In honor of Thay’s homecoming yesterday – after living in exile for 51 years. Welcome home!
Mindfulness in a Changing World: The Teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.
As we attempt to navigate the unremitting surge of life, pressing us forward, many look to the guidance of spiritual leaders. We do so in order to realize a governing sense of purpose and meaning and to help us better understand our complex lives in uncertain times. With the unwavering message of compassion and mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh has become one of the world’s most beloved and influential leaders.
Robert H. King, the author of “Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Spirituality in an Age of Globalization,” stated that Hanh exudes “a spirituality that combines traditional meditative practice with social action directed at the eradication of the most deeply rooted, intractable problems of contemporary life” (1-2). King’s summation aptly describes the manner in which Thich Nhat Hanh has modeled his life and message. To better understand the man widely known to many simply as “Thay, Vietnamese for teacher” (“Plum Village, Mindfulness Practice Center”), it is important to appreciate his humble beginnings.
Born in Vietnam in 1926, Hanh entered the monastic order at the age of 16.Thich Nhat Hahn began his Buddhist training at the Tu Hieu Temple, centrally located in Hue City. The temple, built in 1843 and home to more than 70 monks, continues to serve the local community. Hue City, once the capital of Vietnam, would become the site of intense fighting between the Vietnamese and American troops – resulting in a staggering loss of life. It is important to make the connection of Hanh’s experience as a monk to the punishing warfare he witnessed for more than three decades in Vietnam. In doing so, Hahn’s message of compassion and the senselessness of suffering can be fully appreciated.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Master, is one of the world’s leading Buddhist scholars. Hanh stated in a 2008 article, “In 1949 I was one of the founders of the An Quang Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, and I taught the first class of novices” (29). When Hahn accepted his first teaching post at the An Quang Buddhist Institute, he was only 20 years of age. From the beginning , Hahn’s central message has been that of easing suffering for oneself and others and to be mindful of each moment in order to live fully. “Take the time to live more deeply; you will make fewer mistakes and not cause suffering to self and others” (Hey 42).
Hanh’s teaching of engaged Buddhism has inspired and challenged students in some of our nation’s finest learning institutions including the Harvard School of Medicine, Princeton, and Columbia. “In 1961, he traveled to the United States to teach Comparative Religion at Princeton University and the following year went to teach and research Buddhism at Columbia University” (“Plum Village, Mindfulness Practice Center”). By the time Hanh was appointed a lecturer at Columbia University, he had already achieved fluency in French, Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, Japanese, English, and of course, his native tongue, Vietnamese. His ability to speak many languages not only denotes his profound capacity for learning and advanced intellect, it shows his keen interest in the experience of others and his ability to mindfully listen and assimilate information. In his book The Art of Communicating, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “I am listening to this person with only one purpose: to give this person a chance to suffer less” (Hahn 44).
Hanh continued teaching and returned to Vietnam in 1963. He taught at the Van Hanh University and lectured on Buddhist psychology. The timing of his return home ran concurrently with the escalation of the American war effort in Vietnam. As the war raged around him, Hanh continued to teach while advancing his efforts of social activism and peace. During this time period, Thich Nhat Hanh began his prolific writing career, a new platform to teach and share his message.
Thich Nhat Hanh has written and published more than 100 books. He has written on various subjects ranging from “meditation, mindfulness, Engaged Buddhism, poetry, children’s stories, and commentaries on ancient Buddhist texts” (“The Mindfulness Bell”). With sales of more than three million books sold in the United States alone, his best-seller list includes the titles: Being Peace, Peace is Every Step, The Miracle of Mindfulness, The Art of Love and Power, and True Love and Anger. Hahn has also written on the subjects of communication, suffering, and the parallels between the teaching of Christ and the Buddha. His writing has garnered praise and support from international scholars and leaders including Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Dzogchen Lama of the Nyingma tradition, gave the following endorsement for Hanh’s book, The Art of Communication. Thich Nhat Hanh is “one of the most important voices of our time, and we have never needed to listen to him more than now” (167).
Throughout his life, Thich Nhat Hanh has unwaveringly served as an international advocate for nonviolence and peace. In the early 1960s, he “founded the School for Youth Social Services” (Hey 26), an organization dedicated to providing medical services and rebuilding communities struggling to deal with the devastation brought on by the Vietnam war. In 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh traveled to the United States in an attempt to hasten the peace process and to bring an end to all hostilities between the warring countries. During his visit, Hanh would meet with Martin Luther King Jr. and would put forth the request for King to publicly denounce the ongoing Vietnam war. As a result of the time spent together, King would go onto nominate Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 (Vivian 790). King would write the following about Thich Nhat Hanh: I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam. I know Thich Nhat Hahn and am privileged to call him my friend. He is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to Humanity” (King). Their friendship continued until the untimely death of King on April 4th, 1968.
Much has been written about Hanh’s peace activism, especially in regards to his time spent with King from 1966 – 1967. What was lesser known was the persistent and unrelenting persecution Thich Nhat Hanh and many other monastics endured as a result of their activism. The North Vietnamese army was suspicious of anyone traveling to the United States including those championing peace. The South Vietnamese Army branded many Buddhist monks and activists including Hanh as “communist.” These perceptions would have lethal consequences for many Vietnamese Buddhists in years to come.
The mistreatment of Buddhists dates back to the French Occupation of Vietnam. Buddhists, who made up the majority of the population, received the directive to convert to Catholicism, the religion of then President Diem, or face limited prospects of social, political, and military advancement. In response, Buddhist monastics, including Hahn, would actively protest with demands of religious equality and fair treatment for all Vietnamese citizens. Unfortunately, the efforts to end religious persecution and to find a peaceful end to the war would not bear significant results for many years.
