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Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh

Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh

LUMPENPROLETARIATThầy is the Vietnamese word for teacher or master.  Thiền Sư Nhất Hạnh may be translated from Vietnamese into ‘Zen Master’ or ‘Dhyana Master’.  These are the names attributed to the Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh at the Plum Village Monastery in the Dordogne region in the South of France by his students.  Thầy, as Thích Nhất Hạnh (b. 1926) is called by his students, founded Plum Village in 1982 with his colleague Sister Bhikkhuni Chân Không (b. 1938).

Thích Nhất Hạnh was exiled from Vietnam during the so-called Vietnam War until, finally, being allowed to return in 2005.

Like many, I encountered Thầy‘s teachings, or philosophy, during personal moments of great pain.  I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I grew up, listening to free speech radio KPFA when I heard an otherwordly voice lecturing on the concept of mindfulness.  His soft-spoken voice, compassionate, sincere, touched me very deeply.  And the wisdom of his teachings immediately jibed with many personal beliefs.  I had never, nor have ever since, heard such a deeply compassionate voice.  Today, the Buddhist concept of mindfulness seems to permeate ‘Western’ society, at least superficially.  And much of this influence may be traced to those who have interpreted Buddhism for ‘Western’ audiences, such as Alan Watts (1915-1973), Pema Chödrön (b. 1936), and Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Some of us have read Siddhartha, the 1922 novel by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962).  Or we may have seen a movie telling the story of Siddhārtha Gautama.  We’re familiar with the tale of the Buddha, and his youthful pursuit of enlightenment.  Somehow, it always seemed an individualistic, rather than communal, pursuit.  Buddhism, in all its diversity, seemed to be disengaged from the broader society and its complex social relations.  Thích Nhất Hạnh has sought to renew Buddhism to place a greater emphasis on engaged practice, coining the term Engaged Buddhism.

On 11 November 2014, Thích Nhất Hạnh experienced a severe brain hemorrhage and was taken to hospital.  On 3 January 2015, the doctors officially said that he was no longer in a coma and was able to recognize familiar faces.  As of 19 February 2015, staff at a rehab facility have reported being able to communicate with Thích Nhất Hạnh through eye and arm movement.

With Thích Nhất Hạnh in hospital and his students, followers, and admirers hoping for a full recovery, a new 2015, hour-long, radio documentary, entitled “Thích Nhất Hạnh” has been produced by Kerry Stewart.  (See below.  Listen to, or download, audio here.)  The documentary has been aired (31 MAR 2015) on Earshot, a programme on Radio National (RN), part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).  Among the topics discussed, Thích Nhất Hạnh talked about why he and many others of his generation “became tempted to join the Communist Party” in his youth, as the most promising hope for social justice, and why he came to reject that most promising of political parties.

Thích Nhất Hạnh:  (c. 1:10) “I was a kind of revolting monk.  [sangha laughs]  But I looked very nice.  [sangha laughs]  I did not look like a true trouble-maker.  But, in me, there is a lot of revolution.  I wanted to renew Buddhism.  Our teachers spoke about peace, compassion, non-self, the happiness of living beings.  But many of them do not do it.  They speak of non-self.  But they have a big self.  They speak of helping society.  But they don’t do anything to help society, to help the poor people, the oppressed people.  No concrete action, just teaching and talking.

“At that time, there were many young people in Vietnam, like my age, joining the Communist and other political parties.  They all tried to organise, in order to fight the French, to put the French [colonisers] out of the country.  And fighting poverty, fighting ignorance.  When you are young, you want to do something for your country.  There was also a time when I was tempted to join the Communist Party because I noticed that the monks did not do anything.  They just talked.  And the Communists were trying very hard.  They are trying to do what they believe.

“You should know that many, many of us—people of my age—joined these political parties with a very, very beautiful heart.  But, a number of years after they joined the party, they changed because each party wants to eliminate other parties.  And, because we were lucky enough to have elders, who taught us that the way of violence is not our way, that is why, finally, we did not join the Communist Party.  Violent revolution was not my path.  And that is why I was not caught in the machine of war.”

Sister Chân Không (b. 1938), Thích Nhất Hạnh’s eldest student, is also featured in the documentary.

Sister Chân Không:  “I became Buddhist in 1958.  I read the life of the Buddha.  I was so impressed.  But I met with traditional Buddhists, that explained in a very old-fashioned way. [chuckles]  It did not speak to my rebellious mind of a young person who wants to do something great, social change for more equality, for more fairness to poor people and to destitute children.

