Mindfulness Bell: A Profile of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh’s ringing call to practice mindfulness and interconnection has inspired a worldwide movement of politically engaged Buddhists.

Trevor Carolan
1 January 1996

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. Gorbachev himself.

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 Nhat Hanh.

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 intelligence. Whew.

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 especially devoted.

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 sit down.

“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 do it.”

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 traditions.”

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 l960s, 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 teach.”

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 amphitheater.

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 purists.

“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 Gaia.

“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 remember this.

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 non-Buddhist elements…”

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.