- Mindfulness Bell: A Profile of Thich Nhat Hanh
- Trevor Carolan
Thich Nhat Hanh's ringing call to practice mindfulness and
interconnection has inspired a worldwide movement of politically engaged Buddhists.
"Where there is suffering," says the Vietnamese zen master, "mindfulness
responds with the energy of compassion."
Somewhere during most experiences there occurs a climactic moment in
which all that has gone before, and will come after, becomes fixed in the mind. For
whatever reason, this defining moment thrives in the psyche as a kind of touchstone, and
again and again we return to it in search of magic.
I am reminded of this during a recent gathering in San Francisco, where
a global brain trust had been convened by the Mikhail Gorbachev Foundation USA for a
"State of the World Forum."
The colloquium's luminaries were many and mixed: Nobel Peace Prize
Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, South African Vice-President Thabo Mbeki, Jane Goodall, Dutch
Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, Fritjof Capra, Ted Turner, Sam Keen, Shirley MacLaine, Joan
Halifax, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and the remarkable Mr.
It was an obvious case of beatnik genius at the controls, the
breakthrough pow-wow linking up the Esalen Institute, the Pentagon, the Fortune 500, and a
grab-bag of stray cosmic tracers. Their purpose was to search for and articulate answers
to certain fundamental challenges as humanity prepares to enter its next historic phase of
development on this precious planet.
On the third day of this Forum heaviosity, though, a little man
appeared as magically as Rumpelstiltskin. He arrived late at a mid-morning dialogue
addressing the topic "Expanding the Boundaries of Humanness." The guest panel
was Rupert Sheldrake, Deepak Chopra, Esalen Institute founder Michael Murphy and
Episcopalian Dean Alan Jones. The late arrival was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich
Discussion was free-ranging and abstract: how Descartes' three hundred
year old notions of mechanistic science still impact on the Western world view of self,
place and spiritual relevance; how pilgrimage became tourism; how telepathic communication
with other star worlds is worth a shot. Michael Murphy discoursed on golf and Sri
Aurobindo; Deepak Chopra thought the rational mind was inadequate to comprehend non-linear
Somewhere between Dr. Chopra's scientific mysticism (or was it mystical
science?) and someone else's view of Celtic pre-Christian pagan consciousness, I became
aware of an increasing buzzy muddification of my frontal lobes. Then Dean Alan Jones
introduced the final presenter.
A small man garbed in the drab brown robes of his Order, Thich Nhat
Hanh spoke quietly, plaintively, in good English with occasional French inflections. His
words and speech were restful, like a balm to the ears and conscience. Most everything
about Thich Nhat Hanh was marked by calmness, a soft yin-ness that goes beyond simple
stillness. When he spoke, it was with great mindfulness-a word, an action to which he is
Thich Nhat Hanh began with a story. "One day I was practicing
mindful movement in a wood with the people of our community," he said softly.
"Everyday we practice this, walking slowly, mindfully, to enjoy every step; then we
"One day, I suddenly realized that the tree standing in front of
me allowed my movement to be possible. I saw very clearly that I was able to breathe in
because of its presence in front of me. It was standing there for me, and I was breathing
in and out for the tree. I saw this connection very profoundly.
"In my tradition we speak of 'interbeing.' We cannot 'be' by
ourself alone; we must be with everything else," he continued. "So, for example,
we 'inter-are' with a tree: if it is not there, we are not there either.
"In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha advises us to consider four
notions: the notions of self, of humanity, of living beings, and of life span. He also
advises that the practice of removing these notions from mind is not difficult; anyone can
After the previous discussion, what Thich Nhat Hanh had to say, and how
he said it-without pyrotechnics or bombast; without jewelled elephants or eight-nectared
realms; without pseudoscience or systems-was like a glass of hot tea on a raw day.
"If we observe things mindfully and profoundly," he
explained, "we find out that self is made up only of non-self elements. If we look
deeply into a flower, what do we see? We also see sunshine, a cloud, the earth, minerals,
the gardener, the complete cosmos. Why? Because the flower is composed of these non-flower
elements: that's what we find out. And, like this flower, our body too is made up of
everything else-except for one element: a separate self or existence. This is the teaching
of 'non-self' in Buddhism.
"In order to just be ourself, we must also take care of the
non-self elements. We all know this, that we cannot be without other people, other
species, but very often we forget that being is really inter-being; that living beings are
made only of non-living elements.
"This is why we have to practice meditation-to keep alive this
vision. The shamatha practice in my tradition is to nourish and keep alive this kind of
insight twenty-four hours a day with the whole of our being."
About then, a radio correspondent leaned over to whisper inquiringly.
"What exactly is his tradition anyway? Is it zen he's talking about, or is all of
Buddhism like this?" The hard-boiled Capitol Hill reporter had been told that to
understand what the environmental lobby was fuelled by these days, she ought to check out
what the Buddhist monk from Vietnam had to say. I had queries of my own, however, since to
rework a line from Andrei Codrescu, as a teacher Thich Nhat Hanh appears to cultivate
anonymity with the kind of passion with which others cultivate publicity.
His students call him "Thay," Vietnamese for
"Teacher." Born in l926, Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Not-Hawn) has been a
monk for fifty-three years, dedicating himself to the practice and transmission of
"Engaged Buddhism," a root insight tradition melding meditation, awareness of
the moment, and compassionate action as a means of taking care of our lives and society.
In l967, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King for his
peace work in Vietnam.
Arnie Kotler seemed like a good source of answers to my questions about
Thich Nhat Hanh. Kotler is the publisher of many of Thich Nhat Hanh's seventy-five books
and a board member of the Community of Mindful Living, a loose-knit umbrella organization
of more than one hundred groups of students around the world practicing in Thich Nhat
Hanh's tradition of living mindfully, daily, in the moment.
"Thay is a zen teacher," Kotler related. "He's lived in
Plum Village, a contemplative community near Bordeaux, France, since l966. Originally he's
from Vietnam-Indochina-so there may be an assumption that he's from a Theravada tradition.
Thay likes to remind people that Indochina was influenced by both India and China, and
that Indian Buddhism especially means a lot to him. Vietnam's Unified Buddhist Church,
which is suppressed there by the government, is a combination of mahayana and Theravada
Placing Thich Nhat Hanh's background in context is useful, Kotler says,
"because we tend to think of zen mostly as Japanese; yet that's only one
manifestation, the one best known in the West. Thay practices in the forty-second
generation of Lin-Chi's (in Japanese, Rinzai) chan/zen Buddhism. The particular Vietnamese
offshoot of this original Tang Chinese lineage is known as the Bamboo Forest School.
"Thay is in its eighth or ninth generation and he's very much
embedded in the fullness of these traditions. During the l960's, when his Vietnam Peace
activism was at its height, he also founded a lay order called Tiep Hien, or 'Interbeing.'
It's in this mindfulness tradition that he's empowered fifty of his students to
This helps explain the formidable group of teachers, writers and
activists who in various capacities are affiliated with the growing "engaged
Buddhism" movement Thich Nhat Hanh has inspired-Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Deena
Metzger, bell hooks, Wendy Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston and others. The San Francisco leg
of Thich Nhat Hanh's recent U.S. visit brought out distinguished teachers such as Jack
Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein and Ram Dass.
At Spirit Rock, the Marin County dharma centre inspired by Jack
Kornfeld and other teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh led a "Day of Mindfulness" that
drew more than two thousand people to the former nature conservancy's natural
Happily, a mindful carpool shuttle introduced me to new friends en
route, so I was not alone in the large crowd. The landscape was beautiful-flowing ridges,
woodland and moor. The event was an example of North American Buddhism par excellence. The
day-long outdoor program included meditation, mindful walking, music and song, silent
eating, an offbeat organic "apple" meditation by Ed Brown, and a lengthy,
absorbing dharma talk by Master Hanh that became a Sermon in the Vale.
"Today, communication has expanded greatly throughout the
world," Master Hanh remarked. "E-mail, fax, voice pager-you can contact New York
from Tokyo in half a minute so easily. Yet in families and in neighborhoods, between
husbands and wives, between friends and each other, real communication is still difficult.
Suffering continues, pain increases.
"In our time, many young people also do not feel connected with
anything, so they look for something to get relief-alcohol, drugs, money-or they turn on
the TV set, absorbing violence and insecurity. How then can the dharma help dysfunctional,
emotionally hurt individuals?" he asked.
"Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is a very good listener, a
compassionate listener," he offered. "We need to rediscover a way to talk and
listen to each other as in a loving family. But what technology can help with this? I feel
the need is for practice, for mindful listening. A heart free to listen is a flower that
blooms on the tree of practice."
Listening to Thich Nhat Hanh one gradually attunes to the meditation
bell which is much a part of his practice path. The mindfulness bell is the voice of our
spiritual ancestors, he instructs: "Its sounds call us back to our true home in the
present moment-to emptiness. When we inter-are, we find peace, stability, freedom-the root
of our happiness. With non-self we discover the nature of emptiness."
