Submitted by Richard Galustian…
Thich Nhat Hanh (known as Thầy) was nominated by Martin Luther King, in 1967, and MLK rigorously advocated for a Nobel Peace Prize to recognise Thich Nhat Hanh’s huge efforts to end the Vietnam war.
Thích Nhất Hạnh is often referred to as Thầy “master; teacher” or as Thầy Nhất Hạnh by his followers. Any Vietnamese monk or nun in the Mahayana tradition can be addressed as “Thầy”. Vietnamese Buddhist monks are addressed Thầy tu “monk”.
Thầy was born October 11, 1926. The 92 year-old is still alive and remains a revered Vietnamese monk, who has hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, believes, for example, that the reason most people are not responding to the threat of global warming, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, is that they are unable to save themselves from their own personal suffering, never mind worry about the plight of Mother Earth.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the world’s leading spiritual teachers, is a man at great peace even as he predicts the possible collapse of civilisation within 100 years.
Thich Nhat Hanh said many years ago “The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, “A serious misfortune of my life has arrived.” I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died. When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me. I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet… wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I knew this body was not mine but a living continuation of my mother and my father and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Of all my ancestors. Those feet that I saw as “my” feet were actually “our” feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil. From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time.
Thích Nhất Hạnh, from his book No Death, No Fear.
Thich Nhat Hanh has led a life lived away from the public eye. Thay is often compared to the Dalai Lama but has largely escaped the public’s gaze, deciding to live the life of a simple monk. He has avoided the trap of being surrounded by celebrities and will give interviews only to journalists who have spent time beforehand meditating with him on the basis that mindfulness needs to be experienced, rather than described.
But Thầy is no wallflower and has led an extraordinary life, including a nomination for the Nobel peace prize from Martin Luther King in 1967 for his work in seeking an end to the Vietnam war. 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”.
He has continued to work for peaceful solutions to conflicts around the world, including holding several retreats for Israelis and Palestinians.
Despite all his achievements, including a stint as guest editor at the Times of India, Thay is modest when he looks back at his life.
“There is not much we have achieved except some peace, some contentment inside. It is already a lot,” he says. “The happiest moments are when we sit down and we feel the presence of our brothers and sisters, lay and monastic, who are practicising walking and sitting mediation. That is the main achievement and other things like publishing books and setting up institutions like in Germany, they are not important.
“It is important we have a sangha [community] and the insight came that the Buddha of our time may not be an individual but it might be a sangha. If every day you practice walking and sitting meditation and generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration and peace, you are a cell in the body of the new Buddha. This is not a dream but is possible today and tomorrow. The Buddha is not something far away but in the here and in the now.”
While Thầy is still in good health and sharp, he is not getting any younger will inevitably begin to start pulling back from the strenuous schedule that has seen him repeatedly criss-crossing the world, leading retreats and passing on his teachings. Travels across the US and Asia will be a thing of the past.
Given his belief in no birth and no death, how does he feel about his own passing?
“It is very clear that Thầy will not die but will continue in other people,” he says. “So there is nothing lost and we are happy because we are able to help the Buddha to renew his teaching. He is deeply misunderstood by many people so we try to make the teaching available and simple enough so that all people can make good use of that teaching and practice.”
As he lifts a glass of tea to drink, he adds: “I have died already many times and you die every moment and you are reborn in every moment so that is the way we train ourselves. It is like the tea. When you pour the hot water in the tea, you drink it for the first time, and then you pour again some hot water and you drink, and after that the tea leaves are there in the pot but the flavour has gone into the tea and if you say they die it is not correct because they continue to live on in the tea, so this body is just a residue.
“It still can provide some tea flavour but one day there will be no tea flavour left and that is not death. And even the tea leaves, you can put them in the flower pot and they continue to serve so we have to look at birth and death like that. So when I see young monastics and lay people practicing, I see that is the continuation of the Buddha, my continuation.”
