“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child. Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy. We can smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available. We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living… we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive. Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment. – Thich Nhat Hanh
This past January 22nd, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, and world transformer, Thich Nhat Hanh, died at the age of 95. He had been in retirement since 2014 when he suffered an extremely debilitating stroke, returning to Vietnam in 2018 to live his final years in the monastery where he had been ordained 80 years ago.
His life is a story of tragedy turned into a gift to the world. Like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh lived much of his life in exile, both having had to flee from their small Asian nations because of foreign invasion and war. It is both ironic and profound that their life stories give living reality to the Buddhist teaching that “obstacles do not block the path; obstacles are the path.” What began as tragedy, both for the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh personally, as well as their people, became a great opportunity for them to bring their lessons of peace and transformation to the world where many millions of people became exposed to their profound teachings. And the world is listening.
Thich Nhat Hanh was forced to leave Vietnam in 1966 during the American/Vietnam war for his leadership of the Buddhist peace movement when both sides wanted only war, and eventually settled into France where he created a world-renowned Buddhist center, Plum Village. He wrote many books, gave talks, and led retreats all over the world, spreading his signature teachings on mindfulness, the brilliance of which are to be found increasingly integrated into Western institutions as varied as medicine, psychology, education, and industry. Along with the Japanese Zen movement and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh was as instrumental in bringing the profound wisdom and compassion of Buddhism into the West as anyone. In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s is an accessible Buddhism, simple, practical, intimate, and deep, and he often emphasized that one did not have to be a Buddhist to benefit greatly from Buddhist wisdom and practices, thus making his teachings more attractive to Westerners. While some of his writings demonstrate a profound and complex understanding of the details and intricacies of Buddhist philosophy and psychology, his great talent was to take these sometimes-esoteric teachings and present them in a manner that anyone can understand and apply. His teachings are tender, poetic, and rich in imagery, always coming back to the basic message of peaceful, insightful presence in the here-and-now. He taught that to be present in a deep and personal way with every act and interaction opens dimensions of peace, compassion, and wisdom that are inherent within us but buried under the burden of anxiety, worry, grievance, ambition, and regret that result from our social and psychological conditioning. His call is to come back to the depth and reality of the present moment, directing awareness into the sensation and miracle of our own breathing, and to exercise our capacity to choose our attitude in the face of any circumstance. He shares with us: “Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.” He called upon us to live lives rich in discovery of the beauty and miracle that is Life, that is our lives hidden beneath our worries, ambitions, and upsets.
Thich Nhat Hanh talked of mindfulness as a miracle, and for those who have taken heed and practice of his words, the truth of this has been proven. So simple. Breathe and be aware that you are breathing. Feel yourself breathing. Feel yourself breathing along with all of life. Note that when awareness is brought to the breathing, a profound sense of presence opens as ALL the senses sharpen and focus into details, subtleties, and connections that had gone unnoticed as the attention of the mind was on itself spinning its stories of wanting and rejecting, judgment and self-absorption. In practicing this breathing mindfulness, the present moment begins to open in exquisite detail while our mind-spin slows down and even stops. In such moments, we find ourselves in full presence with the world, noticing details previously overlooked. The beauty of the sky, a child’s smile, flowers, trees, a bird’s song, the sun shining, the rain falling, our own breathing, life everywhere opens to us, and if we allow ourselves to experience this inherent goodness to the world, most naturally, we can allow this goodness to bring a smile to our countenance.
Thich Nhat Hanh taught that in that profound moment of complete presence, we begin to notice that we notice – not only the details of our own sensations and the world around us – but we begin to notice our own minds, how incessant and demanding the telling of our story to ourselves and to anyone who will listen really is. We also begin to notice that in the moments when we are noticing our noticing, the mind stops, and we can realize an intelligence within us that resides in the silence of awareness, beneath our chattering minds. Instead of our minds controlling us, we begin to learn to manage our minds. We begin to see things as they are and ourselves as we truly are at the deepest and truest level. We discover that we are peace; we are compassion; we are wisdom and sanity; we are life connected with all life. Eventually the interconnected presence of everything that makes for the Universe happening in this eternal moment opens to us, and we experience ourselves not as separate and anxious in the world, but rather with a sense of wholeness and connectedness that completes us and opens our capacities for compassion and peaceful, kind confidence. In Buddhism, this is knowns as “awakening” – as if out of a bad dream that has kept our personal and collective lives in turmoil.
In these days of so much confusion and anxiety, when most everyone knows there is something profoundly wrong with the direction that this country and human society are taking, but no one seems to know what to do about it, Thich Nhat Hanh taught what is called “engaged Buddhism.” This means bringing insights garnered in mindfulness practice concerning the true nature of what it is and can be to be human into the social and political realm. If we can realize that our true nature is to be found in compassionate interconnection with each other and with all life as it is experienced in applied mindfulness practice, and we bring this realization into our social actions, organization, and political policy, we can begin to change this world into what it needs to be. We can create a human society marked by peace, compassion, universal sufficiency, and rich connection with Nature. We can build the society that is needed rather than continue the compulsive seeking of drama, stimulation, wealth, and power that now marks and degrades the human experience.
Further, Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness practice can open us to true spiritual experience; for in the silence of the purely witnessing mind, our capacity to intuit our origin and connection with the wholeness and completeness of the Universe can be felt. God can be seen and felt in a flower, in a child, in ourselves; in everyone and everything. The dilemma and fear of impermanence, our own and others, of the ever-changing nature of the material and social world, resolves itself and is seen as the play of diversity and opposites constituting a dynamic unity, giving direction and purpose to our existence. Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness takes us into compassionate joy at being alive, even in the midst of sorrow and loss. He had the capacity to make the most esoteric of spiritual teachings so immediate and relatable that dimensions of trust and faith in our own inherent goodness and the goodness of life begin to open to us quite naturally.
His honesty, his kindness, his courage, his depth of insight into the human dilemma, into the needs that we and all life share for harmonious and joyous coexistence, can guide us out of the dark time we are now in. Thich Nhat Hanh spoke compellingly about the necessary transformation humanity must make into a true flowering of human civilization as this planet’s wise and compassionate tender, rather than its scourge, through his poetic and beautiful message of peace, compassion, interconnectedness, and wisdom in the here-and-now. In the latest book of his teachings, released in October of 2021, Zen and The Art of Saving the Planet, he shared, “When you wake up and you see that the Earth is not just the environment, The Earth is us, you touch the nature of interbeing. And at that moment you can have real communication with the Earth… We have to wake up together. And if we wake up together, then we have a real chance… We need to look deeply to find a way out, not only as individuals, but as a collective, as a species”
And in his book No Death, No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote what might be considered his epitaph to the world, telling his followers not to mourn his passing when he writes: “This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there, the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies all manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free. Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source. Always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.” Goodbye, “Thay,” Vietnamese for “teacher’” – as he was affectionately known by his followers – and hello, Thay. We are always meeting in the smile of a child, in the bloom of a flower, in an act of kindness, in the gentle flow of our breathing, in the wise and compassionate teachings you have left us.