The world lost a spiritual great in January with the death, at the age of ninety-five, of the Vietnamese monk, poet, peace activist, teacher, zen master, prolific writer and all-round amazing person, Thich Nhat Hanh.
As a young monk in 1960s war-torn Vietnam, Nhat Hanh had wondered how to respond to the bombs and the bloodshed. Should he and his monastic brothers and sisters remain in their meditation halls, or should they go out and help those who were suffering? In the end, they did both. They went out and helped people, and they did it in mindfulness; and thus was born the concept of ‘Engaged Buddhism’. The fourteen precepts of Engaged Buddhism contain lots of little gems such as do no harm to humans or nature, and do not get rich at the expense of others. Precept 8 tells us, ‘Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.’ And Precept 7 teaches us, ‘Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness.’
Thich Nhat Hanh would expand on that seventh Precept in his classic work The Miracle of Mindfulness. The original print run was just twenty-five, produced on an old xerox printer but it must have gone on to sell many more over the years and Thay, as he was known to those close to him (meaning master or teacher), went on to publish over one hundred books. The teachings contained in that first book are timeless. When I’m walking I should be aware that I’m walking; when I’m eating a tangerine I should be aware that I’m eating a tangerine; when I’m doing the dishes I should be aware that I’m doing the dishes: rather than simply looking forward to the cup of tea I’m going to have when I finish the dishes. If I do that, he warns, then not only will I not really be present in the act of doing the dishes but I probably won’t be present either in the act of drinking the tea! Instead I’ll be thinking again about the next task to be done and not really savouring the smell and the taste of the tea and feeling the warmth and texture of the mug.
There’s a chapter in the book called ‘The miracle is to walk on earth’, in which Thay writes of how he loved to walk along country tracks and through rice paddies, simply relishing being there in nature and putting one foot in front of the other. He goes on to say, ‘People usually consider walking on water or thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognise: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child- our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
Jim Forest is an American who, through his opposition to the Vietnam war, both ended up in prison and became close friends with Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s Forest who we have to thank for the famous tangerine story! He was stuffing a tangerine into his mouth one day whilst speaking animatedly about peace activism to Thay, who promptly invited his friend to take each segment of the tangerine and to actually chew it properly and savour it and be aware that he was eating it, before rushing on to take the next segment.
Another American who found in the 60s both affinity and friendship with Thich Nhat Hanh was the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Following a visit that Nhat Hanh made to Merton’s monastery in Kentucky the novice monks wanted to hear from Merton what Nhat Hanh taught about meditation. They were amused when Merton explained that before Thay showed the Buddhist novices how to meditate he first taught them not to slam doors! What was the point of teaching people sitting and breathing techniques if they then went round slamming doors and being totally unaware that they were doing it!
Jim Forest writes a little section at the end of The Miracle of Mindfulness and makes an interesting observation: “What American peace activists might learn from their Vietnamese counterparts is that, until there is a more meditative dimension in the peace movement, our perceptions of reality (and thus our ability to help occasion understanding and transformation) will be terribly crippled. Whatever our religious or non-religious background and vocabulary may be, we will be overlooking something as essential to our lives and work as breathing itself.”
I’m happy to find myself part of an organisation that reaches out to some of those most in need, as well as being prepared to speak out against injustice or discrimination, whilst remaining fully rooted in Catholic Social Teaching, which has at its heart the belief that each person is unique and sacred and worthy of love and compassion. I’m not suggesting that enclosed communities of contemplative nuns and monks should all come out and stand behind the barricades. On the contrary, I think the world needs now more than ever people whose primary mission is to pray. However, as Thich Nhat Hanh and Jim Forest and others in the peace movements of the 1960s seem to have discovered, prayer or meditation or mindfulness, or call it what you will, can inform our activism and help us to be aware of what we’re doing and our motivations for doing it.
Back in December I went into a new café cum bookshop in Whitstable. I was trying to flog them my own book but I came out instead with a recent-ish book of Thich Nhat Hanh, called Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, which I’d happily seen on the shelves. I went home and sat down and turned the first couple of pages and there’s just something about a Thich Nhat Hanh book. In the very act of sitting and opening one of them my breathing becomes deeper and I’m a little bit more aware of what I’m doing and what’s happening around me and I’m a bit more at peace with the world and with myself. In such simple ways can miracles come to pass.
Thank you Thich Nhat Hanh for teaching me to breathe a little more slowly, to walk a little more mindfully and to be a little bit more aware of what I’m doing and why. May you rest in peace.