Shambhala Sun | July 2010
Peace in Every Step: Thich Nhat Hanh's Life of Courage and Compassion
by Andrea Miller
In seven boats filled to the brim with food, Thich Nhat Hanh and a small team of volunteers rowed up the Thu Bon River, going high into the mountains, where soldiers were shooting at each other and the air reeked of dead bodies. The team was without mosquito netting or potable water, and, despite the icy winds, they slept and took their meals of plain rice in their boats. Under these harsh conditions, Nhat Hanh, who had previously contracted malaria and dysentery, suffered a recurrence of both diseases.
It was 1964 in South Vietnam. After days of heavy rain in the region, gorges had overflowed so quickly that it was impossible to escape the floods, leaving more than 4,000 people dead and thousands of homes washed away. The whole country mobilized to provide relief but the victims in the conflict areas were suffering the most and no one—except Nhat Hanh and his team—was willing to risk getting caught in the crossfire of the war to go to their aid.
For five days the team visited devastated villages to distribute food and when they came across wounded soldiers, they helped them no matter which side they were on. In the face of this suffering, of all his country’s long suffering, Thich Nhat Hanh cut his finger and let the blood fall into the river. “This,” he said, “is to pray for all who have perished in the war and in the flood.”
Engaged Buddhism: the practice of applying the insights gained from meditation and dharma teachings to alleviating suffering of a social, environmental, or political nature. Thich Nhat Hanh is widely recognized as the original proponent of this form of practice, but, as the monk himself said in an interview with the Shambhala Sun, all Buddhism is engaged: “When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on—not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.
“When I was a novice in Vietnam,” he continued, “we young monks witnessed the suffering caused by the war. So we were very eager to practice Buddhism in such a way that we could bring it into society. That was not easy because the tradition does not directly offer Engaged Buddhism. We had to do it by ourselves.”
Engaged Buddhism, born amidst the wars in Vietnam, has struck a deep chord in the West, and today Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay as he is affectionately called by his students, is one of the world’s most influential Buddhist teachers. He is also a prolific writer, and his work has enormous breadth. He has written memoirs and journals, poetry, children’s books, and historical fiction. But he’s best known for his teachings. In many of his most popular books, including Peace Is Every Step and True Love, he unpacks fundamental Buddhist principles and how they are applied to our lives. Other volumes are more scholarly in nature, such as The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, which is a commentary on the Diamond Sutra, or Transformation at the Base, which draws from major streams of Buddhist thought to offer a modern presentation of abhidharma, the traditional Buddhist teachings on psychology.