Thich Nhat Hanh recommends study and chanting of the Heart Sutra as a
means of understanding how everything can be empty of separate self, while at the same
time being full of everything else in the cosmos. In this dharma realm, he says,
"Birth, death, being and non-being do not truly exist." They are simply notions,
he observes, and the practice of the Heart Sutra is the practice of removing all ideas.
What becomes clear is that what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches is not so much
"Buddhism" as steady perseverance in meditative practice. "Deep
listening," "deep touching," "deep seeing"-his interpretations of
Vipashyana meditation are as applicable to Christian, Jewish, Taoist or other spiritual
traditions as they are to Buddhism, whatever sect you fancy. In looking at my notes on the
nine days in which I had opportunity to follow, listen and sit in his presence, I realized
how seldom he discourses on Buddhist theology-a point known to raise eyebrows among
"That's correct; Thay doesn't talk about Buddhism much,"
agrees Arnie Kotler. "He talks about practice. As Trungpa Rinpoche informed us in his
first book, Meditation In Action, meditation is Buddhism's core practice. That's very much
what Thich Nhat Hanh is offering: meditation in activity."
"Is he charismatic?" an old friend grown wise, but in
weakened health, inquired one afternoon in Golden Gate park.
"No," I answered her, surprised a little by my response.
"Not in the usual sense. But he's the real thing. And he's a poet. My Vietnamese
friends call him a Living Buddha."
As a martial artist of long years I share a taste for masters like
Diogenes the Dog and Chuang-tzu, who on meeting emperors brought notice to the world in
their own unique fashion. So it was when Thich Nhat Hanh spoke again at the State of the
World Forum, this time to Mr. Gorbachev and the eminences arrayed.
"Intellect alone is not enough to guide us," Master Hanh
declared to them humbly. "To shape the future of the twenty-first century we need
something else. Without peace and happiness we cannot take care of ourselves; we cannot
take care of other species and we cannot take care of the world.
"That is why it is important for us to live in such a way that
every moment we are there deeply with our true presence, always alive and nourishing the
insight of Interbeing."
Interspersed in his talk were observations from Living Buddha, Living
Christ. A brilliant articulation of his belief in a Living Holiness shared by both East
and West, this new book establishes a basis for the "New World Dharma" pointed
to in such landmark texts of recent years as William Irwin Thompson's Pacific Shift, Gary
Snyder's Practice of the Wild, and Alan Hunt Badiner's eco-Buddhist compendium Dharma
To me, mindfulness is very much like the Holy Spirit," he
explained to the assembly of the powerful. "All of us have the seed of the Holy
Spirit in us; the capacity of healing, transforming and loving. Where there is suffering,
mindfulness responds with the energy of compassion and understanding. Compassion is where
the rivers of Christianity and Buddhism meet.
"In the Christian and Jewish traditions, we learn to live in the
presence of God," he affirmed. "Our Buddhist equivalent is the practice of
cultivating mindfulness, of living deeply every moment with the energy of the Holy Spirit.
If we change our daily lives-the way we think, speak and act-we begin to change the world.
"This is what I discussed with Dr. Martin Luther King many years
ago; that the practice of mindfulness is not just for hours of silent meditation, but for
every moment of the day. Other teachers, like St. Basil, have said it is possible to pray
as we work, and in Vietnam, we invented 'Engaged Buddhism' so we could continue our
contemplative life in the midst of helping the victims of war. We worked to relieve the
suffering while trying to maintain our own mindfulness.
"So to conclude, the practice of looking deeply does not mean
being inactive. We become very active with our understanding. Non-violence does not mean
non-action. It means we act with love and compassion, living in such a way that a future
will be possible for our children and their children. Thank you."
It happened then. The temporality of language and power was reduced for
a prolonged still moment to reverberant silence, to presentness. There was nothing left to
say. The monk gathered himself, rose and departed as anonymously as he'd arrived. I'd
Sometime during the visit I'd asked him about the mystery of death:
what happens when we die? Thich Nhat Hanh knows how to laugh. "Nothing is born.
Nothing dies. That is a statement made by Lavoisier-not a Buddhist," he responded
with something like a smile. "But as we know, Buddhists too are made up only of
At the Forum, the sound of women singing, nuns in his Order, drifted up
from a place nearby. "Breathing-in Breathing out," they sang, "Breathing
in... Breathing out." Then an echo up the halls of the noble old hotel: "I am
free, I am free, I am free"
I thought for a moment of St. Francis of Assisi, then looking about the
room at my speechless companions, I could have sworn I saw the universe smile./.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Binh Anson for providing us
with this article