My first impressions of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings were that they seemed so simplistic as to be almost childish. My impressions quickly evolved after more reading and following his simple exercises. I then knew, for sure, that profound wisdom isn’t the exclusive province of complicated treatises. Some of the deepest and most useful wisdom is found in the simplest thoughts and actions.
One of Nhat Hanh’s major contributions to the modern world was to re-introduce the practice of mindfulness to us. I printed out something he wrote about mindfulness to post onto my refrigerator door. Whenever I start to feel a bit jaded or cynical about life, I like to re-read it.
“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child–our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
Nhat Hanh’s slim volumes and his audiobooks are meant for numerous rereadings and rehearings. Some new gem of wisdom comes to mind each time. One of those simple sayings has helped me through times of uncertainty and does so without resorting to rigid dogma. “Our own life is the instrument with which we experiment with the truth.”
Thich Nhat Hanh is also known as Thay or teacher. He was born on October 11, 1926 in Central Vietnam. His birth name was Nguyễn Xuân Bảo. At age 16, he entered the Từ Hiếu monastery near Huế, Vietnam. Xuân Bảo received training in Mahayana and Vietnamese Zen Buddhism and was ordained in 1949. He also received his Dharma name Thich Nhat Hanh at this school.
Thay traveled to the United States to study comparative religion at Princeton. He was later appointed as lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University. He returned to his native country in 1963 to assist in the non-violent peace movement to work for the end of the Vietnam War.
In 1966, Nhat Hanh again came to the United States to continue his peace efforts. It was at this time he met Martin Luther King, Junior and requested that the Baptist minister denounce the Vietnam War. The following year, King did so in New York City. Also, in 1967, King nominated Nhat Hanh for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize. Significantly, Nhat Hanh represented the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace Talks. After the Peace Accords were signed, Thay was denied reentry into Vietnam. He remained in exile two years from 1976 to 1977.
Among Buddhist circles, Nhat Hanh is well known for creating the Order of Interbeing in the mid 1960s. In subsequent years, Thay established the Unified Buddhist Church in France; the Sweet Potatoes Meditation Center; Plum Village retreat and Zen Center, in France; Blue Cliff Monastery of Pine Brush, New York; Parallax Press; Deer Park Monastery of California; Magnolia Village in Mississippi; the Community of Mindful Living in Berkeley, California; two monasteries in Vietnam; and the European Institute of Applied Buddhism, in Germany.
Thay made two controversial visits to his home country after negotiating with the Vietnamese government. In 2005, he was allowed to publish his books and to tour the country. In 2007, his stated purpose was to support monastics in his order and to organize ceremonies to heal the remaining “wounds from the Vietnam War”. There were objections voiced by both the Vietnamese government and by spokespersons for Nhat Hanh’s own order.
Nhat Hanh suffered a severe stroke last November. He recovered enough to enjoy time outdoors and to live a quiet life. In July of this year, Thay began a more intense recovery and rehabilitation program at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. Last month, Thay spoke his first post-stroke words.
While his health is in the balance, I ponder one of his famous sayings. “Use your time wisely. Say beautiful things. Inspire, forgive, act physically to protect and help.”