Monday, 9 April 2012

Thích Nhất Hạnh’: A Zen Master’s Sacred Presence.

As Thích Nhất Hạnh's UK visit draws to a close, Freddie Matthews reflects on the sacred ideas and ideas of the sacred that are left with us, with particular reference to politics and lifestyle.

The name ‘Thích Nht Hnh’ (pronounced ‘Tik N'yat Hawn’) is unlikely to provoke familiarity for the average UK citizen. Nonetheless, for modern spiritual seekers, social reformers as well as many 20th century historians, this Vietnamese monk’s name chimes as powerfully as the bronze temple bell he so often sounds at his public talks. Indeed, at a time in British history when sources of spiritual sustenance appear as lacking as the water in our reservoirs, Thích Nht Hnh’s visit to the UK this month was a timely reminder of the importance of experiencing the sacred in our lives; not simply for the betterment of the individual, but for the grander goal of social, political and ecological harmony.

Born in Central Vietnam in 1926, the 85 year old Zen Master has lived his life both as Buddhist monk and global peace activist, compassionately directing his students towards the eternal (yet eternally overlooked) presence of the sacred within their own lives. During the 1960s, whilst lecturing at various North American Universities, the young monk urged the U.S. government to withdraw its troops from Vietnam. In honour of his worthy efforts, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, petitioning that Thích Nht Hnh’s ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” Despite this, in 1976 the Vietnamese government refused the monk re-entry back into Vietnam, forcing him to seek exile in France where he established ‘Plum Village’, the meditation centre and Buddhist community where he has resided and taught ever since.

Fast forwarding into the 21st century, the Zen Master still continues to spread his message of social harmony and peace. Over the past month ‘Thây’ (as he is affectionately known to his students) has tirelessly conducted a string of sold-out public events across the UK including an evening lecture at the Royal Festival Hall, a five day residential retreat in Nottingham, a four day ‘Educators Retreat’, as well as an intimate address at the House of Commons hosted by Lord Richard Layard; where he spoke to politicians, educators and journalists (amongst others) about the practical application of Eastern spiritual practices such as ‘mindfulness’ within modern secular settings, as well as tangible methods for creating a more loving, sustainable, and emotionally balanced society. A particularly poignant moment of the discussions came with the suggestion by one journalist that Westminster politicians adhere to the chimes of Big Ben as if they were ‘mindfulness bells’; tools to bring the incessant bickering of political debates (as well as one’s own attention) back to the present moment with coolness, alertness and compassion.

Perhaps the profoundest moment of Thây’s visit however, was a two hour guided meditation led by the monk in Trafalgar Square on Saturday 31st March. On this mild Spring afternoon, unprecedented numbers of meditators (around 2000) flocked to the square, mats and cushions in arms, ready to join in what is increasingly becoming an annual tradition in the capital. Certainly, the gesture of uniting over two thousand dedicated meditators into a public space was itself a sacred act, and testament to the value of meditation practice on countless people’s lives in modern Britain.

Though Thây’s tranquil voice was often drowned out beneath the incessant traffic that orbited the sea of attendees, meditators appeared calm and diligent in their practice, generating a tangible atmosphere of serenity for the curious onlookers who respectfully flanked the area’s peripheries. As Thây uttered serenely to his audience, “Breathing in, I am aware of my in-breath, breathing out I am aware of my out-breath.” Though this guidance may at first seem simplistic to many, as countless meditators have experienced, mindful re-acquaintance with one’s own breath is a potent method for reconnecting oneself with the sacred, itself buried in the present, eternal now.

As Thây advises of the experience of drinking tea in one of his earlier works:
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”
As one might sense, as part of this practice (referred to broadly as ‘mindfulness’), one strives to become something of a ‘connoisseur’ of the present moment, unswayed by the inevitable internal chatter of intellectual bias. As Thây notes in his classic writing, The Miracle of Mindfulness (1991):
“Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized, and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant, and teapot are all sacred.”

Pertinently, such an attitude of radical engagement with the world allows ‘the sacred’ to be accessed in every moment (and object) of life, releasing this profound experience from the confines of subjective pre-conditions.  Furthermore, as Thây notes in his recent work on ecological awareness, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (2008), this state of awareness is causally connected to the state of the planet itself. As Thây warns, “The bells of mindfulness are calling out to us, trying to wake us up, reminding us to look deeply at our impact on the planet.” Regardless of one’s own acknowledgement of the ecological peril the world currently faces, Thây’s sentiment reminds us that ‘the sacred’ lies in our connection to the world around us; as Thây would call it, our sense of ‘interbeing’ with it. This sense of ‘interbeing’ may be felt strongest in churches, temples, nature, raves, protests, or indeed, alongside our loved ones. As thousands of British citizens evoked at Trafalgar Square however, it is no more simply accessed than in a humble recognition of the present moment.

Thích Nht Hnh continues a programme of teachings across Ireland until the 15the April. His tour then recommences in Germany and the Netherlands in August 2012. More information on his life, teachings, practice and schedule can be found at


Freddie Matthews

Works Cited

Hạnh, Thích Nhất, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Rider, London, 1991

                           ---The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Parallax, Berkeley, 2008

King, Martin Luther, 'Nomination of Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize' , World History Archives [online], Available at:

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