It’s September 5. I step out of Union Square’s hustle, into the opening of Thich Nhat Hanh’s premier calligraphy exhibit in the U.S., at ABC Carpet & Home. Monks and nuns from Blue Cliff Monastery play soft cello music, draping the lush gallery with other-worldly serenity. In the rear of the store, a potent silence envelops as Deepak Chopra introduces the event. “We cannot create peace through violence,” he says. “Dwelling in the present moment is the only way to develop peace, both in ourselves and in the world.” I have the fleeting feeling that if our world leaders could congregate in this room the tangible energy of peace would usher in a new era.
Thich Nhat Hanh enters a makeshift stage; by chance I’ve landed mere feet away from him! I am entranced by his youthful, calm presence. His words shower me like a healing rain. I try to let go of my resistance and allow the simple teachings to soak through my armor. “If you breathe in and pay attention to that in-breath, something will happen,” Thich Nhat Hanh says. “The present moment is the only address of life. When we breathe mindfully we can touch the miracle of all that is.” Every aspect of this gentle monk’s presence and his stunning calligraphies radiates the simple message that true happiness is available here and now. He describes his process of creating his signature ‘Zen circle,’ a starkly beautiful expression of wholeness: “I dip my brush into my tea cup to mix it into the ink. Making the first brush stroke up the circle, I breathe in. Going down the other side, I breathe out. So, breath and tea and all of life’s wonders are in my calligraphy.” The beautiful calligraphies reinforce the idea of ‘inter-being,’ a term Thich Nhat Hanh coined to reflect the idea that everything is connected. “You are made up of non-you elements, like the food you eat, the earth you walk on, the sunshine that sustains life,” he tells us. The monks and nuns scaffolding him begin to chant. I am suddenly overwhelmed by a flood of relief; here I am. That’s all. That’s enough.
“There is one country where we are all citizens if we choose to be,” Thich Nhat Hanh says as a volunteer cuts the ribbon ushering the official start of the exhibit. We proceed in silence into the gallery where Thich Nhat Hanh’s sumptuously minimalistic calligraphies and elegant Zen arrangements of natural objects like shells and stones create a meditative sanctuary. The exhibit is organized thematically around concepts like reverence for mother earth; our body as our home; Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetry; and enigmatic Zen reminders that life is more than outward appearances. I stop short in front of a series on transforming suffering. I recall Thich Nhat Hanh’s words: “We can stop running from our suffering, and embrace it like a child. Love transforms suffering into compassion.”
I rouse from my internal dialogue as Thich Nhat Hanh begins to create calligraphies on a raised platform in the center of the gallery. I am mesmerized by his hands: gentle, alive, precise, patient. “My father and mother are in my hands when I make my calligraphy,” he tells us. “Our ancestors are always with us…” The evening comes to a close. No fancy pranayama techniques, no postures, no mantras. I am blown away by the utter simplicity of his teachings – yet how elusive they can be during the maelstrom of daily existence. I vow to hold on to this sense of calm presence and gratitude, glad to know that a return visit to this tranquil space can help me come back to center over the coming months. Calligraphic meditation: the mindful art of Thich Nhat Hanh runs through December 31, free and open to the public. Calligraphy sales benefit Thich Nhat Hanh’s humanitarian works around the world. For more information, click here. On November 14, the gallery will host a panel on mindful eating moderated by Jeff Gordinier, food columnist for the New York Times. Click here to RSVP or to learn more.