Embodying Engaged Buddhism: Thich Nhat Hanh and the Practice of Peace

“Thich Nhat Hanh is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in nominating Thich Nhat Hanh for The Nobel Peace Prize

The relationship between Thich Nhat Hanh and the practice of peace is an intricate web that is woven throughout the life practice and teachings of the gentle Buddhist monk. Hanh’s ideas, if applied on a large scale, would indeed create a world where peace and harmony amongst humanity is bound to be prevalent, and likely to build a monument to ecumenism, as suggested by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In order to understand the manner in which this monument to ecumenism can be built, we must first understand something of the person of Thich Nhat Hanh. Who is Thich Nhat Hanh? Delving into the background and experience of this brilliant and beautiful human being will allow us to understand exactly from where his philosophy and teaching is coming. We will then be able to explore exactly what his ideas for peace are, and how their application would help to create a world of peace, harmony, and interfaith dialogue.

Who is Thich Nhat Hanh? A detailed background of the life of Thich Nhat Hanh will provide us with an idea of the type of person we are examining here in relation to the practice of peace. The aim of this section will be to demonstrate how Hanh is the noble embodiment of an Engaged Buddhist, a term that he himself coined in the 1950’s. An Engaged Buddhist is someone who walks the sacred path of the Buddha, yet is also involved in creating social change; as we will see from an examination of his life there is no better example of an Engaged Buddhist than Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Central Vietnam in 1926 and was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1942 at the ripe age of sixteen years old. In 1950, he co-founded the An Quang Buddhist Institute, which later became the foremost center of Buddhist education in South Vietnam. In 1961, he came to the United States to study and teach Comparative Religion at Columbia and Princeton Universities, only to be called back home two years later to join in the efforts to stop the Vietnam War following the collapse of the Diem regime. Upon his return he helped lead “one of the great nonviolent resistance movements of the century, based entirely on Gandhian principles.”

In 1964, Hanh along with a group of university students and professors founded the ‘School of Youth for Social Service’ in Vietnam. This initiative included establishing schools, health clinics, and later re-building bombed villages. In that same year he was instrumental in the establishment of La Boi Press, which would become one of the most successful publishing houses in Vietnam. Through his works as a writer and editor-in-chief, he encouraged the warring nations to achieve peace and reconciliation. As a result of his initiatives for peace, his books were censored in both America and Vietnam.

In 1966, he was urged by the global Buddhist community to accept invitations from both the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Cornell University to speak in America about the plight of the Vietnamese people. It was here that he met Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King was so moved by Hanh’s proposals for peace, and his initiatives for nonviolence, that he came out alongside Hanh at a press conference in Chicago and publicly denounced the Vietnam War. The following year Dr. King bestowed rare honour upon Thich Nhat Hanh by nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This fact certainly cannot be taken lightly as Dr. King was a great champion of non-violence and himself a previous winner, the youngest ever, of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1969, Hanh set up the Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks. After the Peace Accords were signed in 1973, Thich Nhat Hanh was refused permission to return to Vietnam, and therefore he set up a monastic community in France, the country where he has lived ever since. There has been some recent controversy in the Sangha, or Buddhist monastic community, regarding Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam. “Thich Nhat Hanh has come under the criticism of many monks for returning to Vietnam in 2005.”

The reason for this criticism is that by returning to Vietnam much of the Sangha believes that Thich Nhat Hanh is showing support for the oppressive communist government that is still in power there. As a result “these monks believe that the time is not right to return to Vietnam.” However, being a man of immense love, compassion, and wisdom it is my belief that Hanh is undertaking this journey in order to help to promote peace as he does in every journey that he undertakes. For personal reasons, he must feel that at this juncture the time is right for him to return to Vietnam and that his presence would be of greater help than his continued absence. To this very day Thich Nhat Hanh travels, teaches, and writes extensively promoting peace with every step that he takes.

What are Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas for peace? Before thoroughly examining this question we must keep firmly entrenched in our minds that, above and beyond all else, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk. Therefore, his principles for peace and his ideas for promoting peace are primarily rooted in the teachings of The Buddha. With this being said, when referring to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh we will refer to them as such even though many of them will be, in fact, teachings that can be traced back to the historical Buddha. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, the practice of peace begins with mindfulness of the present moment. Mindfulness is the practice of stopping and becoming aware of what is happening around us and of what is happening within us. “Every mindful step we make and every mindful breath we take will establish peace in the present moment and prevent war in the future.”

This practice of being mindful is a central doctrine of Buddhism. When the Buddha was asked why his disciples, who lived a simple and quiet life, were so radiant he answered thus,

“They do not repent the past, nor do they brood over the future. They live in the present. Therefore they are radiant. By brooding over the future and repenting the past, fools dry up like green reeds cut down (in the sun).”

