Who are you travelling with in this journey of life? (Tuning in to Thích Nhất Hạnh)

“Because you are alive, everything is possible.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh, Living Buddha, Living Christ




Who are you travelling with in this journey of life?
Tuning in to Thích Nhất Hạnh on a long-distance journey

A storm of meetings, interviews, conferences, con-calls, clinical audits, chart completions  peer evaluations had scorched my soul in the past few months. In my mind, however,I was looking forward to a trip to Southeast Asia in November.“It’s a very long flight from Chicago to Tokyo,” grumbled a colleague, “what are you so excited about?” The pleasure of coming up for air; of being on a flight for 13 hours without phone calls, texts, emails, and grumbling colleagues.


I was excited about being unplugged from this chaos called my life.A chance to un-chaos myself.


Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness”

Thích Nhất Hạnh


I reached the airport three hours in advance – checked in at the ticket counter, and promptly got checked out by a security guard. He made me remove my shoes and belts as if I was entering some holy shrine. Well, it was a temple – my temple of un-chaos in the air. Once aboard the plane to Tokyo, I found my window seat and got into my “un-plug routine”.  Adjust pillow between the seat and the window, put ear plugs on, keep sleeping aid in hand awaiting some water, and of course fasten seat belt tight…….in case of turbulence.


“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?”

Thích Nhất Hạnh


“Seems we may get lucky,” said the man in the aisle seat.I looked at him puzzled: what do you mean. “Oh maybe the middle seat will remain empty!” he completed.  “Inshallah” I responded. He smiled.


The man was in his late 50s, grey hair, several tattoos on his arms and neck, an e-cigarette hidden from the view of the air hostess.  He had the appearance of someone who worked in the sun for a living.


My mind jumped into the comforting arms of stereotype. What is he doing on this plane? My stereotyping brain asked: Is he anxious about his first air travel? Is he merely re-visiting some place where he was stationed during his stint in the armed forces? Is he visiting some of those sleaze palaces in Asia? Does he even know where he is headed? Maybe he is on the wrong plane and doesn’t know it yet?


I realized my response was probably curt and also wanted to conceal the picture-show of stereotypes running on the screen in my brain.  “First visit to Asia?” I scrambled to ask an appropriate question so as to appear friendly while not committing to a long conversation.


“Yes” he replied. My stereotype was validated. He is definitely seeking some cheap thrills. He must have friends who are involved in immoral, unethical and illegal undertakings in Asia.


“My first visit this year,” he continued.


I was curious: “This year. Do you visit Asia often?”


“Yes, I do go to Vietnam often. I spend the winters out there with my girlfriend.” he smiled.  Now, I was really intrigued.


Still clinging to the stereotypes in my mind rather than opening up to the person in front of me, I asked, “How long has she been living in Vietnam?”  He looked puzzled for a moment and then recovered, “Oh, she is Vietnamese. She has lived there all her life.”


“It must be tough travelling back and forth across continents.  How long have you been doing this?”


“For ten years” he said matter-of-factly.  “Yes, it is very tough to have the love of my life live so far away. I think I may just get married this year” a genuine smile appeared on his face as he answered the query in my mind rather than the question I had vocalized.


I was relieved when the stewardess brought some water since I could now sleep off my embarrassment.


“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh


I could not sleep. There was no turbulence but I was tossing in my seat. I turned to my tattooed neighbour to find some distraction in a conversation only to find him reading “The Present Moment” by Thich Nhat Hahn.


A fellow Thich Nhat Hahn reader!  Seeing him reading my favorite book helped overcome my embarrassment from the previous interaction.  I inquired about his experiences in Vietnam. He described the kindness and gentleness of the people, their hospitality and ability to absorb an outsider  within their community.


“Do you travel to places beyond than Vietnam during your winter break?” I enquired, now clearly wanting to learn from his life experiences.  “Well, I go and see my grand kids when I can.  There is only so much you can get out of skype”, he responded.  “Where do they live?” I asked, expecting to hear about some region within United States.


“Lagos” he responded, then saw the puzzled look on my face and continued, “… they are not my biological grand kids, but they are kids in Lagos that I help out”.  He had visited Nigeria 4 years back and had spent months out there trying to understand the culture, know the people and help where he saw fit.  He had learnt about these kids, spent time with them and had gotten to know them.  He has been taking care of their needs since then.  He communicated with them on a daily basis and “visits” on Skype once a week.


“You have to spent time and you will get the answers” he said when I asked how one person could make a difference on this troubled planet.He explained what he had learnt about connecting with people.  “Trust is the key, once you trust it is difficult to misunderstand.  If you do not trust it is difficult to understand even the good and sincere gestures of others. If you do not trust someone and he reaches into his pocket, you think he is reaching for a gun. But if you trust someone and even if he brings out a butcher’s knife you do not blink. Trust evolves with time, without the need for language.  Even us, unilingual Americans, can communicate trust, it’s a universal human language. We just have to spend time with people.” he smiled.


His name was Robin. He was a fisherman from Oregon.


