Thich Nhat Hanh
“Peace in oneself, peace in the world”
By Stefania Gualberti
Article published on 2 February 2022
zuletzt geändert am 5 March 2019
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Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master, global spiritual guide, peace activist, poet and writer on mindfulness - the art to be at peace with yourself and the world through learning to live in the present moment.

Born in Vietnam in 1926, he became a monk at 16 and when the war erupted in Vietnam founded the Engaged Buddhism movement which combined both the practice of meditation and engaging actions for helping people affected by war. In 1961 he went to research and teach Buddhism at Columbia University in the USA. When he returned to Vietnam in 1963 he led a massive movement for peace and social action in which a grassroot youth organisation engaged more than 10000 volunteers based on the principles of compassion and nonviolence.

In 1966, after becoming a Zen master, he travelled to the USA to advocate for Peace in Vietnam and putting an end to the war. There he met Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who nominated him for the Nobel Peace prize in 1967. As a result of this campaign, he was exiled from North and South Vietnam. He continued his lobbying against the war and continued his teaching. In 1970 moved to France where he received asylum and lectured and researched Buddhism at the University of Sorbonne.

In 1975 he funded the community of Sweet Potato near Paris which, in 1985, moved to a larger place in South France in the monastery and community of Plum Village. The monastery, still active today, hosts 200 resident monks and accommodates more than 45,000 visitors every year. People from different backgrounds visit Plum Village and take part in its activities and programmes on mindfulness practices and teaching. Thich Nhat Hanh brought the principles, teaching and practices of Buddhism to people’s daily lives. Sitting meditation, mindful movement, mindful eating, working meditation and bringing mindfulness in the way people breathe and smile are some of the practices you can find in Plum Village. These are all ancient practices, which Thich Nhat Hanh brought to people in easy steps to stop and reconnect to the present moment in today busy lives.

He developed the five mindful trainings, a global universal ethical code based on the Buddhist tradition but translated into modern language (universal as the same principles can be found in every spiritual teaching):

“Reverence for life. The first training is to protect life, to decrease violence in oneself, in the family and in society.
True happiness. The second training is to practice social justice, generosity, not stealing and not exploiting other living beings.
True love. The third is the practice of responsible sexual behaviour in order to protect individuals, couples, families and children.
Loving speech and deep listening. The fourth is the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile.
Nourishment and healing. The fifth is about mindful consumption, to help us not bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.

With mindfulness, we are aware of what is going on in our bodies, our feelings, our minds and the world, and we avoid doing harm to ourselves and others. Mindfulness protects us, our families and our society. When we are mindful, we can see that by refraining from doing one thing, we can prevent another thing from happening. We arrive at our own unique insight. It is not something imposed on us by an outside authority.

The leader of Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh has been very active and travelled around the world to bring his teachings and advocated for peace and nonviolence at different levels (from individual practice to global calls for ending war, violence and reversing the cycle of climate change).

He developed a programme for bringing mindfulness into schools and opened lots of monasteries based on his teachings around the world (California, New York, Vietnam, Paris, Hong Kong, Thailand, Mississippi and Australia, and Europe’s first “Institute of Applied Buddhism” in Germany).

A prolific author, he has written more than 100 books on mindfulness which have been translated in 22 languages. Different books vary from transcriptions of his talks, collections of poetry and commentary of Buddhist concept. With simplicity and clarity, he explains mindfulness to invite the reader to practice coming back to the present moment, find peace in every breath, to bring loving speech and deep listening in their relationship and reconnect with the world around us and Nature. Some focus more on family relationships, some on mindfulness at work, how to deal with strong emotions (fear, anger) and how to deal with conflicts.

“Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life”, 1991 , contains short, flowing, easy to read pieces with meditations, exercises, reflections, metaphors, stories and anecdotes to guide the reader into the possibility of peace in every given moment.

It is divided into three main parts:

Breathe! you are alive, where he teaches how to walk in mindfulness, breathe and smile in full awareness while at home at work, washing the dishes, answering a phone call, eating. Mindfulness is presented as the foundation of a happy life.

Transformation and healing, where he teaches how to deal with strong emotions, accept them, salute them, and taking care of them before understanding where they are rooted. He explains about taking care of anger, as suppressing or denying it is there would only worsen it; just accept it is there before transforming it. He uses the image of seeds, we all have both good and bad seeds in us, they were planted by our parents, ancestors and our society. With mindfulness, we can plant and reinforce our healthy seeds. We must start with us. Practising mindfulness will affect positively our relationship, family and community. “Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing? We must be aware of the real problems in the world. Then, with mindfulness, we would know what to do to be of help.”

Peace is every step. Here he explains how everything is interconnected. In the “Waging peace” passage, he names some of the ways our world is suffering: war, famine, political and economic oppression, pollution, violence. He describes the burn-out of some activists, that after an intense period of involvement to change things they may become discouraged if they lack the strength needed to sustain a life of action. “Real strength is not in power, money or weapons, but in deep, inner peace. Practising mindfulness in each moment of our daily lives, we can cultivate our own peace. With clarity, determination, and patience- the fruits of meditation- we can sustain a life of action and be a real instrument of peace.” He continues to invite the peace activist/movement to be peace “because, without peace, we cannot do anything for peace”.

Similarly, when referring to the roots of war, he says they are embedded in the way we live our daily lives - the way our societies are built, we consume goods and build industries. “We cannot blame one side or the other. We have to transcend the tendency to take sides. During any conflict, we need people who can understand the suffering of all sides.” “We need links. We need communication”. “Practicing nonviolence is first of all to become nonviolence. Then when a difficult situation presents itself, we will react in a way that will help that situation. This applies to problems of the family as well as to problems of society”.

He concludes with an invite to appreciate the flower of tolerance, to see and appreciate cultural diversity as well as the flower of the truth of suffering. “If we are willing to work and learn together we can all benefit from the mistakes of our time and seeing with the eyes of compassion and understanding, we can offer [the future] a beautiful garden and a clear path. Contemplating the nature, flowers, grass, sky, breathing and smiling together- that is peace education. If we know how to appreciate these beautiful things, we will not have to search for anything else. Peace is available in every moment, in every breath, in every step.”

Also, as an artist Thich Nhat Hanh used special calligraphy as a mindfulness tool, combined with breathing to write short phrases on his mindfulness teaching (i.e.”this is it”, “peace is possible”, “breathe and smile”, “breathe you are alive”). These are all framed in a circle, symbolism for no-self and connection with others, made with a brush and Chinese ink mixed with tea. His work has been displayed around the world and its sale has been funding mindfulness projects.

In 2014 he suffered from a severe stroke and in 2018 decided to return to the monastery in Vietnam where he was ordained. “Although he is still unable to speak, and is mostly paralysed on the right side, Thich Nhat Hanh continues to offer his peaceful, serene and valiant presence to his community, participating in walking meditations, mindful meals, sitting meditations, celebrations and ceremonies as far as his health allows.”

I will finish by quoting a beautiful poem by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Call me by my true names

“Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second to be a bud on a spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond, and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to, my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.” -

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The book referred to is "Peace is every step: the path of mindfulness in everyday life", Thich Nhat Hanh, Rider, 1991.

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