Thich Nhat Hanh was a Buddhist monk and one of the leading Zen practitioners of the modern times. Affectionately referred to as ‘Thay’ (meaning Teacher in Vietnamese), he dedicated his whole life to spreading the message of peace and mindfulness. With his passing away in January this year, the world has certainly lost a great spiritual leader.
My brush with Thay’s teachings happened as a teenager. Away from home and the weekly schedule of satsangs, I was reading up on methods and ways to include meditation and mindfulness in my daily routine. That was when I came across these unique terms – mindful teeth-brushing, mindful dishwashing and ‘tangerine meditation’. Thay emphasised that being mindful is not the destination, but the very path for evolution. When we bring our whole energy and attention to everyday activities like making one’s bed, brewing tea or peeling a fruit, that in itself could be a transformative meditation.
The other distinctive terminology that Thay brought to the spiritual arena is ‘inter-being’. Our whole existence, Thay explained, is not arbitrary or separate. We survive and thrive because of our interconnectedness – with this Earth, and all other beings. The more we are true to our own selves, the more we will find ourselves in harmony with the world around us. And the corollary works as well. A sense of cooperation and communion with the environment around is the only way to realise our Self.
‘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 the earth. Our personal and collective happiness and survival depends on it.’
But Thay didn’t land up at these truths through a miracle or through any privilege. He was born as Nguyen Xuan Bao and ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of sixteen. In fact, he was a bhikshu monk which entailed collection of daily alms. At the time when it was customary for monks of his order to practice deep contemplation in monasteries, Vietnam went into war with the US. Thay appealed to the society and to the world to take up the principles of peace and non-violence. He promoted the act of deep listening and the goal of communion to prevent conflicts. He was exiled from Vietnam for actively speaking out against the war.
“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.”
As a seeker, I could find several places where the messages in the Bhagavad Gita, in the words of Swami Chinmayananda, and of course, in the eternal halls of Vedanta resounded in Thay’s teachings as well. His repeated urge to his followers for inner transformation as a solution to global ills is one that is close to home for us, Chinmaya devotees. After 39 years of being exiled, on-the-trot promoting an engaged form of Buddhism, Thay returned to Vietnam in 2005 and continued to stay there until his death recently.
During his lifetime, Thay established several monasteries, trained over 200 monks and published over 100 books. He embraced mindful living in its fullest sense. In fact, in his writings, he even left a message for his followers on what to do upon his passing away. I believe those words are significant enough to put us on the path to seeking at any time.
‘I have a disciple in Vietnam who wants to build a stupa for my ashes when I die. He and others want to put a plaque with the words, “Here lies my beloved teacher.” I told them not to waste the temple land...I suggested that, if they still insist on building a stupa, they have the plaque say, I am not in here. But in case people don’t get it, they could add a second plaque, I am not out there either. If still people don’t understand, then you can write on the third and last plaque, I may be found in your way of breathing and walking.’