Tea with Thay: Traveling in China with Thich Nhat Hanh 


Summary: In June 2000 I was able to participate in the “trip of a lifetime.” Here are some thought about what I learned being with this esteemed teacher about the deeper meaning of transformational leadership. Thay (which means teacher in Vietnamese) “became part of everything” on January 22, 2022. 

He holds the small porcelain cup in both hands. He lifts it slowly, so very slowly, with both hands. I watch discreetly as he sips. 

He sits cross-legged on the floor of the stainless steel spotless modern airport in Nanjing. It seems he sees the paradox of the shiny new airport sights and smells compared to the thick air, congested streets, and unfinished brick buildings that abound in the famous old city.  

Above all, he smiles. He smiles as if to welcome everything in his view as he sips again.

Being a transformational leader means finding the core of what matters 

Most importantly, the Zen master models Zen: peel away the superfluous, stay with essence, say less, sense more. 

Our plane is delayed. It will be late by several hours. He stands, getting up in a smooth, graceful movement uncommon for most men in their 70’s. 

Consequently, someone in our large yet compact and relatively quiet group of 180 women and men from 16 different countries hands him a gift, a lichee plant.  

He walks softly on the marble floor as softly as he drinks his tea.  

His dark eyes look deeply into mine as he says with his gentle voice that sounds like a smile if a smile could talk, “Would you like a lichee fruit?” I return the smile, wanting to converse with my fellow traveler.  

Transformational leaders communicate using fewer words with clear intention 

I want to chat in my natural American trained style, to say a lot about a little. Instead, I become my most Zen self as I say less and sense more. “Thank you, Thay” (Note: Thay means teacher in Vietnamese). I say this quietly as I tug at the plant. Trying to match his precision, I wanted one graceful moment to release the fruit.  

He holds the plant steady as I tug again and yet again. I pull again as a small crowd surrounds us wanting their turn. We are suspended in time; Thay, the Lichee plant, and me. A final tug and the sweet fruit is mine to peel and savor.  

He walks slowly, stops, and offers the plant’s fruit to others. They bow, smile, tug, and bow again as they claim their bounty.  

Oh, my gosh, I forgot to bow. A tingle of annoyance runs through my spine. “So what, who cares, enough bowing and politeness,” I say as if to defend myself. 

Transformational leadership means riding the challenging waves of emotions and staying steady 

In addition, I wondered why I came on this intense, often uncomfortable three-week trip to China with a Buddhist monk.  

In the same vein, I knew it would be both fantastic and challenging.  

This trip was the first time the present communist regime permitted a Buddhist to share the teachings.  

Thich Nhat Hanh, a world-renowned and highly respected monk, brought a small assemblage. My husband Herb Kaufman and I were in that lucky group.  

Moreover, for me, it was to find a way to peel away the superfluous. The Western world provides so much stimulation, so much stuff. There are in our western culture so many advantages, so many choices.  

On the other hand, looking deeply into the nature of what matters presents a challenge. The heart of the mind must peel away internal layers of memories and outdated ways of responding. 

On this trip, the opportunities to create complex, dramatic stories abound. It would be so easy to complain about schedule changes, leaving too early, arriving too late, food too hot or too cold, plumbing that leaves one breathless, bus rides that seem never to end.  

Leaders let go of what no longer works to build a better future

Subsequently, there is loyalty to old ways of relating and thinking.  

For example, I know how to rebel, to sow seeds of discontent, I learned early. By fourth grade, I questioned our teacher’s methods. I can feel the battle in my brain. The reptilian and the limbic areas want to stay in control; the neo-cortex waits patiently for the wars to abate.  

Therefore, it is only with focus the present moment comes alive.  

All I know is that I have observed the determination for patterns, no matter how old-fashioned, how unpleasant, to want to remain. 

Consequently, I breathe into the now, knowing I am breathing in; I breathe out knowing I am breathing out. Then I begin to chant one of the lovely Gattas, the small songs I have learned. 

“I have arrived, 

I am home,  

In the here.  

In the now,  

I am solid;  

I am free,  

In the ultimate, I dwell.”  

I think this to myself. As I sit on the bus wanting to complain about this trip, I repeat the words to myself. When I stay with my breath, I feel calmer and see more. 

Transformational leaders accept what is in front and make the most of each situation. 

The burst of noise, like gunfire, makes me cringe. A tire has blown. We are on a narrow road well into the countryside. There is nowhere to pull over, so we coast for perhaps a quarter-mile. The first shop, primitive by our standards, yet still with what we need, is, miraculously, an auto repair shop. Within minutes the tire is removed, and the spare put on. It was the perfect scenario of synchronicity. 

After that, we return to the bus; the ride is still another four hours. It is the last full day of the trip. In this land of communist rule, with one-quarter of the world’s population attempting to make some sense and order out of the complexity of an emerging nation, we sit quietly. 

Thay has joined our bus for this last day. It was what I hoped would happen. He is not one to choose favorites. Thay tends to everyone. He would rotate from bus to bus throughout the three-week journey. 

Most importantly, there is a request.  

We are asked to share our impressions of the trip. It is my turn for the microphone. Microphones and cellphone communication between buses remind me we are modern people also. I read a haiku. These short poems are the best way to distill the trip to its essence.  

“MSG in me 

Pollution as I breathe in 

Buddha eyes see love.” 

Thay turns to me and smile. He has poured himself a cup of tea that he holds delicately in both hands.  

Further, I read the haiku that was the essence of my journey. 

“My love for drama 

Flies away like birds go home 

I am clearer now.” 

After that, I turn toward the Zen master; I remember to bring my hands together and lower my head in a graceful bow. He nods the word “good.”  

The depth of your inner journey determines the outcome of your outer journey. 

I suddenly remember as a kid we would dig and dig in the sand, told if we dug far enough, we would reach China, the other side of the world. The outer journey to China and the inner journey to myself have become one as I see the other side of my world. 

To sum up, whenever the desire for upset and drama enter my life, I conjure up a memory from that trip and in my mind’s eye see the quiet, gentle man who drank tea slowly from a small cup and smiled into the world.  

With deep appreciation,

Sylvia Lafair

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Sylvia Lafair

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