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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