This Zen Buddhist monk has helped millions to live a more mindful life.
He is the most famous Zen Buddhist you’ve never heard of. The 84-year-old Vietnamese monk and meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh is the author of more than 100 books, has spoken to world leaders at Davos, been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, led a retreat for the US Congress and gives talks on mindfulness and meditation around the world. Yet Thay, as he is known (pronounced “tie”, it means teacher), refuses almost all interview requests and is relatively unknown.
This week he will be at the Hammersmith Apollo in London to give a talk entitled “Global Ethics for our Future”, which is why I have been invited to visit him at Village des Pruniers, or Plum Village, the monastery and retreat centre he established in South West France 28 years ago. This cluster of converted farmhouses and barns sees thousands of “retreatants” every year who stay for two weeks or more and undertake an experiment in “mindful living”.
My day begins at 5.30am, when the giant monastery bell summons lay guests and monks alike to the meditation hall. The monks chant the Heart Sutra — “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” — and then an hour’s formal meditation follows, during which I attempt to follow my breath rather than my thoughts. I have tried this before and know l how hard it is. Where the practice at Plum Village differs from other schools of meditation is in its attempt to bring this meditative awareness to all activities. Asked to move stones to help lay a floor in one of the barns, I prattle away to my robed colleague. He puts his palms together and, with a smile, says: “Dear brother, we try to maintain noble silence during the work period.” Not having to talk, to be interesting, is oddly comforting.
Walking to meet Thay, I try to be mindful of each step on the path. No wonder no one moves quickly in Plum Village. “When you breathe in, and bring your attention to your in-breath, you bring your mind back to your body,” says Thay in a quiet voice, pausing between sentences to raise a small glass of tea to his lips. “When you are established in the here and now you feel you are fully present, you are fully alive.”
We are seated below the trees on the wide deck of his small, wooden chalet that overlooks a valley near the tiny hamlet of Thénac. A bell chimes and Thay stops talking for 30 seconds and goes back to his breathing. Plum Village has a “mindfulness bell” that rings every hour or so. When people hear it everyone stops what they are doing and returns to their breath. It feels odd at first, even faintly embarrassing, but very quickly becomes a habit.
Born in 1926 in Hue in central Vietnam, Thay became a novice monk at the age of 16, against the wishes of his parents. As a child, a picture of the Buddha in a magazine captivated him and on a school trip he had what could be described as a religious experience. The class visited a mountain where their teacher told them that a hermit lived “who sat quietly day and night to become peaceful like a Buddha”. Thay and his classmates only found his empty hut, but exploring further by himself Thay came across a natural well, completely still and reflecting the surrounding rocks.
“I knelt down and scooped some water into my palms, and began to drink. The water tasted wonderfully sweet. I felt completely satisfied — even the desire to meet the hermit was gone. That was many years ago. Now I am an old man, but the image of the well and the sound of dripping water are still alive inside me.”
War has coloured his life. He remembers a French soldier coming into the temple during the First Indochina War, carrying a gun and demanding all the rice. “The soldier was young and thin and pale. I had to obey his order to carry the heavy bag of rice to the jeep. Anger and unhappiness rose up in me. Many times over the years I have meditated on this soldier. I have focused on the fact that he had to leave his family and friends to travel across the world to Vietnam, where he faced the horrors of killing my countrymen or being killed. I came to realise that the Vietnamese were not the only victims of the war — the French soldiers were victims as well.”
He took the same stance during the Vietnam War, refusing to condemn either side, and risking his life to take aid deep into the countryside. In 1964 he and his fellow monks paddled up the Thu Bon River in a fleet of small boats, risking getting caught in cross-fire to give food and medical care to whoever needed it. “When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on — not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.”
By the time he was 24, Thay had written a number of books and was a leading voice in the reform of Buddhism in his homeland. He felt that Buddhist students should be studying western philosophy and literature as well as Buddhist texts. In 1961 he won a fellowship to study Comparative Religion at Princeton and the following year he was invited to lecture on Buddhism at Columbia. During the war he spoke at many US universities, arguing for peace.
In 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. “I remember the last time I saw him,” says Thay. “It was in Geneva at a peace conference shortly before his assassination. He invited me for breakfast. I was late because I was busy with reporters, but he kept the breakfast hot for me. I was able to tell him that in Vietnam people had heard of him and that they thought of him as a Bodhisattva [meaning enlightened being]. I was glad to be able to do that before he died.”
Thay led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace talks in 1969, but his refusal to take sides on Vietnam meant he was banned from returning home. A fluent French speaker, he went into exile in France, living quietly near Paris, planting vegetables and writing. In 1974 The Miracle of Mindfulness was published, a small meditation guide now regarded as a classic. It has been translated into 30 languages.
Today, mindfulness is slowly creeping into the mainstream. Earlier this year the Mental Health Foundation released a report calling for Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, a clinically approved treatment based on meditation techniques, to be used to treat depression. And Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is being acknowledged by reputable health bodies.
Has my visit changed me? Well, I am trying to do things more slowly, and I have been using the bleep of incoming texts as my own “mindfulness bell”. No, it’s not quite enlightenment. But it’s a start.
Thich Nhat Hanh is at Hammersmith Apollo tomorrow at 7.30pm. Buy tickets from mindfulnessretreats.org.uk or Ticket Master (0844 745 2117 or 0844 745 2117 ). To visit Plum Village see plumvillage.org