2007 - 2022

Inspiration for Liberation: The Life & Teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering.
Out of a fear of the unknown,
they prefer suffering that is familiar.
– Thích Nhất Hạnh

We might wonder what a Buddhist monk from Vietnam might have to say that can help us with the challenge of liberating Scotland. For those who may not have heard of him, Thích Nhất Hạnh was a dedicated peace activist and teacher who touched the lives of millions around the world. Known to his students as Thay (teacher), he left his body, aged 95, at midnight on the 22nd of January 2022.

It’s very important that we re-learn the art of resting and relaxing. Not only does it help prevent the onset of many illnesses that develop through chronic tension and worrying; it allows us to clear our minds, focus, and find creative solutions to problems.”

For a country which cries out for independence, in part so we can decommission nuclear weapons left on our doorstep, the wisdom of a gentle peace activist may touch our hearts. For those who say that beautiful words are one thing but we need real action in our communities where there is tremendous suffering, the political commitment of this man to serve others his whole life may be a source of inspiration. For those who simply want to live free of fear, to have more peace and joy in life, his teachings offer practical advice and deep comfort.

We will be more successful in all our endeavours if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and recentre ourselves. And we’ll also have a lot more joy in living.

Thay was born in central Vietnam in 1926 and became a monk at the age of 16. He seemed to know from childhood that he wanted to dedicate his life to peace. When the Vietnam war erupted, Thay chose to continue going deep into his meditation practice and help those around who were suffering so deeply. He founded a movement of Engaged Buddhism, emphasising that going inwards and social activism, social change, go hand in hand.

We have to continue to learn. We have to be open. And we have to be ready to release our knowledge in order to come to a higher understanding of reality.”

When war continued to rage on, he spoke out to both sides calling for peace. His efforts attracted attention among the peace activists in the USA who invited him to come and speak out about the reality of war in Vietnam for the peasant people. In other words, those who the military speak of as ‘collateral damage’ were given a voice. Those who were pro-war before were able to hear him because he wasn’t blaming anyone. He wasn’t judging anyone. He was simply sharing the reality of suffering with those who saw war only as some kind of political necessity.

Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy. When you touch non-fear, you are free.”

But what really touched people about Thay was his presence. He carried the deep stillness of someone well versed in meditation. He had an palpable aura of peace that his listeners could feel. When someone asked him a question, he looked at them gently, attentively, and he really listened. Thay was not a politician, trying to think about what answer would make him look good or defeat someone with a competing point of view.

Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.

Instead, Thay was offering a different way, reminding me of the Anishinaabe activist Andrea Landry who said, “I don’t want to fight colonial systems any more. Nor do I want to become a part of their system and ‘destroy it from within.’ I simply want to live in indigenous systems. That is my definition of freedom.” Thay wasn’t fighting colonial violence nor was he trying to join any power structure. He simply lived as a shining example of another way of being. A way of being which he then invited others to join, demonstrating the benefits mindfulness and loving awareness can bring to all of our lives.

Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves. It is a daily practice… No one can prevent you from being aware of each step you take or each breath in and breath out.

Thay’s invitation has been gratefully accepted by millions of people around the world. The eco-community he founded in France, Plum Village, is made up of over 200 monks and nuns as well as lay members who live together in peace and harmony because of their dedicated practice. Every year, thousands come to visit and bathe in this atmosphere of deep and profound peace. His books are internationally known and widely loved. Thay has perhaps especially touched those of us who have felt a sense of oppression in life, most famously Martin Luther King Jr who nominated him for the Nobel peace prize.

Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work.”

For all of us who want to speak up effectively about the social conditions within Scotland and how many of them are tied up in the position of our nation within the UK state, we might well look to this man for inspiration. And for those of us who wish to work directly with the suffering, including our own, to support relaxation and allow natural healing of body and mind time and space to take place, we can look to him for practical teachings. And for those who are looking for alternatives to capitalism and other forms of oppression, we can see them embodied in his whole life.

You do not need to waste your time doing those things that are unnecessary and trifling. You do not have to be rich. You do not need to seek fame or power. What you need is freedom, solidity, peace and joy. You need the time and energy to be able to share these things with others.”

Thank you, Thay, for all the gifts you gave us. For the invitation to really live you offer us all.

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Comments (9)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Thanks Vishwam. A good read.

    1. Vishwam says:

      Thank you, Tom. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Malcolm Kerr says:

    Thanks for that commentary. I had noted Thay’s passing but not yet made the connection with our own struggle. In my community, keen ‘yessers’ have been enthusiastically pushing information leaflets through doors, believing in another referendum, and describing their leaflets as ‘great ammunition’. It seems an improbable way to draw doubters towards independence, but reminds me that what we aspire to *be* may be more important than what we *do*, especially if our actions are crass and hint at some level of personal violence. It’s not enough now to be a bit better than the Tories.

