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"If you love someone, the best way to show it is to respect their freedom."
Thich Nhat Hanh

Who is Thich Nhat Hanh?

Thich Nhat Hanh is a renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, and prolific author. Born in 1926, he is often referred to as "Thay" by his students, a Vietnamese term meaning "teacher." At the age of 16, Hanh entered the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue city, Vietnam, marking the start of his monastic life.

Thich Nhat Hanh became an influential figure during the Vietnam War, voicing his staunch opposition to the violence and advocating for peace. When asked about the Vietnam war and his vision for reconciliation and peace, he said:

"Reconciliation is to understand both sides; to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side."

His peace activism during this time led to his founding of the "Engaged Buddhism" movement, which blends traditional Buddhist practices with active nonviolent civil disobedience. This movement marked an important milestone in the history of Buddhism, recognizing its role not just in personal spiritual development but also in societal and political change.

In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. formed a significant friendship during the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War. After meeting in Chicago in 1966, Hanh made a lasting impression on Dr. King with his advocacy for peace and nonviolence. The two leaders shared a mutual understanding of the power of nonviolence in effecting meaningful change, with Hanh providing Dr. King a different perspective on the ongoing conflict in Vietnam.

His influence was profound. It was Hanh who persuaded Dr. King to publicly denounce the Vietnam War, a pivotal moment in the anti-war movement. Dr. King would later nominate Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, calling him an "apostle of peace and nonviolence." This collaboration was an intersection of two significant streams of thought in the 20th century – Buddhism’s mindfulness and compassion, and the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle for equality and justice.

Despite a stroke in 2014 that left him largely silent and wheelchair-bound, Hanh continued to inspire millions worldwide through his teachings on mindfulness, compassion, and interbeing—the idea that all things are interconnected and mutually dependent. His return to his root temple in Vietnam in 2018, after more than five decades in exile, was a poignant moment that spoke to his lifelong commitment to peace and reconciliation.

And if you're looking for other figures with similar insights and teachings, you can look to Eckhart Tolle. He and Eckhart Tolle shared the belief in the importance of mindfulness and living in the present moment. Both stressed the need to focus on the "now" as the key to peace and happiness, rather than dwelling on past regrets or future anxieties. Eckart wrote extensively about that concept in his book aptly titled The Power of Now. It's the perfect complement to much of Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings.

What were his core ideas and contributions?

Mindfulness: Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized mindfulness as a way of living. Mindfulness, according to him, is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. One of my favorite quotes of his is:

"Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment."

Interbeing: Hanh often spoke of the concept he referred to as 'Interbeing,' which suggests that everything in the universe is interconnected. He believed that understanding interbeing can lead to greater compassion and harmony since we strip away the illusion of separateness between ourselves, others, and all things in the universe. Here's one of his beautiful quotes regarding the concept of interbeing:

"If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are."

Engaged Buddhism: he was instrumental in founding the Engaged Buddhism movement. This movement encourages Buddhists to actively participate in social and political change while adhering to nonviolent principles. It is based on the belief that the Buddha's teachings can be used to create a more just and compassionate world. Engaged Buddhists work to address issues such as poverty, hunger, war, and environmental degradation. They believe that by working to alleviate suffering, they can help to create the conditions for spiritual awakening.

How might I apply his ideas to myself?

If you wanted to apply his core teachings to yourself to improve your well-being, there are a few things you can do.

Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It can be practiced through meditation, yoga, or simply by taking a few moments each day to focus on your breath and your surroundings. There are many ways in which mindfulness can be practiced. One of my favorites is to people watch in coffee shops, especially when I traavel. Obderving the behaviors of others, when done so with clear focus, is just as viable of a form of mindfulness as sitting in the lotus position in a quiet room.

Be kind to yourself. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that we should treat ourselves with the same compassion and kindness that we would treat others. This means being patient with yourself, forgiving yourself for your mistakes, and accepting yourself for who you are. When you are kind to yourself, you are more likely to feel happy and fulfilled.

Connect with nature. he, along with all Buddhists, believes that spending time in nature can help us to connect with our true selves and to find peace and tranquility. Spending time in nature can be as simple as taking a walk in the park, sitting in your backyard, or even just looking out the window at the trees. And there's not denying the benefits given the rigorous scientific literature surrounding the role of greenspace in human health. For example, this systematic study published in 2021 looked at a total of 40 systematic reviews and meta-analyses and identified a wide range of positive health outcomes.

Help others. Thich Nhat Hanh believes that helping others is one of the best ways to improve our own wellbeing. When we help others, we feel a sense of connection and purpose, and we can also reduce our own stress and anxiety. There are many ways to help others, such as volunteering, donating to charity, or simply being kind to the people around you. In one of his teachings about helping others, and our relationships with people, he said:

"When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change."

Writing, Interviews, Research, and Lectures

  • "The Miracle of Mindfulness": This book offers practical exercises for cultivating mindfulness in one's daily life. It's an introductory guide to the practice of mindfulness that is still regarded as one of the best of its kind. As I mentioned earlier, it's a perfect complement to The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
  • "Peace Is Every Step": Here, Hanh discusses how to make positive use of the situations that usually pressure and antagonize us. He merges mindfulness and peace in a relatable context for readers.

Thankfully, many of his lectures were recorded before his passing in early 2022. His Plum Village talks are some of the best.

Other figures you may be interested in

  • Dalai Lama: As the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama shares many views with Thich Nhat Hanh on compassion, mindfulness, and peace.
  • Pema Chödrön: A disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Pema Chödrön's teachings emphasize the importance of mindfulness and compassion in daily life.
  • Eckhart Tolle: A contemporary spiritual teacher not aligned with any particular religion, Tolle's teachings, especially on the power of the present moment, echo many themes found in Thich Nhat Hanh's work.
  • Sharon Salzberg: A central figure in the field of meditation, Salzberg is a prominent teacher of the Insight Meditation Movement and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. Her teachings often focus on metta (loving-kindness) meditation, a theme closely related to Hanh's emphasis on compassion.