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Embarking on the Path: The Origin of My Thích Nhất Hạnh PhD Research

Thích Nhất Hạnh. From

I completed my doctoral study on the teachings and practices of Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh (1926–2022) at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand three years ago. My thesis title is “Mindfulness, Interbeing and the Engaged Buddhism of Thích Nhất Hạnh.” In undertaking fieldwork for this research, I spent four months at Plum Village, the Buddhist monastic community and retreat center that Thích Nhất Hạnh established in France in 1982, to practice with the resident community, observe their practices, and to interview retreatants. I was very fortunate to have seen Thích Nhất Hạnh several times during my stay there.

Having greatly benefited personally from Thích Nhất Hạnh’s teachings and practices, as well as from the Buddhist teachings and practices in general, I am eager to share my experiences, findings, discoveries, and photos from my study in this new column, which is also intended as a tribute to this great Zen master.

My thesis project was inspired by my personal experiences with Buddhist practices, particularly mindfulness. Let me therefore share with you in this first article how I initially encountered the Buddhist teachings, came to cultivate a strong interest in them, and developed the ideas behind this research—an ongoing process that has profoundly changed my life.

I was a music student when I pursued my bachelor’s degree at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). At the time, music was the passion of my life. I had never been interested in religion; I considered them all to be merely superstition. During my bachelor studies, I spent a year at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand as an exchange student. I brought my cello with me and continued to study music. During my time in New Zealand, I experienced a different culture and made friends with people from around the world; it was a fantastic experience. However, on returning to Hong Kong, I struggled greatly to readjust to life back home. Life in Hong Kong was vastly different from that in New Zealand. My exchange experience prompted deep reflections on life, such as why people live so differently in various parts of the world, why some have an easier life, and why others face numerous difficulties.

At the same time, while completing my final semester of bachelor studies at HKU, I came across a new one-semester interdisciplinary course titled “Buddhism and Life,” which was open to all students. I pondered how such a seemingly superstitious subject could be taught at a university. When I looked at the course outline, I was surprised to find that the content mentioned was not only very similar to psychology but also more relevant to our lives. Equally intriguing was the fact that the course lecturer was a Buddhist monk. I had never considered that a monk might hold a PhD or teach at a university. Out of sheer curiosity, I decided to attend the first class of the course to see what it was all about.

I felt at once nervous and curious as I sat in the classroom, waiting for the lecturer who still had not appeared 10 minutes past the scheduled starting time. A departmental staff member then came to let us know that our lecturer had been delayed by urgent matters but was on his way by taxi. I thought to myself, “What? A monk taking a taxi? That seems a bit mismatched . . .”

A few minutes later, our lecturer, a Chinese monk wearing grey robes, finally arrived. He quickly entered the classroom and apologized. He spoke English, the designated language for the course. As he prepared for the class, I was shocked to see him take an ultra-thin silver laptop from his yellow cotton bag (of the type traditionally used by monastics)! Such a laptop was a very high-tech teaching tool 20 years ago! After setting up the class projector, he began to teach, using a PowerPoint presentation. There I was, looking at a Chinese monk who spoke fluent English and taught using PowerPoint with a high-end laptop! Not only was the monk’s teaching interesting, it was also highly relevant to our daily lives. All of this far exceeded my expectations—I had never imagined that Buddhist studies could be like this!

I found the first class of the course utterly captivating. The monk proved to be an exceptionally skilled lecturer, delivering the Buddhist teachings in a manner that was at once humorous yet inspiring and practical. Even now, more than 20 years later, I find myself recalling some of the anecdotes he shared. Moved by this initial experience, I resolved to enroll in the entire course.

The wisdom imparted through the Buddhist teachings addressed many of the questions that had arisen during my exchange studies. As I immersed myself further in the course materials, my fascination with Buddhism grew steadily. Concurrently, my interest in music waned.

After completing my undergraduate studies, I was driven to delve deeper into Buddhism, so I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Buddhist studies at HKU. This year-long program proved to be a transformative experience, broadening my perspective and enriching my understanding of the world.

Following this immersion in Buddhist studies, I felt compelled to revisit my passion for music. This led me to pursue a master’s thesis in musicology at the University of Otago in New Zealand. My research explored how a New Zealand classical music composer incorporated elements of Māori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) culture into his compositions. On this new academic journey, I discovered that my understanding of the composer and his music paralleled my understanding of myself and others. Although my research centered on a musical topic, it served as a conduit for self-discovery and a deeper comprehension of the world around me.

On my return to Hong Kong, I took on a role as a research assistant within the realm of music and visual arts education. Throughout this period, I maintained my meditation practice and read books about Buddhism, particularly those by Thích Nhất Hạnh. The combination of mindfulness practice and insightful readings enabled me to perceive both personal and worldly suffering deeply. This realization stirred within me a profound desire to alleviate suffering in whatever small capacity I could. Driven by this conviction, I felt compelled to contribute positively to the world and use my affinity for research as a means through which I could offer something meaningful to humanity.

This is how the idea for conducting mindfulness research originated. Thích Nhất Hạnh’s practical and direct approach to teaching and practicing mindfulness inspired my focus on his teachings and practices for my research. Recognizing the importance of personal transformation, as advocated in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s engaged Buddhism, I realized that to effect change in the world, I needed to begin with myself. This led me to seek a research approach conducive to my own growth. Practicing with the Plum Village community for an extended period seemed most fitting, as I understood from my meditation practice that transformation required more than just textual analysis. Consequently, I chose to conduct fieldwork at Plum Village to gather data for this study.

In the next article, I will share how I began my mindfulness practices and came into contact with Thích Nhất Hạnh’s teachings, as well as how these experiences influenced my research focus.

Related features from BDG

Circles of Life and Death, Part One: Recalling Thich Nhat Hanh and Black Elk
Honoring the Legacy of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh
Buddhistdoor View: Discourse and Praxis – The Interconnected Legacy of Thich Nhat Hanh

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