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Thích Nhất Hạnh, whom his followers simply call Thay (teacher), died in his native Vietnam in late January 2022 at the age of 95. Our compassion goes out to all the people who mourn him and love him. His presence lives on in the lives he touched with his teachings. Our author Marek Zink interviewed Matthias Grümayer for you, who studied comparative religion. He is a Thay disciple, a member of the Order of Interbeing, thus practicing in the Plum Village Tradition.

MPM: Who was Thích Nhất Hạnh/Thay?

Grümayer: He was born in Vietnam in 1926 and died on January 22, 2022. He became a monk at the age of 16. Four years later the Indochina War (1946-1954) began, in which France tried to restore its colonial rule over Vietnam. Although Thay had considered joining the Vietnamese resistance against the colonial power as some of his friends did, he decided he would rather go on following the peaceful path as a monk to help shape his society.

As a monk, he always had the vision that he could give something back to society through his practice. He was open to a variety of influences and read Chinese, Sanskrit, and Pali sources as well as Western literature and Buddhist studies. Over time, the decision or desire matured to renew Buddhism and make it relevant for today. This was later called Engaged Buddhism. This also manifested itself in the fact that he did not want to stay in the monastery during the conflict that we now call the Vietnam War (1955 to 1975), which immediately followed the first Indochina War. While some of his ordained colleagues preferred to stay out of it, to hide in their monastic life, he and some like-minded people formed an action group. While chaos erupted around them, bombs hit and villages were destroyed, they did not want to stand by and watch. They wanted to put their compassion into action and help.

He was gifted in many ways, as a writer, peace activist, and teacher. As a poet, he is certainly distinguished by his practice of mindfulness, by a profound vision and contact, by the perception of sensations and atmospheres that he was able to put into words with clarity and depth.

Sometimes in conflict with his original tradition, he sought and created more and more spaces for exploration and research. With other monks and nuns who were also willing to transform Buddhism and make it relevant for today, he sought out a piece of land in the jungle where they experimented with rules and practices. They were designing a new kind of monastery, unbothered by the Vietnamese buddhist hierarchy. Some of the changes they probably imagined took a long time until they manifested for example the revised Pratimoksha (the monastic code of behaviour) which was published 2003 and is studied and practiced in Plumvillage today alongside with the traditional Pratimoksha. The revised monastic code includes, for example, the use of cell phones, the proper use of the internet, bicycles and cars. This shows that mindfulness training should be adapted to the present and meaningful, not a rigid work of the past, not an end in itself.

During this early phase of experimentation, the image of what he later built in France became increasingly clear to him: Plum Village. A village that is characterized by the fact that all people can come there, regardless of language, culture, religion and nation. It is meant to be a place where people can practice living together as a human family and leave behind notions such as nationality.

MPM: What is the teaching? What does Engaged Buddhism mean?

Grümayer: The beginning is often tied to the decision of the monks and nuns to provide humanitarian aid during the Vietnam War. When the opportunity presented itself, Thay traveled to the U.S. to share information about what was happening in Vietnam and to network with the peace movement there. It was difficult for people in the U.S. at that time, without the Internet, to get information about what was really going on at the front lines. After one of these trips, in 1964, he established a Buddhist university in Vietnam (Van Hanh Buddhist University). He addressed an open letter to Martin Luther King, whom he later met and who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. He also met various Heads of State and even the Pope to promote the end of the Vietnam War, and he was invited to Stanford University to teach Buddhism.

In 1965, in order to equip young people to help the population, Thay co-founded the School of Youth for Social Service, an impartial corps of Buddhist peace workers, at times up to 10,000 strong, who went into rural areas to establish schools, build health clinics and help rebuild villages. Because they wanted to maintain neutrality, they were opposed by both the Vietcong and the South Vietnamese; the Americans also did not know how to deal with these peace workers between the fronts. The school was eventually banned and various leaders arrested. Thay himself was not allowed to return and remained in the U.S. for the time being. He later obtained a permanent residence permit in France and settled there.

So what the teaching is about is: going out and directly caring for people, in a very practical way, and interpreting Buddhism in a way that is applicable to everyday life, in a way that life is the practice. So you don’t need a temple or anything. It’s based on moment-to-moment mindfulness. That is why walking meditation also plays a special role in the Plum Village Tradition, being the kind of meditation that you can actually do all the time. Another important aspect is the concern for the environment, in terms of conservation, biodiversity and so on. In this regard, there have also been some conferences and networking activities with other organizations and social movements. In the Plum Village monastery in France, they have been living vegan for about 10 years now, looking to reduce their ecological footprint, for example, through car-sharing, growing food themselves as best they can, and so on. 

