Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh–reflections

Over the past month, I have been watching live stream videos on the Plum Village YouTube channel. This is the Buddhist monastery and practice center established by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose recent death at 95 has provoked a flurry of interest in his life and work. The hundreds of thousands of people spending time on the channel are an indicator of his global reputation. As a student of comparative religion, “Thay” and his teaching deeply influenced my thinking about Buddhism, Christianity, and community. Some written reflections feel both necessary and appropriate. 

The legacies Thay leaves us are many. At the core of his work is the establishment of a 20th-century Buddhist lineage, the Order of Interbeing. The order now has monasteries for men and women in the United States and Europe, including Plum Village in France and Deer Park in California. There are also myriad lay practice groups supporting meditation and mindfulness. And there is a catalog of some one hundred books, written primarily by Thay himself or with the assistance of students and editors. Topics include mindfulness, compassionate communication, conflict resolution, new translations of classical sutras (scriptures), and explications of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. Some of these books became best-sellers translated into several languages. Backing up all of this is a publishing house–Parallax Press–dedicated to books on the Dharma (teaching) and related topics. Audiobooks and YouTube video talks by Thay and senior students further spread his teaching. And there are many articles, essays, poems, calligraphies, and commentaries.

Videos of week-long ceremonies provide a glimpse into life at Thay’s root temple in Vietnam, and into practices and rituals in affiliated monasteries around the world. In these live streams, there is no rush, no hurry–everything seems to be in slow motion. Chanting, bows and prostrations, and quiet seated meditation go on and on. Ancient rituals are enacted by hundreds of people–monks, nuns, pallbearers, and lay groups. From Plum Village, running commentary in soft and reverent voices falls on the ear like a gentle sportscast. We hear Vietnamese, French, and a simultaneous English translation. Cameras are everywhere. Thousands line the roads for miles, and many bow and prostrate themselves on the ground as Thay’s funeral casket rolls by. One of Thay’s core teachings is that there is no true separation between one person and another, or one part of the world from another. The idea of separation, of “us” and “them,” is a fiction created by our minds. Rather, everything is interconnected. We “inter-be” or “inter-are.” The myriad electronic signals going out in all directions point to this truth.

Thay developed a framework for an “engaged Buddhism” with a concern for social justice, the environment, and interfaith dialogue. In contrast to (most) other Buddhist communities focused on meditation, he welcomed families and children to practice mindfulness as laypeople. Millions around the globe have been touched in some way by his teaching, and many have embraced his vision of a refreshed, contemporary tradition of Buddhist practice that is adaptable across cultures.

As for Western countries, the flourishing of Buddhist practice outside of immigrant communities is scarcely a generation old. “Insight Meditation” pioneers such as Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg transplanted seeds of classical “Theravada” Buddhism from Asia to American soil. Shunryu Suzuki embodied the Soto Zen tradition from Japan, and Seung Sahn brought Korean Soen (Zen) first to the United States and then to Europe. Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chödrön have written eloquently on Tibetan traditions and the transformative potential of personal meditation practice. But it is not an exaggeration to say that Thich Nhat Hanh is second only to the Dalai Lama as an evangelist for the relevance of Buddhist ethics and practices in modern Western life and culture.

Thay’s biography is extraordinary, and not totally without controversy. As a young monk, he lost both family members and friends in the Vietnam conflict, and worked to help refugees from the war. The term “Engaged Buddhism” appeared prominently in his early work Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. He would go on to become an international student at Princeton Theological Seminary, a guest lecturer at American schools, and a peace activist, traveling around the globe to meet with antiwar groups, religious leaders, and journalists. One of his most famous dialogues was with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. This international attention did not play well back home. Exiled from Vietnam in 1966, he eventually found a home in France. It was 2004 before he was allowed to return to Vietnam for a visit. Following a debilitating stroke in 2015, he was allowed to return to his root temple to live out his remaining years.

Letting go gives freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything–anger, anxiety, or possessions–we cannot be free. (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.)

After his association with Dr. King, Thay became a celebrity, traveling with an entourage and a security detail. Similarities with the Dalai Lama come to mind. No less a pop culture icon than Oprah Winfrey had him as a guest on her nationally syndicated talk show. Which provokes a question–in all these remembrances and expressions of regret on Thay’s passing, how many people are responding to his celebrity status, more than to his teachings themselves? We can’t really know the answer, and we can’t really know anyone’s hearts. What each of us hears, reads, or experiences can change our perspective in profoundly private ways. For some, celebrity is anathema to a sincere spiritual life. Yet celebrity can prompt curiosity, which in turn prompts engagement with the teachings.

Thay’s work as an interfaith leader is perhaps best illustrated by his book Living Buddha, Living Christ. His method was ingeniously simple–take passages from Buddhist sutras (scriptures) and the New Testament, place them on opposing pages, and let the reader reflect on parallels and commonalities. This framed an extended conversation between the two traditions, rather than proclaiming the superiority of one belief system over another. In the Christian tradition, this type of interfaith dialogue was also being encouraged by theologians such as Thomas Merton and Hans Küng, both of whom met with Thay personally and through letters. Of course, many have felt (and continue to feel) wounded by the politics, sexism, and dogmatism of religious traditions in which they grew up. If one renounces those traditions, there are many other movements and groups that may provide an alternative. However, there is then a risk of being caught up in an immature relationship with gurus and “New Age” thinking. Such encounters may bring some sort of insight, but also lead to a dead end. The kind of dialogue modeled in Living Buddha, Living Christ seemed to offer an alternative to both fundamentalism and relativism.

