Zen on a Treadmill by William Klein

This past year we lost a spiritual giant. The globally renowned poet, activist and Buddhist spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hahn passed away in January at the age of 95. Hahn arrived on the scene and rose to world prominence during the Vietnam War which desecrated his sacred homeland. He inspired some of the greatest spiritual leaders of our time like Father Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others who shaped 20th Century spiritual thinking. 

MLK nominated him for the Noble Peace Prize for his activism to end the Vietnam War writing, “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”

Though he never won the Noble Peace Prize, he won the Courage of Conscience award in 1992, and he certainly did create an ecumenical spirit in the world. I saw him speak many years ago in Pasadena, California. The meditation was worth the price of admission, but Thich Nhat Hahn reached his audience unlike any other teacher I’ve seen. He spoke for over an hour and a half and knelt on stage, drawing comparisons between Buddhism and Christianity. He found that sweet spot of understanding so all could relate. I try to explore multiple faith traditions to expand my worldview and Thich Nhat Hahn’s teachings have inspired me ever since that night. 

I’ve been traveling across the country, and I went to the hotel fitness center to exercise. I was listening to him while walking on the treadmill. The tv was on and images of the world’s insanity flashed across the screen. 

There were two people in court arguing over a petty matter. A commercial for a playboy bunny serving drinks came on as well. I looked out the window at the beautiful Nebraskan landscape – a juxtaposition of humanity’s folly and Nature’s embroidery of glory inspired a smile.  There was a small pasture with a few golden elms and green trees in view.

There I was marking my time, watching my step count when that gentle whisper of a voice said, “We walk but we are not moving. We go places but we are going nowhere. We think we are making great strides but where are we going?”

I had to laugh at this truth. I was literally moving and going nowhere fast. I left the exercise room and walked to the elevator. There I am again, moving but stationary as I stood still and pressed the floor to get me where I needed to go. Yet again, when I was in the car it hit me. This time sitting and moving hundreds of miles to a destination. “Damn, that dude is right.”

Great spiritual teachers resonate but this Zen experience was getting ridiculous. I thought of all the ways technology transports us somewhere we need to go on planes, trains, boats and rockets into space. We are a society that is “running to stand still.” He goes on to say the old eastern mantra; “We were never born and never die.” 

All the important places we go and all the things we do beg the question “What’s the point?” Those deep philosophical questions, “Who am I?” Why am I here? Where am I really going? How did I get here?” flood the mind.

Nhat Hahn would remind us through the Buddha’s teaching of the Eightfold Path that we must be mindful of being present. It is in the stillness of meditation and the virtuous quest of non-being that we discover something more about ourselves. A movement takes place in the space of quiet. Clarity. Understanding. Solemn whispers of sacred thoughts buoy to the surface and bob as an epiphany takes the bait. “I am here now and there’s something meaningful and mystical about that. There is nothing but now.”

This is why Elijah called us to listen to “the still small voice.” Call it intuition or a faint call of recognition in something precious, but it is real when the sacred center is mined for its riches. This great spiritual teacher knew this all too well. Open your eyes to the world after a solid meditation and your perception has changed.

The meaning of who you are and the relationship to nature is meaningful. Thich Nhat Hahn addresses the blessed concept of “interbeing.”

He notes that a form is emptiness and emptiness is form. “A flower needs the sunlight to exist. Sunlight needs the flower to exist. The flower needs rain and rain needs the flower.” Together they are forming something for us to recognize.

He carries the concept to humanity. We need one another. We are nothing without each other. The flower of your being informs my consciousness, and I am changed.

The wise monk once said, “I am a continuation, like the rain is a continuation of the cloud.” May the fullness of this recognition bear rich fruit for his grieving followers. Let’s hope his work rains blessings in our world for many years to come.

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