Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk known for popularizing the concept of “Engaged Buddhism,” has just died. (He died Jan. 22 in Vietnam, on the other side of the International Date Line, which was Jan. 21 here in the U.S.) He had been incapacitated by a stroke in 2014, and in 2018 finally received permission from the Vietnamese government to return to his home temple to spend his final days. His name is more properly rendered as Thích Nh?t H?nh, but I’ll use the more common romanization without tonal indications.
Thich Nhat Hanh is probably best known for his series of popular books on Buddhism. Worldcat lists the following titles as the five “most widely held works” in libraries: The Miracle of Mindfulness; Living Buddha, Living Christ; Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life; Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames; and Being Peace. Nhat Hanh arguably did more than anyone else to popularize the concept of mindfulness in the West.
The book of his that I found most interesting, though, one to which I’ve returned a number of times, is The Sutra of the Full Awareness of Breathing (Parallax Press, 1988). This book includes Nhat Hanh’s translation of the ?n?p?nasati Sutta, along with his commentary on the text. This Sutra is no. 118 of the “medium length” sutras that have been collected into the Majjhima Nik?ya. (A later revised version of his translation is now freely available on the website of his Plum Village Buddhist community here.) Nhat Hanh translated the text into French, which was then translated into English; I found the English translation to be lucid, readable, and non-technical. I also liked his The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra; I find Buddhist scriptures difficult to understand, and Nhat Hanh’s commentary helped me understand a little bit about this complex text.
But I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s real impact as a writer and teacher was through his many popular books which give good sound advice for living life. I’ve read a little bit in some of his many books on mindfulness, and was impressed by the good common-sense tone of these books. Unfortunately, mindfulness grew into a fad, and big corporations have learned how to use mindfulness as an opiate to drug their workers into submission. But what Nhat Hanh said about mindfulness had nothing to do with submission to a corporate overlord. Quite the contrary: Nhat Hanh’s writings are permeated with the spirit of Engaged Buddhism, and mindfulness connects one fully with the fate of all beings; instead of quietism and retreat from the world, Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness moves us to become engaged in seeking justice.
If your corporate overlord forces you to do mindfulness — or if your school forces you to do mindfulness — try reading Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. You’ll find out that mindfulness is not a drug forcing you to submit to your employer or your school. Nhat Hanh used mindfulness as a way to advocate for peace during the long-running war in Vietnam. Mindfulness helped empower him to criticize both South Vietnam and North Vietnam, and also to stand up against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, at great personal cost. Mindfulness helped bring Nhat Hanh to the U.S. in 1966, where he helped convince Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak out against the injustices of the Vietnam War. In short, unlike the mindfulness that corporations and schools teach, which seems designed to ensure passive compliance with tyranny, Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness is designed to resist tyranny, oppression, and injustice.
I’m less interested in Nhat Hanh’s teachings on mindfulness — personally, mindfulness does nothing for my spiritual self — and far more interested in him as a teacher. Everyone I’ve talked to who saw him in person has said he was a riveting teacher. Apparently, his English skills weren’t great — I’m told Vietnamese and French were his main languages — but even through an interpreter his teaching was compelling. I get the sense that it was his presence as a teacher that most impressed those who went to hear him. This has been true of the best teachers I’ve known: there’s something about the way they move, the way they hold their bodies, it is their very being that teaches us. The best teachers, I think, cultivate their persons — or as we might say in the West, cultivate their souls — and it is this cultivation of the person which shines through in their teaching. While I never experienced Nhat Hanh in person, I can catch glimpses of this cultivated soul in his writings. I would unhesitatingly call him a brilliant teacher.
Our troubled world needs brilliant teachers like him, teachers who can empower us to stand up for justice and peace. Thich Nhat Hanh will be sorely missed.