The father of mindfulness
Thich Nhat Hanh, the 86-year-old Vietnamese Buddhist, is in Ireland to help us transform our lives through small acts of daily life
TOMORROW EVENING, up to 2,000 people from all over Ireland will gather in the Convention Centre in Dublin to listen to Thich Nhat Hanh, the 86-year-old Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has largely been responsible for the surge of interest in mindfulness meditation in the Western world.
For the past 30 years, the peace activist, Zen master and writer, Thich Nhat Hanh (his followers call him Thay which means teacher in Vietnamese) has been giving public talks and leading retreats from his base in the Plum Village monastery in the Bordeaux region of France and throughout Europe, North America and the Far East.
His message is simple yet profound. Through awareness of our breath and the small acts of daily life, we can transform and heal our lives and reach out to others in love and compassion.
Through his writings (he is the author of over 100 books), Hanh offers meditations, exercises, personal anecdotes and observations to help people find the peace that he claims is available in every moment.
The monastic community at Plum Village is a model of mindful living which receives up to 1,000 visitors a week during the summer months. “He lives his message. The food is Vegan. Cars are [symbolically] not used one day a week. Children and community are central to his retreats which are not as silent as most other retreats,” says Josephine Lynch, a teacher of mindfulness and member of Mindfulness Ireland who has brought Hanh to Ireland.
“He teaches us to live every moment of our day mindfully, to be grateful for the good things and to take care of the difficulties we encounter in ourselves and outside in the world,” says Sister Jina, one of the 50 nuns and monks who have accompanied Hanh on this trip to the UK and Ireland.
Born in North Vietnam in 1926, Thich Nhat Hanh was ordained a Buddhist monk at the age of 16. Eight years later, he co-founded the An Quang Buddhist Institute, which later became the most prominent centre for the study of Buddhism in South Vietnam.
In 1961, he went to the United States to teach comparative religion at Columbia and Princeton Universities but in 1963, he was called back to Vietnam to lead a non-violent resistance movement against the war.
In 1964, he founded the School of Youth for Social Services, which sent young Buddhist peace workers into the Vietnamese countryside to establish schools, health clinics, agricultural co-operatives and later to rebuild bombed villages.
He also set up a publishing house and called for reconciliation between warring parties in Vietnam as editor of the official publication of the Unified Buddhist Church. In 1966, he travelled to the United States to seek a ceasefire and negotiated settlement.
For this work, Martin Luther King Jr nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.
He attended the Paris Peace Talks on behalf of the Buddhist Peace Delegation and after the Peace Accords were signed in 1973, he was refused permission to return to Vietnam.
So Thich Nhat Hanh stayed in France and in 1975, he set up Sweet Potatoes, a small Buddhist community a hundred miles south of Paris. There he spent time in retreat meditating, reading, writing, binding books, gardening and travelling.
It was on a retreat he led in the United States that an American doctor, Jon Kabat-Zinn, first realised the appropriateness of mindfulness in the treatment of chronic medical conditions. And, later Kabat-Zinn adapted Hanh’s teachings on mindfulness into the structured eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course, which has since spread throughout the western World.
In one of his best known books, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about how mindfulness saved his life during a period of severe depression after his mother’s death.
In another popular book, Peace Is Every Step, (which has a forward by the Dalai Lama), Hanh writes “The roots of war are in the way we live our daily lives – the way we develop our industries, build up our society and consume goods. We cannot just blame one side or the other. We have to transcend the tendency to take sides.”
He was invited back to Vietnam in 2005, after 40 years of exile.
American Buddhist Richard Baker-roshi once described him as “a cross between a cloud, a snail, and a piece of heavy machinery – a true religious presence”.
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, founder of the Sanctuary and Focus Ireland, describes him as the “father of mindfulness”.
“He really wanted to modernise Buddhism and he promoted what’s called Engaged Buddhism which is using your insights to move out to relieve suffering. He’s awake and aware in a very keen way. He sees mindfulness as transcending religion yet he has enormous respect for different religions,” she says.
In the past 10 years, Hanh has set up two monasteries in the United States (Deerpark in California and Blue Cliff in New York), the Asian Institute in Hong Kong and the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.
After his visit to Ireland (he will also lead a retreat for families in Killarney, Co Kerry this weekend), he will lead retreats in Plum Village – including a 21-day retreat for scientists in June.
Later in the summer, he will travel to Germany and Holland to give public talks and lead retreats there. He rarely gives interviews nowadays yet through his books, his retreats and teachers and practitioners of mindfulness, his message continues to resonate with those from within and without faith communities.
"WE ARE MORE THAN OUR ANGER":
“In a time of anger or despair, even if we feel overwhelmed, our love is still there. Our capacity to communicate, to forgive, to be compassionate is still there. You have to believe this. We are more than our anger, we are more than our suffering. We must recognise that we do have within us the capacity to love, to understand, to be compassionate, always.”
- from Taming the Tiger Within – meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions by Thich Nhat Hanh from his books, No Death, No Fear; Anger and Going Home (Penguin, 2004)