Thich Nhat Hanh is a contemporary zen buddhist teacher and peace activist. Until recently, he was traveling internationally to give talks on buddhism and social issues. He published more than 100 books, and is known for his concept of “engaged buddhism”, and especially for his basic teaching of “mindfulness”.
Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Vietnam and became a monk at the age of 16. He received training in the traditions of mahayana and vietnamese zen. In the following years he founded a publishing house, a buddhist university and a corps of a buddhist peaceworkers. At the age of 40 he received a transmission from his master and thus became a teacher himself. In 1961 he went to US to teach comparative religion at Princeton and Columbia universities. By then he fluently spoke 7 languages. Two years later he returned to Vietnam to take part in the peacemaking activity of his fellow monks, while buddhism was severely oppressed by the government. Meanwhile he taught buddhist sciences at the university he founded. In 1966 he left to US again, where he met Martin Luther King and urged him to denounce the war in Vietnam; the following year King was the first person to publicly question the US involvement in Vietnam. Later that year M.L. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thich Nhat Hanh moved to France and became a chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation. When the communist North Vietnam won the war in 1975, he was denied permission to return to Vietnam. The following years he led efforts to rescue hundreds of thousands of refugees, who left Vietnam in boats. About 1966 Thich Nhat Hanh founded the Order of Interbeing, which is based on the principle of mindfulness. In the beginning of 80s he founded a monastery called Plum Village in the south of France, which became his residence. Later he established a few more monasteries and meditation centers in the US and Vietnam. In 2005, after years of negotiations, Thich Nhat Hanh was given permission to visit Vietnam, teach and publish a few of his books there. During his visit the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam called for Thich Nhat Hanh to publicly speak against the government’s violations of religious freedom. He did not do it. Two years later Thich Nhat Hanh visited Vietnam again, while two senior officials of the Unified Buddhist Church were under house arrest. The Church called this visit a betrayal, since Thich Nhat Hanh was cooperating with the oppressors of his fellow monks, and stated that Thich Nhat Hanh was manipulated by the government to create a false impression of religious freedom in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh said his visit was to supoport his order, to lead retreats and to to “organize and conduct Great Chanting Ceremonies intended to help heal remaining wounds from the Vietnam War”. Probably the wounds of war would get healed better if he could support his fellow monks. In 2014 Thich Nhat Hanh experienced a severe stroke and took more than a year to recover. Currently, at 91 years of age, he doesn’t meet his followers in person, but still addresses to them through his surrounding.
What does he teach? First let’s look at the “engaged buddhism”. Basically, it means that buddhist should be also aware of the political, social and environmental circumstances, and the suffering and injustice in the world. In this concept Thich Nhat Hanh applies a good deal of free-thinking and goes far away from the traditional buddhist philosophy. He teaches not to stick too much to any ideas, even buddhist, but rather observe reality directly and learn from life. Then, he teaches being nice and respectful to everybody, and “not to utter words that can create discord”. But how is it possible to fight for justice without creating discord? Then “have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.” But he didn’t do it himself, when buddhist monks needed his support in Vietnam! “A religious community should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.” Again, one should somehow take a stand and change the situation, but remain a nice guy and do not take any side. It looks like a social activist in him struggles with the buddhist monk. He wants to be socially active, but retain the buddhist philosophy, which essentially has no interest in the society at all. So he can’t be too active as well.
Then comes the main aspect of his teaching, the “mindfulness”. The word itself has become very popular (largely thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh) and stepped far out of the buddhist framework. Businessmen, corporate staff, military, prisoners and who not is now trained in mindfulness. Originally in buddhism it refers to a practice of bringing your attention to what is happening in a present moment. There is quite a variety of explanations for this term even in buddhism itself; and though mindfulness has now become a trend, nobody really knows what it actually is. Thich Nhat Hanh: “Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment.” According to him, everything in life should become a practice of mindfulness. He repeats this word mindfulness all the time. How to practice mindfulness, how to be more mindful. The intention behind it is good, but the term is confusing. Simply because it creates an impression, that it has something to do with your “mind”. “Awareness”, or “wakefulness”, or “presence, or ”witnessing” would do much better. It may seem it is not a big deal, just a word. But it matters a lot. And it tells something about the one who is teaching it. Just imagine you have to practice “mindfulness” all the time – your mind is bound to become heavy.
Like Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh has remained moderate, diplomatic and non-violent. But irrespective of any philosophy, sometimes the situation requires more than coming together and chanting for peace.