Celebrating the Life of Thich Nhat Hanh

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By Tasha Friedman

Thích Nhất Hạnh was not only a monk and renowned Buddhist teacher but a globally-renowned author, leader, peace activist, and poet. His teachings on mindfulness, compassion, and peace are firmly rooted in the Zen tradition. Yet, he was known for presenting them in such a simple and elegant way that they became accessible to millions of people from all backgrounds.

Born this day in 1926 as Nguyễn Xuân Bảo, he entered a monastery when he was 16.

As a young monk in the early 1950s, Nhất Hạnh was involved in the movement to renew Vietnamese Buddhism. (He was one of the first monks to study science at university and to ride a bicycle.)

However, with the beginning of the Vietnamese War, his work as a peace activist began in earnest.

Although Zen Buddhism is renowned for its austerity and unworldliness, Thích Nhất Hạnh saw no contradiction between social activism and spirituality. Instead, the work for peace and justice in the world is naturally intertwined with inner processes of deepening awareness and loving-kindness.

Nhất Hạnh perceived, as many great souls have, that the problems of the modern world stem not from particular circumstances but widespread alienation — a lack of inner peace, self-love, and self-awareness — projected outwards into violent chain reactions.

The answer, therefore, cannot be simply applying a band-aid, as it were. More effective in the long run is to address the fundamental ignorance and suffering at the root of conflict while not ignoring the immediate needs in any given situation.

Meditation is an act for world peace. Learning to love, to forgive, to understand, and to be compassionate — to others and ourselves — are acts that have profound ripple effects in the community around us and even in human consciousness at large.

“If we are peaceful,” he wrote in Being Peace, “if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.”

A fundamental element of this approach is to avoid any kind of blame but rather to observe situations as they are and address them out of compassion for all beings involved. Guided by spiritual principles, it allows the process to unfold without a schema of success or failure.

Also from Being Peace: “The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not. If we are, then can we reduce the suffering to a minimum? If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh left the physical body last January, surrounded by his loving disciples. His long, rich life has gifted us with a wealth of instructions and inspiration from a being who truly walked with peace in every step.

Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.

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