Like a Cloud in the Sky–Reflections and Gratitude for Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Nikolaj Potanin clouds after storm in Beijing 2012

By Valerie Brown

Writing in his journal, which was later published as Fragrant Palm Leaves, in Vietnam in 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Our faith is not built on shaky ground or esoteric understanding. It is faith in the strength of unconditional love. . . .If you take your deepest questions into the core of your being, into your very blood and marrow, one day, quite naturally, you will understand the connection between thought and action.”

As a young lawyer, in 1995, when I first heard Thich Nhat Hanh speak at a public talk at Riverside Church in Manhattan, I had very few questions and lots of easy answers. I was mindful of very little, except wanting to make money and to get out of Brooklyn, which was not the swanky place it is today. The big-shot lawyer, the expert, I had it all figured out, and I didn’t have time for questions.

A classic Type A personality, I was constantly moving fast. I drove fast; I parked my car headlights facing out for a quick getaway. I talked fast, I walked fast, and my thinking was fast, too. When an unexpected surgery brought all that fast talking, fast walking, and fast driving to an abrupt halt, I began to re-think my mad dash through life.

To recuperate, I decided I needed a vacation and went hiking in the mountains of northern New Mexico. When I reached the top of a high mountain, at a clearing, I sat on a log and looked up at the sky. I watched as the clouds inched along, stunned by their slow-motion beauty. In racing through life, I had forgotten that clouds move. I had forgotten to look up at the sky; I hadn’t done so in months, maybe years. I was disconnected from the natural world and from myself. This was a bell of mindfulness, a bell of awareness.

“A cloud can never die. A cloud can become snow, or hail…or rain. But it is impossible for a cloud to pass from being into non-being.”

                                             Thich Nhat Hanh

I began asking questions about my values, my genuine service in the world, my aspirations, and these questions became an internal compass rose to set my life in a new direction. Looking deeply, reflecting, I realized that I became a lawyer as a way to escape poverty, out of fear of not having enough, and deeper still, suffering from internalized racial oppression, of a deep-seated fear of not being enough.

“I recognized the universality of suffering. I caught a glimpse of healing that is possible through understanding and community.”

I began attending retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh throughout the sangha and retreats especially for people of color. I saw myself in others and others saw themselves in me. I recognized the universality of suffering. I caught a glimpse of healing that is possible through understanding and community. I practiced lovingkindness or metta daily, extending friendship to myself, to accept myself as I am. Slowly, I began to notice (as did others) changes within me. I felt softer, less reactive. I began to focus on my breathing more and more, to notice strong emotions and take good care of them by looking deeply, and to release “internal knots” of tension in my body.

At work, as a lawyer-lobbyist, rather than trying to persuade others of the rightness of my position with quick answers, I focused instead on understanding others, first. This shift allowed me to connect on a “heart” instead of a “head” level and changed not only the quality of my conversations but also the quality of my relationships.

Today, I have a mindfulness practice of gazing at the sky, looking up. When I do, in that moment, no matter what is happening in my life, I remember how beautiful the world is and how fragile, like passing clouds. I want everyone to experience that beauty. In that moment, I feel incredibly grateful to be alive. I feel grateful for Thich Nhat Hanh, for the Plum Village community, for my parents, family, friends, and all the teachers in my life; I feel happy, and I want to share this with others. I have immense gratitude to Thich Nhat Hanh and to the sangha for helping me, and so many others, to appreciate the beauty of this present moment.

As a Dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition, Tiep Hien Order, I am engaged in human-scale, heart-centered work with diverse leaders and teams in educational institutions and nonprofits to foster trustworthy, compassionate, and authentic connections. My work is an expression of my deepest aspiration of transforming love in action. Embracing questions into the core of my being has opened a path not only of practice but a path of action to support greater peace and understanding.

About the author:  Valerie Brown transformed her twenty-year career as a lawyer lobbyist  representing educational institutions and nonprofits to human-scale work with leaders and teams. She is an accredited leadership coach, international retreat leader, writer, and Chief Mindfulness Officer of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC, specializing in application and integration of mindfulness and leadership, as well as a Co-Director of Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Leadership. Her books include The Road that Teaches: Lessons in Transformation through Travel, and The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and School. Valerie is an ordained Dharma Teacher in the Plum Village tradition founded by Thich Nhat Hanh and a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).[/author_info] [/author]

This article was previously published at

© 2019 Valerie Brown, True Sangha Power.

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