Calligraphy was one of my first impressions of Thich Nhat Hanh and Plum Village. I went to my first retreat in 2011, only 2 years after completing my BFA, and the artistry of Thich Nhat Hanh's calligraphy struck me. The words always seem simple on the surface, and yet, they always carry so many layers of meaning.
This post is a celebration of the parallel verses released by Plum Village to mark Tết, the Lunar New Year. I comment on Plum Village’s post about them and share how calligraphy supports my mindfulness practice daily.
The parallel verses are written by Brother Phap Huu, who trained as attendant with Thich Nhat Hanh for many years. During that time, the art of calligraphy was transmitted to him. So, Thay’s poetry and art continues through Phap Huu today.
Reflections on first seeing this year’s verses
I find myself starting this post differently than other posts. So often, I start with a set of notes, I make an outline, and I write from there. For this post, I think I’ll simply start writing about the calligraphy of the Parallel Verses for 2023 Lunar New Year without really knowing where I’m headed.
I actually saw them for the first time in my email. I’m on the mailing list for The Raft, which is a bi-weekly newsletter assembled by the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation, Plum Village Monastery in France, Parallax Press, and the Plum Village App team. The parallel verses appeared next to each other, laid out similarly to the featured image of this post, in the Jan 20th, 2023 newsletter.
Simplicity and Elegance
I am struck by their simplicity and elegance. As you may know, dear reader, I am a photographer. I constantly view the world through my lens of composition. I can’t help it. As such, I often find myself looking for balance and harmony in what I see. I don’t always know exactly what that means until I observe it, but in this year’s parallel verses, it is there.
There is symmetry and balance without each couplet being a mirror of the other. They work individually and as a pair. There are 3 more letters in “Freedom in every smile” than “peace in every step” and yet, the spacing from the outer borders feels right in both. The word “freedom” was not jammed in there, it is at home.
They are clearly hand made and have the touch of an artist. It may seem like an “s” or a “y” could have been copy/pasted from one to the other in photoshop, but I do not think this was the case. A part of me wonders if they were laid out on a computer, which is absolutely meant as a compliment, but I won’t ask Phap Huu 🙂. A part of me wants to get all the juicy details of how they were made from him, but as they say, do I really want to “know how the sausage is made?”. I think I like a bit of mystery.
It is enough to simply know that they come from Plum Village and are written with Phap Huu’s hand.
Non-Parallel Verses Elements
I can also know that the parallel verses are only made of non-parallel verse elements. The art of calligraphy is a tradition passed down from teacher to student. It contains all of Plum Village practice and history. It contains the tea Phap Huu was drinking that day. It contains the farmers, merchants, and manufacturers that worked to develop the materials needed to produce it. It contains the human touch.
The parallel verses contain the entire cosmos.
Without millions of years of evolution, and all the conditions that have come together to support human life on this planet, this calligraphy would not exist.
I know, we’re getting real out there. This is interbeing. It is one of the things that touches me the most when I view calligraphy.
When I walk by a calligraphy in my home that was written by Thich Nhat Hanh’s hand, I touch that in my mind. I think it is sub-conscious most of the time, although I can make it conscious on purpose if I choose. Either way, in that short instant, I tap into all the spiritual ancestors that manifested to support the development of Thich Nhat Hanh. I can feel that support and love that has been passed down through generations.
It’s kind of like when Aang gets advice from past airbenders in Avatar: The Last Airbender (if you haven’t watched, I highly recommend it). I’m not talking about anything to do with reincarnation here. I’m simply talking about the soothing feeling of getting in touch with the feeling of a teacher who means a lot to me.
I invite you, dear reader, to think of a teacher who meant a lot to you when you were younger.
Does your memory of that teacher, which is alive in this present moment, have an impact on you?
Can you imagine that your teacher also had a teacher like that when they were young? Can you imagine the impact, going back generations, of teachers on their students and how this has been transmitted directly to you?
As a photographer, sometimes I like to think about all the artists who came before me. I know that in my photography, I am influenced by so many others’ work that I have viewed in my life. In this way, my photography has elements of other photographers, painters, designers, sculptors, cinematographers, and more.
I see that the same is true of calligraphy. It is more than simply a few words on a page written by a monk raised in the greater Toronto area 🙂.
Practicing with simplicity
I also know that one of Thay’s great skills, that is continued by his students, is to simplify teachings to be grasped by anyone. There is a great tradition of honing words to describe Plum Village concepts and practices.
Brother Phap Linh has a great way of discussing the idea of words illuminating a concept. I sat in on a lecture this week given by him in Elli’s 4th year undergraduate class at UofT: Advanced Exploration of Buddhist Psychology & Dharma. During the lecture, Phap Linh asked the class cheekily,
Can you tell me what mindfulness is?
Many of the students have gone through a number of classes on the topic, and so naturally about 10-15 of the 30 or so people in attendance, including me, raised their hands. Everyone seemed a bit hesitant. I think we knew he was up to something. He revealed that it was a trick question and asked us why. One of the students skillfully explained that it is not possible to tell someone what mindfulness is, it has to be experienced to be understood.
Phap Linh encourages us to constantly explore what mindfulness is. Allow ourselves to discover it anew, in each moment, as we experience it.
It is indescribable, but not inaccessible.
He describes it as something that is indescribable, and at the same time, it is not inaccessible.
It’s a bit like trying to describe the taste of a certain fruit. Let’s take a mango for instance. Imagine someone we meet has never tasted a mango before. We can try to explain it to them: it’s sweet, sometimes a bit tart, can be quite juicy, it’s refreshing, and maybe it has some similarities to apple, apricot, peach, pear, pineapple, grapefruit, and banana. Does that description really do mango justice? I don’t think I can accurately describe the taste of a mango, and yet to access its flavour, all I have to do is take a bite.
The parallel verses are a bit like that, I think.
They are simple words that point to a practice that has to be experienced.
The words seem simple. There are only 8 after all. And yet, they communicate a practice that I’m sure will ripen, shift, and evolve for me throughout the year. From the PV article about them:
These words are not a declaration, but a living aspiration we wish to nurture.
They are printed and posted all around the monastery in celebration of the new year. When we see them, we can practice to:
Renew ourselves by applying them in our daily lives.
Print them out for your home!
I encourage you, dear reader, to print them out and post them all around. There is a high-resolution download embedded in Plum Village’s post. We still have ours from last year on our fridge, and soon enough, we will have the new ones up.
Happy Lunar New Year!
For more about Thich Nhat Hanh's calligraphy, go here on the PV website.
You can also listen to episode #23 of the podcast The Way Out Is In: Deep Reflection: The Calligraphy of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
Reminder: the resources page is always here for you. It is where I collect all the links, resources, and references from every post.
As always, please leave a comment or message me. I’d love to hear from you.
And if you have a good description of the flavour of mango, please leave it below!