Honoring the legacy of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

From thriveglobal.com

January 2024 marked the second anniversary of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh's transition to ancestor status. I thought about him a lot last month. This gentle yet fierce Vietnamese monk was my gateway to Buddhist practice in the early 1990s, and although it has been a long time since I studied his tradition, I continue to feel how deeply the Thay's teachings live deep in every cell of my body.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Thich Nhat Hanh. The thousands of us who were fortunate enough to hear his teachings in person and practice with him felt a subtle but powerful change in our lives. On a collective level, he instilled in our world the possibility that peace could actually be experienced, not just talked about, and that the practice of mindfulness was a remedy that could be applied to some of the deepest wounds of our time : militarism, poverty. , addiction, climate change, and more.

There were certainly other great Dharma teachers before and during Thay's time, but he had a unique way of responding directly to the daily needs and challenges of many of us: veterans, teachers, health workers. health, activists and artists, to name but a few. a few. We owe to Thay the vitality of socially engaged Buddhism in our world today. Here are some aspects of his legacy:

Healing the wounds of war

For many years, Thich Nhat Hanh and the sangha made it a practice to regularly offer retreats to Vietnam veterans and their families. He once said, “The Vietnam War didn’t happen 15 years ago. It's today. If we look deeply into the present, we will see that it is made up of the past. And if we deeply contact the present, we can contact the past and heal it.


Plum Village has long been a place where children and families are warmly welcomed, and over the years many teachers have also shown up for the retreats. By listening to their experiences and challenges in their schools, Thây suggested ways to introduce the practice of mindfulness into educational settings. Along with monks and nuns, he organized retreats for educators around the world and called for a secular movement known as "applied ethics," which later became the Wake Up Schools Project.

Climate activism

The Earth Holder Community is a branch of Plum Village that applies Thay's teachings on engaged Buddhism, conscious living, social and racial justice, and interbeing with Mother Earth in this time of ecological crisis. The community hosts annual retreats to nurture the work of climate activists and has developed many resources, such as Compassionate Eating Mindfulness training and how to move toward a more plant-centered diet.

My own path crossed that of Thich Nhat Hanh when I moved to San Francisco in 1993 for graduate school. One of the first things I did when I landed in the Bay Area this fall was attend a five-day retreat in Santa Cruz with Thây and the nuns and monks of Plum Village. The invitation to slow down, be in the present moment, and notice the beauty and interconnectedness of this moment was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Honestly, it was a little terrifying. All the silence and greetings and smiles created a lot of discomfort in me, something that is hard to imagine all these years later when meditation seems like such a natural practice. But on that first retreat, I was about to burst out of my skin. About halfway through the retreat, I called my girlfriend at the time and asked her to come pick me up. Luckily, she talked me out of leaving and I stayed despite my discomfort. By the end of the retreat, this mindfulness practice felt right at home. I was hooked and continued on the path.

I then did further retreats with Thây in California and traveled to Plum Village in France in 1996, and studied his teachings with Roshi Joan Halifax who was his student at the time. For a time I worked at the Community of Mindful Living and Parallax Press, with co-founders Arnie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald, and edited The mindfulness bell, who has published several of his lectures as well as articles by other members of the sangha. At the time I was part of his sangha, Thay attracted thousands of people to his retreats, so I did not have the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with him. But on one sweet occasion, as the editor of The mindfulness bell I was invited to a meeting with Thay and a small group of journalists at Plum Village. I will always cherish this intimate moment of sharing tea and just breathing with him.

Thay had a way of taking teachings that might seem esoteric and making them accessible in the most poetic way. He was a true innovator, even an artist. As time passes and my understanding of the Dharma deepens, I appreciate even more how creative Thay was in the way he conveyed the Buddha's teachings. Take this excerpt from the book Peace is at every step which so beautifully expresses the complex Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising:

If you are a poet, you will clearly see that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for paper to exist. If the cloud is not there, the sheet of paper cannot be there either. So we can say that cloud and paper are interdependent.

“Interbeing” is a word that is not yet in the dictionary, but if we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “être”, we get a new verb, inter-be. Without cloud we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper are interdependent.

(Thich Nhat Hanh: Essential writings, 55)

But his gift went far beyond the words he spoke and wrote. Being in Thay’s physical presence was the real gift. If you've ever had the chance to do walking meditation with him, you know what I mean. Each step became a message of love towards the Earth and towards ourselves. When Thay said “peace is at every step”, he meant it literally.

In honor of this great teacher, here are some of my favorite Thich Nhat Hanh quotes. Let us celebrate that such a bodhisattva, a mahasattva, walked this Earth in our time and gave so generously of his wisdom and experience.

On engaged Buddhism

When I was in Vietnam, many of our villages were bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful consideration, we decided to do both: go help people and do it mindfully. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, we must act… We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, in full awareness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be useful.

(Prebish, 268)

On death and dying

My body will disintegrate, but my actions will haunt me. . . . If you think I'm just this body, then you haven't really seen me. When you look at my friends, you see my following. When you see someone walking with mindfulness and compassion, you know they are a continuation of me. I don't see why we have to say "I'm going to die", because I already see myself in you, in others and in future generations.

Even when the cloud is not there, it continues as snow or rain. There is no way the cloud will die. It can become rain or ice, but it cannot become nothing. The cloud does not need to have a soul to continue. There is no beginning or end. I will never die. There will be a dissolution of this body, but that does not mean my death. I will continue, always.

(Thich Nhat Hanh)

If you have your own personal memories of Thich Nhat Hanh, please leave them in the comments below. It would be wonderful to hear your stories.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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