The beloved Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn passed away last year on January 22 at the age of 96. His books and social actions encouraging peace and love influenced innumerable lives in both his native country and in the west, demonstrating the relevance of Buddhist teachings and practice in the modern world.
I had the opportunity to meet him in the mid-1970s at a conference organized by San Francisco Zen Center. Thay, as his students affectionately refer to him, was the keynote speaker. Following the event, I edged my way into an informal tea hastily arranged by the SFZC students.
We were all relatively new to Zen in those early days and excited by the opportunity to engage in a dialog with Thay, to learn from him, to have our most pressing questions about Buddhism and Zen practice discussed in an intimate setting. I found my attention drawn not so much to his words but to his presence, to the effortless and quiet ways he gave complete attention to each questioner, thoughtfully articulating responses with his words, eyes and gestures. I was touched by his equanimity. Watching him backstage in that San Francisco auditorium, I asked myself: “How can I be like that?”
Equanimity was also a memorable quality of Suzuki-roshi’s way in the world, contributing to the trust and warmth we felt when we were with him. It was evident during the breakfasts following Thursday morning zazen at Haiku Zendo – the precursor to Kannon Do – in the Los Altos home of Marian Derby. We were delighted to be with him in a friendly, informal setting, to pose our questions, to share a laugh at his lighthearted responses. Recently I was asked: “What did Suzuki-roshi bring you in those days?” “Equanimity” was my immediate response.
Both Thay and Suzuki-roshi spent their formative years as young monks in monastic environments, dedicated to learning Buddhist teachings and exploring spirituality. Their time of practice was dedicated to cultivating a caring sense for the most essential elements of life, undistracted by everyday worldly concerns. They were devoted to selflessness, connecting with others, motivated to discovering truth through their own efforts.
Zen students in the modern world – in a culture entirely different from Asian monasteries with their spiritual traditions spanning two thousand years – are faced with the myriad distractions and stresses that accompany progress, technology, and materialism. Current day society professes to admire equanimity and practice, as evidenced by the interest in mindfulness classes and appropriating “Zen” as a brand and collecting Zen art, but it actually impedes those qualities by its emphasis on self-promotion. In the working world, we are expected to actively demonstrate leadership, to convince others of our own point of view. We are expected – it is considered normal – to be pro-actively vocal, to “sell” ourselves. Interrupting and jumping-in to conversations are part of the dynamics. Unfortunately, and to our detriment, this approach short-circuits the prospects for reflective listening and equanimity, the basis for true creativity and trust for one another.
Equanimity appears to be in short supply in today’s world. My early experiences with Thich Nhat Hahn and Suzuki-roshi had me wondering if equanimity is available only to individuals raised in disciplined, Spartan monastic settings. Or can it come to those of us engaged in a multi-dimensioned society, with its economic, technical, and political complexities, a wide range of educational and career activities, comfortable lifestyles and varied opportunities for excitement. It seemed to me improbable but as I became more committed to Zen practice I felt we should at least try to make it happen, by establishing the practice in the evolving Santa Clara Valley of the late 20th century.
I have a suspicion that society’s quest for wealth and recognition is in reality a deep-seated desire for equanimity, as if peace of mind could be provided by financial advisors, attorneys, expensive cars, maids, luxurious homes, far-reaching travel opportunities and donations to politicians.
But anxieties do not all arise from demands and attractions of the material world. Most result from the emotions of life – from our relationships with one another, from our disappointments, uncomfortable feelings, our need for attention. Material wealth cannot resolve such intangibles for us. We need to give up the quest and rather encourage equanimity by learning to listen with attention without a ready-made response, by letting go of a restless anxiety to jump in, by not enabling emotions to dominate but instead allowing our active mind to rest, to return to awareness of the moment. The mind of equanimity – the mind of zazen – does not get ahead of itself but truly reflects who we are and what we should be
Abbot Emeritus of Kannon Do