How Thích Nhất Hạnh changed the world beyond Buddhism

(RNS) — A man once asked a Masai elder, “What makes a good morani?”— a good warrior.

The elder replied, “When the moment calls for ferocity, a good morani is very fierce. And when the moment calls for kindness, a good morani is utterly tender. But what makes a great warrior, the elder added, “is knowing which moment is which.”

Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh, who died on January 21 at the age of 95, is perhaps the personification of this fierce and tender warrior. During his long life, he dedicated himself to promoting peace, mindfulness, and “engaged Buddhism,” a term Nhất Hạnh coined to emphasize the importance of applying the Buddhist principles of no -violence and compassion to social, political and environmental action.

The man the students affectionately called Thay – teacher of Vietnamese – was a much loved and approachable teacher whose popularity and influence in the Buddhist world is matched only by that of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Millions of seekers who might not otherwise have engaged with Buddhism have come to its teachings to learn how to apply mindfulness to everyday life. As a result, Nhất Hạnh is popularly known as “the father of mindfulness”.

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Born in 1926 in central Vietnam, Nhất Hạnh, whose first name was Nguyen Xuan Bao, became a novice monk at the age of 16 and then studied science at the University of Saigon before being fully ordained in the Tu Hieu temple in 1949. When war came to Vietnam a few years later, Nhất Hạnh became actively involved in its opposition. On a trip to North America, he met US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and asked him to stop bombing Vietnam, later laying out a five-point peace proposal.

The quiet ferocity and determination that fueled his peace efforts in Vietnam and, later, his steadfastness in the face of the communist government’s persecution of Buddhist sects, may not match the soft-spoken teacher his disciples know today, whose mindfulness practices seem to encapsulate the gentleness that characterizes him.

But from the end of the 1960s, Nhất Hạnh organized itself to fight against the worst effects of the war and the regime that came to power in its wake. He founded the Youth School for Social Service, a community relief agency of 10,000 volunteers that introduced school, health care and basic infrastructure to villages across Vietnam. And he created the Order of Interbeing, an international community of lay people and monks dedicated, as their website puts it, “to the continued practice of mindfulness, ethical behavior and compassionate action. in the society”.

FILE – In this March 16, 2007 file photo, Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, center, arrives for a grand chanting ceremony at Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, southern Vietnam. (AP Photo)

Banned from returning to Vietnam after an American and European teaching tour, Nhất Hạnh settled in France, where he eventually founded Plum Village, a Zen community that hosts over 200 monks, as well as 8,000 visitors a year.

Moreover, Nhất Hạnh also leaves behind nine monasteries and dozens of practice centers around the world, not to mention more than 100 books he wrote.

But his legacy cannot be quantified – or easily exaggerated. Insisting that for Buddhism to be relevant, it must be engaged in tandem with the issues of its time, Nhất Hạnh met with fellow peace activists Thomas Merton and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., among others. Nhất Hạnh urged King to publicly oppose the Vietnam War – which King first did in a famous speech given at Riverside Church in New York. King then nominated Nhất Hạnh for the Nobel Peace Prize, but the prize was withheld because King broke the rules by making his nomination public.

However, Nhất Hạnh’s influence extended far beyond his high-level connections. It was born from his deep embodiment of the peace he constantly taught, and anyone lucky enough to be in the presence of the great master undoubtedly felt the truth that governed his life: He lived exactly as he preached.

In A conversation with Oprah Winfrey, Nhất Hạnh said that when he was 7 years old, he saw a picture of a peaceful, smiling Buddha in a magazine. “I was impressed,” he said. “People around me weren’t like that, so I had a desire to be someone like him.” And for the next 88 years, that’s exactly what he was.

Nhất Hạnh taught us Westerners how to walk mindfully, just to walk and without a goal in sight. He modeled eating with complete attention, even seeing a tiny raisin as “an ambassador of the cosmos.” He showed us that it is possible to live each moment quietly and to work with our impatience, our agitation, our incessant dissatisfaction. He even taught us to love.

The best thing we have to offer someone we love, said Nhất Hạnh, is our presence. Her mantra, “Honey, I’m here for you,” was meant to galvanize the quality of caring needed to show someone we care. It is a deceptively simple teaching that has the power to transform our relationships, if only we are brave enough to embrace it.

But while he was an unprecedented popularizer of mindfulness, Nhất Hạnh’s message challenges today’s fashionable understanding as a technique to de-stress us as we rush through our hectic lives. As Nhất Hạnh taught, mindfulness is a way to end our own suffering and that of others. It is integrally linked to compassion, happiness and peace.

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“Being is inter-being,” he said: we can’t help but affect each other with our every action, every word we say, and even every thought we have. This is why, more than any other teacher of his time, Nhất Hạnh understood that the only path to freedom is to live it every step of the way.

If the Buddha taught that liberation is possible, Nhất Hạnh, with his fierce tenderness and unwavering dedication to the practice of mindfulness, peace and compassion in each moment, has shown us how.

(Vanessa Zuisei Goddard is a writer, editor and lay Zen teacher based in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. She is the author of “Still Running: The Art of Meditation in Motion”. The views expressed in this commentary do not reflect those of Religion News Service.)