The peaceful way of Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is known as “Thay” to his followers. Thay means “teacher” in the Vietnamese language and is used as a title when referring to fully ordained monks in the Vietnamese tradition. It is a sweet and intimate reference to your teacher. Certainly, Nhat Hanh has generated a lot of love over the decades with his gentle yet persistent advocacy of peace, no doubt driven by the war that scarred his homeland of Vietnam. Yet Nhat Hanh’s teachings reach far beyond peace on a global level and into the heart of everyday life. His is a gentle but powerful teaching that is relevant to all modern people.

Born in Vietnam

Thich Nhat Hanh was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in the city of Quang Ngai in Central Vietnam in 1926. At the age of 16 he entered the monastery at Tu Hieu Temple near Hue, Vietnam, where his primary teacher was Dhyana (meditation Zen) Master Thanh Quy Chan That. A graduate of Bao Quoc Buddhist Academy in Central Vietnam, Nhat Hanh received training in Zen and the Mahayana school of Buddhism and was ordained a monk in 1949.

On his ordination he took the dharma name Thich Nhat Hanh. The Vietnamese name Thich means “of the Shakya (Shakyamuni Buddha) clan”. All Buddhist monks and nuns within the East Asian tradition of Mahayana and Zen adopt this name as their “family name”, or surname, implying that their first family is the Buddhist community. Nhat means “one” and Hanh means “move” or “action”. This all follows the Vietnamese naming convention, placing the family or surname first, then the middle name which often refers to the person’s position in the family or generation, followed by the given name.

In 1956, he was named editor-in-chief of Vietnamese Buddhism, the periodical of the Unified Vietnam Buddhist Association. In the following years he founded La Boi Press, the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon, and the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), a neutral corps of Buddhist peaceworkers who went into rural areas to establish schools, build healthcare clinics and help rebuild villages.

In 1960, Nhat Hanh went to the US to study comparative religion at Princeton University, subsequently being appointed lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University. By then he was fluent in French, Chinese, Sanskrit, Japanese and English, in addition to his native Vietnamese. In 1963, he returned to Vietnam to aid his fellow monks in their non-violent peace efforts.

Nhat Hanh taught Buddhist psychology and literature at the Van Hanh Buddhist University, a private institution that focused on Buddhist studies, Vietnamese culture and languages. At a meeting in April 1965 Van Hanh Union students issued a Call for Peace statement. It declared, “It is time for North and South Vietnam to find a way to stop the war and help all Vietnamese people live peacefully and with mutual respect.”

Nhat Hanh left for the United States shortly afterwards, leaving Sister Chan Khong in charge of the SYSS. Van Hanh University was then taken over by one of the chancellors who wished to sever ties with Nhat Hanh and the SYSS, accusing Chan Khong of being a communist. From that point, the SYSS struggled to raise funds and faced attacks on its members. The SYSS persisted in their relief efforts without taking sides in the conflict.

Peace and Dr King

In 1965, Nhat Hanh had written a letter to Dr Martin Luther King Jr titled, In Search of the Enemy of Man. In 1966, Nhat Hanh met with Dr King and urged him to publicly denounce the Vietnam War. In 1967, Dr King gave a famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, his first to publicly question the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Later that year, Dr King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize.

In his nomination Dr 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.” This was a profound endorsement but the fact that Dr King had revealed the candidate he had chosen to nominate and had made a “strong request” to the prize committee was in violation of the Nobel protocols. The committee did not make an award that year.

In 1969, Nhat Hanh was the delegate for the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace Talks. When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, the South Vietnamese government denied Nhat Hanh permission to return to Vietnam and he went into exile in France.

The Order of Interbeing

On the February 5, 1966, a full moon day, Nhat Hanh ordained the first six members of the Tiep Hien Order, the Order of Interbeing. This Order was created by Nhat Hanh to help bring Buddhism directly into the arena of social concerns during a time when the Vietnam War (called the American War by Vietnamese) was escalating and he believed that the teachings of the Buddha were desperately needed. He proposed that the Order of Interbeing be composed of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.

Arising out of this is The Community of Mindful Living (CML), which is guided by the Nhat Hanh’s Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings for Engaged Buddhism (see below). CML is a not-for-profit religious organisation that provides support for individuals and meditation groups (sanghas) worldwide who wish to practise in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition. CML also develops programs of social engagement to help create a culture of transformation and awakening.

In 1969, Nhat Hanh established the Unified Buddhist Church in France (not a part of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam). In 1975, he formed the Sweet Potatoes Meditation Centre. The centre grew and in 1982 he and Sister Chan Khong founded Plum Village Buddhist Centre, a monastery in the Dordogne in the south of France. From this base he has been a prolific writer and teacher for many decades.

