Thích Nhất Hạnh is recognised internationally as one of the most influential figures in the fields of mindfulness, meditation and Zen Buddhism. Having been ordained as a monk in 1949, Nhất Hạnh has since written more than 100 books and has travelled the world, imparting wisdom and sharing his philosophy on life.
Over a period of almost 70 years, Nhất Hạnh has built a lasting legacy through his lessons on meditation, self-awareness, understanding, peace, love and non-violent conflict resolution. In this article, we take a closer look at his life, using some of his most famous quotes and most important teachings as reference points.
- 1 Engaged Buddhism
- 2 “When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on — not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.”
- 3 The Enemies of Man
- 4 “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
- 5 Embracing Science
- 6 “Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.”
- 7 Love and Infatuation
- 8 “If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like? The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness.”
‘Engaged Buddhism’ is a term coined by Thích Nhất Hạnh, with its first known usage coming in a book he published in 1967, called Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. As a philosophy, it was heavily influenced by the Buddhism practised and taught by Master Tai Xu, who was influential in helping to reform Chinese Buddhism.
While Tai Xu advocated what he referred to as human-life Buddhism, Nhất Hạnh developed this philosophy further. Essentially, the ‘Engaged Buddhism’ he teaches focuses on using the insight gained through meditation and dharma teachings to ease economic, social and political suffering within society.
“When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on — not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.”
This quote actually originates from an interview with Lion’s Roar Magazine and perfectly captures Thích Nhất Hạnh’s core belief in ‘Engaged Buddhism’, which became especially important to him and his spiritual community in the midst of the Vietnam War, during which they aided those that were experiencing the horrors.
Nhất Hạnh saw the help they provided as being part of their mindfulness and meditation practice, rather than something separate from it. What this particular quote demonstrates is the belief that meditation can (and should) extend beyond the self, due to the insight and perspective it provides.
The Enemies of Man
Over the years, Thích Nhất Hạnh has often used his influence and wisdom to stress the importance of recognising the fact that the true ‘enemies of man’ are ideological, rather than physical. The most famous example of this philosophy being put into words came in the mid 1960s, in a letter written to Martin Luther King.
In the letter, Nhất Hạnh wrote that the enemies of monks in Vietnam were not man, but “intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination”. He also opined that in the civil rights struggle in the US, Martin Luther King’s enemies were not specific human beings, but “intolerance, hatred and discrimination”.
“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
This quote is an interesting extension of the basic ‘Enemies of Man’ teaching. Once again, it centres on the idea that we should not see those who do wrong as our enemies, or as people in need to punishment or retribution, but instead as people who can be helped, or who are in need of help.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Nhất Hạnh continued to promote the virtues of non-violence, even in retaliation to violent actions. These words help us to understand the deep-rooted beliefs that made this possible for him.
Another key teaching that has come to define Thích Nhất Hạnh’s philosophy is his view that traditional Zen Buddhist practices can work in conjunction with science. In particular, he has embraced western psychological research and utilised aspects when teaching Buddhist Psychology at Vạn Hanh Buddhist University and Cornell University.
It is only through embracing science in this way that ancient wisdom can play a meaningful role in the modern world. This concept is explored in several of Nhất Hạnh’s published works, including the 1992 book, The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion and the 2001 book, Understanding Our Mind.
“Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.”
Appearing in his 1987 book entitled Being Peace, this quote emphasises the extent to which Thích Nhất Hạnh discourages dogmatic adherence to any particular set of teachings, because such inflexible attitudes inevitably lead to conflict and, ultimately, suffering, rather than happiness, peace and contentment.
Instead, one of Nhất Hạnh’s most important philosophies is related to the value of being open to new ideas, being willing to challenge existing ones and being adaptable to new research, evidence and technology. There is, after all, wisdom in letting go of bias and recognising that the concept of ‘truth’ can be fluid, rather than absolute.
Love and Infatuation
In more recent years, Thích Nhất Hạnh’s teachings have placed an emphasis on the concept of love and on defining precisely what it is. In his 2015 book How to Love, he argues that the ideas of ‘love’ and ‘understanding’ are inextricably linked. “Understanding is love’s other name,” he writes.
With this as the starting point, Nhất Hạnh is able to de-construct the difference between love and infatuation. Love, he says, is about understanding another person and their suffering. Infatuation, on the other hand, is a distraction from one’s own suffering and understanding is replaced with fantasy, illusion and projecting ideas onto someone.
“If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like? The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness.”
Finally, this quote, which also appears in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s 2015 book How to Love, neatly sums up one of the most significant conclusions he draws, which is that love is something which can be seen and learned. “If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all,” Nhất Hạnh writes.
As Maria Popova points out, this is in-keeping with what psychologists know about the role of ‘positivity resonance’ in learning how to love. Once again, this quote shows how Nhất Hạnh’s traditional Zen Buddhist philosophy can operate in perfect harmony with modern scientific research and reasoning.