It is almost 5 a.m., and after a heavy night’s rain, I look out upon a rainforest still in dim light. This hour has a holy silence as a lone bird begins singing her aria. My morning ritual involves making a small pot of freshly brewed Assam tea. My hands are wrapped around my favorite mug as I sit for a few moments listening to the raindrops gently fall from one leaf to the next. Once they reach the earth, they will continue as a cloud or nurture the roots of trees and flowers, enabling them to continue. The scene is mystical, and it is a perfect hour to tell you a story. It’s a true story, and I hope you enjoy everything.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a Zen Buddhist Vietnamese monk who died on January 22, 2022. He was a slight, gentle man who dramatically changed hundreds of thousands of lives. How does a humble monk help people to see their world and their lives through the lens of understanding, compassion, and love? These thousands of diverse people are from all corners of the globe, ranging from notable to unknown and from different religious beliefs and philosophies. Yet they originally came to Plum Village in France, which was one of many monasteries that grew out of Thay’s (Thay means teacher in Vietnamese) teachings of engaged Buddhism. He was a peace activist, poet, author, and artist. Martin Luther King nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thay was like no other being. His understanding of the human condition and his love of our Mother Earth affected all who grew to know him through his books, video teachings, interviews, et cetera.
My favorite poem is one for which Thay is best known, and there is a story about how it came into being. Thay attended a global faith conference where there was much ritual and grandstanding for most of the day. I don’t know if Thay was the final speaker, but I believe he was. The person who relayed the happenings to me was there that day. Thay, wearing a brown cloth coat over his long robes, walked slowly, as he was known to do, across the stage. As he approached the microphone, he reached into his coat pocket, pulling out a folded piece of paper, which he unfolded with care and attention. He said I wrote a poem on my here. I guess I’ll read the poem today.
The title of that poem is Please Call Me by My True Names.
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow — even today I am still arriving. Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, 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, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive. I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly. I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently 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 all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans. Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and my laughter 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.
Thank you, Thay, for writing this poem. I believe that if we have a willingness to look within at all aspects of ourselves, we will develop a deeper understanding of who we are, why we are, and how we can be more compassionate towards ourselves and others. That, then, leads to true kindness, love, and a vast understanding of all people and life on this planet for we are connected as one.
I leave you with an older image I took many years ago, but it is quite appropriate to our true names. And, the wee-one you see is real. That is a whole other story I’d love to tell someday.