Thích Nhất Hạnh’s wisdom and teachings have been a great inspiration to Carolyn and I. He was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, as well as an author, peace activist, poet, and teacher, who had a major influence on Western practices of Buddhism. According to The New York Times, “Among Buddhist leaders influential in the West, Thích Nhất Hạnh ranks second only to the Dalai Lama.”
Nhất Hạnh combined a variety of teachings from Early Buddhist schools, with different Buddhist traditions, and ideas from Western psychology, in order to teach the foundations of mindfulness, offering a modern perspective on meditation practice. Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
Nhất Hạnh was born in 1926, in the ancient capital of Huế, which is located in central Vietnam and was under French colonial rule at the time. His father was an official with the French Administration and his mother was a homemaker. Nhất Hạnh was the fifth of six children, and until the age of five, he lived at his grandmother’s home with his large extended family.
At the age of seven or eight, Nhất Hạnh saw a drawing on the cover of one of his older brother’s magazines of a peaceful, smiling Buddha sitting on the grass, and he recalls that this picture gave him joy, and left him with a feeling of peace and tranquility.
One day on a school trip when Nhất Hạnh was eleven, he visited a nearby sacred mountain where a hermit was said to live, and he had what he would later describe as his first spiritual experience. The hermit was said to sit quietly every day to become peaceful like the Buddha. Nhất Hạnh explored the area, looking for the hermit, who he never found. However, he found a natural well there, which he drank from, before falling into a deep sleep on the nearby rocks. When Nhất Hạnh awoke he felt so completely satisfied from drinking this magical well water that he was inspired to become a Buddhist monk.
Nhất Hạnh first expressed interest in training to become a monk at the age of 12. Although his parents were cautious about this at first, they eventually let him pursue his calling at the age of 16. In 1942 Nhất Hạnh entered the monastery at Từ Hiếu Temple, where he received three years of instruction, and his primary teacher there was a Zen Master.
From 1955 to 1957 Nhất Hạnh lived in Huế and served as the editor of the official publication of the General Association of Vietnamese Buddhists. However, after two years the publication was suspended, as higher-ranking monks disapproved of Nhất Hạnh’s writings. In 1964 Nhất Hạnh became involved in co-founding the Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies, a private institution in Saigon that taught Buddhist studies, Vietnamese culture, and languages.
In the early 1960s in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh also co-founded Van Hanh Buddhist University and the School of Youth for Social Service, a grassroots relief organization of 10,000 volunteers based on the Buddhist principles of “non-violence and compassionate action.” This was a neutral corps of Buddhist peace workers who went into rural areas to establish schools, build healthcare clinics, and help rebuild villages.
In 1966 Nhất Hạnh received the “lamp transmission” at the Từ Hiếu Temple in Vietnam from a Zen master, making him a Buddhist teacher and spiritual head of temple and associated monasteries. That same year he was exiled from South Vietnam, after expressing opposition to the war and refusing to take sides. Nhat Hanh continued his humanitarian efforts, rescuing boat people and helping to resettle refugees. Nhất Hạnh then spent decades living in exile, mostly residing in France during this time.
In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nominated Nhất Hạnh for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work for peace and reconciliation during the war in Vietnam. Nhất Hạnh played an important role in educating Dr. King about the reality of the war from a Vietnamese perspective and inspiring King’s transformation into a national leader in the anti-war movement.
In 1982 Nhất Hạnh established Plum Village France, the largest Buddhist monastery in Europe and the hub of the international Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, a social movement composed of Buddhists who are “seeking ways to apply the Buddhist ethics, insights acquired from meditation practice, and the teachings of the Buddhist dharma to contemporary situations of social, political, environmental and economic suffering, and injustices.”
Nhất Hạnh published over a hundred books during his lifetime, which have been translated into more than forty languages, and have sold millions of copies worldwide. Some of his popular books include Being Peace, Peace is Every Step, and The Miracle of Mindfulness.
After a 39-year exile, Nhất Hạnh was permitted to visit Vietnam in 2005. Nhat Hanh was fluent in seven languages until 2014 when he experienced a brain hemorrhage that left him unable to verbally communicate for the remainder of his life. In 2018, he returned to Vietnam, to his “root temple,” Từ Hiếu Temple, near Huế, where he lived until his death in 2022, at the age of 95.
Thích Nhất Hạnh’s spirit is still very much alive. His students continue his work of healing, transformation, and reconciliation, establishing “communities of resistance” around the world. His teachings continue to be read widely, and I see his wisdom shared regularly on social media memes.
Some of the quotes that Thích Nhất Hạnh is known for include:
Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.
Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything— anger, anxiety, or possessions— we cannot be free.
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.
Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.
Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity, and all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth… This is the real message of love.
The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.
We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.
Life is available only in the present moment.