Cedar Society: Cultivating Our Continuation

 Photo: Some of Thich Nhat Hanh's original Cedars, lay friends who helped him in the most difficult times

Photo: Some of Thich Nhat Hanh's original Cedars, lay friends who helped him in the most difficult times

Cedar Society: Cultivating Our Continuation

The Cedar Society is a path for practitioners to offer stable, long-term funding support for the Plum Village community through planned legacy gifts. When Thay was a young monk in Vietnam, he trained thirteen young people to help support and root the Buddha’s teachings during the war. He called them the “thirteen cedars,” choosing the cedar’s strength and solidity for inspiration. The Foundation’s bequest giving program is a legacy of the original thirteen cedars, whose deeply engaged practice continues to inspire our community.

Jeffrey Johnson, Fearless Surrender of the Heart, is a Cedar Society member who practices with the True Names Sangha in Baltimore, Maryland and the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax in Virginia. He offers these reflections on his legacy gift:

Shortly after my wife Maryanne, Amazing Grace of the Source, died in 2014, I was able to attend Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat at Plum Village, where he addressed the question that was uppermost in my grief-stricken mind: “What happens when you die?” Thay explored with us the many ways that in death, all that we are and have been continues to manifest in other forms, which he described as our “continuation bodies.” This was a very beautiful teaching; it helped many of us at the retreat recognize and hold with greater awareness and reverence the continuation bodies of our beloved ones who had died and now existed within us. Yet Thay also urged us to consider our own death and suggested that it is a beautiful practice to consciously cultivate our own continuation bodies over the course of our lives. Indeed, according to him, we shouldn’t wait until the end of life, when death is knocking at the door – it will be too late.

On returning from Plum Village, I was much more aware of the variety of continuations that populated what I had previously regarded as my unique and separate self: my mother, my father, my grandparents, my ancestors, my beloved Maryanne, and other deep friends and teachers, living and dead, who have shaped what I have become. I took to heart Thay’s insistence that we consider what kind of continuation we might want for ourselves. As I dealt with all the financial consequences of losing a spouse – for example, seemingly endless beneficiary forms that needed to be modified – I made the decision to leave a significant part of my estate to the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation on my death. What better way to cultivate my continuation than this? Because of the recent death of my wife, I was acutely aware of how precious and fragile our existence in this particular physical form is, and how each action we take reverberates back and forward in time. In reviewing my will and my beneficiaries, I realized that most of the people to whom I had planned to give really had no material need for my money or property. They were already well situated financially, and the incremental increase in their fortunes from my bequest would have little meaning to them other than sentimental value. What could better represent my continuation into the future than supporting the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation, which is dedicated to watering the seeds of mindfulness, compassion, peace, and social justice – the values that are most precious to me in this life? At the same time, I altered my remaining bequests in such a way that a larger portion of my assets would flow directly to my youngest family members, who might actually be able to use these financial resources in establishing their lives.

I believe that our financial assets are only one way we can ensure that we might attain, in Thay’s words, “a beautiful continuation.” Cultivating and nourishing the continuation bodies we have been given by those who have passed on is another important way, as is holding our own body and mind – as well as the collective bodies of our society and the earth – in a spirit of reverence and loving kindness. Indeed, many aspects of our practice are beautiful ways to cultivate our continuation bodies, as well as to live fully in the present moment, thus assuring, according to Thay, that “we will never die.”