Thich Nhat Hanh: Portrait of the monk who teaches us to make peace with ourselves and with others

- through Sophie Solere

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Why do we feel so close to Thich Nhat Hanh, when we meet him and listen to him, or simply when we read him? The world of spiritual guides does not lack great figures, but few are those who pose their humanity with such transparency. What he offers is simple and it's all there. But is it so surprising after such a saga?

Thich Nhat Hanh. Plum Village. The community of Interbeing. The deep gaze. Mindful Breathing. Non-fear. The art of overcoming anger… If we had to sum up this man, his saga, his network, his teaching, his influences in several places on the planet in one word, perhaps we would choose the word “gentleness”. What could be sweeter than this voice, than the stories it tells, the poems it sings, the themes it makes resonate in us, than the gestures it induces in those who become imbued with it?

When you arrive at Plum Village, in the Dordogne, that's what strikes you, or rather caresses you: the attitudes, the looks, the voices are imbued with an unusual sweetness. As the days go by, from morning meditation to evening meditation, in the refectory as in the workshops, and even when everything freezes artificially for a few seconds, in "freeze frame", because the bell has just rung (n at any time of the day), which serves for everyone to remember to themselves and to return to a conscious and grateful breath – “I breathe in, I am aware of the life in me and around me; I breathe out, I feel alive” - this sweetness turns out to be authentic, real, deep, anchored.

This is all the more impressive since originally, this man, his saga, his network were soaked in the heat of the most formidable battles: the resistance of young Buddhists engaged against the Vietnam War. Some did not hesitate then to immolate themselves by fire, not to assassinate, as fundamentalist suicide bombers do, but to take upon themselves the pain of the world and signal that the unacceptable had been crossed.

Suddenly, the word "softness" takes on a completely different dimension, ontological, cosmic. Christians tell you, in tears: “Listening to Thich Nhat Hanh, I finally understood the most insane mysteries of the Gospels, for example this invitation of Jesus to turn the other cheek, when you were slapped. It's true that when "Thây" ("master" in Vietnamese, that's what his students call him) speaks, with his infinite gentleness, of the need to understand our adversaries, because, just like us, they are deceived by their “erroneous perceptions”, one has the sensation of hearing: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing! A "Christiano-Buddhist" resonance which the 94-year-old master openly rejoices in: even if his own spirituality is not based on a personal God, has he not written a very sensitive book on the affinities between Buddha and jesus ? He recalled there that the master of the Christians invited his disciples to behave like the birds of the sky, who live in consciousness, here and now, without constantly worrying about investing and amassing for tomorrow.

However, everything had not started in an idyllic way between Thich Nhat Hanh and the Christians, at least those who had installed a dictatorial power in Saigon, at the end of the 50s…

Hunted by masked men in the night

At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was a young Buddhist leader in revolt. Ordained a monk at the age of sixteen in 1942, he had carried out brilliant studies in the history and science of religions, without however finding a monastery that suited him. Shocked by the corruption, carelessness and archaism of most Buddhist centers, this sensitive and humble man who wrote poems had found himself with a few others, in an abandoned monastery, dreaming of a peaceful revolution. How to adapt the precepts of the Buddha to this modern world, full of violence and temptations? Certainly not by spending his life lighting incense sticks to obtain divine graces and a good reincarnation! The general drowsiness was all the more infuriating as Buddhist spirituality seemed to them a simple and ideal response to contemporary puffiness – which they first expressed by founding the “Community of Interbeing”. A vision that is both daily and systemic: what I do to others, I do to myself; the flapping of a butterfly's wing can unleash a storm; everything fits ; the self is an illusion… In short, these young monks were working on a fundamental updating of their spirituality.

“Listening to Thich Nhat Hanh, I finally understood the most insane mysteries of the Gospels, for example this invitation of Jesus to turn the other cheek, when you were slapped. A Christian about the master.

It was known, in particular through a small review of their own. In a few months, they were spotted by many young people in love with ideals… but also by the police officers of dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. Of a hard-line fundamentalist Catholicism, Diem practiced open proselytism and waged war against active Buddhists - torturing and murdering if necessary, against which the first martyr monks immolated themselves - in the hope, among other things, of pleasing the Vatican and to obtain a cardinal's title for his brother. Diem's ​​killers soon set out to track Thich Nhat Hanh. But, in the meantime, he had gone to the United States, to study and then teach comparative religions (at Princeton and Columbia)…

The consolidation of “committed buddhism” was not really going to happen until 1963. Less than ten years after the French defeat at Dien-Bien-Phu, the Communist guerrillas against the South and the blind repression of the Saigon government fed each other , a real war was rekindling. Under these conditions, it was impossible for Thich Nhat Hanh to stay in America. Coincidence: Diem had just been overthrown...