“And I make my own Buddhism.  It means that I went to a slum area.  I help hungry children.  I find jobs for poor people who have no job.  I make [sic] my own credit funds by asking people to give me, at every meal they pick up one handful of rice.  And at the end of the week I gather.  And I have a lot of rice for hungry children.

“And, so, when I met with Thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh, he had a very, very profound teaching about non-reality, about many things.  And I was very impressed.  (c. 9:50)

“But then one day when I wrote to him a letter explaining my work.  And he was also very impressed.  And he said:  ‘Oh, that is what I wish to do because, since [the age of] 16 years old, I was ordained as a monk.  And, in my perception, to be a Buddhist monk, I can save countless people.’  And Vietnam, at that time, was under French colonisation.  And then he tried to practice steadily, profoundly.  But he encountered a lot of obstacles because also the old traditional way is too old.  And he need[ed] to renew the chanting because the chanting was in Sanskrit and translated into Chinese and Chinese into Vietnamese.  And it doesn’t make any sense.  And he made a lot of change to renew Buddhism.

“And when I met with him and he said that I need to renew also the way of social change.  Social change is notYou do not do the charity work.  You do not distribute money.  But you help people to stand up and to make their own life better.”

Despite being a departure from traditional Buddhism, the rebellious Thích Nhất Hạnh and Sister Chân Không made it a point to extend Buddhist practice into the surrounding communities beyond the sanctuary of the monastery.

Thích Nhất Hạnh:  (c. 11:10) “In 1964, I helped found a School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam in a situation of war.  And I helped to deal with the problem of the situation of violence, poverty, sickness, social injustice.  And, in our School of Youth for Social Service, we trained young monks and young nuns and young laymen, laywomen to do the social work.

“And we went to the countryside.  And to help peasants to rebuild their villages to improve their quality of life.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh would become influential through his international travels to promote peace and compassion, particularly key meetings with other influential human rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Father Daniel Berrigan, and Thomas Merton.  Back in Vietnam, however, war raged on.  Documentary producer, and narrator, Kerry Stewart recounted how the decision by Thích Nhất Hạnh, alongside the “10,000 workers of the School of Youth for Social Service”, to not “take sides in the conflict” meant “they were targeted by both sides” for assassination.

Sister Chân Không:  “Unknown masked people came to our campus throw grenades on Thầy‘s room.  But the curtain push it out.  But then they run after many brother and sister.  At that moment, there were so many sisters.  And, then, the sisters run and were pursued by the masked men and they throw grenades.  I was not there.  But people just called.

“And I come.  And I was so desperate.  And I want to scream.  Why are people now so cruel!  And I see two cops, very young, sisters, social workers.  At that moment, it’s 1966.  And Thầy just left for the United States to call for peace.  [And it was] for three weeks only.  And, at home, I have to face that at least impossible to contact him.  And, then, I went back to my in-breath and out-breath.  And all the brothers and sisters, they went back to their in-breath and out-breath and returned to their peaceful state of their mind.  Calm all the strong emotion.  Calm all the fear, the uncertainty and touch deeply the Buddhahood in us, the peace, the understanding, the love.

“And, so, I, personally, came out with a discourse at the funeral.  But that discourse is not mine because it reflects the same discourse [as] them.

“And I said:  Dear friend, who just throw grenades and murder our friends, we know that you have done that out of your wrong perceptions about us.  We have no intention to make any political things.  And then the audience of 10,000 people who attend [were] very moved.  And, after that, a few weeks later, they kidnapped five brothers.  They brought them to the riverbank.  And they shoot five.

“But, before the shooting, they say:  Are you sure that you come from the School of Youth for Social Service of Thích Nhất Hạnh?  And they say:  Yes [joyfully].  And they touch, gently, the head of these young men.  And they say:  You are so young.  We are deeply sorry.  But we have to kill you.  We have the order to kill you.

“And they shot.  And one was bleeding a lot and fell into the riverbank.  They thought that he died.  Four others, they shoot several times.  So, four others die.  But, thanks to the survival of [one young] man, we hear that sentence.

“And, so, in our discourse of funeral, I did say:  Thank you for saying that you are sorry, those who just murdered our friends because we know that this time our discourse has moved your heartBut you are in a war situation.  And, in a war situation, if you receive the order to secretly murder someone, and if you refuse, you will be murdered.  And we understand you.  And please help us to continue our path of service without hate.

