A grateful Christian pays tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh

By Roland Ashby

I am eternally grateful to Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master who died on 22 January at the age of 95. His simple meditation practices have greatly enriched my understanding of my own Christian faith.

For many years I have incorporated this simple breathing practice and mantra into my daily routine, particularly when walking or driving, and in moments of anxiety or stress:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment

It puts into practice St Paul’s exhortation to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking meditations have also awakened me to the heaven that is here and now. In the very first step we take when we walk, he says we can enter the “the pure land, the kingdom of God, the here and now”, by breathing and smiling mindfully, and giving our full attention to what is around us, letting go of all thoughts of the past and future. Giving our complete attention to simply being, and our deep connectedness to the earth and all other beings.

And in this pure, unmediated attention springs up a simple awareness of joy, gratitude, love and peace. Heaven indeed!

Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditations awaken us to the gift and miracle of the world around us. For example, in the Tangerine Meditation, he describes how he gave a group of children tangerines to eat and invited them to meditate on their tangerine:

We each looked at our tangerine, and the children were invited to meditate on its origins. They saw not only their tangerine, but also its mother, the tangerine tree. With some guidance, they began to visualise the blossoms in the sunshine and in the rain. Then they saw petals falling down and the tiny green fruit appear. The sunshine and the rain continued, and the tiny tangerine grew. Now someone has picked it, and the tangerine is here. After seeing this, each child was invited to peel the tangerine slowly, noticing the mist and the fragrance of the tangerine, and then bring it up to his or her mouth and have a mindful bite, in full awareness of the texture and taste of the fruit and the juice coming out…  You can see everything in the universe in one tangerine. When you peel it and smell it, it’s wonderful. You can take your time eating a tangerine and be very happy.[2] 

Here is surely a description of life in the Garden of Eden, and how we are intended to enjoy and delight in creation. Christians must recapture this sense of wonder, says Esther de Waal, if they are to awaken to the divine presence in creation.[3] Living mindfully in this way is to be present to God’s presence, to experience the sacrament of the present moment, says Brian Pierce OP.[4]

The Tangerine Meditation also recalls the story of when St Francis of Assisi asked the Almond Tree in winter to show him a sign of God’s presence. The tree suddenly burst into blossom.

Returning to your true self

Thich Nhat Hanh stresses that for him there is another vital element to meditation. Meditation is also about returning to “yourself,” your true self. By this he does not mean the thinking self, the self of Cogito, “I think”; or the self that we normally associate with our constant stream of thoughts, perceptions and emotions; or the identity or personality we project in our daily lives. This is the non-self, the self subject to constant change, of impermanence. [5]

To find yourself, your true self, you must go beyond the non-self. Thich Nhat Hanh tells a well known Zen story in which the Buddha held up a flower before a large audience of Buddhist monks and nuns, and did not speak for some time. Eventually he smiled, because one monk, Mahakashyapa, smiled at him and the flower. The Buddha said, “I have a treasure of insight, and I have transmitted it to Mahakashyapa.” [6]

For Thich Nhat Hanh the story means that if you really want to see the flower you must stop thinking and be yourself. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower. The person who was not thinking, who was just himself, was able to encounter the flower in depth, and he smiled.”[7] He adds:

That is the problem of life. If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything. When a child presents himself to you with his smile, if you are not really there – thinking about the future or the past, or preoccupied with other problems – then the child is not really there for you. The technique of being alive is to go back to yourself (my emphasis) in order for the child to appear like a marvellous reality. Then you can see him smile and you can embrace him in your arms.[8]

Meeting of East and West

In a mini-thesis I wrote for my Master’s degree in theology, I compared Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of meditation with Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s Christian understanding of contemplation.

They met only once – on 26 May, 1966 – at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Merton’s monastery in Kentucky, USA. The meeting had been organised by an international pacifist organisation to which they both belonged. Thich Nhat Hanh had come to America to speak out against the Vietnam War.

In their private meeting, which lasted only a few hours, Merton the Trappist monk and Thich Nhat Hanh the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk formed a spiritual bond which would lead Merton to describe Thich Nhat Hanh as “my brother,” and write that Thich Nhat Hanh “is first of all a true monk; very quiet, gentle, modest, humble, and you can see his Zen has worked.”[9]

Thich Nhat Hanh was also impressed with Merton. He later recalled, “When we talked I told him a few things, and he understood the things I didn’t tell him.” He also observed that Merton had a “capacity for dialogue,” made possible by a good understanding of Buddhism. [10] At one point in the meeting, Merton recited one of Gethsemani’s daily offices, to which Thich Nhat Hanh responded with a Buddhist chant in Vietnamese. It was a “charismatic moment,” a witness later recalls. “The beauty of the moment was the clear evidence that both were deeply and profoundly informed of the other’s culture.” [11] 

There is no doubt that Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of meditation resonates with Merton’s definition of contemplation: that it is something which evokes wonder, awe and gratitude. These are also the effects of encountering the flower “in depth” and seeing the “marvellous reality” of the child.