It was then that Thây met a passionate young girl, Cao Ngoc Phuong, a biology student, who, almost alone, set up a support network in the poor neighborhoods of the South Vietnamese capital. Very quickly, she declared to him her desire to become a nun, in the same spirit as him. He will know how to make her wait more than ten years: the future sister Chân Không (“Wonderful Vacuity”), right arm of Thich Nhat Hanh and co-founder of Plum Village, is too useful at the time as a lay person; for the cause, she must keep her hair long and sacrifice her desire to enter orders, in order to act more freely on all grounds. Together, the two young people will carry out a prodigious action on several fronts: social, diplomatic, spiritual.

It is certainly the social aspect that brings them together best. In a way that is reminiscent of worker priests, Thich Nhat Hanh and those who follow him work tirelessly in the poorest areas, suburbs or rural villages. Their organization takes the name of School of Youth for Social Service (about fifty years later, the network still exists!). This commitment inspires many young Vietnamese (Buddhists and progressive Christians), but strongly displeases political hegemonies. The Communists, for the moment, say nothing… It is the Catholic reactionaries who, once again, are attacking. General Diem was replaced by General Thieu, but nothing changed. Again, killers are on the heels of the monk. Several times, masked men will throw grenades into sleeping houses, causing several deaths and many injuries, but without ever succeeding in cornering Thich Nhat Hanh… who never sleeps two nights in the same place.

The war becomes total. The proliferation of American bombing strikes fear in ever larger areas. Struggling with difficulty against anger and despair (by meditation, and also by writing poems), Thây decides to go to New York to shake up public opinion. He meets the Minister of Defense, Robert McNamara, and the American pacifist camp welcomes him. The Buddhist monk meets Pope Paul VI, Catholic monk Thomas Merton and Protestant pastor Martin Luther King. The latter, learning everything he has been doing for years, will propose him as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize… (it would have been deserved). But the war continues and when Thây wants to return to Saigon, the doors are closed. From now on, he will have to follow events from a distance. For him, it is a redoubled suffering.

Spirituality as he conceives it is so close to daily life that some believe they detect political motivations in it. By calling for the opening of discussions between North and South, aren't committed Buddhists trying to represent a “third force” that will pull the chestnuts out of the fire? For Thây, the main thing is played out elsewhere: the two camps are the playthings of their "erroneous perceptions and desires", the cause of all violence, and only an evolution towards "full consciousness" can open their eyes and bring them to compassion needed to sign the peace. “We are all capable of practicing non-violence, says the monk, we must start by recognizing that we all carry within us both seeds of compassion and violence. Let's water the first ones, the baby Buddha awakens in us! »

Of course, the belligerents sneer, on both sides: “Wrong, our perceptions? No way ! The communists (or the imperialists, as the case may be) want to eliminate us, they'll see what we're talking about! Total war! Ten years later, after hundreds of thousands of deaths and unimaginable suffering, Thây and his friends took part in the Rencontres, then in the Paris Accords, which ended with the Americans leaving in disaster in 1975 and entry of the Vietcong into Saigon immediately renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Alliance between committed Buddhists and communists? No: in the midst of victorious euphoria, the new masters of reunified Vietnam make Thich Nhat Hanh understand that it is useless to apply for a return visa. Let him stay abroad! Marxism-Leninism has no need of its Buddhism or any other millennia-old “obscurantist ideology”.

When exile imposes to create

Begins for the "Community of Inter-Being", in exile in Paris, a difficult period and yet rich in unsuspected potential. In a way somewhat similar to that of the Tibetans after the Chinese invasion of 1959, these Vietnamese will find themselves obliged to create new modes of expression, adapted not only to their fellow citizens, but to all humans.

