Thich Nhat Hanh
When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That's the message he is sending.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh, known as Thay (teacher) to his friends and students, is a Buddhist monk, author, and scholar. The core of Nhat Hanh’s teaching is mindful awareness - the acknowledgement of the interrelationship of all life and realization that an individual’s actions potentially have an effect on other beings and the planet in either a positive or negative way. He believes we all have the capacity to be fully present and engaged in the world in each moment of our lives. Nhat Hanh lived through the suffering of the Vietnam War and has spent over thirty years in exile. He currently lives in Plum Village, a retreat center in Southwest France. Thay has ordained over 200 monks and nuns and has traveled all over the world, teaching thousands the art of mindful living.
Thich Nhat Hanh was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in Central Vietnam in 1926, when Vietnam was under French colonial rule. At the age of nine, he saw a picture of the Buddha seated in meditation on the cover of a Buddhist magazine, looking more peaceful than anything Nhat Hanh had ever seen. This image moved him deeply. At twelve, Nhat Hanh went on a school outing near where a hermit was known to live. He left the party to look for the hermit, but found his hut empty. He kept walking and found a spring of fresh water. Nhat Hanh remembers feeling a deep sense of peace and saying to himself, “I have tasted the most delicious water in the world.” Afterward Nhat Hanh shared with his school friends his intention to become a monk.
At the age of sixteen, Nhat Hanh became a novice monk at Tu Hieu Monastery, amidst pine forests a few miles from the center of Hue. There he lived happily in a community with other young monks, tending the monastery garden, taking care of water buffalo, studying Buddhist texts, and learning how to be fully focused on each of these activities. These were some of the happiest days of his life. Despite the mental rigors and material deprivations, the harmonious community life brought him moments of deep peace and joy. However, even in the monastery it was impossible to ignore the signs of strife and suffering in Vietnam.
After his full ordination in 1949, Nhat Hanh moved to Saigon. He focused his work on renewing Buddhism, bringing it out of the temples and making it more responsive to social realities and the lives of ordinary people. During World War II, French occupation gave way to invasion by the Japanese. After the war, Vietnamese nationalists declared independence. But the French, with U.S. support, initiated a war to re-impose their colonial rule. In 1954, Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel into two countries, communist in the north and capitalist in the south. This was the beginning of the Vietnam War. Thich Nhat Hanh did not support one country over the other. His wish was that his country be governed in accord with the principles of compassion and nondiscrimination.
In 1963, in an atmosphere of mounting crisis of persecution of non-aligned Buddhists, Nhat Hanh’s friend and teacher, the Buddhist monk Master Quang Duc, publicly immolated himself as a silent protest. Nhat Hanh was deeply shaken and inspired by his friend’s death. In 1964, Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) in Saigon, to serve people in the villages and repair the social damage of the intensifying war. The SYSS was a living example of what he came to call “Engaged Buddhism.” He and his followers risked their lives to resettle refugees, rebuild villages, and provide food, water, education, and health services in war-torn areas. Nhat Hanh taught the young social workers how to establish trust and good relationships with the villagers. His life began to manifest one of his key teachings: the pairing of understanding and action. Nhat Hanh taught that skillful action arises from deep understanding, and in turn, understanding is informed by being actively connected to the world.
When you say something really unkind, when you do something in retaliation your anger increases. You make the other person suffer, and he will try hard to say or to do something back to get relief from his suffering. That is how conflict escalates.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames
Because Nhat Hanh and the social workers refused to take sides in the war, many people were suspicious of them. One night a group of men entered their camp and shot five of the workers, killing four of them. Another night, attackers threw hand grenades into the dorm where the social workers were staying, killing one person and wounding several others. Someone threw a grenade into Thich Nhat Hanh’s room but it bounced out. At the time, he was away in Paris, calling for an end to the war.
In 1966, Nhat Hanh went on a North American speaking tour to help people understand the realities of the Vietnam War and to make a desperate call for peace. Nhat Hanh met with the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, U.S. senators, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He met twice with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.
