Oprah: Thank you for the honor of talking to you. Just being in your presence, I feel less stressed than when the day started. You have such a peaceful aura. Are you always this content?
Nhat Hanh: This is my training, this is my practice. And I try to live every moment like that, to keep the peace in myself.
Oprah: Because you can’t give it to others if you don’t have it in yourself.
Nhat Hanh: Right.
Oprah: I see. I know that you were born in Vietnam in 1926. Is there any wonderful memory of your childhood that you can share?
Nhat Hanh: The day I saw a picture of the Buddha in a magazine.
Oprah: How old were you?
Nhat Hanh: I was 7, 8. He was sitting on the grass, very peaceful, smiling. I was impressed. Around me, people were not like that, so I had the desire to be like him. And I nourished that desire until the age of 16, when I had the permission of my parents to go and ordain as a monk.
Oprah: Did your parents encourage you?
Nhat Hanh: In the beginning, they were reluctant because they thought that the life of a monk is difficult.
Oprah: At 16, did you understand what the life would be?
Nhat Hanh: Not a lot. There was only the very strong desire. The feeling that I would not be happy if I could not become a monk. They call it the beginner’s mind—the deep intention, the deepest desire that a person may have. And I can say that until this day, this beginner’s mind is still alive in me.
Oprah: That’s what a lot of people refer to as passion. It’s the way I feel about my work most days. When you’re passionate about your work, it feels like you would do it even if no one were paying you.
Nhat Hanh: And you enjoy it.
Oprah: You enjoy it. Let’s talk about when you first arrived in America. You were a student at Princeton. Was it challenging as a Buddhist monk to form friendships with other students? Were you lonely?
Nhat Hanh: Well, Princeton University was like a monastery. There were only male students at that time. And there were not many Vietnamese living in the United States. During the first six months, I did not speak Vietnamese. But the campus was very beautiful. And everything was new—the trees and the birds and the food. My first snow was in Princeton, and the first time I used a radiator. The first fall was in Princeton.
Oprah: When the leaves are changing.
Nhat Hanh: In Vietnam we did not see things like that.
Oprah: At the time, were you wearing your monk robes?
Nhat Hanh: Yes.
Oprah: Never have to worry about buying clothes, do you? Always just the robe.
Nhat Hanh: Yes.
Oprah: Do you have different robes for different occasions?
Nhat Hanh: You have a ceremonial robe, saffron color. That’s all. I feel comfortable wearing this kind of robe. And it happily reminds us that we are monks.
Oprah: What does it mean to be a monk?
Nhat Hanh: To be a monk is to have time to practice for your transformation and healing. And after that to help with the transformation and healing of other people.
Oprah: Are most monks enlightened, or seeking enlightenment?
Nhat Hanh: Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive—that you can touch the miracle of being alive—then that is a kind of enlightenment. Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.
Oprah: I’m sure you see all around you—I’m guilty of it myself—that we’re just trying to get through the next thing. In our country, people are so busy. Even the children are busy. I get the impression very few of us are doing what you just said—touching the miracle that you are alive.
Nhat Hanh: That is the environment people live in. But with a practice, we can always remain alive in the present moment. With mindfulness, you can establish yourself in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment. It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.