Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh will forever be celebrated in Buddhist communities throughout the world for his work as a peace activist and his teachings on mindfulness and spirituality. During the Vietnam War, Hanh’s peace promoting efforts led to international acclaim and a Noble Peace Prize nomination by Martin Luther King Jr.. Throughout his life, Hanh has authored over 100 books which creatively present the lessons of the Buddha in a modernized way. In particular, Hanh’s teachings on living mindfully, communicating with loving speech and deep listening, and finding stability in emotionally challenging times are immensely important in today’s world.
Thich Nhat Hanh Profile:
Born: October 11th, 1926 (age 90)
Spiritual Role: Zen Master, Author & Peace Activist
Focuses On: Mindfulness, Loving-Kindness, & Happiness
The Life of Thich Nhat Hanh:
It was in 1926 when a young child by the name of Nguyen Xuan Bao, now commonly known as Thich Nhat Hanh, was born in the central Vietnamese city of Hue. At a young age, Hanh decided to pursue a spiritual path and entered the Buddhist monastery at Tu Hieu Temple when he was just 16-years-old. Hanh’s early years in the monastery progressed rather typical for a Vietnamese Buddhist monk of his generation and he became a fully ordinated monk in 1949 at the age of 23. This traditional path, however, drastically changed with the onset of the Vietnam War.
Only one year before the devastating war started in 1956, Thich Nhat Hanh became the Editor-in-Chief of a periodical promoting Buddhist unification called Vietnamese Buddhism. During the trying times of the war, Buddhist monks and nuns were faced with the decision of remaining in their monasteries to continue their spiritual practices or going into the communities to serve those suffering from the detrimental effects of the war. During the initial years of combat, Hanh began using his position as Editor-in-Chief of Vietnamese Buddhism to encourage fellow monks and nuns to practice Engaged Buddhism by conducting humanitarian work within Vietnamese communities.
As the lengthly Vietnam War progressed into the 1960s, Thich Nhat Hanh, who had a ever growing reputation as a writer, peace activist and revered Buddhist monk, was presented with a number of unique life opportunities. From 1960 until 1963, the charismatic Buddhist monk studied and taught in the United States at Princeton University and Columbia University. Following this initial stay in the United States, Hanh returned to lead non-violent peace efforts in Vietnam for the next three years. During this time, in 1966, Hanh established a community for monastics and laypeople committed to living in accord with a specific set of Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings called the Order of Interbeing. The year of 1967 was one of the most important in Hanh’s life as he earned the prestigious title of Zen Master and also returned to the United States to teach at Cornell University. Additionally, it was in 1967 when Hanh’s reputation as a peace activist drew the attention of none other than Martin Luther King Jr.. Hanh’s authentically compassionate ideas for peace were so impressive to King Jr. that he would nominate him for a Noble Peace Prize. King Jr. wrote:
I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
Although the Noble Prize committee didn’t award a peace prize for the year of his nomination, Thich Nhat Hanh’s work as a non-violent peace activist continued to draw international attention and in 1969 he was called upon to represent Vietnamese Buddhists at the Paris Peace talks. During this delegation, Hanh was faced with a difficult decision as the Vietnamese government continued to put political pressure on him, by threatening to refuse his right to enter back into his home country, if he didn’t adjust his rhetoric about the war. This, however, wouldn’t deter the fearlessly compassionate Buddhist monk from acting on his most intimate beliefs, and in 1973 he signed the Paris Peace Accords. Keeping to their word, the Vietnamese government denied him permission to return, leading to Hanh seeking asylum in France, the country he still today calls home.
In 1975, two years after signing the exile-promoting accords, Hanh established a Buddhist monastery, that doubled as a farm, called the Sweet Potato Community outside of the French capitol of Paris. Interest in the monastery grew quickly from both monastics looking for permanent residence and spiritual seekers looking to study Buddhism on a short-term basis. The substantial levels of interest eventually resulted in Hanh moving the monastery to more land in southwestern France. Today, the still fully functioning monastery near the city of Bordeaux has become commonly known as Plum Village, and it is here where approximately 8,000 visitors annually come to visit Hanh and another 200 monks and nuns who permanently reside there.
