Thich Nhat Hanh | Biography & Teachings

Thich Nhat Hanh, pronounced in English as ‘Tik, N’yat, Hawn’ was a Vietnamese Zen monk, activist, poet, and celebrated global spiritual leader.

Sometimes referred to in the West as the Father of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh played a major part in the rising popularity of Buddhism at the turn of the century.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, urging the committee to honor this ‘gentle monk from Vietnam’.

Thich Nhat Hanh and martin luther king speaking at a conference

Revered worldwide for his seminal writings and teachings on mindfulness and peace, Thich Nhat Hanh’s key message was that happiness is a learned by-product of mindful presence and being here in the now.

Ultimately, by only existing in the present moment can we generate lasting peace.

Popular pieces of work with ground-breaking influence include the captivating Being Peace, Peace Is Every Step, The Miracle of Mindfulness, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, The Art of Living and Breathe.

Much like with all schools and cultural sects of Buddhism, Vietnamese monk teachers or leaders have affectionate titles. For example, the forest monastery monks of Thailand lovingly call their older monks ‘Luang Por’, meaning ‘venerable father or grandfather’.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was known by his students as ‘Thay’, which is Vietnamese for simply: ‘teacher’.

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • Thich Nhat Hanh’s life and social activism
  • His Zen Buddhist teachings of mindfulness
  • His legacy and global impact

A Zen Life of social activism

Early Life

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh died in Vietnam at 95 years old in his home at the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue last year (2022). This temple is incredibly significant, considering this is where he entered monkhood as a 16-year-old novitiate in the 1940s.

zen buddhist temple in china

This temple is of the Buddhist Zen denomination, which focuses on intuitive understanding of one’s original mind without the interference of ‘intellect’.

After 7 years of practice, Thich Nhat Hanh was ordained as a monk in 1949 and quickly set to work out into the world to spread the dhamma of Vietnamese Buddhism.

Modern in his mindset, Thich Nhat Hanh wasn’t afraid of unconventional practice. He taught science at Saigon University and Buddhism at Columbia and Princeton in America. As well as this, he contributed to a humanist publication and established a commune.

The Vietnamese/American War

After war encroached Vietnam’s borders, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of many monks and nuns that had to decide whether or not to continue the introspective lifestyle of monastic meditation, or actively help those suffering around them.

Thich Nhat Hanh chose to do both and partook in ‘engaged Buddhism’, which he later coined in his work ‘Vietnam: Lotus in Sea of Fire‘.

Engaged Buddhism means applying Buddhist ethics and meditation insights to contemporary social, economical, environmental, and political suffering.

Thich nhat hanh talking about the vietnam war with president johnson

Throughout the 60s, Thich Nhat Hanh’s application of engaged Buddhism led to active anti-war activism, wherein he risked his life bringing aid to war-torn areas of Vietnam.

This made him an enemy of both Northern and Southern Vietnamese factions, as he chose not to take a side.

Exile & Western Prominence

In 1966, after the war escalated, he left to tour 19 countries advocating peace. This public activism, which included an audience with multiple governments, and even Pope John Paul VI, proved too much for the Saigon government.

Considering his pacifism as in fact collaboration with the communists, he was sentenced to exile, and did not return to Vietnam until 2005.

Already popular by the mid-60s, Thich Nhat Hanh’s popularity grew even further in exile. His anti-war poetry was making appearances in hippy song-writing circles and his recognition generated momentum as an author.

He also founded Plum Village during his early years of exile in France (his first of multiple meditation centres and monasteries).

zen garden with water fountain and trees

Thich Nhat Hanh settled during his 40-year spanning exile from Vietnam predominantly in southwest France, where Plum Village is located. Over the course of his life after exile, he rubbed shoulders with many iconic people.

He was a stalwart guiding force of mindfulness, loving-kindness and compassion on the global stage.

zen teachings and mindfulness: Thich Nhat Hanh’s legacy

1. Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is a school of Mayahana Buddhism that accepts the early Buddhist literature and suttas. Mayahana is the largest tradition of Buddhism today, with the key theme of Zen being the practice of meditation and intuitive self-contemplation.