At first it is impossible. They think about their country 24 hours a day. And what the media tell them about the "boat people", who are trying to flee the communist regime, leaves them no choice: all their efforts are directed towards the Gulf of Siam, where they intervene even before the sailing of the Island of Light by Bernard Kouchner. But in the long run, impotence gnaws at them (Thây only manages by writing poems and short stories for children). Installed in a campsite, on a farm near Paris, the "Community of sweet potatoes", as they call themselves in jest, is threatened by bitterness. Their start will take place in several stages…

First, they find themselves confronted with thousands of Vietnamese torn from their country, with families separated and destroyed. Many of these people are so bad that they end up in psychiatry, but without success. This will be one of the first striking results, in the West, of Thay's "return to original Buddhism". Returning to the basics of the Buddha's teaching, that is to say to a pragmatic method for:

  • breathe consciously
  • stop mental restlessness and wandering
  • look deep within
  • distinguish the suffering
  • appease him
  • realize that there is no cutoff between oneself and the world
  • differentiate in oneself the seeds of anger from those of conscience
  • water these

The Vietnamese master succeeded in putting hundreds of his compatriots back in the saddle in a state of "heavy trauma", which Western medicine did not know how to treat. Who would dream of a better demonstration to test a technique of “personal development”? – a term that Thây does not reject, but complements: “It's about personal development… and collective! Aren't the three precious treasures, inseparably linked, the Buddha (whose story proves that every human being can experience enlightenment), the Dharma (the need to rely on the teaching of a great enlightened person) and the Sangha (the community of practitioners, whether monks and nuns or lay people)? ".

“We are all capable of practicing non-violence, we must start by recognizing that we all carry within us seeds of both compassion and violence. Let's water the first ones, the baby Buddha awakens in us! » Thich Nhat Hanh

Beneath his legendary gentleness, the master did not deviate one degree from his original project: to found a new community that respects the original Buddhism. The foundation of a new order, not without affinity with the Franciscans, dressed, like them, in a brown robe, a sign of humility and love of nature. In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh will take the initiative to ordain monks and nuns, outside the strict Orthodox tradition (which would require the presence of at least ten certified monks), making the journey with the first postulants to India, where the Buddha himself taught and where ordination takes on particular strength. This is how, after more than ten years of waiting, Cao Ngoc Phuong will become Sister Chân Không – confirming her role as Thây's first assistant.

When the early 80s arrived, one thing became obvious: their exile was to last. Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong then set out to find a suitable place to build, in France, the monastery that Thây was not lucky enough to be able to found in Vietnam. A monastery that he has been imagining for a long time: open to lay people as well as to monks; serving as a place of social practice, as well as a center for meditation; in resonance with the modern world, but also with the splendours of nature; where the catalyst will be Buddhism, but where practitioners of other spiritualities will feel comfortable.

Their first trip takes them to Provence. But the mistral is too strong and makes Thây nervous (Sister Chân Không still laughs about it). Bordeaux and Dordogne suit them better. It was there, a few kilometers from Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, that a series of coincidences allowed them to buy, over the years, one, then two, then three old farms – baptized Hameau du bas, Upper Hamlet and New Hamlet. A set that Thich Nhat Hanh will call "the village of plum trees", in reference to a tree venerated by Buddhists - symbol of eternity -, of which he will plant 1250 specimens (sacred figure) on these lands of a new world.

Two types of population will rub shoulders there: on the one hand monks and nuns, observing without weakness – with, it seems, more rigor than elsewhere – the five precepts defined in the time of the Buddha (poverty, chastity, fraternity…) (1); on the other hand, lay people from all walks of life, first from the Vietnamese diaspora, then from the French Buddhist movement (many caregivers and psychotherapists), then from all over the world and in particular from the United States, where Thich Nhat Hanh has never ceased to be considered a high-level spiritual guide. Few in number at the beginning, the monks and nuns are today (summer 2006) about 250, with equal shares between men and women, which now represents an order of great importance. The lay people, more and more numerous, are rarely less than six hundred, at the retreats that the Community of Interbeing organizes several times a year...

Retreats that constitute a precious form of healing, framed in different ways:

  • by Thây's teaching, always so warm, gentle, human, often centered on the relational difficulties and the amorous sufferings of the participants.
  • through relaxation sessions, often whispered and sung, in an enviable letting go, by Sister Chân Không, who has kept a young girl's voice.
  • through greeting rituals – Touching the Earth -, where everyone is invited to prostrate themselves on the ground, several times, becoming aware each time of their own ancestors: first biological and family, then cultural and national, finally spiritual and essential.
  • by meditative walks, often led by Thich Nhat Hanh himself, through the countryside… or in the middle of town, as was the case in Paris (see box).