Really hearing a bird sing or really seeing the blue sky, we touch the seed of the Holy Spirit within us. Discussing God is not the best use of our energy. If we touch the Holy Spirit, we touch God not as a concept but as a living reality. (Living Buddha, Living Christ)

In my own life, Thay’s books appeared at a time I needed them. Caught in the grip of depression from personal loss and career disappointments, The Miracle of Mindfulness * was the most useful of self-help books I turned to. Psychotherapy was certainly beneficial, as were antidepressants. But I can credit my therapist with pointing out that while some of life’s problems are psychological, others are spiritual. I sought out one of the Plum Village lay practice groups in Los Angeles, and later spent a few weekends at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido. One takeaway from these experiences was a way of understanding suffering without taking it personally. Can we know the causes of suffering? Can suffering be transformed into happiness? Thay’s writings offer mindfulness as a practical and immediately available medicine for the daily and chronic unease we may experience. More often than not, we have all we need, if only we learn to notice the rhythms and small miracles of our daily lives. Cultivating awareness around our sense perceptions can be an ongoing practice, whether sitting on a meditation cushion or engaged in daily activities–eating, washing dishes, doing laundry. And perhaps most importantly, mindfulness can be practiced in our relationships with others. This is a central axiom in Thay’s teaching about compassionate communication and conflict resolution.

( * In a Fresh Air interview with Krista Tippett on NPR, Thay shared that The Miracle of Mindfulness had its origins as a field manual for relief workers in Vietnam. They were suffering from stress and anxiety as they worked to help myriad homeless people left bereft displaced by the war. Later, the manual was expanded and translated into English, becoming one of his best-selling books.)

To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now. (Touching Peace: The Art of Mindful Living)

In Thay’s more scholarly works on Buddhist psychology and philosophy, one encounters the mind of a professor. As I have that kind of mind, it felt as if I had found a high-class teacher that I never needed to meet in person. Yet after a time, books are only blueprints for thinking and practice. If our path takes us to a spiritual restaurant, we don’t want to confuse the menu with the meal, lest we end up chewing on paper. Thay was a monk who taught the virtues of living simply, with constant attention to the smallest details of our daily routines and habits. “Breathe, you are alive” is one of several gathas (sayings) assuring us we need not look far from our own experience for encouragement and peace. That is practical advice, and no intellectual constructs are needed to fully experience the “present moment.”

Many who are drawn to spiritual life and practice feel like outsiders looking in, be it for reasons of race, gender, sexuality, or intellectual independence. Personal psychological or spiritual work is our individual responsibility, but it can feel lonely at times. After all, human beings are social creatures. The Buddhist concept of sangha (community) allows for many ways to organize groups of monastics, dedicated laity, and secular students of meditation and Dharma (teaching). The myriad lay practice groups affiliated with the Plum Village tradition strongly emphasize community and social support. There are no memberships, no financial commitments, no insistence on believing a certain set of dogmas, and no gurus. On this last point, some people certainly placed Thay in that role. Human tendencies to cede spiritual autonomy to charismatic figures should not be underestimated. Lay practice groups function as egalitarian spaces for exploration and support. At their best, those spaces offer refuge and a sense of belonging even while preserving ethical and personal boundaries.

Throughout my life, I have been fascinated by spiritual teachers who have made a profound impact, skeptical of the organizations that grow up around them, and disillusioned in the end by their all too human failings. The hijacking of American Evangelical Christianity by opportunists pursuing secular power in politics is perhaps the most egregious example. Many Catholics also continue to wrestle with cognitive dissonance. The church advocates for families, respect for life, and social justice. And yet the patriarchy persists, with women still excluded from vocations in the priesthood. And the church is still embroiled in the aftermath of systemic sexual abuse of children. In several Asian countries, Buddhist nationalism is a source of conflict and suffering, directly contradicting its central messages of wisdom and compassion for others. And in the West, a patriarchal ethos still is evident in many Buddhist communities. All of which is to say that putting a spiritual teacher or religious organization on a pedestal likely will lead to disappointment.

If you crave acceptance and recognition and try to change yourself to fit what other people want you to be, you will suffer all your life. (The Art of Power)

Thay’s teaching resonates because he tells us, in myriad ways, that there is ultimately no inside or outside, no us and them–if only we look deeply into our experience as human beings. Interbeing means that as we take care of ourselves, we take care of the world. And as we take care of the world, we take care of ourselves. The truth of statements like these is not to be found in dogma or logical proofs, but rather in constant attention to the small details of our lived experience. You do not need to identify as a Buddhist to learn and grow through Buddhist teachings.

This year’s myriad ceremonies, chants, and songs around the world honor Thay’s life and work on a global scale. With an international organization to carry his legacy forward, I wonder if the seeds of mythology have now been planted. Legends and stories from the “Golden Age” of China’s Tang Dynasty often feature anecdotes about Zen Buddhist masters. These were men (and women) grounded in wisdom and confidence. They established lineages of Buddhist practice, and their stories tell how gods and humans came to realization and enlightenment. Centuries later, we hear stories about Bodhidharma, Master Rinzai, and Laywoman Pang. And if we don’t know who they were, then we have heard of legendary yoga masters, or Christian saints, and a pantheon of prophets ancient and modern. Centuries from now, will Thay appear in similar stories?

If you have read this far, you may wish to spend a few more minutes with a slideshow autobiography. The pictures may help some of these words come to life.