One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s most prominent innovations can be seen in the Plum Village series of his English-language calligraphy. The late teacher, who passed away at midnight on the 22nd of January 2022, began writing calligraphy for a mass audience in 1994, mainly to accompany his books, articles, and pamphlets. The idea of applying a black ink-and-brush aesthetic with Zen imagery to French and English words was in itself a creative and perhaps stylistically risky move. It is the messages within the calligraphy that are characteristic of his innovative approach to teaching Buddhism: a combination of evocative poetry, vivid imagery, and Buddhist references. They have been exhibited as art by the “father of mindfulness” in Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and the US. The most recent published collection, The Mindful Art of Thich Nhat Hanh (2019), offers messages of the kind for which Thay became beloved and famous:
Be free where you are.
Peace begins with your lovely smile.
Breathe. You are alive.
No mud, no lotus.
The tears I shed yesterday have become rain.
Thay’s calligraphic maxims are well known for being pithy yet poetic, straightforward yet multi-textured, and relatable but profound, if applied in everyday life. In a tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh at the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong on 24 January, Ven. Hin Hung, a Chinese Chan master, observed that Thay, as he was widely known, had a remarkable gift for distilling Zen teachings that made them graspable and condensed, without in any way simplifying or cheapening them. Despite the immense success of Plum Village internationally, there is no sense of expediency or corporatization of the teachings themselves. This is because Thich Nhat Hanh brought into the Western consciousness a very special vision of mindfulness, one that would prove as influential as his ideas on engaged Buddhism. It is through mindfulness and engaged Buddhism that Thich Nhat Hanh has had the most prominent impact.
It is true that Thich Nhat Hanh’s depiction in English-language media as the “father of mindfulness” or the “founder” of engaged Buddhism require more nuance. Mindfulness has been present in the Buddha’s philosophy since its ancient beginnings, and Thich Nhat Hanh was not the only engaged Buddhist practitioner of his time, even if he did pioneer specific ways to think about it. Yet thanks to the sheer volume of English-language literature that he has produced about mindfulness and engaged Buddhism, Thay has also been one of the most accessible sources for people seeking guidance from a “contemporary leader of Buddhist thought.” He was one of the first true Buddhist leaders—that is, the head of a lineage with an institutional and pastoral responsibility to a sangha of monastics and laypeople—to go global with a message of peace that helped to soothe the Cold War era’s deepest fears and darkest neuroses: fear of nuclear war, a growing skepticism of authority, and, perhaps ironically, a decline of faith in Christianity in the West that prompted an eastward search for spirituality. After Plum Village was established in 1982 in Bordeaux, Thich Nhat Hanh transformed his sangha, reforming the liturgy to feature sutras sung in English, Plum Village-branded songs on mindfulness, breathing, and other themes such as family, love, and reconciliation, and allowing laypeople to become instructors (dharmacharyas) with appropriate training.
As karma would have it, Thich Nhat Hanh’s cultural and national background helped to propel him to prominence in the American consciousness at the height of the Vietnam War. Since his arrival in France in 1966, all the way until his return to Vietnam in 2018, his engaged Buddhism has basically remained one of stressing interdependence. He captured this in an ingenious discourse and phraseology, “interbeing.” As he and his disciples liked to say: “We inter-are.” This, along with many other examples, such as: “breathing in, breathing out,” “no coming, no going,” and “nowhere to go, nothing to do,” became staples among Thich Nhat Hanh’s vocabulary of spreading Buddhism. These phrases, easy to remember and inspiring, quickly became many Western Buddhists’ first exposure to Buddhism.
Along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of those rare Buddhist figures who singularly shifted the perceptions of entire generations about what Buddhism meant as a movement and a faith tradition. This included non-Buddhists and psychological professionals that know Thay through the now widespread mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), for which his 1975 book The Miracle of Mindfulness is credited with laying the foundation.
It must be admitted that Thich Nhat Hanh’s focus on social activism receded toward the end of his life, and before his brain hemorrhage in 2014 he had been more interested in ecological awareness, writing, and teaching tirelessly about the inseparability of Buddhist practice and love for Mother Nature. Perhaps he would say that the problems of the world have not shifted in any fundamental way since the 1960s, at least not from the Buddhist perspective—human greed, hatred, and delusion remain at the heart of all our crises, and the problems are, at the same time, intractable yet salvageable because of our interconnectedness. For example, there is little that needs updating in this entry from Thich Nhat Hanh’s diary from the 1960s, Fragrant Palm Leaves:
If you tarnish your perceptions by holding on to suffering that isn’t really there, you create even greater misunderstanding. One-sided perceptions like these create our world of suffering. We are like an artist who is frightened by his own drawing of a ghost. Our creations become real to us and even haunt us.(Plum Village)
It would seem that his warning is becoming true and could apply to all the things that threaten to diminish or even destroy us today.
What has perhaps changed in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the September 11 attacks, and the 2008 global financial crisis, is a collapse of trust in traditional institutions to solve big problems and to think in a bold, transformative way. Beyond the West, the construct of the global community that emerged briefly and perhaps idealistically in the 1990s has all but disappeared. Thich Nhat Hanh’s message of mindfulness is often at direct odds with our modern-day reliance on technology and the internet. Since the 2000s, Thich Nhat Hanh was himself aware that we have become atomized and fragmented, our human experience curated through the computer and smartphone in a way once unthinkable. A rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, the near-complete dominance of the internet and Big Tech, and a general zeitgeist that speaks to cynicism, materialism, and fleeting distractions—this is the world that one of the past century’s most charismatic, thoughtful, and persuasive figures for peace leaves behind.
It is a truly sad state of affairs, one that his disciples and other Buddhists may be tempted to separate Thay from, to distinguish his virtue from the predicaments of the 21st century. After all, Thay did all he could to transform violence into peace and hatred into goodwill. Yet Thay predicted the complex karmic entanglement that seven billion human beings share in one of his calligraphic aphorisms:
Together, we are one.
As one of his most famous poems, “Please Call Me by My True Names”, observes, Thich Nhat Hanh’s philosophy saw the fates of the young girl at sea and the pirate that violated her as intertwined; this difficult and challenging Zen insight has every relevance into the interconnected nature of our problems today. It is because we continue to build our solutions on wrong perceptions that our solutions are either insufficient or add new problems on top of old.
From mindfulness to engaged Buddhism, Thay’s legacy is multidimensional, but his contribution to unlocking our full potentiality and transforming society most likely lies in how we “inter-are.” We face the urgent task of realizing this without his active input, even as he watches us as a beautiful white cloud in the sky.
Mindfulness, Suffering, and Engaged Buddhism (Plum Village)
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