Return to Vietnam

In 2005, following lengthy negotiations, Nhat Hanh was given permission by the Vietnamese government to return for a visit. He was also allowed to teach there, publish four of his books in Vietnamese and travel the country with monastic and lay members of his order. The trip was not without controversy. Thich Vien Dinh, writing on behalf of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (considered illegal by the Vietnamese government), called for Nhat Hanh to make a statement against the Vietnam government’s poor record on religious freedom. Thich Vien Dinh feared the trip would be used as propaganda by the Vietnamese government, suggesting to the world that religious freedom is improving there while abuses continue.

Despite the controversy, Nhat Hanh again returned to Vietnam in 2007, while two senior officials of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam remained under house arrest. The Plum Village website states that the three goals of his 2007 trip back to Vietnam were to support new monastics in his order; to organise and conduct Great Chanting Ceremonies intended to help heal remaining wounds from the Vietnam War; and to lead retreats for monastics and lay people.

Nhat Hanh is now recognised as a Dharmacharya, or dharma teacher, dharma being the divine or natural laws that govern the order of things and the personal obligations and duties that arise from those laws. Over the decades he has authored many books and he now resides in Plum Village in the southwest of France, continuing to teach and write.

Teachings of Thay

Nhat Hanh’s approach in his writing and teaching has been to combine a variety of traditional Zen teachings with methods from Theravada Buddhism, insights from Mahayana Buddhism, and ideas from Western psychology. Tony Mills is facilitator of the Five Mountains Sangha in Goolmangar, New South Wales; he was ordained a lay dharma teacher by Nhat Hanh in 2004. Mills was drawn to Nhat Hanh because of “the simplicity, directness and application of the Buddha’s teaching to everyday life. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks as a poet in explaining the Buddha’s teaching. He says a cloud never dies; it becomes rain, refreshing the earth. A piece of paper contains the whole universe. In it you can see the logger, the logger’s mother, the air, the rivers, the earth — if we were to take away any one of these the piece of paper would not manifest.”

Joyce and Rhys Davies are facilitators of the Caboolture Mindfulness Practice Meditation Group in South-East Queensland. Rhys says, “I have found through experience that, with following daily mindfulness practice, as exemplified in the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition, I can learn to live more in the present moment instead of the past and future. Deep listening and loving speech are basics which Thay recommends over and over. He also gives us a very simple tool, which we have with us always: the awareness of our breath and to follow it, allowing us to come back to the present moment and to link our mind, body and spirit.”

Nhat Hanh has also been a leader in the Engaged Buddhism movement, which promotes the individual’s active role in creating change. Although it was Nhat Hanh who coined the term “engaged Buddhism”, he attributes the 13th century Vietnamese king Tran Nhan Tong with the origination of the concept. Tran Nhan Tong abdicated his throne to become a monk and founded the Vietnamese Buddhist school in the Bamboo Forest tradition. Tony Mills says, “Engaged Buddhism is the ability to bring peace into our hearts and to the world. First, we have to develop peace in ourselves through being mindful throughout our day, then we can walk peacefully through our house, our workplace, our streets, our supermarkets. We learn to smile peacefully and we water the seeds of peace in others by our peaceful presence.”

While Nhat Hanh is most famous for his philosophies of peace, he has written and lectured widely on topics relevant to an array of human experience. He frequently advocates the power of such a simple thing as smiling. He has said that if we are not able to smile as individuals then the world will not be able to have peace. In his book Peace is Every Step, Nhat Hanh wrote, “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 know how to sacrifice 10 years for a diploma and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.”

While he has taught widely and strongly, he is also clear that rigid adherence to belief only leads to problems. According to Nhat Hanh, “People kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies. When we believe that ours is the only faith that contains the truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result.”

Much of Nhat Hanh’s teaching centres around love. He says that in order to be loved you have to love and that true love always brings joy to yourself and to the one you love. If your love does not bring joy to both of you, Nhat Hanh teaches that it is not true love.

Perhaps the absolute essence of Nhat Hanh’s teaching, though, is his instruction to cultivate mindfulness. He illustrates mindfulness with a simple parable: “When you sit in a cafe with a lot of music in the background and a lot of projects in your head, you’re not really drinking your coffee or your tea. You’re drinking your projects, you’re drinking your worries. You are not real, and the coffee is not real, either. Your coffee can only reveal itself to you as a reality when you go back to your self and produce your true presence, freeing yourself from the past, the future and from your worries. When you are real, the tea also becomes real and the encounter between you and the tea is real. This is genuine tea drinking.”

