The great spiritual master, Thich Nhat Hanh, just died. And the world took little note of his passing. There was a brief note from the Dalai Lama. The United States State Department put out about a three paragraph memo recognizing him. The Pope, as near I can tell, didn’t say a word.
I actually scanned through the pages of my FaceBook friends and found a total of three people who mentioned his death. There were far more discussions of the death of a rock star named Meatloaf than there was of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Initially, I was fairly dismayed. And saddened. And a wee bit shocked. I can’t tell you how many memes I’ve seen on FaceBook over the years that were quotations from Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m sure you’ve seen them, too. They’re usually posted with a picture of someone meditating or doing yoga or sitting blissfully under a tree. I would guess that the number of them I’ve seen runs into the hundreds or possibly the thousands.
I found myself wondering – did all of those quotations actually mean anything to the people who posted them? Did they read his books? Did they watch his videos? Did they in any way absorb anything that he said or believed?
I remembered a few months ago when Ram Dass passed over and there was very much the same reaction. “Oh, yeah . . . I heard something about that. Oh, well . . . he was pretty old, wasn’t he?”
Between the two of them, these people had a MASSIVE spiritual transmission. They brought concepts and perspectives to the table that have helped millions – literally millions – of people across the world. I don’t know what I expected at the news of their passing but it wasn’t, “Man, did you hear Meatloaf died?”
I know as I’m writing this that they’d both be laughing at the idea that their deaths were somehow important. Both of them stressed throughout their decades of teachings that the whole, “my death matters,” rap is just an ego trip. Ram Dass said that, “death is not an outrage,” it’s the most natural thing in the world. Thich Nhat Hanh said that there is no death and no birth, just transitions of our forms.
Still, I think they were both exemplars of the fact that LIFE matters. That the way we live our lives, that the amount of love and compassion and caring that we manifest matters very much. In the middle of an ocean of pain and suffering and cruelty and despair, they continued to repeat that one simple, brave message: love each other.
So . . . I ponder over the fact that this beautiful human being, this compassionate, loving, deeply insightful man could pass away and it made such a tiny ripple on the consciousness of the world.
I think that the answer is probably that people have become accustomed to NOT having any sort of a spiritual practice, in the sense of consciously integrating spiritual values into their daily lives. There’s a sort of a cliche’ in Texas about the good old boy Southern Baptist businessman who goes to church on Sundays and Wednesdays and screws people over the rest of the week. When you ask him why he’d behave that way, the response is, “Well, that’s just binness (business).”
In other words, there’s a clear demarcation in his mind between spirituality – which happens on Sunday and Wednesday – and business, which happens on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. There’s a sort of a spirituality cubby hole in his existence that needs to be filled, but he manages to keep it very much in the background for most of his life.
I would guess that, for many people, posting, “spirituality memes,” on FaceBook operates in much the same way. It’s a way of saying to others – and to ourselves – “Hey, I’m actually a deeply spiritual person. See – I just posted a meme from Ram Dass or Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron.” And then our friends shine that right back at us and that fills that spirituality cubby hole.
Spirituality becomes a sort of a bon bon rather than a steady diet. It’s something we post, not something we live. It’s scratching an itch, rather than wondering why we’re itching to begin with.
I know that neither Ram Dass nor Thich Nhat Hanh would say, “Yeah, people are pretty much shallow assholes.” I suspect they would say, “Yeah, there’s still a lot of work to do. We need to get back on to our part of it.”
I’m finding a lot of comfort in a paradigm from the 1960s, which is that there are Old Souls and Young Souls. If you’re an Old Soul, if you’ve been around the reincarnation cycle a few thousand times, then people like Thich Nhat Hanh resonate a lot more deeply in your heart than they might for a Young Soul. This isn’t to say that being an Old Soul is somehow superior to or better than or wiser than a Young Soul. It’s not an elitist trip. It’s not a superiority trip. It’s just being in a different place on the path.
The world seems to be awash in Young Souls right now and the best thing to do seems to be to constantly and consistently repeat that message from Ram Dass and Thich Nhat Hanh: love each other.
Ironically, they’d both agree with the assessment of the Young Souls that their deaths didn’t really matter. But their lives did.
Love each other.
Namaste’ Thich Nhat Hanh.