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By Michael Kaneb
Mindfulness has been trending a lot in the past few years. You’ve probably seen it mentioned in magazines, in the news, in articles online, on social media, and chances are you know someone who has taken an interest in mindfulness; perhaps you yourself have. For some people, mindfulness might be something they try a couple times, then forget about. Others will avoid it because of its affiliation with meditation, holistic health, yoga and the like.
But for Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced “tick-not-hawn”), world-famous Zen Buddhist monk, interfaith leader, peace activist, poet, and author of over 100 titles, mindfulness isn’t just some fad to be peddled in magazine articles and books, at cushy retreats and corporate lectures. Though he has used these and other means to reach people – his body of work has influenced millions of people around the world – but he hasn’t done any of it for money or fame; he is a modest, humble monk who has relished living simply with almost no material possessions in his monastic hermitage.
For Thich Nhat Hanh, (Thay, as his followers affectionately call him), mindfulness is a revolutionary way of living. It means following a totally different path than the one offered to us by the consumerist, materialist, fast-paced, stressed-out societies we live in.
“Calming and concentrating our minds, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion in us, and learning the art of mindful consumption, we will create a true peaceful revolution, the only kind of revolution that can help us get out of this difficult situation.” (from his book “Calming the Fearful Mind”)
Now this champion of mindfulness and peace has arrived at the sunset of his life – at least in this form. After a stroke in 2014, he left his adopted home, Plum Village Sangha in France, which he founded in 1982, and returned to Vietnam, his native home, in 2018, to spend the remainder of his days at his “root temple” where he began his career as a monk.
Thich Nhat Hanh was born Nguyen Xuân Bao in the city of Hue in Central Vietnam in 1926. At the age of 16 he entered the monastery at nearby Tu Hieu Temple, and received full ordination as a Bhikkhu in 1951. As a young monk he founded Lá Boi Press, the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon, and the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), a neutral corps of Buddhist peaceworkers who went into rural areas to establish schools, build healthcare clinics, and help rebuild villages.
He became a prolific figure in Vietnam for the concept he founded called “Engaged Buddhism,” which pushed against the perceived inaction and complacency of the orthodox Buddhist community in Vietnam during the crisis of the American war. Nhat Hanh and his fellows were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence campaigns in their respective countries.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s work to spread nonviolence in the midst of the terrible war brought him considerable attention, and soon he became known in the West. In 1965, he wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a letter titled “In Search of the Enemy of Man”. During his 1966 stay in the United States, he met King and urged him to publicly denounce the Vietnam War. In 1967, King gave the speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence at the Riverside Church in New York City, his first to publicly question U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Later that year, King nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize. In his nomination, King said, “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.”
Due to perceptions of disloyalty to his homeland, owing to his consistently pacifist stance, the nation of Vietnam exiled Thich Nhat Hanh, and this humble monk was forced to apply for political asylum in France, which he was granted. There he made his new home, and along with other religious brothers and sisters from Vietnam, he founded the Plum Village Sangha monastic community. The center became a popular destination for retreats and teachings on Buddhism and mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh became an internationally-known personality during this time, traveling around the world and making friends with many prolific figures.
Next to Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) and the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most well-known Buddhists in the world. But although he has remained true to his spiritual foundation in the Buddhist faith, he prefers to identify primarily as a human being – a brother and friend to all his human family. He eschews labels, because so often they prevent us from identifying with each other.
“We are separated by labels, by words like ‘Israeli,’ ‘Palestinian,’ ‘Buddhist,’ ‘Jew,’ and ‘Muslim.’ When we hear one of these words, it evokes an image and we immediately feel alienated from the other group or person. We’ve set up many habitual ways of thinking that separate us from each other, and we make each other suffer. So it’s important to discover the human being in the other person, and to help the other person discover the human being in us.” (from his book “Answers From The Heart”)
October 11th marks Thich Nhat Hanh’s 95th birthday, or as he likes to call it, his “continuation day.”
“The day you call your birthday is really a day to remember your continuation. Every day you are alive is a continuation day. Within your body, birth and death are always taking place. We are coming into existence and going out of existence at every moment of our life. When you scratch or scrub yourself, dry skin is flaked off and new skin cells are born. In the time it takes you to read this paragraph, thousands of cells will have died. But there are so many, you do not have time to organize funerals for them. At the same time, thousands of new cells have been born, but it would be impossible to organize birth certificates. Every day you transform. Some part of you is being born, and some part is dying.” (from his book “The Art of Living”)
Brought up in the Buddhist tradition, which teaches “no-birth no-death,” every day is our “continuation day.” So, happy continuation day to you.
“Usually we say humans come from dust and we are going back to dust, and this does not sound very joyful. We don’t want to return to dust. There is a discrimination here that humans are very valuable, and that dust has no value at all. But imagine one atom of that speck of dust, with electrons traveling around its nucleus at 180,000 miles per second. It is very exciting. To return to a speck of dust will be quite an exciting adventure.” (from his book “The Heart of Understanding”)
Perhaps a good summary of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching would be this: peace begins in oneself. Simple, yet profound:
“Peace must begin with ourselves: with the practice of sitting quietly, walking mindfully, taking care of our body, releasing the tension in our body and in our feelings. That is why the practice of being peace is at the foundation of the practice of doing peace. Being peace comes first. Doing peace is something that comes from that foundation.” (from his book “Answers From The Heart”)
This is a timeless message that can fill our lives with immense meaning. In our age fraught with sharp ideological conflict, fear, and hatred, it is vital that we find a solid foundation to build our lives on, to base our identity on; something that fulfills us and makes our hearts feel peaceful, even in the midst of much suffering and anguish.
Although I have never met him, I consider Thich Nhat Hanh one of my best friends. He is my brother; certainly he is my cousin, my distant relative – after all, we are all members of one human family. In my life, his teachings have made a profound impact. I owe many thanks also to my family and friends who have shared my interest in this modest monk’s teachings. I wish him all the best on his continuation – today and every day, from now until the end of time.
(Michael Kaneb is co-founder of the New England Peace Center in Litchfield County, Connecticut, and a frequent contributor to The Waterbury Observer)