“And it is true.  From that day.  No more murder.  Sometimes, they received the order.  And they stopped by the hamlet, where we are in service.  And they asked a child to come and say:  Brothers and sisters!  Move away!  Tonight is too dangerous for you to stay here!  So, our brothers moved away.  And, at night, they came.  And they burned the empty office of our social workers.

“So, from that day, we have the protection of both sides.  So, I believe that true deep understanding can move the heart of the sky and the earth.”

Long-time student and friend of Thích Nhất Hạnh, activist elder Father John Dear (b. 1959) recalled decades of social struggle, from an American perspective:

Father John Dear:  “I am very involved in the United States peace and justice movement, very involved in the Catholic Church and the Christian community in the United States.  And we’d been waging war in Iraq.  And I had lived in El Salvador.  And I have seen how many Christians are for war and killing.  And I was telling him what was happening to me, as I traveled the country.  And he started telling me how many Buddhists were for war and killing and violence!  For example, about the Buddhists involved in the Civil War in Sri Lanka.  And, I know this sounds ridiculous, but I was greatly relieved to hear this because, you know, we can put Thích Nhất Hạnh on such a pedestal in his community.  And that’s not engaging his teachings.  He’s very practical just trying to engage all Buddhists around the world.  And [he’s] saying:  If you’re Buddhist, you really have to be non-violent.  You cannot take up the gun when push comes to shove.  And that’s not necessarily happening in Asia.

“And the flip side is in the United States, where Buddhism and—forgive me, I’m not Buddhist, but I’ve talked to him about it—were very bourgeois and comfortable.  And, so, you can say you’re practicing these things.  But, if you’re not involved in the struggle.  That’s not Engaged Buddhism.  To be non-violent, you also have to be working to end war and nuclear weapons and poverty in the world.  You cannot just be sitting back doing your meditation and then going about your job.  That’s not Buddhism.  That’s not non-violence.  That’s not Christian peace-making, either.”

The Australian radio documentary also features other students of Thích Nhất Hạnh, including Thich Phap Kham (Plum Village, Asia) and Joe Holtaway (Wake Up International, London).  Mai Than Trong (Plum Village, France) is also featured.  Mai Than Trong said she has been a student of Thích Nhất Hạnh since she was 18, studying at the National University in Vietnam to earn a degree in philosophy.

Speaking in a personal capacity from Bonn, Germany, Christine Figueres, who was appointed Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2010, described the underlying importance of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s teachings of mindfulness practice in approaching the climate change negotiations.

Zen teacher Shantum Seth, from India, another student of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s provided further perspective and clarity.

Shantum Seth:  “So, once, when I was sitting with Thích Nhất Hạnh and I was wearing a turban, he looked at me and he said:  The importance of the issue of life and death is like your turban is on fire.  It is that urgent.  And, meaning, really, that we should be looking deeply at our understanding of life and death, and a conceptualisation of life and death; and really looking beyond; and not getting caught in the idea of death as a sort of end or a finality of some sort.

“And it is interesting because, recently, he has said:  You know, people might want to build a stoop for my relics after I die or after I am cremated.  And he said:  No, no, no.  I don’t like that sort of thing.  Don’t build a stoop for my relics.  But then he said:  Well, I don’t know how people might react.  So, maybe, if they do, maybe they should put a sign outside saying something like Thích Nhất Hạnh is not in here And then he smiled and said: Well, maybe they should put up another sign that says: Thích Nhất Hạnh is not out there, either.

“He was trying to say:  Don’t get caught in this idea of the body or of a lifespan.  We are much beyond this body, as much beyond this lifespan.  And in a way, there’s this continuation of us through different ways.  So, ideas continue us.  The students that Thích Nhất Hạnh has taught, like me.  We continue him.”

This new Australian radio documentary, produced by Kerry Stewart, for Radio National’s Earshot is a fascinating look at an important activist and teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh.



EARSHOT—Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize and called him an Apostle of Peace, but unlike the Dalai Lama, you may not have heard of the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. While the Vietnam War raged, he supported both sides of the political divide and coined the term ‘Engaged Buddhism’. He has committed his life to non-violent protest and has been a pioneer in bringing Buddhism to the West. Today his students include the Executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and he’s given mindfulness workshops for parliamentarians, the World Bank and Google employees.

Read more at EARSHOT.


(Transcript by Messina)

[last updated 3 APR 2015 19:21 CDT]