One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s most important innovations can be seen in the Plum Village series of his English calligraphy. The late professor, who died at midnight on January 22, 2022, began writing calligraphy for mass audiences in 1994, primarily to accompany his books, articles and pamphlets. The idea of applying a black ink and brushwork aesthetic with zen imagery to French and English words was in itself a creative and perhaps stylistically risky move. It is the messages contained in calligraphy that characterize his innovative approach to teaching Buddhism: a combination of evocative poetry, vivid imagery and Buddhist references. They have been exhibited as works of art by the “Father of Mindfulness” in Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States. The latest published collection, The Conscious Art of Thich Nhat Hanh (2019), features messages of the genre for which Thay has become beloved and famous:
Be free where you are.
Peace begins with your beautiful smile.
To breathe. You are alive.
No mud, no lotus.
The tears I shed yesterday turned into rain.
Thay’s calligraphic maxims are well known for being concise yet poetic, direct yet multi-textured, and relatable yet profound, if applied in everyday life. In a tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh at the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong on January 24, Ven. Hin Hung, a Chinese Chan master, observed that Thay, as he was widely known, had a remarkable gift for distilling Zen teachings that made them comprehensible and condensed, without in any way simplifying or belittling them. Despite Plum Village’s immense success internationally, there is no sense of expediency or corporatization of the teachings themselves. This is because Thich Nhat Hanh introduced into Western consciousness a very particular view of mindfulness, one that would prove as influential as his ideas about engaged Buddhism. It is through mindfulness and engaged Buddhism that Thich Nhat Hanh has had the greatest impact.
It is true that the depiction of Thich Nhat Hanh in English-language media as the “father of mindfulness” or the “founder” of committed Buddhism requires more nuance. Mindfulness has been present in the philosophy of the Buddha since its ancient beginnings, and Thich Nhat Hanh was not the only committed Buddhist practitioner of his time, although he pioneered specific ways of thinking about it. Yet, thanks to the considerable volume of English-language literature he has produced on mindfulness and engaged Buddhism, Thay has also been one of the most accessible sources for people seeking advice from a “contemporary leader in Buddhist thought”. He was one of the first true Buddhist leaders – that is, the head of a lineage with institutional and pastoral responsibility for a sangha of monks and lay people – to go global with a message of peace that has contributed to allaying the deepest fears of the Cold War era. and darker neuroses: fear of nuclear war, growing skepticism of authority, and, perhaps ironically, a decline in faith in Christianity in the West that has prompted a search for is spirituality. After Plum Village was established in 1982 in Bordeaux, Thich Nhat Hanh transformed his sangha, reforming the liturgy to feature sutras sung in English, Plum Village-branded songs on mindfulness, breathing, and other themes such as family, love and reconciliation, and enabling lay people to become teachers (dharmacharyas) with proper training.
According to Karma, Thich Nhat Hanh’s cultural and national background helped propel him to the forefront of American consciousness at the height of the Vietnam War. Since his arrival in France in 1966, until his return to Vietnam in 2018, his committed Buddhism has essentially remained that of accentuated interdependence. He captured this in ingenious speech and phraseology, “interbeing”. As he and his followers liked to say: “We inter-are”. This, along with many other examples, such as: “inhale, exhale”, “not come, do not go” and “nowhere to go, nothing to do”, have become staples of Thich Nhat’s vocabulary. Hanh on the spread of Buddhism. These easy-to-remember and inspiring phrases quickly became many Western Buddhists’ first exposure to Buddhism.
Along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of those rare Buddhist figures who singularly changed the perception of entire generations of what Buddhism meant as a religious movement and tradition. This included non-Buddhists and psychology professionals who know Thay from the now widespread mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), for which his 1975 book The miracle of mindfulness is credited with laying the groundwork.
Admittedly, Thich Nhat Hanh’s interest in social activism faded towards the end of his life, and before his brain hemorrhage in 2014, he had become more interested in ecological awareness, writing and the tireless teaching of the inseparability of Buddhist practice and love for Mother Nature. Perhaps he would say that the problems of the world have not fundamentally changed since the 1960s, at least not from a Buddhist point of view – human greed, hatred and delusion remain at the heart of all our crises, and the problems are, at the same time, insoluble but recoverable because of our interdependence. For example, there is little to update in this diary entry of Thich Nhat Hanh from the 1960s, Fragrant palm leaves:
If you cloud your perceptions by clinging to suffering that doesn’t really exist, you create even greater misunderstanding. One-sided perceptions like these create our world of suffering. We are like an artist frightened by his own drawing of a ghost. Our creations become real to us and even haunt us.
It would seem that his warning is coming true and could apply to all things that threaten to diminish or even destroy us today.
What may have changed in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the September 11 attacks and the global financial crisis of 2008 is a breakdown of trust in traditional institutions to solve big problems and think boldly and transformatively. . Beyond the West, the global community building that emerged briefly and perhaps idealistically in the 1990s has all but disappeared. Thich Nhat Hanh’s message of mindfulness is often in direct contradiction to our modern reliance on technology and the internet. Since the 2000s, Thich Nhat Hanh himself was aware that we have become atomized and fragmented, our human experience organized through the computer and smartphone in ways that were once unthinkable. A rapidly changing geopolitical landscape, the near complete dominance of the Internet and Big Tech, and a general zeitgeist that speaks of cynicism, materialism, and fleeting distractions – this is the world that one of the most charismatic , thoughtful and persuasive figures of the last century for peace leaves behind.
It is a truly sad situation, from which his followers and other Buddhists might be tempted to separate Thay, to distinguish his virtue from the difficulties of the 21st century. After all, Thay has done everything to turn violence into peace and hatred into goodwill. Yet Thay predicted the complex karmic entanglement shared by seven billion human beings in one of his calligraphic aphorisms:
Together we are one.
As observed in one of his most famous poems, “Please Call Me by My True Names”, Thich Nhat Hanh’s philosophy saw the fates of the girl at sea and the pirate who raped her as intertwined. ; this difficult and challenging zen view is relevant to the interconnected nature of our problems today. It is because we continue to build our solutions on misperceptions that our solutions either fall short or add new problems to old ones.
From mindfulness to engaged Buddhism, Thay’s legacy is multi-dimensional, but his contribution to unlocking our full potential and transforming society most likely lies in how we “interact”. We are faced with the urgent task of achieving this without his active contribution, even as he watches us like a beautiful white cloud in the sky.
Mindfulness, Suffering and Engaged Buddhism (Plum Village)
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