If we are mindful and aware of our thoughts and actions then “Peace is there for us in every moment. It is our choice.” Hanh is adamant that peace goes beyond simply the passive lack of violence, and rather, peace requires active love and compassion,

“Peace is not simply the absence of violence; it is the cultivation of understanding, insight, and compassion, combined with action. Peace is the practice of mindfulness, the practice of being aware of our thoughts, our actions, and the consequences of our actions. Mindfulness is at once simple and profound. When we are mindful and cultivate compassion in our daily lives, we diminish violence each day. We have a positive effect on our family, friends, and society.”

When carefully reading the preceding passage, we can begin to understand why Hanh advocates mindfulness so relentlessly. If we were aware of our actions, truly aware of our actions, then we would not intentionally hurt anybody, whether it is ourselves, our family, our friends, or even those whom we perceive to be our enemies. Most often when we do or say something that hurts someone else, we are not being aware of our speech, of our actions, or of our thoughts; by becoming aware of these things we can greatly diminish the violence in our lives both caused by us and by those around us. “The only way out of violence and conflict is for us to embrace the practice of peace, to think and act with compassion, love, and understanding.”

One way that Hanh advocates for living a peaceful lifestyle is to avoid situations that generate fear, hatred, or negative emotions. He requests us to undertake this practice in the following manner, “Please put away any reading material that does not nurture love and understanding. Please avoid taking part in conversations that water negative seeds in you.”

What better way is there to stop the trees of violence from growing than to stop planting the seeds of violence? If we surround ourselves with positive energy and minimize the sensory violence that we expose ourselves to, then we are in a position to become more mindful and to stop violence from entering our lives. Once we have made conscious efforts to eliminate violence from our lives then, and only then, are we in a position to truly become peaceful people and spread love and compassion to those around us. According to Hanh, “words and thoughts concerning compassionate action that are not put into practice are like beautiful flowers that are colorful but have no fragrance.”

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to realize that the war begins and ends in our very own minds, “The war stops and starts with you and me.” By cultivating thoughts of peace instead of violence we can stop the war before it begins. We must also be aware, however, that violence is never far away. This is why it is of the utmost importance to constantly be in a state of awareness and mindfulness; rather than saying that we will be mindful later, we must be mindful NOW. Once we do this, then we realize that peace is available to us right now, in this very moment.

The practice of nonviolence is to be here, to be present, and to recognize our own pain and suffering. We should be aware of our own emotions in this moment, recognize our deepest fears, and bring awareness to them. Thich Nhat Hanh provides us with very powerful exercises for doing this, “Breathing in, I am aware fear is present in me. Breathing out, I calm my feeling of fear.”

Practicing in such a manner can greatly heighten our awareness and allow calm to sweep over our entire being. Hanh stresses that, when we don’t acknowledge our feelings, violence accumulates within us; this can cause us to say negative or destructive things, and to be harmful to ourselves and to those around us. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, mindfulness is necessary in order for us to be joyful; and having joy within ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for us to be able to promote peace in the world.

Mindfulness is the foundation of happiness. A person who is unhappy cannot make peace. Individual happiness is the foundation for creating peace in the world. To bring about peace, our hearts must be peace.

The greater levels of mindfulness that we can obtain, then the greater our concentration can become; the greater levels of concentration we can obtain, then the deeper we can understand the nature of suffering; and the more we can understand the nature of suffering, then the more we can become compassionate human beings. A fundamental basis for mindfulness can be cultivated through the five mindfulness trainings.

The first mindfulness training is reverence for life. This mindfulness training involves cultivating compassion for all forms of life and a strong resolution not to harm any living being, not only in action but also in thought. The second mindfulness training is generosity. This mindfulness training involves being aware of suffering and a strong determination not to add to that suffering in any way, and also to act in compassion towards those who are in real need. This mindfulness training involves refraining from coveting possessions and from stealing from others, as well as preventing others from profiting from human suffering and exploitation of the earth. The third mindfulness training is sexual responsibility. This mindfulness training involves awareness of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct and the determination not to engage in sexual relations without love and long-term commitment to the relationship. The fourth mindfulness training is deep listening and loving speech. This mindfulness training involves speaking with love and only speaking the truth, as well as speaking words that inspire hope, joy, and confidence in others. It also involves listening to others without judgment or condemnation, rather, listening mindfully and lovingly simply for the sake of listening. This mindfulness training is of the utmost importance on all levels of society, “In schools, in Congress, in city halls, in statehouses, we need people capable of practicing deep listening and loving speech.” The fifth mindfulness training is mindfulness of consumption. This mindfulness training involves only eating, drinking and consuming items that preserve peace and well being within the body and mind, as well as not engaging in sensory violence through means such as certain television programs, magazines, and even conversations.