After turning 89 in 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh unfortunately suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to speak and paralyzed on the right side of his body. Fortunately, he was able to return to Plum Village after seeking medical treatment and still resides at the monastery today. Hanh’s medical condition hasn’t stopped him from welcoming visitors to Plum Village with his loving presence or participating in meditation activities. In addition to his monastic duties, Hanh has authored or co-authored over 100 books on the subjects of meditation, Engaged Buddhism, peace, and mindfulness. Some of his most recognizable titles are: Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, No Mud, No Lotus, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, and The Art of Communicating.
3 of His Most Important Teachings:
Throughout the course of his life, Thich Nhat Hanh has consistently found ways to teach the lessons of the Buddha in way that is applicable for modern times. By examining the sheer volume of his writings, it becomes clear to see that Hanh’s wisdom filled teachings touch on a wide array of topics, but the following three are undeniably some of his most important:
Living with Mindfulness:
Thich Nhat Hanh has rightfully been nicknamed The Father of Mindfulness because he has supremely committed himself to teaching the greater global community a seemingly endless amount of ways that each of us can live more mindfully. While a formalized meditation practice allows us to experience peace and serenity in a distraction free environment, many of our blissful feelings vanish as soon as we go about the hustle and bustle of everyday life. For this reason, many of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings aim to show how we can bring the mindfulness, peace, and joy that we experience during meditation into our everyday routines. By increasing our mindfulness with a regular sitting practice and utilizing some helpful strategies taught by Hanh, we can experience more present-moment happiness when we are walking, eating and communicating with others. Hahn tells us, for example, that we can practice walking meditation by simply remaining aware of our surroundings when we are walking or by focusing our attention on our feet with each step we take. Additionally, Hanh tells us that we can practice mindful eating by using our senses of smell, taste, and sight to keep us in the present-moment during meals. If you are interested in exploring more of Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful living exercises, you can visit the Plum Village website where you’ll find an array of daily mindfulness activities.
Communicating with Deep Listening & Loving Speech:
In the highly advanced societies of today’s world, the ability to communicate effectively, peacefully, and compassionately has become such a rarity that the people who possess the skills are cherished by all who come into contact with them. Because technology has caused real and meaningful conversations to become virtually non-existent, Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2013 book The Art of Communicating is an indispensable piece of literature that shows us how to communicate in ways that bring happiness to both others and ourselves. Specifically, the great Zen Master lays out two important strategies based upon mindfulness and Buddhist wisdom: deep listening and loving speech. Hanh tells us that we can develop deep listening by consciously and consistently thinking about the suffering that each of us struggles with which will naturally make us more compassionate and attentive when others our speaking to us. Hanh tells us, “You have to take the time to look and see the suffering in the other person.” The second important communication skill according to Hanh is to make sure that we speak lovingly towards others. To do this, we need to be mindful of what we are saying at all times and make corrections when we discover speech patterns that are harming others or ourselves.
Your Breath is Your Greatest Ally:
Another one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s most important teachings revolves around the idea of using our breath as our greatest ally. In nearly every lineage of meditation, it is nearly unanimously agreed upon that the breath is an indispensable tool we can use during practice and in our everyday lives. Hanh’s Plum Village website tells us, “Regardless of our internal weather- thoughts, emotions, and perceptions- our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. Whenever we feel carried away, or sunken in a deep emotion, or scattered in worries and project, we return to our breathing to collect and anchor our minds.” Because focusing on the breath isn’t easy during emotionally turbulent situations, it is vital to improve our mindfulness and concentrative abilities in formal meditation, but Hanh does offers a number of strategies that we can begin using in challenging times. One of these strategies, which revolves around focusing our attention on the abdomen area when the going gets tough, is called belly breathing. Hanh tells us that by watching our belly rise and fall in emotionally distressing time, we can assure ourselves that we won’t become carried away by problematic thoughts in our head. To explain the reasoning behind this strategy, Hanh tells us, “When you look at a tree during a storm, you see that its branches and leaves are swaying back and forth violently in the strong wind. You have the impression that the tree will not be able to withstand the storm. You are like that when you’re gripped by a strong emotion. Like the tree you feel vulnerable. You can break at any time. But if you direct your attention down to the trunk of the tree, you see things differently.”
- “We are here to awaken from our illusion of separation.”
- “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
- “We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”