Just a few thoughts about Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022) – the influential Buddhist teacher and peace activist.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s school of Zen, reference is made to ‘inviting the bell to sound’ (not striking the bell or ringing it) and the sound of the bell is an invitation to stop, to attend, to listen, look and to be here in the moment. When eating meals in mindful silence we can find the ‘kingdom of God’ in a small piece of carrot – a morsel that nourishes our body and mind. Hanh urges us to attend to the pain of existence – birth, death, evanescence, the coming and going of phenomena and the sense of change and loss that arises in our day-to-day existence – but not to add to this pain by clinging, passing judgement or adding a commentary. Our tendency to react with habitual responses and to add layers of words, thoughts and feelings to the initial pain only increases our suffering and clouds our experience. Buddhism is about seeing things as they are, not as they are wrapped in our emotions, reactions and habits of thought, feeling and behaviour.
Hanh emphasises the cardinal importance of this moment – the past has gone, the future has yet to come, only now is real. He reminded us that times of non-thinking are important – a time to let go of past and future, our hopes and fears, our plans and obsessions – a time to ‘come home’ to our bodies. From mindfulness and attention to our own experience, compassion flows – compassion towards ourselves, our nearest and dearest, and towards those people and other beings with whom we share this very special planet.
Hanh encourages us to bring mindfulness to bear on the simplest of everyday activities. Washing the dishes is at the same time a means to an end and an end – that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes to live fully in each moment while washing them. Going about our day-to-day mundane affairs, life can be enormously enriched, transformed into sacredness, if we do things for their own sake – so long as we are really present when we do them. Sitting just to sit, walking just to walk, sweeping just to sweep – having no other purpose or aim other than to do what we are doing – this is a glorious form of aimlessness. Going nowhere we are always here. In this mode of being we don’t sit, walk or sweep to attain any goal, we do these things mindfully yet aimlessly. In focusing on the moment, we are mindful rather than mindless, we are awake rather than asleep, alive rather than going through the motions of living. Being here we are no longer somewhere else.
In his book, Peace is Every Step, Hanh suggests an unorthodox way of interpreting the Christian story of the last supper and the service of holy communion. According to Hanh, when Christ breaks the bread and shares it with his disciples saying, ‘Eat this. This is my flesh’, he is saying if you eat one piece of bread in mindfulness you will have real life. If you eat bread in a state of mindlessness or forgetfulness, the bread is not bread, it is only a ghost of bread. Just as we are only pale ghosts of ourselves if we are not awake and mindful. Hanh argues that Christ was trying to wake up his disciples. Maybe we can interpret the changing of water into wine in a similar way. If we really taste the water, noticing its flavour and texture, and if we are fully present when we hold it in our mouths and swallow it – the water becomes as rich, tasty and enjoyable as wine.
What I remember of a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 2012, is not what he said, but his presence – the quiet calmness of his being – the authority of someone who has learnt who he is through silent attention and who has found a way to let go of all that is not necessary. This gave him great humility and enormous strength and courage. He seemed to have no agenda other than to be peaceful.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 1995. Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. London: Rider.