A man of peace

This originally appeared in The Inquirer, Issue 8028

On a freezing-cold day some 20 years ago I stood well wrapped in winter gear amongst followers at Plum Village gathered for the morning walking meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) suddenly appeared beside me, clad in brown robes, so small in height I thought for a moment he was a child. He placed his hands together and bowed towards the gathered monks, nuns and lay followers. His presence was palpable and a profound silence fell on the assembly as we followed in single file behind this peaceful man leading our mindful walk across the wintery countryside.

Many Unitarians will be able to relate to his lifelong commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts as well as his deep commitment to sustainable living. Plum Village embodied both of these. It was built on the site of a Nazi atrocity. As Thay said to ‘heal the earth’. With years of meditation, chanting and mindful walking, the earth would one day be healed from the unspeakable deeds committed where the main temple now stands. When I attended retreats there, always in winter, almost
no building was heated – even in December. The community was ever mindful of burning fossil fuel. ‘Thay’ literally translates as ‘teacher’. Those who awaken our compassionate heart, those who touch us with their courage, kindness and integrity these are our true teachers. Thay brought his austere Zen practice to the west and applied it like a soothing medicine to our traumatised and ever busy minds. It would be called ‘engaged Buddhism’. For his interpretation of Zen was forged in the heat of the war in Vietnam. His calling was to cultivate an inner peace that could be used to transform the chaotic conflicted world that permeates all our lives. In 1975 he published The Miracle of Mindfulness which communicated his deep and lifelong meditation practice in a form accessible to both Buddhist and non-Buddhist lay people. This paved the way for the mindfulness movement, which has done so much to calm and transform our troubled minds in the west.

Thay is aptly called ‘the father of mindfulness’. His teachings and his life are outstanding spiritual gifts to the world. The question is, how can we use them?

The commitment to the way of non-violence and the practice of mindfulness as the salve for our disrupted inner lives will be part of the answer. Thay trusted that the universe could transform itself and crucially that transformation would be through us. The rest of the answer must surely start in silence. Those who awaken in us our vulnerable nature are our greatest teachers, from the mother who first nourishes us, to the holy men and women who, like Thich Nhat Hanh, administer the balm of spiritual consciousness to our disconnected, wounded, minds. His teachings, and example of the paths of engaged Buddhism – an open heart in the midst of tumult, a commitment to nonviolence as the route to conflict resolution, and the practice of mindfulness as a remedy to the individual and collective discord that infect the world were the offerings of a bodhisattva (one who seeks awakening). The question now is, what we will do with these offerings, now the extraordinary teacher has gone to meet what must surely be a blessed reward. Mindfulness is about stillness, bringing accord not only to the psyche but to the world around us. Where do we begin? In silence; in trust that the universe can repair itself, and that it will repair, and that process will be through us.

Thich Nhat Hanh died peacefully on 22 January in his home
temple in Vietnam, aged 95. He had spent much of his life in exile. As a young monastic during the conflict in Vietnam he courageously worked for
peace and spoke out against the war. This resulted in him having to leave his homeland. He was nominated for the Nobel peace prize by Dr Martin Luther King in 1967. He settled in the Dordogne where he founded a contemplative community,
Plum Village. He continued to advocate for peace, for the environment, while publishing more than 100 books.

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