There are basic mindfulness exercises, practices to look closely into our own lives, how we speak and act, what we take in, what we let in. Behind this is the realization that human suffering, as well as all other perceptions, arise and pass in dependence. There is a metaphor for this called Indra’s net. Imagine a wonderful web of pure jewels stretching endlessly in all directions. At each node there is a multi-faceted jewel, and each jewel is reflected in all the other jewels. This image is used in the Buddhist philosophy of the Huayan or Flower Garland School of Buddhism to illustrate the concepts of emptiness and dependence arising in a non-dualistic vision and reciprocal permeation. Everything exists in everything and everything needs each other to exist. Nothing can exist separately. Because I am there, you are there. Because the sun exists, we can exist. Everything is intertwined in and with each other, thereby being close. This is also how Thay expresses it in a poem: 

No coming, no going, no after, no before.
I hold you close to me, I release you to be so free,
because I am in you and you are in me.

From his practice and teaching, the center is the present moment. The present moment is the place of transcendence. Everything is to be touched in the present. So liberation can take place only here and now, not in some pure land, somewhere in the future. Even now that he has died, it feels like he is here. He has not gone anywhere, but is now completely here. He has not passed away, but arrived completely. He is here and now at home.

MPM: What attitude towards the world did Thích Nhất Hạnh embody for you? How did he relate?

Grümayer: He loves the world. Love is his basic attitude, and he does this in the sense of the four Brahmavihāra: loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, which he also calls  inclusiveness. So love has an embracing, spatial quality: encompassing. This is also reported by many people, that what touched them so much about him is that they felt that they were loved, that he embodied this goodness and kindness, embracing suffering and generating compassion out of suffering. For him pain and suffering is the fuel for compassion.

MPM: Did you ever meet him in person?

Grümayer: I was lucky enough to meet him while he was still healthy. He was definitely a very impressive figure. He was not very tall, but his charisma and movements made him very evocative. I never saw him hurrying. He swore, as I heard somewhere, that he would not walk fast anymore. That was one of his practices, which he himself practiced very strongly, to arrive with every step. His movements were very measured. You could tell while he was moving he was aware of his movement. As a result, his gestures were also characterized by a great gentleness. For example, when he stood at a blackboard and wrote he always took his time. When he went for a walk he often went the same way, but he seemed fresh, with curious eyes. He had regained the ability to marvel like a child and rejoiced in clouds, trees and people. I understand it was also a resource for him to recover from his war traumas. Apparently he had bad nightmares for many years about what he experienced. By putting his attention on beautiful things, on being in nature, on being touched by pleasant, healing things, he healed himself from that.

MPM: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

Grümayer: When I was there for the first time, Plum Village made a special impression on me because I realized something is different here than in the rest of the world. I think this way of living in mindfulness really has the potential to bring peace. Since then I’ve had this idea that peace is something that is possible. Perhaps it is possible not as a geopolitical construct, but as a way of life, as lived peace, as friendly interaction with each other and with the world. I think that is the way, if we want to survive as humanity, we have to move in such a direction. Consuming differently, thinking differently, interacting differently, in an embodied, mindful way. By cultivating awareness of our bodies, we can experience stillness. I think that’s what a lot of people are missing. This is an important Plum Village teaching: the body is the earth in essence. It is through the body that we come into contact with the earth and that is what transcends us as human beings, where we are rooted in the big picture and in the earth as a living system.

MPM: How do you see the future of this movement?

Grümayer: Thay spent the first half of his life working for peace in a very practical way and certainly contributed a lot to the political process for his home country Vietnam. From political activism, he then turned more and more to cultural education. He started to organize retreats and create places to promote a culture of peace. So his political involvement has transformed because he had the realization that if he really wants to make a difference, he has to teach people to experience and pass on peace. I think that will continue for a very long time, because the places are there now and the communities are full of drive, set on keeping the tradition alive.

MPM: How are these Plum Village communities organized?

Grümayer: There are nine monastic practice centers and monasteries worldwide. The monks and nuns are very open to visitors. Then there are also lay people who make the practice available in many cities, reportedly up to a thousand groups. There is an online directory where one can find the nearest meditation group. If there is no group nearby, every person is also invited to start a local group.

MPM: Thank you very much for this conversation and remembering together. May Thay’s memory bring many more blossoms into the world and his work bear many more fruits.