A few years ago, prompted by a letter that informed him that someone has built a temple in Hanoi to commemorate his life, Thầy sent a letter to the Tu Hieu temple in central Vietnam, where he trained as a novice monk, making it clear he does not want a shrine built in his honour when he dies: “I said don’t waste the land of the temple in order to build me a stupha. Do not put me in a small pot and put me in there. I don’t want to continue like that. It is better to put the ash outside to help the trees to grow. That is a meditation.”
He added: “I recommend that they make the inscription outside on the front ‘I am not in here’. And then if people do not understand, you add a second sentence ‘I am not out there either’ and if still they don’t understand on the third and the last; ‘I may be found maybe in your way of breathing or walking.’
In Thầy’s book, Fear, he writes about how people spend much of their lives worrying about getting ill, ageing and losing the things they treasure most, despite the obvious fact that one day they will have to let them all go.
Thay suggests that our search for fame, wealth, power and sexual gratification provides the perfect refuge for people to hide from the truth about the many challenges facing the world. Worse still, our addiction to material goods and a hectic lifestyle provides only a temporary plaster for gaping emotional and spiritual wounds, which only drives greater loneliness and unhappiness.
Thay created the Engaged Buddhism movement, which promotes the individual’s active role in creating change, and his mindfulness training – an ethical roadmap – calls on practitioners to boycott products that damage the environment and to confront social injustice.
Given the difficulty of convincing those with vested interests to change their behaviour, Thầy says a grassroots movement is necessary, citing the tactics used by Gandhi, but insists that this can be effective only if activists first deal with their own anger and fears, rather than projecting them onto those they see at fault.
Awakened consumers can influence how companies act.
On companies that produce harmful products, he says: “They should not continue to produce these things. We don’t need them. We need other kinds of products that help us to be healthier. If there is awakening in the ranks of consumers, then the producer will have to change. We can force him to change by not buying.
“Gandhi was capable of urging his people to boycott a number of things. He knew how to take care of himself during non-violent operations. He knew how to preserve energy because the struggle is long, so spiritual practice is very much needed in an attempt to help change society.”
Thầy, the author of more than 100 books, including the best-selling Miracle of Mindfulness, says that while it is difficult for those holding the strings of power to speak out against the destructive nature of the current economic system, for fear of being ostracised and ridiculed, we do need more leaders to have the courage to challenge the status quo.
For business and political leaders to do that, they need to cultivate compassion in order to embrace and diminish the ego, Thầy says.
“You have the courage to do it [speak out] because you have compassion, because compassion is a powerful energy,” he says. “With compassion you can die for other people, like the mother who can die for her child. You have the courage to say it because you are not afraid of losing anything, because you know that understanding and love is the foundation of happiness. But if you have fear of losing your status, your position, you will not have the courage to do it.”
Rather than searching for answers to life in the study of philosophy, or seeking adrenaline charged peak experiences, Thầy suggests that true happiness can be found by touching the sacred in the very ordinary experiences of life, which we largely overlook.
Despite meditating every day for the past seven decades, Thầy believes there is still much to learn. “In Buddhism we speak of love as something limitless,” he says. “The four elements of love which are loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, have no frontiers.
“Buddha is thinking like that. His followers call him the perfect one but that is out of love, for the truth is you can never be perfect. But we don’t need to be perfect. That is a good thing to know. If you make a little bit of progress every day, a little bit more joy and peace, that is good enough so Thay continues to practice and his insight grows deeper every day.
“There is no limit of the practice. And I think that is true of the human race. We can continue to learn generation after generation and now is time to begin to learn how to love in a non-discriminatory way because we are intelligent enough, but we are not loving enough as a species.”
In concluding, neither quoting Thầy, not any Buddhist or philosopher, I would like to make one observation and then end with a quote from Albert Einstein, as it seems to me war will end civilisation before climate change.
Does it strike you as ironic how those who are most pro-war are almost always the guys who never had to fight in one. Prime examples being Trump, Cheney, Bush, Bolton et al. The same people coincidentally do not believe in the threat of climate change.
And ending with a very memorable quote from Einstein “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but I do know that World War IV will be fought with rocks.!”