As word of his activities reached Vietnam, he was denounced by the South Vietnamese government and not allowed to return. For the first six months of his exile, Thay was homesick for Vietnam. In 1969, Nhat Hanh joined the Buddhist Peace Delegation to participate the ongoing peace talks between North Vietnam and the United States. Nhat Hanh was a voice for the common people of Vietnam, representing their great wish for peace. In 1975 the war ended, but Nhat Hanh’s forced exile continued.
In 1976, when Thay was in Singapore to attend the World Conference on Religion and Peace, he became aware of the fate of Vietnamese refugees who were leaving Vietnam by boat and drowning on the high seas. Some countries refused to accept them and pushed their unseaworthy boats out to sea again, where the refugees often drowned. Thay organized a rescue operation that provided refuge for hundreds of people and brought attention to their suffering.
In 1982, Thay established Plum Village in Southwest France, which remains his home to this day. Plum Village serves as a full-time monastic retreat center and hosts people from all over the world who come to practice mindfulness. Every summer, Plum Village hosts a family retreat. It is a place where people of all ages can learn the art of living in the present moment with honesty, attention, and deep awareness.
A retreat center based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness teachings has also been established in the United States. Deer Park Monastary in Escondido, California is a branch practice center of the Plum Village International Sangha. Visitors of all denominations are welcome for Sunday retreats, longer stays, or to attend lectures.
In 2005 Thich Nhat Hanh was finally invited to return to Vietnam, where he traveled and taught for three months. He has returned twice since. Nhat Hanh has written more than seventy-five books, including illustrated books for children and a collection of his poetry. As one of the best-known Buddhist masters, he has encouraged hundreds of thousands of people from all corners of the globe to practice mindfulness. He was again nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Nhat Hanh continues to teach and write and travel around the world leading retreats for people from all cultures and walks of life.
Biography written by Rachel Neumann, 2010
“The Path of the Buddha”
Thich Nhat Hanh’s humanitarian work is unique because it unites the individual to all living beings, and daily life to global affairs. He has written extensively on how to create peace in our contemporary world, in which war is all too prevalent and we often feel removed from human intimacy, natural beauty, and the rejuvenative power of silence. In one of his most recent books, Peace is Every Step, Nhat Hanh prescribes “The Path of the Buddha”: five mindfulness trainings that he avows will lead to profound happiness and peace, for the practitioner, humanity, and the Earth.
What follows is the introduction to that chapter, and an excerpt or complete recitation of each training.
The path of the Buddha is the path of understanding and love. As we’ve seen, only when we understand can we really love. Understanding is insight. Love is the energy of the heart. Buddhist wisdom includes the key insights of interbeing and interdependent co-arising, which have the capacity to transform all narrow-mindedness, discrimination, and hatred. The Five Mindfulness Trainings (also known as the Five Precepts) of Buddhism embody and guide us on the path of ever deepening wisdom.
If you live according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, you will create a lot of happiness for yourself and for many others. The recently revised Five Mindfulness Trainings reprinted here are the Buddhist vision for a truly global ethic in this twenty-first century. Practicing the Five Mindfulness Trainings generates peace and joy, and gives future generations and our planet some hope of making it to the twenty-second century.
Once we have a path, we have nothing more to fear. Please look deeply into these trainings and put them into practice in your own personal life, your family life, and your society.
1) Reverence for Life
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, nondiscrimination, and nonattachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.
2) True Happiness
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting…. I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need…. True happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion…. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on my external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing right livelihood, so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.
3) True Love
Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society…. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse…. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.
4) Loving Speech and Deep Listening
Aware of suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic, and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope…. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations…. I will practice right diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.
5) Nourishment and Healing
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the four kinds of nutriments, namely, edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to…use…any…products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing, and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society, and the Earth.
Reprinted from: Peace is Every Breath, Thich Nhat Hanh, New York: HarperOne, 2011, pp. 139-147.