Out of mindfulness the other teachings of Nhat Hanh arise and the foundations of his Order of Interbeing are the 14 trainings he has outlined to create that mindfulness.

The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings

These are the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing:

  1. Openness
  2. Nonattachment to Views
  3. Freedom of Thought
  4. Awareness of Suffering
  5. Simple, Healthy Living
  6. Dealing with Anger
  7. Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment
  8. Community and Communication
  9. Truthful and Loving Speech
  10. Protecting the Sangha
  11. Right Livelihood
  12. Reverence for Life
  13. Generosity
  14. Right Conduct

The idea is that studying and practising them can help you become aware of what is going on in your body, your mind and the world. According to Tony Mills, “The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are the insights of many generations of teachers who have tried to live a mindful life. I am guided by these insights and practise their recommendations for living mindfully so that I can develop my capacity to be awake and to try not to create more suffering in the world by unmindful thinking, acting or speaking.”

Nhat Hanh teaches that, with awareness, you can live your life happily and fully present in each moment intelligently seeking solutions to the problems you face and working for peace in small and large ways. The basis of that awareness lies in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings which are:

1. Openness
Since suffering is created by fanaticism and intolerance, you should be determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help you learn to look deeply and to develop your understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill or die for.

2. Non-attachment to Views
Since attachment to views and wrong perceptions creates suffering, be determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to your present views. Be open to others’ insights and experiences. Know that the knowledge you presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Be ready to learn throughout your life.

3. Freedom of Thought
Be committed not to force others, even your children, by any means such as authority, threat, money, propaganda or indoctrination, to adopt your views. Respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. However, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practising mindfulness and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

4. Awareness of Suffering
Do not close your eyes to suffering but find ways to be with those who suffer, or at least learn of their suffering so you can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace and joy.

5. Simple, Healthy Living
Since happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom and compassion, and not in wealth or fame, do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share your time, energy and material resources with those in need. Practise mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs or any other products that bring toxins into your own, or the collective, body and consciousness.

6. Dealing with Anger
Anger blocks communication and creates suffering, so when anger arises recognise and transform the seeds of anger that lie deep in your consciousness. When anger comes up, do not do or say anything. Instead, practise mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace and look deeply into your anger. Learn to look with eyes of compassion at yourself and at those you think are the cause of your anger.

7. Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment
Commit to living deeply each moment of daily life. Don’t be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future or craving, anger or jealousy in the present. Instead, practise mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment.

8. Community and Communication
Lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, so train yourself in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. Learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create unhappiness or cause the community to break. Make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

9. Truthful and Loving Speech
Speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, and don’t say things that might cause division or hatred. Also, do not spread news that we do not definitely know to be true and do not criticise or condemn things of which you are not sure. When you are certain, do your best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.

10. Protect the Sangha
Sangha is a Sanskrit word that refers to the spiritual community. Since the essence and aim of a Buddhist Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, aim not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit and do not transform your community into a political instrument. However, a spiritual community should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.

11. Right Livelihood
Given the violence and injustice that have been done to our environment and society, make a decision to pursue a career that is not harmful to humans and nature. Instead, choose a livelihood that manifests understanding and compassion. Behave responsibly as a consumer and citizen and do not support companies that deprive others of their chance to live or to live a free and happy life.

12. Reverence for Life
Since a lot of sadness and suffering is caused by war and conflict, choose to cultivate non-violence, understanding and compassion in your daily life. Wherever possible, seek to promote peace, education and reconciliation within families, communities, nations and in the world. Be determined not to kill and to not to let others kill. Always look to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.

13. Generosity
Exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression cause much suffering in the world. So be committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the wellbeing of people, animals, plants and minerals. Practise generosity by sharing your time, energy and material resources with those who are in need. Never steal and do not allow yourself to possess anything that should belong to others. In all things, respect the property of others and try to prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.

14. Right Conduct
People who have not taken vows of celibacy should be aware that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot ease the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration and isolation. You should not engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love and a long-term commitment. Be aware that to preserve the happiness of yourself and others, you must respect the rights and commitments of yourself and others. Do everything in your power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Treat your body with respect and preserve your vital energies. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings.

In the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings Nhat Hanh has laid down a clear foundation for living a deliberate and aware life. His teachings are inclusive, far-reaching and wise. Surely there is no one who would not gain some valuable insight from the teachings and life of this Buddhist monk from Vietnam.


Terry Robson is a journalist, author and broadcaster, and the editor of WellBeing magazine.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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