“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh


Getting to know a tattooed sunburned man from Oregon on a 13-hour flight to Tokyo; getting plugged in to a world of patient passion while wanting to get unplugged from a life of chaos – I was in the miracle.  I went on to ask questions and soak as much wisdom as was possible on this journey. What was most remarkable was that his answers were all matter of fact as if they came naturally to him. True passion perhaps means complete and utter simplicity.


“How long have you been a Thich Nhat Hahn reader?” I enquired, hoping to find out when these teachings will become a natural part of me.  “Who?” he seemed puzzled.  I pointed to the book and repeated.  “Oh, I have never read him. I just started this book.  A friend recommended it, so I picked it up. Is he any good?”


Maybe life is enough of a teacher if one is passionate about it – about people around us. Robin has certainly been passionate and has spent time paying attention to people.  How do you do all this? How are you able to think like this?


“Well, I have a lot of time to think about things and the people in my life.  I am a fisherman, so there is enough time to ponder while waiting for them fishes” he explained.


The plane landed in Tokyo smoothly.


I rushed to catch the next flight but not before asking Robin to promise he will keep in touch and making a promise to myself that I will return to serene and minimalist Japan soon.



“Our own life has to be our message.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology



I had spent about 17 hours since leaving home if one counts the taxi ride to the airport and the waiting time at the airport.  I was not in the best frame of mind as I boarded the flight to Bangkok.  I scanned the seats around me on the next flight and was relieved to notice that there were no kids. The seats next to me were empty too. Great, I told myself. I got into my unplugged routine once again and closed my eyes.


“Hi there! I am Matt from New York!” boomed a loud voice from the seat behind me. It startled me.  It was directed to a non-English speaking Swedish teenager on the seat next to his. However, everyone in the 5-seat radius around him could hear him clearly. There is no law prohibiting the carrying of loud, booming voices inside airplanes. One cannot carry a lighter or fluids, but loud, booming voice – no problem. They make you take off your belt and shoes, but loud, booming voice – carry on.




The problem was compounded by the fact that Matt’s next-seat neighbour on this flight could not understand or speak English well. Matt took this as a sign that she could not hear him, and ratcheted the volume by a few points. Loud booming voice went to louder, ‘boomier’ voice.


However, later I realized that Matt was not worried about whether she could speak English, he was just glad that he could. And boy, did he speak!


“I am going to Bangkok to meet up with my buddies for three days.


I was re-living some sort of a hangover. I slipped back into chaos.


“My actions are my only true belongings.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh, Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology


“But I am just glad to be collecting the frequent flyer miles, Matt continued.  Can you believe it? I am getting 10,000 miles on this trip. By the time I get back I will have enough miles to travel first-class anywhere in the US”.  It was not just frequent flyer miles that Matt obsessed about.


“And I travel a lot in the US since I am an agent for a lot of the Yank__ players, Rodrig__, Can__, and others”  “Oh, you should hear what happened when I was in the locker room with Al__ the other day” and on and on it went.  “We, at the agency, are supposed to keep this information about the Yank__ hush hush” he yelled before each story.  The entire section of the plane heard about Matt’s interactions with each of the Yankees players, his travels in the US, his spring-break escapades, his ex-girlfriends, his expensive car, his gadgets, his Facebook friends and so on.  Matt was obsessed with himself and the only way he could describe himself was through his gadgets or his interactions with other famous people.


“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh


Matt’s telling of his story was itself a story.   The more he tried to impress, the more he pushed his fellow travellers away.


The climax came during the touchdown when Matt announced, “I have not had sex since March, you know.” His name was Matt. He was a sports-agent from New York. But you know that already…


“Many people think excitement is happiness…. But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Art of Power




Matt had welcomed me to Bangkok airport in his own way. 24 hours and more away from home without sleeping on a decent bed, I walked like a zombie to the immigration desk.  I fumbled and found the immigration papers and handed them over to the officer.  The officer looked at the forms, then looked up to me and with a welcoming Thai smile on his face asked, “Which of these are you, Robin or Matt?”   It seems I had scribbled the names of these fellow travellers on my immigration form accidentally. I rectified the mistake. The immigration officer asked me: Who are Robin and Matt?


I said they were fellow travellers.


He smiled and asked: Who did you like travelling with?


I smiled.


I passed customs and walked unconsciously to the baggage conveyor belt. I waited there for my suitcase.None of my bags on the belt. I was about to walk to lost bags counter when I remembered this was planned as a back-pack trip. I had all my belongings on my back already. I smiled and stepped into a balmy December night in the city of Bangkok. The question of the immigration officer circled inside my head.


If I have to travel this journey of life with a fellow-traveller, who will I pick? Robin or Matt?


On this journey of life who will you pick as a fellow traveller: Passion?Obsession?Love?


“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh,Peace Is Every Step:The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life




© Jignesh Shah, 2013



Image References:

Image 1 Plane Taking off.jpg from


Image 2a: Crowded inside of plane from:


Image 2_2: Crowded interior of plane from:


Image 3 Airplanes queue in NYC airport.jpg from:



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