Just a few thoughts about Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022) – the influential Buddhist teacher and peace activist.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, born in 1926, when Vietnam was still under French colonial rule. He was known to his students as ‘Thay,’ which means ‘teacher.’ He became a monk when he was only sixteen and became a fully ordained priest in 1949. He was very involved in the movement to reform Buddhism in Vietnam, trying to unify the many different schools in the country. In 1962 Hanh was offered a fellowship to study comparative religion in the USA. By 1964 he was back in Vietnam, still under a very repressive government which considered Buddhism as a threat to its power. Despite this, in 1964 Hanh witnessed the formation of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam – something he had been working hard to help achieve. Around this time Hanh also founded the School of Youth for Social Services (SYSS) – an early example of his form of ‘engaged Buddhism’ – working to repair the damage wreaked on a society that had been at war (with the communist North) since 1954. Hanh worked tirelessly for peace, trying to bring the various sides together – often involved in talks in the US and from 1969 in France, where he established the Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris. Around 1982 Hanh had established his monastic centre in Plum Village, not far from Bordeaux. It was here that Hanh developed the school of Vietnamese monasticism – known as the Order of Interbeing, which he had founded in Saigon in 1966. The Community of Interbeing UK is a charity registered in the UK established to develop and promote Thich Nath Hanh’s Buddhist ideas and practice.
Given the many years Hanh spent trying to unite the various schools of Buddhism in Vietnam and his work for peace and reconciliation, it is not surprising to find that the rituals, ideas and meditation practices of the Community of Interbeing are drawn from many traditions. In a way Hanh’s Buddhist school is a synthesis of Zen and Theravada traditions – with a particular emphasis on mindful meditation and social activism. ‘Interbeing’ is Hanh’s term denoting ‘pratityasamutpada’ or ‘dependent origination.’ The development of a community grounded in compassionate meditation and action is at the centre of Hanh’s teaching. Thich Nhat Hanh died in 2022 after a few years of illness.
Hanh was a very prolific writer and sales of his books formed a considerable part of the income that supported Plum Village and his other projects.
I was lucky enough to attend a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 2012 at the American School in London. The focus of the retreat was ‘Mindfulness for Teachers’ and it was the launch of a project to try to embed mindful awareness as a key part of the curriculum in schools and other educational establishments. Compared to the usual Thich Nhat Hanh retreats, which often had 1,000 or more participants, this was a small affair with maybe 150 people involved. Even the Plum Village monks and nuns who attended, said this was a ‘rare opportunity’ to be close to Thay! What follows are a few memories and reflections of this retreat.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s school of Buddhism, 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 Hanh encouraged us to find the ‘kingdom of God’ in a small piece of carrot – a morsel that nourishes our body and mind. In the retreat, and in his books, Hanh advises us to pay attention to all aspects 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 the pain that arises from these conditions by clinging, passing judgement or adding commentary. Our tendency to react with habitual responses and to add layers of words, thoughts and feelings to the immediate 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 kept emphasising 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, he argued, 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 encouraged us to bring mindfulness to bear on the simplest of everyday activities. Washing the dishes is of course a means to an end, but it is also an end in itself – 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.
Thomas Merton, who met Hanh in 1966, remarked that ‘he could recognise that Thay was a real monk simply by watching him close the door.’ (Hanh 1995: 4) What I remember of this retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, 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.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 2001. Essential Writings. New York: Orbis Books.