    1. Vishwam says:

      Thank you, Malcolm, for this comment. I feel exactly the same way! Social movements don’t need to follow a war metaphor and mentality. We can choose peace instead. And as you say, what a wonderful way to effectively touch people’s hearts and open to the possibility that our mind and theirs might open to different ways of seeing by talking and listening to each other — peacefully.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    The quotation attributed to Thích Nhất Hạnh in computer game Civilization VI that accompanies the Mobilization civic goes something like:
    “In order to rally people, governments need enemies … if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.”
    which seems evergreen.

    Having just spent seven hours rewatching the Matrix trilogy with the philosophical commentaries (who referred to Buddhism) switched on, I was left with an unsatisfactory impression of a dichotomy between freedom (dramatically depicted by escape from the Matrix, but also later from dogma), and choicelessness, a submission to divine fate. In reality, we can selectively limit our freedoms in exchange for meaning (as people may choose educational paths, occupations, to be a parent). From what I have absorbed about Buddhism, apparent contradictions let to schisms, which are dramatically realised in television series Monkey, based on classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. Pacifism, as any absolute, tends to cause problems (as when warring parties threaten to wipe out the pacifists). Also absolute freedom is freedom from meaning, literally meaningless.

    In another article, I forget where I read it, the Monk allegedly described the Vietnamese people resisting the USAmerican invasion as absolutist ideologues, but I would have to question this assumption which is basically USAmerican and their puppet-Vietnamese propaganda. It is hardly evidence of absolutism to want the things like land reform, public services like education and health, an end to elite political corruption and cruel despotic rule that the Communists promised people. Plus the injustices that the people experienced and so for themselves (yes, surprisingly people know what injustices are without needing an external authority to tell them).

    So, while I admire many of these quotes, I don’t know their context, and the Monk may not have lived so long by remaining in Vietnamese war zones. I doubt that such philosophy would have been much good in the fictional world of XCOM. I guess the Monk wasn’t a parent, otherwise talking about ultimate joy being released from fears would sound a bit worrying. OK, it still sounds a bit worrying.

    And the blue pill/red pill choice from a stranger is still superweak consumerist bibble-babble that in no way provides a toolkit for realworld awakening; in fact, it is undermined as such even in the rest of the (philosophically underwhelming) Matrix Trilogy, as the otherwise maker-friendly commentators note (they correctly describe the original movie as having a tired Manichean good vs evil theme which is more interestingly subverted in the sequels).

    Mediation may be fine, and a counterweight to external authority, but it does not hook up to the collective intelligence we also need to understand our complex, interconnected and mediated world: we have to oursource some of our cognition and experience, partly to empathise with sometimes very-different others, in order to create social minds for social animals like ourselves.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Dear SleepingDog,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You raise some important questions.

      I’m not sure if video games and hollywood films necessarily offer the best in roads into the rich teachings of the Buddhist tradition. Nor would I recommend getting caught up in all the fractured debates that can happen when the purity of spiritual wisdom becomes institutionalised. In fact, this is why I point directly to the gentle teachings and presence of the great Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hahn who embodies the spirit of all the great teachers including the Buddha. If you would like more context for what he has to say, you might like to pick up one of his books and spend some quiet time with it.

      And thank you for raising the question of society as well and our being the beautiful social animals that we are. It’s good to know that meditation is not an individualistic practice, but rather one that helps us connect more easily with others. When we are quiet inside, we can listen to those around us. And they can feel the peace that we carry in our hearts which is a huge help to all relationships. This takes dedicated practice and is, in my experience, well worth the effort. When we come together to practice and to live in peace, the effect is even more powerful. The whole world benefits.

      Being released from fears doesn’t mean being unaware of danger. We can be both relaxed and alert, attentive and focused at the same time. This happens when the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are in balance. Peaceful is not lazy! It’s vibrantly alive. He spoke widely against injustice and supported people’s movements for liberation.

      I hope this might be helpful in some way. If you would ever like to discuss these questions in more depth, please feel free to get in touch.


  4. babs nicgriogair says:

    Absolutely agree with Thich Naht Hanh.
    Had the experience of doing a mindful walk with him once through the Square Mile in London.
    Lotsa banker types shouting ” zombies ” at us.
    The irony!
    Thanks for posting. A wonderful being has left us. But continues to nourish us through his teachings.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      What a wonderful experience! Thank you for sharing it here. We are so lucky to have access to all his rich teachings still.

  5. Meg Macleod says:

    a voice of sanity , thakyou bella for this

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