In Western spheres slang for ‘peaceful’, Zen is a Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word (phonetically) ch’an. Ch’an has its roots in Sanskrit meaning ‘meditation’, ‘absorption’, and ‘thought’.

Zen Buddhists believe that enlightenment is readily available to all, with proper instruction and accordance to a right way of life.

2. Literature

In the course of his lifetime, Thich Nhat Hanh published over 70 books, and oversaw translations to 30 different languages.

zen garden with sand and rock

These books catapulted Thich Nhat Hanh into recognition as a leading force of Buddhist practice in the West. A dip into his key teachings can be found across this shortlist:

  • No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering

“To love is, first of all, to accept ourselves as we actually are. That is why in this love meditation, ‘Know thyself’ is the first practice of love. When we practice this, we see the conditions that have caused us to be the way we are.

This makes it easy for us to accept ourselves, including our suffering and our happiness at the same time.”

  • Making Space

“Every home, no matter how small, can have a breathing room. We may have a room for everything else—a bathroom, a bedroom, a living room—but most of us don’t have a room for our own breathing and peace of mind.”

  • Silence: The Power Of Quiet In A World Full Of Noise

“These days, we are always ‘connected,’ but we continue to feel lonely. We check incoming e-mail and social media sites multiple times a day. We e-mail or post one message after another. We want to share; we want to receive.

We busy ourselves all day long in an effort to connect. What are we so afraid of? … Having plenty of stimuli makes it easy for us to distract ourselves from what we’re feeling. But when there is silence, all these things present themselves clearly.”

  • Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm

“For many of us, the notions of birth and death, coming and going, cause our greatest pain. We think the person we loved came to us from somewhere and has now gone away somewhere.

But our true nature is the nature of no coming and no going…. If we’re afraid of death, it’s because we don’t understand that things do not really die.”

3. Sanghas: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Established Movements

Thich Nhat Hanh established many ‘sanghas’ throughout his life, which is a Sanskrit word roughly translated as ‘communities’, ‘assemblies’, and ‘associations’. Notable sanghas include The Order of Interbeing, Plum Village, and the retreats he established across the globe.

thich nhat hanh visiting a monastery with crowds of people

The Order Of Interbeing

Thich Nhat Hanh in 1966 in Saigon founded ‘The Order Of Interbeing‘ which emphasizes the Four Spirits through the lens of Mayahana Buddhism: non-attachment from views, and personal experience of dependent origination from direct experimentation of:

  • Meditation
  • Appropriateness (‘right’ manifestations of attitude, living style, and spiritual application)
  • Skilful means

The Order Of Interbeing was created with engaged Buddhism in mind; practising mindfulness, ethical behaviour, and compassion in society.

Initially composed of 6 members (3 men and 3 women), the Order Of Interbeing helped the victims through social service during the crucible of war in Vietnam.

Nowadays, there are hundreds of core community members, and thousands of global followers that ascribe to the order’s mindfulness practice.

International Plum Village

International Plum Village was Thich Nhat Hanh’s first monastic community outside of Vietnam, which is now one of Europe’s largest Buddhist sites for meditation, accommodating over 200 live-in monks.

Every year, Plum Village hosts thousands of meditators, offering a variety of retreats including a version of the traditional rains retreat.

monk meditating next to a wall

The Plum Village tradition has a familiar focus on periods of silence, sitting meditation, mindful work and cultivation of loving-kindness.

Mindfulness Retreats

Thich Nhat Hanh’s legacy in the art of meditation lives on in his eleven official mindfulness practise centres worldwide, rooted in the Plum Village tradition.

Quotes

“I am a continuation, like the rain is a continuation of the cloud.”

“A Buddha is someone who is enlightened, capable of loving and forgiving.”

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”

“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.”

“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.”

“Compassion is a verb.”

“Our own life has to be our message.”

woman meditating next to the sea with a bird flying

Further reading

If you’d like to learn more about Thich Nhat Hanh, feel free to visit Plum Village’s website, which hosts information on the man himself and the legacy he has left behind.

Photo of author
Tish Qvortrup is a Brighton-born Yogi, with a passion for living intentionally. A Yoga Alliance registered 300hr teacher, she found her calling in Yin and Yang yoga. In her spare time, she loves exploring the outdoors and cooking plant-based goodies.

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