Some of you may have already been introduced to the great Buddhist master and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh because Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for a Noble Peace Prize in 1967 for of his non-violent work with the Vietnamese people during the Communist Revolution that led to years of war in Vietnam and Hanh’s eventual exile from his homeland. Reverend Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk and activist, has only ever stood for peace, a human beacon during the most difficult times for his people. Fortunately, he continues to work for peace all over the world. Unfortunately, peace is not easy to obtain because it is not simply the absence of war and military turmoil. It can also manifest as an ongoing unsettled self. Too often there is war in our hearts and souls, and Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how to relinquish the holds and perceptions that can prevent us from experiencing inner peace.
It was on just such a journey, while I searched for peace and quiet in myself, that I first encountered his message and his teachings touched my life. Twenty years ago, I was sitting in the lounge of a retreat center with the intention of eating a snack before going to bed. The front of the shop had chairs arranged for viewing films on a TV set. When the VHS tape was put into the player at the front of the row of chairs, a man with the softest voice you’ve ever heard began to speak. He was wrapped almost completely in a chocolate robe, a disembodied head floating on a cloud. Because of the softness of his voice, I had to sit very still and lean forward, abandoning my snack for his soul food. As he spoke, his words penetrated my heart, causing tears to roll down my cheeks, issuing from the wellspring of untouched emotion and pain in me. I understood that to change my life, to heal myself, I had to learn to love myself. I began the journey to know and love myself as my own precious mother, father, sister, brother and daughter right then and there. I didn’t have time to waste. I had to be present for myself so that I could love and forgive, especially myself. He was an answer to my prayers, the reason I had left my home for the ashram. Until this day, he continues to be a source of guidance and inspiration in my life.
Over the years, I have heard Thay, “Teacher” as many know him, speak and teach, and I’ve stopped being surprised by his soft-spoken stillness, knowing that it will be nearly impossible to hear him even when he uses a microphone. It’s a lesson in quietness. Maybe a few words will drift down over the air and into my heart, perhaps piercing my consciousness, and I can leave satisfied. I have walked with him in silent meditation during the predawn hours without a destination, looking at myself, following my breath, inching forward into the recesses of my psyche. It is in such moments of quiet, if we allow ourselves, that we can begin to hear our true selves. I have had to fight past the thick mesh of voices, riddled with doubts and judgments, to sit with my authentic self and accept her, unconditionally. I can say from experience that it is a hard and scary process to turn off the external noises that keep us insolated from ourselves, which is what draws me to Thay, again and again. The Edissa I don’t know and don’t understand yearns for a deep spiritual connection. When I touch that peace, I feel a profound connection to everything around me. So those many years ago, I wanted to find meaning in my life and to let go of the dangerous anger that I only had the courage to turn on myself. So it was his message, “to be my own mother” that touched me. He invited me to hold my mother and myself in compassion and explained exactly how to do both. In that way, Thich Nhat Hanh has been a constant and influential presence in my life as my spiritual leader and mentor, pushing me to start again when I fall short of my goals.
If you are hungry for peace, give Buddhist monk, learned man, doctor of comparative religions, author of over a hundred books, community organizer, leader and healer, Thich Nhat Hanh some consideration. You don’t have to abandon your faith or become a Buddhist to learn mindfulness, because he teaches practical ways to get quiet, repair relationships and look deeply at our interior and exterior environments and do something to repair what needs our attention—gently. As a teacher I have introduced various books and essays of his to my students; they always love his work. In particular, True Love: A Practice of Awakening the Heart is a constant favorite. It’s the kind of book that sons pass to fathers and mothers share with sisters. It’s a treasure for its simplicity and clarity of language as well as the clear, concise explanations of love. My guess is that you might also find some value in his life’s work.
If you don’t know his work, I urge you to read one of his books today. Attend a retreat with him if possible. He has several communities where he practices regularly: Plum Village in France; Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California; and Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. All, with the exception of Green Mountain, have activities throughout the year that are open to the public. Reverend Hanh is aging, but you can still see his luminous spirit for yourself.