradise, and you have also been in Hell. Hell is hot, and it is difficult.

The Buddha, in one of his former lives, was in Hell. Before he became a Buddha he had suffered a lot in many lives. He made a lot of mistakes, like all of us. He made himself suffer, and he made people around him suffer. Sometimes he made very big mistakes, and that is why in one of his previous lives he was in Hell.

There is a collection of stories about the lives of the Buddha, and there are many hundreds of stories like that. These stories are collected under the title ‘Jataka Tales.’ Among these hundreds of stories, I remember one very vividly. I was seven years old, very young, and I read that story about the Buddha, and I was very shocked. But I did not fully understand that story.

The Buddha was in Hell because he had done something wrong, extremely wrong, that caused a lot of suffering to himself and to others. That is why he found himself in Hell. In that life of his, he hit the bottom of suffering, because that Hell was the worst of all Hells.

Continue reading THICH NHAT HANH, PART 3: ‘When the Buddha Lived in Hell’

DhammA for kids

Meditation Circle members are invited to check out Bhante Gunaratana’s YouTube videos where he teaches the Mangala Sutta to young children. There is also a live Zoom session available if member’s children would wish to join.

From the Bhavana Society website:

.Join us every Sunday at 3pm with Bhante G for Dhamma talks specifically for children.
Though Bhante G is in seclusion this winter, he has taken one hour out of his day each Sunday in order to teach children.
Throughout winter, we will be studying the Mangala Sutta* — 30 minute talk with 30 minute question and answer. ‘
To join, use this link with passcode metta
You can join using the meeting ID: 668 674 778 using passcode metta.

* The Mangala Sutta is a discourse by the Buddha on the subject of ‘blessings’ (mangala).  In this discourse, the Buddha describes those qualities that are conducive to happiness and prosperity.

Make Some Noise

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

“Many years ago in Thailand, the local villages surrounding our monastery held a party. The noise from the loudspeakers was so loud that it seemed to destroy the peace in our monastery. So we complained to our teacher, Ajahn Chah, that the noise was disturbing our meditation. The great master replied:

“It is not the noise that disturbs you, it is you who disturb the noise!”

~ AJAHN BRAHM, from “Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond: A Meditator’s Handbook” (Wisdom 2005)

The Buddhamas Carol (or ‘Ode of a Vipassana Yogi’)

There just aren’t that many Buddhist Christmas carols out there. Here’s one by Bhante Yogavacara Rahula, a Theravadan Buddhist monk who guides the Lion of Wisdom Meditation Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Years ago, Bhante Rahula approached me with the verses below, set to “Silent Night,” and asked if we might record it. I grabbed my classical guitar, sought out my bandmate at the time, Casi Null, to sing harmony, and we sat in her apartment and recorded what you’ll hear. It’s unpolished (that’s a police car in the distance), but sweet. Encapsulated in its rich, dense lyrics is  a host of the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness, meditation, and spiritual development, and how to devote oneself to the path of enlightenment that leads to nirvana (or ‘nibbana,’ as the Pali word pronounces the more familiar Sanskrit one). Born 1948 in Southern California as Scott DuPrez, Bhante Rahula became a Buddhist monk in 1975 in Sri Lanka. His colorful life story is told in “One Night’s Shelter: From Home to Homelessness,” which you can download on the book page of his blog at | May the peace of the season be with you. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno


A Buddhamas Carol (or Ode of a Vipassana Yogi)”

By Bhante Yogavacara Rahula

Silent Night, Peaceful Night,
All is calm, Stars are bright,
Round the hall Yogis sitting still,
Keeping their backs straight, exerting will,
Enduring pain without any ill-will,
Pervading Metta all throughout space,
Wishing good-will to the whole human race.


Silent Mind, Peaceful Mind,
Thoughts are few, pain is slight,
Focusing mind at the tip of the nose,
Knowing each breath as it comes and it goes,
Perceiving the light that steadily glows,
Feeling the rapture from head to the toes.

Continue reading The Buddhamas Carol (or ‘Ode of a Vipassana Yogi’)

Mind Games

“Trying to find a buddha or enlightenment is like trying to grab space. Space has a name but no form. It’s not something you can pick up or put down. And you certainly can’t grab it.

“Beyond this mind you’ll never see a buddha. The buddha is a product of your mind. Why look for a buddha beyond this mind?”

~ Bodhidharma (d. 533)

Lou Reed’s Meditative Death

This is an except from a longer piece by Laurie Anderson about her partner, Lou Reed. It speaks to the precious work that may be done in our lives in preparing for the inevitability of out deaths, via our meditative and spiritual practice. The couple were students of Yonge Mingur Rinpoche and had studied Buddhist teachings on how to prepare for death — and how to live when one spouse has a terminal illness. After Reed became sick with liver cancer and then other diseases, Anderson writes:

“We tried to understand and apply things our teacher Mingyur Rinpoche said — especially hard ones like, “You need to try to master the ability to feel sad without actually being sad.” As his death approached, he came home from the hospital: As meditators, we had prepared for this — how to move the energy up from the belly and into the heart and out through the head. I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died. His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world.

“Life — so beautiful, painful and dazzling — does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love. At the moment, I have only the greatest happiness and I am so proud of the way he lived and died, of his incredible power and grace. I’m sure he will come to me in my dreams and will seem to be alive again. And I am suddenly standing here by myself stunned and grateful. How strange, exciting and miraculous that we can change each other so much, love each other so much through our words and music and our real lives.”

Full Rolling Stone article:>

What do you lack?

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

“Make no mistake about it; if you do not find it now, you will repeat the same routines for myriad eons, a thousand times over again, following and picking up on objects that attract you.

“We are no different from Shakyamuni Buddha. Today, in your various activities, what do you lack? The spiritual light coursing through your six senses has never been interrupted. If you can see in this way, you will simply be free of burdens all your life.”

~ Lin Chi
(Quote courtesy of

The Ice Pond

Consciousness is an ice pond:
Though it is all water,
It needs the energy of the sun to melt.
When ordinary people are awakened,
They are Buddhas;
But they rely on the power of
Dharma for cultivation.
When ice melts,
Then water flows and moistens;
Only then can it perform its
Irrigating function.
When delusion is ended,
Then the mind is open and penetrating,
Responsively manifesting the function
Of the light of spiritual powers.

~ Guifeng Zongmi (780-841)

A meditation group in the Buddhist insight tradition, based in Charleston, W.Va.