In addition, Thây travels extensively, particularly in the United States, where he founded two mini-monasteries (in California and Massachusetts). A little everywhere, he gives lectures, both to business leaders and prisoners in prison, with a simple principle: to resonate with the type of suffering specific to the group visited. Everyone suffers, but each in their own way. Thus he advocates a "chameleon's compassion". Buddhism itself has not always adapted to local cultures, Tibetan in Tibet, Chinese in China, etc. ?

The most moving of these trips took place in early 2005 and lasted three months. After thirty-nine years of exile, the Buddhist master had finally received permission to return to his country.

Triumphant return, thirty-nine years later

We met him at Roissy, just before he took off for Hanoi. With the caution of a cat walking on ice, he told us that this trip would be a private reconnection and that he thanked the Vietnamese Communist Party for lifting its visa ban. In fact, the request came as much from the Party as from it – a story of branding, human rights, relations with the WTO, etc. The negotiations had lasted many months.

For Thich Nhat Hanh, there was no question of returning under any conditions: he wanted to be sure to be able to speak in front of an audience. The Communists wanted to limit his visit to Buddhist temples which, like churches in the West, are now only frequented by old women. Thay demanded to speak in the universities. Fearing like the plague the idea of ​​student meetings going adrift, the Communists refused. It was then that one of them had the idea of ​​proposing to Thây to speak in front of the school… about the cadres of the Party – by definition under control. To their surprise, the deal suited the master – who had also obtained permission to be accompanied by a procession of one hundred monks and nuns and one hundred lay people.

“If becoming a Buddhist made you no longer love your country, it wouldn't be worth it! If you are a communist, really be one! Return to your essence. Find the original meaning! Karl Marx was certainly a man of great spirituality. Be worthy of being his children! » Thich Nhat Hanh

The shock of returning after thirty-nine years of exile was very moving. In a land he had left in agony, the signs of war had almost disappeared beneath the greenery and behind the image of youth rejoicing on thousands of motorcycles honking their horns day and night. The journey began coldly. The police paranoia was intense. At the first meetings, three-quarters of the guests, though hand-picked, were refused entry. The fiasco was possible. But the goodwill of the delegation was such and the Vietnamese's thirst for dialogue, party members or not, so intense, that things worked out – especially since Thây had a surprise in store for his guests…

The first time, they couldn't believe their ears. Someone had asked the taboo question: "Can I love my country and respect the five precepts of Buddhism?" (meaning: loving my country = being a communist). The voice of the old master was without hesitation: “If becoming a Buddhist caused you to no longer love your country, it wouldn't be worth it! If you are a communist, really be one! Return to your essence. Find the original meaning! Karl Marx was certainly a man of great spirituality. Be worthy of being his children! »

When the party leaders understood that the answer was not provocation – despite the mischievous remark: “Communists, I believe we are more Communists in Plum Village than you are here” – there was euphoria. Buddhism revisited in the West could therefore help Vietnam in its slump? The press was allowed to report Thây's speeches and larger and larger crowds were able to listen to the prestigious visitor and follow his invitations to breathe consciously. When, given confidence, some no longer hesitated to criticize the party, the master got out of it by compassion: “Help your leaders and your party to remain or to become faithful to themselves again; the task is not easy for them! But do not forget: a tree without roots cannot bear fruit”.

The more the weeks passed, the more the requests poured in, overflowing the protocol: requests for additional conferences, but also applications from young people wishing to become monks – no one had told them what committed Buddhism looked like and the image they had. of the monks of Vietnam was troubled by many rumors of corruption, which Thây did not hesitate to say was very saddened...

But his fundamental optimism remains, prompting him to say that "the right thought and the loving word inevitably lead to the appropriate action" and that, even in a 90% negative person, it is necessary to see and especially "water" the 10% positives, which represent its seeds of enlightenment. To the psychoanalyst Christiane Rolin, who had just followed him for several weeks and who said she was "transformed by this spiritual journey", he specified: "It is not a question of human beings making a spiritual journey, but of spiritual beings accomplishing a human journey. »

“To love, he also says, is to be truly present. He is fully.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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