Hopelessness and despair were two growing sentiments shared in Vietnam. Monks on both sides of the 17th parallel began to discuss more radical means of ending the mistreatment of Vietnamese Buddhists and bring about the cessation of war. In desperation, Thich Quang Duc, a member of the same Mahayana Buddhist order as Hahn, would carry out one of the most influential and dramatic scenes of the Vietnam conflict. Sallie B. King, the author of, “They Burned Themselves for Peace: Quaker and Buddhist Self-immolators during the Vietnam war”, would describe his actions as follows: “On July 11th, 1963, at a downtown crossroads in Saigon, he sat in lotus posture, and in a state of meditative control, burned himself to death in a protest of the Diem regime’s repression of the Buddhist religion” (1). This event would deeply affect Hanh.
Now the founder and spiritual leader of The Order of Interbeing, an Engaged Buddhist Order, Thich Nhat Hahn would face the immeasurable responsibility of counseling monks and nuns seeking his permission to perform the same public act. Hanh would relive this experience once again on May 16th, 1967, when a member of his community, Nhat Chi Mai, would burn herself to death. In her farewell letter to Thich Nhat Hanh she wrote, “Thay, don’t worry too much. We will have peace soon” (King). Though he has referenced the selflessness and love required by the self-immolators, Hahn would not give his consent to those seeking his permission to burn themselves to death.
As the incendiary actions of the self-immolating monastics shook the international community, Hahn continued his peaceful appeal to end the war. As his message broadened, his influence expanded. This would cause considerable worry for the politicians and military leaders who precariously attempted to maintain state control. As a result of his activism, Hanh would be exiled from Vietnam for more than 39 years. Thich Nhat Hahn would “eventually settle in France and found the Plum Village community and monastery in 1982” (“Plum Village Mindfulness Practice Center”).
In spite of the immense difficulties facing him, Thich Nhat Hahn would remain steadfast in continuing the work of easing suffering and sharing mindfulness. Hahn has led workshops, dharma talks, and retreats on both topics, all over the world. His work on mindfulness has garnered attention by members of the US Congress, parliamentarians from the United Kingdom, and leading institutions such as Harvard School of Medicine and Google, all seeking insight into the mindfulness method of achieving personal fulfillment and sustainable organizational results. Thich Nhat Hahn has been interviewed on the subject of mindfulness by Oprah Winfrey, Bob Abernethy from PBS, and James Stephenson from the New Yorker. All have praised Hanh as being one of the most compelling spiritual leaders of modern times.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, states that “Mindfulness can be thought of as moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgmentally, and as open-heartedly as possible” (1481). Additionally, he would say that “of all the meditative wisdom practices that have developed in traditional cultures throughout the world and throughout history, mindfulness is perhaps the most basic, the most powerful, the most universal, among the easiest to grasp and engage in, and arguably, the most sorely needed now” (Kabat-Zinn). When listening to dharma talks given by Hahn, you will hear him describe mindfulness in much the same way.
Thich Nhat Hahn thoughtfully teaches the subtle differences of mindfulness ,the act of meditation and mindfulness, the way of living. Mindfulness as a form of meditation is an opportunity for practitioners to focus on the energy of the breath in order to be fully present and in the moment. The same method of being fully present in each moment can be practiced as a generalized state of being and worldview in order to ease suffering and live fully. In the best-selling book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Hahn said, “Your mind and body come into alignment, your wandering thoughts come to a stop, and you are your best. Mindfulness is the substance of Buddha” (13). The purity and elegance contained within his words continue to guide practitioners towards a means “of finding happiness and nourishing well-being” (Hahn 117).
Hahn is responsible for “founding six monasteries and dozens of practice centers in America and Europe, as well as 1,000 local mindfulness practice communities” (“Plum Village Mindfulness Meditation Center”). “He has built a thriving community of over 600 monks and nuns worldwide, who, together with his tens of thousands of lay students, apply his teachings on mindfulness, peace-making, and community-building in schools, workplaces, businesses – and even prisons – throughout the world” (“Mindfulness Bell”).
In 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh experienced a severe stroke that caused significant impairment to his motor skills and the paralysis of his right-side. In spite of these difficulties, Hahn continues to exude the grace and determination to live a full and mindful life. In 2016, following a year of physical therapy, Thay returned to his hermitage in France. While contending with significant physical limitations, Hahn continues to participate in sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindful eating. Now 91 years old, Thich Nhat Hanh continues to enjoy the beauty of the community he has created. When walking the grounds of Plum Village, Thay’s presence can be fully felt as he continues to emanate the characteristics of serenity, loving-kindness, and mindfulness.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Art of Communicating. New York City: Harper One, 2013. Print.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Living Buddha, Living Christ.Chatham: Riders, 1996. Print.
Hey, Barbara. “Paths of Peace”. Better Nutrition. 65. 3 (2003): 42-44. Print.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Mindfulness”. 6. 6 (2015): 1481-1483. Print.
King, Sallie B. “They Burned Themselves for Peace: Quaker and Buddhist
Self-immolators during the Vietnam War.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000): 127-150. Print.
Plum Village Mindfulness Practice Center. 23 Feb. 2017. Print.
The Mindfulness Bell. 23 Feb. 2017. Print.
Vivian, Tim. “Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Spirituality in an Age of
Globalism.” Anglican Theological Review. 84. 3 (2002): 790-791. Print