A Story About a Bell and Thich Nhat Hanh: Letter from Peter Levitt

A Story About a BellbellletterMindfulnessPeter LevittThayThich Nhat Hanh

Dear Sangha,

This past Wednesday I spoke a little bit about Thich Nhat Hanh, who was taken to the hospital with a severe brain hemorrhage. At this time he is being taken care of by doctors and his sangha and there is some reason to believe he may recover, though at 88, it would be quite something for this to occur.

I have mentioned Thay in dharma talks from time to time, and there are many wonderful stories, teaching stories, funny stories, I have about him in my pocket, but last Wednesday I told this one:

I met Thay almost 30 years ago at the first retreat for “American Buddhist Artists” in California. It was a ten day retreat in the mountains that changed how many of us in attendance engage the world. Kaz Tanahashi was there, Joan Halifax, Rick Fields, Joanna Macy, Deena Metzger, Mayumi Oda – so many wonderful old and new friends, all gathered together to hear Thay ask us on the first night to “Please find the face of the American Buddha.”

On the second morning, after introducing the practice of hearing the bell, Thay invited me to be the bell ringer, the person who rang the ‘bell of mindfulness’ during the day so that the sangha could stop what we were doing, take three breaths, say a gatha (short verse) to ourselves, “Listen, listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my own true self” and then, refreshed, more present and aware, continue with what we were doing.

I was free to choose when I felt the sangha might benefit from the sound of the bell, and so throughout the morning, I performed my service as bell ringer. It was fun.
At lunch, Thay called me over, held out his hand, and made clear he wanted me to place the bell in his palm. I bowed with him, and did as he had wordlessly requested. Then he said, so gently, “Peter. When you ring the bell, you must become one with the bell. You must reach deeply, all the way down, in order to allow the bell to ring itself.”

I looked at the bell in his hand, or rather, I looked into the bell and saw it was only about three inches across and two inches deep, like the one in the photo above. Thay can’t be talking about reaching all the way down into the physical bell, I thought, and then, as if to confirm my question, he rang the bell. What a difference there was between the sound of the bell when he rang it, and when I had been ringing the very same bell! It was really quite something.

At the sound of the bell, the sangha put down their utensils, stopped eating, and, together, we took three breaths and silently recited the gatha he had taught us to say.
After people resumed eating, Thay smiled softly and said, “Now, I will invite another person to wake the bell.” We bowed together again, and I went back to my place at the table. I didn’t know if I had been such a terrible bell ringer that I had been fired from my job, or if Thay had always intended to offer this opportunity to learn how to reach deeply to many people at the retreat, but I trusted that no matter what, it was all right. I had learned something so important for my life, and the sound of that awakening bell has not stopped ringing all these years.
I hope you enjoy reaching deeply today, no matter what you do.

*Published with permission from Peter Levitt