Zen consciousness

The key to awakening to this consciousness Thich Nhat Hanh says is being yourself: going beyond what the non-self tells us and discovering a level of consciousness which is free of concepts and images and in which there is “no distinction between subject and object, no evaluation and no discrimination.”[12]

Merton quotes Zen master Zenkei Shibayma, who compares this Zen consciousness to a mirror:

The mirror is thoroughly egoless and mindless. If a flower comes it reflects a flower, if a bird comes it reflects a bird. It shows a beautiful object as beautiful, an ugly object as ugly. Everything is revealed as it is. There is no discriminating mind or self-consciousness on the part of the mirror…[13]

The Zen consciousness does not distinguish, categorise or judge. When the mind does this it is “superimposing something else on the pure mirror” and filtering the light through a system as if this will improve the light.”[14]

The importance of Metta – universal love or loving kindness

The key to Zen consciousness is also love. Giving our total attention to the flower or the child is an act of selfless love. In fact when we are “in love” that is precisely what we are doing – giving our total selfless attention to the other person, being completely absorbed in the other person.

In Buddhism, Metta, Pali for universal love or loving kindness, is one of the four elements of true love, otherwise known as the four Brahma or Divine Abodes (Brahmaviharas), or Sublime States, or four Immeasurable Minds – immeasurable because they keep growing if you practise them.[15] The other three elements are compassion, joy and equanimity (which does not mean indifference, but rather “non-attachment, non-discrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go.” [16])

Thich Nhat Hanh’s example of seeing the “marvellous reality of the child” is reminiscent of Jesus’ response to the disciples when they were arguing about which of them was to be the greatest. He showed them a little child, whom he embraced, and told them if they wanted to enter the kingdom of Heaven they had to be like a child. (Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16) Jesus clearly saw the child’s “marvellous reality” – innocence, purity, simplicity, trust, love, joy, hope, beauty, truth – with a Zen-like consciousness.

For Merton, the contemplative consciousness is a consciousness primarily and supremely of love, and seeing such marvellous reality and encountering it in depth is seeing within the seeing of the one who is love. Indeed, for Merton, to come back to yourself, your true self, is the act of allowing God’s self to act through you, to be at one with God, who is love. The ‘Who’ is important to Merton, because for him there is a profound sense of God as person; and that in pure contemplation we are in union with Christ himself.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains that Buddhism is not against God, but against “notions of God that are mere mental constructions that do not correspond to reality, notions that prevent us from developing and touching ultimate reality.”[17] Love and compassion are central to Zen consciousness, which is essentially the practice of mindfulness. This is a deep attentiveness to whatever we are doing in the present moment, whether it’s drinking tea or simply breathing, sitting or walking. Giving deep attention is an act of love.

Mindfulness and the Holy Spirit

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, mindfulness is not something we do on our own. He suggests that it comes from another source. “Mindfulness is a kind of light that shines upon all your thoughts, all your feelings, all your actions, and all your words. Mindfulness is the Buddha. Mindfulness is the equivalent of the Holy Spirit, the energy of God.”[18]

The Holy Spirit, Thich Nhat Hanh says, is “the presence of mindfulness, understanding and love, the energy that animates Jesus and helps us recognise the living Christ.”[19] This is the love described in First Corinthians, which he says is “very close to the teachings of love and compassion in Buddhism.” “Love has no limits. Love never ends. Love is reborn and reborn and reborn. The love and care of the Christ is reborn in each one of us, as is the love of the Buddha.”[20]

The very nature of love is to love, to express itself in loving relationship, and Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that love is not just the animating force of mindfulness, it is the love of Christ and the Buddha being reborn in us.  

 You can see Thich Nhat Hanh talking about walking meditation here:

[1] Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step. London: Rider, 1991. 10

[2] Ibid., 22

[3] This is the main theme of her book Lost in Wonder – Rediscovering the Spiritual Art of Attentiveness. Melbourne: John Garratt Publishing, 2003.

[4] Pierce, Brian J. We Walk the Path Together – Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh & Meister Eckhart. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2005. 73

[5] Thich Nhat Hanh. Going Home – Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. London: Rider, 1999.

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