Awareness Is A Life-and-Death Matter

These words of wisdom come from my teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. We call him Thay, meaning beloved teacher. This teaching is important because in everything we think, say, or do, awareness is a life-and-death matter.

When I had breakfast with Thay in 2006, I witnessed the way he would grasp his bowl with complete awareness as if performing a ritual. He did the same when he drank from his tea cup or refilled the tea cup with hot tea.

If you have ever seen Thay give a dharma talk, you would notice how gracefully he gets up from his seat on the podium and seems to glide across the floor as he walks to the white board to elucidate the teaching with a drawing on the white board. You can witness this for yourself in the video below.

My favorite ritual occurs during retreats and days of mindfulness in one of the many monasteries around the world. Either before or after a dharma talk, Thay usually leads walking meditation. I love the way he gathers the children around him so that they can hold his hands. One summer in 1997, I became one of these children at the retreat at the University of California in Santa Barbara. We first walked to the beach and then Thay sat down on a dune with his hands in a specific mudra – a ritual gesture – that I’ve been using myself since then. When he got up from the dune, and started walking I waited patiently for him to come near and took hold of his left hand. Together, with the rest of the sangha, we walked in peace back to the dining tent.

Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising your cup of tea to your mouth is a rite. Does the word “rite” seem too solemn? I use that word in order to jolt you into the realization of the life-and-death matter of awareness.

– Thich Nhat Hanh


Thay gave this dharma talk on January 30, 2011 in Lower Hamlet of Plum Village, France. Watch him walk to the white board.

Do you have any rites that you practice daily to realize that awareness is a life-and-death matter? What are they?

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