“People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, a spiritual teacher and mentor for hundreds of thousands of people, is in his last days on earth. Throughout his life, his students have affectionately called him Thầy (pronounced “Tay” or “Tie”), which is Vietnamese for “teacher”.
Born in 1926 in Vietnam, Thầy is a global spiritual leader, poet, peace activist, and author. He is particularly remembered for his profound writings and teachings on mindfulness and peace.
It began during the war in Vietnam. Buddhist monks and nuns faced the question of whether to continue with the life of contemplation and meditation in the monasteries, or to help those around them who were suffering under the bombings and turmoil of war. In a radical move, Thich Nhat Hanh chose to do both. He founded the movement which came to be called Engaged Buddhism, and ever since, his life has been dedicated to the work of inner transformation for the benefit of society as well as individuals.
“Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness we know what to do and what not to do to help.” For Thầy, meditation and mindfulness always leads to action for a better life for all.
In the mid–1960’s he travelled to the United States and Europe to make the case for an end to hostilities in Vietnam. He met Martin Luther King Jr., who nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize, calling him an “Apostle of peace and nonviolence”. The Vietnam government denied him the right to return home, and he began a 39–year–long exile.
Thầy travelled and taught widely, and eventually established a community in the south west of France known as Plum Village. Under his spiritual leadership, it has become the West’s largest and most active Buddhist monastery, with over 200 resident monks and over 10,000 visitors every year who come to learn the art of mindful living.
Thầy developed a code of universal global ethics which he called “The Five Mindfulness Trainings”. In brief, they are as follows:
to protect life, to decrease violence in oneself, in the family and in society;
to practice social justice, generosity, not stealing and not exploiting other living beings;
the practice of responsible sexual behavior in order to protect individuals, couples, families and children;
the practice of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication and reconcile;
to consume mindfully, helping us not bring toxins and poisons into our body or mind.
He has led events for world leaders, members of Congress and parliamentarians around the world, calling on leaders to take steps to reverse the cycle of violence, war, and global warming.
Six years ago, Thầy suffered a severe stroke, from which he has never completely recovered. In the last few days, we have heard that he is in the last days of his life. Even so, he continues to nurture the spirit of his followers.
I first met Thầy in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ. He introduced me to the practice of mindfulness: “In Buddhism, our effort is to practice mindfulness in each moment — to know what is going on within and all around us.”
He tells a story about someone asking the Buddha what he and his disciples did. “We sit, we walk, we eat”, he replied. The questioner continued, “But Sir, everyone sits, walks and eats.” The Buddha replied, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”
“Most of the time,” writes Thầy “we are lost in the past or carried away by future projects and concerns. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy. When a beautiful child comes up to us and smiles, we are completely there for her.”
As I absorb Thầy’s teaching, I can’t help but think how very close this is to the call of God’s holy Spirit to us to be completely present in the moment … fully present to the world … wholly present to ourselves … utterly present to God. “Mindfulness”, says Thầy , “allows you to live deeply every moment that is given to you.”
He also taught me that mindfulness always comes within the context of ethics. With the energy of mindfulness comes mindful consumption, mindful relationships, and ethical livelihood. You cannot separate mindfulness from mindful speaking, acting, working, and engaging in the world. Mindfulness is not a tool or instrument to get something else—whether that be healing, success, wealth or winning. True mindfulness is a path, an ethical way of living, and every step along that path can already bring happiness, freedom and wellbeing, to ourselves and others.
I can’t help but hear echoes of Jesus teaching that he is the way. We walk in this way, the way of peace and joy, of mindfulness and holiness. Thầy teaches us that in all the world’s religions, spirituality and ethics are intimately and profoundly related. Or as James said it in the Bible, “Faith without works is dead.”
“There’s a revolution that needs to happen and it starts from inside each one of us. We need to wake up and fall in love with Earth. Our personal and collective happiness and survival depends on it.”
Thầy teaches us all again that when we live unaware of the spiritual dimension, life becomes one–dimensional. A life in which we are in touch with our spiritual selves—a mindful life—is so much richer, deeper, and worthy of living.
I will hold Thầy reverently, gently, and thankfully in prayer as he moves on to be with God.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook