I have a watch with all the numbers replaced with ‘now’ to remind me we are all living: Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Zen master.
Hoang Anh Suong
In 2013 I accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh on a months-long trip to promote Buddhism across America. At the end of the visit, he participated in a banquet in his honor hosted by World Bank Director Jim Yong Kim in Washington, DC.
Kim had been revering Thich Nhat Hanh for many years, reading books the monk wrote and practicing the monk’s interpretation of right mindfulness.
At the banquet, he wished to ask the Zen master how to apply right mindfulness to live and work better, not just for himself but also for his staff. He asked Thich Nhat Hanh in the presence of many important international guests how to avoid stress.
The monk said: “Contentment originates from your heart, while striving for triumph lies in the unforeseeable, distant future. Between the two, humans can either choose one or the other. Yesterday has passed, irretrievable; tomorrow has not come, unpredictable. Therefore, only today matters.”
The two-hour banquet was broadcast live to all international offices of the World Bank, where the Vietnamese monk’s wisdom was admired by all the staff.
I also remember one of his other conferences in the lobby of the Boston Park Plaza hosted by Harvard University with over 1,200 participants from all walks of life. For some reason, Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on peacefulness and spirituality resonated with the American minds.
After the Boston conference, a psychiatric therapist told me: “I have provided therapy to thousands of patients diagnosed with depression, pathological vexation and sorrows. But I frequently feel the same as my patients. I came today to hear the world’s most famous Zen master discussing right mindfulness to apply to my work as a psychiatric therapist. However, I ended up wanting to help myself first.”
Thich Nhat Hanh’s next conference took place at Boston’s largest church, with over 4,000 people seated in chairs and many latecomers, determined not to miss his teachings, sitting on the floor.
Under a giant statue of Jesus, a symbol of American faith, with arms spread to embrace the humanity below, the humble Thich Nhat Hanh, a foreign monk, small and slim in his brown robe, explained his teachings to thousands of Americans.
He said in a gentle, slow tone: “Within all of us exist agonies; some people are scared of the confrontation with their agonies, and try to find any way to escape.
“Humans usually find it hard to confront and deal with pain. Therefore, Buddha taught us to be mindful of ourselves and our pains by maintaining awareness of our breathing. By this, we breathe mindfully, walk mindfully and eat mindfully. So, our right mindfulness in everything we do would slowly bring back positive energy to relieve our tensions, our agonies and our sorrows.
The audience listened to Thich Nhat Hanh in silence.
Later at the headquarters of Google, Yahoo and several other international conglomerates, the gentle Vietnamese monk calmly explained mindfulness to thousands of employees, the way to ease their stress and to become more humane.
The conferences were held along with many meditation courses throughout America, with participants ranging from American statesmen to ordinary teachers, all searching for some kind of enlightenment. After a week of meditation many participants overcame their sorrows and once again found pleasure in living.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Photo courtesy of Plum Village.
The core teachings
Why did so many Americans find resonance in and revere Thich Nhat Hanh? Are Americans faced with agonies? Has America been foiled in its pursuit of contentment?
But then it was possibly because Thich Nhat Hanh explained Buddhism in a different, more understandable and applicable way to western minds.
For many decades Thich Nhat Hanh has been promoting Engaged Buddhism, which focuses on humans’ active role in facilitating change.
To Thich Nhat Hanh, happiness comes from peacefulness. Therefore, if people accumulate extreme emotions stemming from anxieties and desires, and if they cannot find ways to identify and resolve those emotions, then they can never find serenity.
Buddhism is a way of life in which you make conscious efforts to improve yourself. It opposes neither other religions nor modern scientific learning. It only teaches us to be mindful of everything we do, so that we can understand more about life, engender humaneness and lead our hearts and souls to serenity.
In his courses, Thich Nhat Hanh taught Americans specific methods to calm their mind and look deep into themselves to identify the roots of their negative emotions. From there, they could start getting rid of the negativity energy and find serenity inside themselves.
This method of Thich Nhat Hanh, which correlates with the modern clinical therapeutic system, has become famous globally due to its simplicity and self-reliance nature and its profound outcomes.
“Thich Nhat Hanh provides a simple version of Buddhism, but I would not say it is oversimplified,” Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University’s Divine School, said.
In America, and the world, humans today get disoriented while faiths and values get shaken. To resolve this, as the humble Vietnamese monk taught us, we need to be mindful of even our most mundane actions and observe life with an enlightened heart. We could then heal our wounds, and other people’s, with a loving heart.
*Hoang Anh Suong is a journalist and an author. The opinions expressed are his own.