One of the most important methods Hanh advocates for increasing mindfulness and awareness is that of conscious breathing. It is widely believed that conscious breathing is the technique that was practiced by the historical Buddha in order to gain enlightenment. There are many different ways in which conscious breathing can be practiced. Thich Nhat Hanh gives us several simple yet profound methods that can be used in order to help us become more aware and mindful. One such method is to mentally repeat the following:

“Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment!”

This technique can be simplified to mentally repeating ‘breathe in calm, breathe out smile’ or even the word ‘calm’ with each in-breath and ‘smile’ with each out-breath. The most important thing when practicing conscious breathing is to be aware of the in-breath and the out-breath. This technique is at once simple and profound, as it allows the practitioner to slow down to the moment and to smile. The importance of smiling cannot be understated.

According to Hanh, every time we smile away our irritation and anger a victory for humanity has been achieved. Smiling benefits everyone around us not just ourselves. “The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.” Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to hang a reminder in our rooms to smile when we wake up. This reminder can be a branch, a leaf, a painting, or some inspiring words. It can be anything as long as it is carries the message to us to smile upon waking. We can hang this reminder in the window, above the bed, or anywhere we will notice it upon waking. Smiling to begin the day can help us to approach the day with calm, serenity, and inner joy. After we develop the practice of smiling upon waking we will no longer need a reminder; it will become a natural part of our daily lives. When we smile, we relax hundreds of muscles in our face.

According to Hanh, someone who is wearing a smile is showing a sign that they are masters of themselves. “When I see someone smile, I know immediately that he or she is dwelling in awareness.” All of our daily activities, including eating and walking, can be practiced in a heightened state of mindfulness and awareness. On one occasion, Thich Nhat Hanh asked some children the following question, what is the purpose of eating breakfast? One child replied that it was to get energy for the day. Another replied that the purpose of eating breakfast is to eat breakfast. Hanh thinks the second child is more correct.

When we are eating we should be aware of eating and we should eat for no other reason than simply to eat. Eating in mindfulness is an important practice and should be done slowly while appreciating the food. Thich Nhat Hanh does not say that when eating with others we should not have conversation, rather, while eating we should refrain from talking about subjects that are detrimental to our awareness. Walking mindfully is another very important Buddhist practice. When we are walking we should be completely aware of the contact between our feet and the earth and of each movement that we are making. “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.”

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a story about a peace walk that he was involved with in 1981 in New York City. The peace walk was happening on the day that the United Nations decided to pass a resolution on disarmament; half a million people joined in this peace walk. When Thich Nhat Hanh was asked to participate he agreed on the condition that he could walk in the style of walking meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh’s group included about fifty other people from various spiritual traditions. They held a banner reading ‘reverence for life’ and walked mindfully through the streets of Manhattan.

All around them large groups of people were walking quickly and shouting slogans denouncing nuclear weapons and demanding disarmament. Hanh’s group simply continued to walk slowly and mindfully in complete silence. Hanh later learned that due to the slow pace of his group approximately 300,000 people were slowed down. People walking behind this mindful procession yelled things like ‘Can’t you walk any faster?’ at Hanh’s group out of complete frustration. The group simply continued to walk mindfully, slowly, and silently. Then, as Thich Nhat Hanh recounts, a strange thing happened, as people passed his group and looked back in anger and frustration they themselves calmed down and began to walk more slowly. Thus the walk ended up being a real peace walk. “There is no walk for peace; peace must be the walk.”

At this juncture we have now reached the heart of the matter. How would the application of these ideas help to create a world of peace, harmony, and interfaith dialogue? The key to what makes Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas and methods so powerful is their ability to affect change on an individual level. The moment when people can be mindful of their own thoughts and actions, then and only then, are they in a position to truly affect change on a societal and even global level. By living in mindfulness, people are able to consciously channel their energy in ways that will promote love and peace, and will minimize harm and suffering in their own lives.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings are unique in that they represent classical Buddhist teachings in a manner that is easily applicable to modern society. Societal change cannot occur without individual change, as a society is nothing but the product of choices made by a group of individuals.

If we transform our individual consciousness, we begin the process of changing the collective consciousness. Transforming the world’s consciousness is not possible without personal change. The collective is made of the individual, and the individual is made of the collective, and each and every individual has a direct effect on the collective consciousness.

By changing ourselves we are changing the planet. By being mindful and promoting love and peace in each moment of our own lives, we are promoting love and peace on the entire planet and achieving a victory for the human race. This is the foundation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching and this is the reason why Martin Luther King Jr. said that Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.’

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Martin Luther King, Jr – Letter to the Nobel Institution” The Mindfulness Bell. United Buddhist Church, 1999. Web. May 23rd, 2011.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Ed. Arnold Kotler. New York: Bantam, 1991. Print.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World. New York: Free Press, 2003. Print.

Stahl, Bob, and Elisha Goldstein. A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, 2010. Print.

Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974. Print.