I recently learned that the Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, is quite ill. He may yet recover, but it’s still unsure. Thich Nhat Hanh, also known as Thay, is 88 years old. He has been practicing and teaching mindfulness and meditation for 72 years. I have been a student of his for the last 15 of those years.
Last June I attended a 21-day retreat with Thay called, What Happens after We Die? Thay taught for 21 days on this subject, but here’s what I heard: What happens after we die depends on what happens when we are alive. What happens after we die is conditioned by what happens when we are alive. And, what happens when we are alive is really all that we can influence anyway.
Say, for example, you are having a crowd of people over for Thanksgiving. If you focus on what will happen after they leave, you might think about cleaning up the dishes, having a cup of tea to unwind, and going to bed. But what the post-party will be like is entirely dependent on what happens at dinner. If your guests help you clean up, you will have less dishes to do. If you aren’t paying attention as you mash potatoes with the hand held blender, you may spray them all over the kitchen. If you have a fight with your family, you may be too tired to clean up, or you may pass the anger along by snapping at someone else. Each moment conditions the next moment, This is because that is.
It is challenging to try to understand what happens to Thich Nhat Hanh, or any of us, when we do finally leave this form. It’s evident to me that our material bits are recycled back into the cosmos and become rain, dirt, spring crocuses or dust on someone’s dining room table. But it seems there is something more that we might want to account for — that ineffable something that makes us who we are.
For Thay, his meditation practice and teaching, his compassion, and his wisdom would seem to be lost when his physical body leaves this world. But if I look more deeply, I can see that those things only exist in their sharing with others. There is no objective wisdom, without the sharing of it, no practice, teaching or compassion without an other to experience it. So who we are has meaning only in relation to other beings. And who we are continues to exist in those with whom we have shared it.
On a recent trip, my airplane seatmate was quite sick — coughing, sneezing and throwing up. Within a few days, I was sick too. The virus jumped from her to me and made a home inside of me. That’s the same way we share our ineffable bits. When I share my time and my life with others people, animals, or nature, I am spreading the “virus” of who I am with them. Like a virus, it doesn’t decrease when I spread it. And also like a virus, I can’t help but spread it when I am with others simply by being in relationship with them.
My words and actions are the virus. They are what I spread, and who I am. There is nothing else. Nothing more will continue on after I die except those words and actions. Sometimes I spread anger and hate and sometimes I spread love. The more I am aware that I am always spreading something, the more likely I am to choose my words and actions carefully and try to spread the good stuff.
YOU ARE ME, AND I AM YOU.
ISN’T IT OBVIOUS THAT WE “INTER-ARE”?
YOU CULTIVATE THE FLOWER IN YOURSELF,
SO THAT I WILL BE BEAUTIFUL.
I TRANSFORM GARBAGE IN MYSELF,
SO THAT YOU WILL NOT HAVE TO SUFFER.
I SUPPORT YOU;
YOU SUPPORT ME.
I AM IN THIS WORLD TO OFFER YOU PEACE;
YOU ARE IN THIS WORLD TO BRING ME JOY.
— THICH NHAT HANH, INTERRELATIONSHIP
It’s a practice to keep remembering that what I say and do really matters. What I say and do often feels so unimportant. But what I say and do is not only literally who I am , it is also what happens to me after I die. When we look at the legacy of the people who have shaped our world for the better, people like Thich Nhat Hanh, we can see how they live each moment with the awareness of this insight. They choose their words and actions knowing that it matters, and creating their continuation with each word and each step.