Because you are alive, everything is possible. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Today, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh turns 94. And it is a perfect time to understand some of his life lessons we can all practice.
But don’t call it a “Birthday”, he refers to it as a “Continuation Day”. And his legacy of wonderful teachings and practice continues to be found in all of us.
It has been a long road for Thay (the Vietnamese name for ‘teacher’ which his followers call him) since his humble start as a novice monk in 1942 when he was only sixteen.
In the 1960s, he advocated for peace during the Vietnam war, created organizations (the Order of Interbeing), became friends with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was exiled from Vietnam, started a small community called Plum Village in France which grew into a worldwide movement, wrote over 100 books, and became one of the most well-known Buddhist monks in the world.
Unfortunately, Thay suffered a stroke a few years ago but was thankfully allowed to return home to Vietnam to live.
On his Continuation Day, I reflected on some of the life lessons I have learned from Thay’s teachings, and hope you find benefit in reading them.
Lesson #1: Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness allows you to live deeply every moment that is given you to live.
Mindfulness is a critical part of the Buddhist path towards liberation and freedom from suffering. This is not about using mindfulness techniques to “get something”, to “evade”, or to “escape”. Instead, it is a tool that we use to be fully present to be “totally alive” and walk the path towards Nirvana that is in alignment with the eightfold path.
When we truly practice mindfulness, we are walking in the Buddha’s footsteps where we are able to practice an ethical life, what things we consume (which includes food, entertainment, etc.), what we say to others, and in general how we interact and engage with the world.
Too often we are unmindful of what we think, say, or how we act. However, when we are truly practicing mindfulness, we are a Buddha at that moment. Understanding that we can be just like the Buddha by practicing true Buddhist mindfulness is a powerful teaching and practice.
According to Thay: “When the energy of mindfulness is dwelling in you, Buddha is dwelling in you. The energy of mindfulness is the energy of Buddha.”
Lesson #2: Find True Peace
Peace is not simply the absence of violence; it is the cultivation of understanding, insight and compassion, combined with action.
Thay came into the international spotlight in 1966 when he met with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to call for peace during the Vietnam war. Later, Rev. King would nominate Thay for the Noble Peace Prize.
During the war, Thay was seeing something troubling in the peace movement – people were angry. This anger conflicted with the message. He said:
“You can put all the bombs on the moon, but if you do not uproot the bombs in people’s hearts, war will continue.”
This directed his teachings and practice to help people transform the anger inside them so true understanding and peace can grow and be revealed. Thay understood that the cycle of anger inside people would keep misunderstanding and conflict continuing, which can lead to war. Until the root cause was addressed, then peace at any level – including your own – will be elusive.
I wrote about the October 1st mass shooting in Las Vegas, and how Thay’s teaching to a parent who lost their child at the Sandy Hook shooting years prior can provide us the Buddhist path to walk in – even when it is extremely difficult.
Lesson #3: Your Signature Is Everywhere
Every thought you produce, anything you say, any action you do, it bears your signature
Karma in Buddhism is foundational as it explains we are in control of what willful actions we take. Wholesome or unwholesome is entirely our choice. Yet our delusion of this, and other teachings, continually has us creating unwholesome karma. These actions are like seeds that get planted in our store consciousness just waiting to be ‘watered’ with the right conditions for them to grow.
We often sign our name on several types of things, to include legal documents. When we sign a legal document, we are pledging to be trustworthy and abide by what it says. And this bears our signature. If we break that legal document, our ‘signature’ loses value and reflects poorly on us and can have many repercussions.
In the same way, our actions, speech, and thoughts are all our ‘signature’. In fact, it is the most important signature we ever show to the world, and what type of karma it generates is within our control.
Lesson #4: All You Have Is Your Actions
My actions are my only true belongings.
The belief in a permanent and independent “self” is the primary hindrance to Buddhists as they walk the path towards liberation. The belief in the false concept of “self” causes us to have delusion, greed, and anger. In turn, this desire to “protect” the self then causes us to take actions – which are typically unwholesome karma.
Thay teaches that everything we think we own is an illusion. Nothing about us is permanent, or independent, yet we believe it is. However, the one thing that we do truly own is our own actions.
When we understand our actions are the only things we truly own, we can begin to transform our life by being in alignment with the eightfold path and generating wholesome karma.
This simple teaching can have a profound impact. Knowing that your actions are your only true possessions, you can begin to stop before speaking unskillful words, stop doing things that harm others, and start developing understanding and compassion in every step of your life.
Lesson#5: Don’t Be a Zombie
Some people live as though they are already dead. There are people moving around us who are consumed by their past, terrified of their future, and stuck in their anger and jealousy. They are not alive; they are just walking corpses.
This is Thay’s first miracle of mindfulness: presence.
When you look around with mindfulness, Thay says you can see everyone else is walking around like zombies. And he is not just talking about people with their heads buried in their smartphones!
We are often not mindful, which means we are like walking zombies because we don’t know what is truly going on in the present moment. While we may think we are mindful, we typically are not.
This teaching from Thay seems very direct, and it is. The delusion in humans is so strong, we sometimes need some directness to shake it free! However, he says we should not look at others who are these “walking zombies” with any sort of negativity or other views. In fact, we should feel compassion for them because they are unaware that truly living only happens in the “here and now”.
When you are driving on a busy freeway during “rush hour”, you see many people reacting and truly acting like “driving zombies”, unaware of their actions. This is an appropriate time to understand they are not mindful because they don’t understand how to practice that, and we should feel compassion for them. And in turn, we should examine if we are being mindful as well!
Happy Continuation Day Thay!
- Featured Image and Other Images: Courtesy of © Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism (Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s organization)
- Life Story of Thich Nhat Hanh
- Walking in Freedom Event for Thay’s Continuation Day
- Thay’s Buddhist Practice: Thay practices Vietnamese Buddhism, which primarily consists of Mahayana, with some elements of Theravada. The Mahayana elements include both Pure Land Buddhism and Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism (which is why he is referred to as a Zen Buddhist Master). The practice advocated by Plum Village is thought to be Zen but is actually a form of Pure Land Buddhism.
- Recommended Books (Affiliate Links)
- The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings: My most recommended book by Thay which explains the core Buddhist teachings.
- Awakening of the Heart: An essential collection of Theravada and Mahayana Sutras Thay considers essential for any practitioner. He provides his commentary after each.
- Old Path White Clouds: His novelization of the Buddha’s life story based upon numerous scriptures and sources. I highly recommend the Audible audiobook version.
- You Are Here: How to practice mindfulness in everyday life.
- View my Top 5 book recommendations