Thây returns to Thailand

by KARNJARIYA SUKRUNG, Bangkok Post, April 24, 2007

World famous peace activist, poet, writer and Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh will visit Thailand in May. The wisdom and compassion he has cultivated through years of suffering during the Vietnam War and conflicts around the world could be a beacon for Thai society

Bangkok, Thailand -- On the path of spiritual pursuit, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh suggested we take up the role of a gardener.

<< "When you are mindful of what is happening. It is peace.  It is a miracle, a magic of life and living."  THICH NHAT HANH

In order to tend a beautiful garden, a gardener learns to take care of the good seeds, giving them enough water and fertiliser. With the right conditions, the seeds will grow into strong trees, bearing flowers and fruit.

A skilful gardener should also watch over the weeds, by not providing them water or food, so that they do not overshadow the nature of the garden.

Using this metaphor, Zen teacher Nhat Hanh explains the heart of Buddhism - that is for one to understand the nature of the mind and consciousness.

The garden is comparable to our mind, where all the seeds - thoughts both positive and negative - reside. Our job is to cultivate positive thinking and emotions in our heart, while avoiding compounding or trying to transform the negative thoughts.

The seeds are not only a core to the teaching he has been giving all his life. In fact, the Zen Buddhist master loves gardening. He appreciates flowers, plants and trees. Although at the age of 80 his health no longer allows him to perform physically hard labour, the "spiritual gardener" continues to do his job.

For over 30 years, through his dharma talks, books and meditation retreats, Nhat Hanh has been watering the good seeds in people throughout the world, including Thailand.

Over a dozen of his books have been translated into Thai, with some reprinted more than 10 times. The techniques of mindfulness practices in everyday life have been incorporated in several Buddhist workshops and retreats. And 30 years ago, when he was in Thailand for a short while, he inspired many young peace and social activists who continue to work in Thai society.

"Thich Nhat Hanh is my hero, to whom I feel closely related to," said Phra Paisan Visalo in a seminar at the recent National Book Fair entitled "Three Decades of Thich Nhat Hanh in Thailand".

"He shows us that we all can transform. We could transform the seeds of suffering into understanding, the seeds of hatred into compassion.

"He shows me the way toward peace and social service, that first and foremost, all of us need to cultivate inner peace and mindfulness. And there is no separation between the ascetic and secular life. Dharma is everywhere," said Phra Paisan, a prolific dharma writer and peace advocate.

Co-organised by the Komol Kheemthong Foundation, Kledthai Publishing, the Sangha of Mindfulness and the contemplative education programme at Mahidol University, the seminar was to honour the influence and impact the Zen Buddhist teacher and writer has had on Thai society.

Next month, after a dharma tour of his homeland of Vietnam, and Hong Kong, Nhat Hanh and 90 bhikkus and bhikkunis from Plum Village in France will pay their first official visit to Thailand. But this will not be the first time he has visited Thailand.

In 1975, the Vietnamese monk came to Thailand on the invitation of social and Buddhist critic Sulak Sivaraksa, to attend a conference on Asia-Pacific Ashram at Wat Pha Lad, Chiang Mai.

At the conference, Nhat Hanh inspired a number of young Thai peace and social activists, who were deeply touched by his demeanour and teachings and started calling him by the name he is known by in Vietnam: Thây (Vietnamese for "Teacher").

The seeds he sowed among those young activists helped them grow into some of today's leaders in the fields of social activism, consumer rights, the peace movement, engaged-Buddhism, education, writing and translating. They include Phra Paisan Visalo, Pracha Hutanuwat, Santisuk Sophonsiri, Pojana Chantarasanti, Rosana Tositrakul, Wisit  Wangwinyoo, Veera Somboon and Wanchai Tantiwitayapitak, to name just a few.

"His teachings are contemporary. He incorporates Buddhist teaching with social concern," said Rosana Tositrakul, of the Federation of Consumer Rights and founder of the Thai Holistic Health Foundation.

"To follow Buddhist practice, we need to work on the ground, to be ready to 'get our hands and feet dirty', to confront problems constructively. The Buddhist way is about putting the principles into action, into our daily lives and social services," she added.

But for Rosana, Thây's influence lies mostly in his personality. "To be with someone who is so compassionate and mindful is a huge inspiration for me."

Socially-engaged Buddhism

In the early- to mid-'70s, Thailand experienced political and social discord. People were in two camps, the right and left wings fighting for different political ideologies, which led to vicious cycles of violence. "What would a Buddhist do in a situation of conflict, violence and affliction? Should we turn a blind eye to the suffering around us and sit in our room quietly ignoring what is happening outside and say we have peace? Or do we come out to fight for peace at whatever costs?" asked Rosana.

Inaction and ignorance of problems and social ills should not be counted as a Buddhist approach, she said. Neither is an act with negative feelings or with anticipation of reward.

In those days, Phra Paisan, Rosana and other peace activists chose the third option - a non-partisan stance, like Nhat Hanh assumed during the Vietnam War in the '60s.

"In times of conflict, Thây said we need to be 'a lotus in the flame', in other words, not to let ourselves fall into either extremist camp," said Phra Paisan.

"Thây emphasized that to campaign for peace, we first and foremost needed to cultivate inner peace, stability and mindfulness," he added.

The Vietnam War seemed to provide an opportunity for Nhat Hanh to deepen his wisdom and compassion. The war claimed millions of lives, predominantly Vietnamese civilians. And many, including the Zen teacher, had to flee their homes and seek sanctuary in other countries.

The Buddhist way, as Nhat Hanh showed, was not to be aloof from the sufferings in society.

"When a village is being bombed and children and adults are suffering from wounds and death, can a Buddhist sit still in his temple? If he has wisdom and compassion, he will find ways to practice Buddhism while helping other people," writes Naht Hanh on the 14 guidelines on Engaged Buddhism.

During the war, he started the School of Youth for Social Services in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), a grassroots relief organisation whose mission was to rebuild bombed villages, set up schools and medical centres, and resettle families. He was invited to the US to teach Buddhism and campaign for peace, and in 1967, Dr Martin Luther King Jr nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

And he didn't detach his emotions from afflictions. Tears were in his eyes sometimes when he heard news about the killings of his Vietnamese friends, volunteers, and countrymen. Many saw him recover through taking retreats in noble silence, meditation and walking in the woods.

"I admired him for showing his human emotions when he felt anguished, pained and angry with what happened. But his practice had given him wisdom and compassion to understand and transcend those negative emotions," said Phra Paisan.

Please Call Me By My True Name is one of Nhat Hanh's most acclaimed poems, which shows the depth and boundless compassion espoused by Buddhism. The poem relates how to empathise with both victims and perpetrators. Thus the Thai pirates who raped a Vietnamese refugee girl are one and the same as the girl (who committed suicide afterwards). Starving African children are not any different from the scornful capitalists and arms dealers. Each is the product of a chain of causes and effects.

During the Student's Uprising of October 6, 1976, Phra Paisan was a 19-year-old first year student at Thammasat University when the military round-up took place. The incident later led to a brutal massacre of student protestors.

"I was kicked and stamped on. At that critical moment, I thought about Thây Nhat Hanh, his teachings and the violent stories of the Vietnam War. Then I realised that my enemies were not the people who were kicking me, or those who tortured and killed my friends, our real enemies were hatred, anger and ignorance - in our hearts and the hearts of others - that we need to be rid off. The aggressors are victims, too. They may have been abused in the past by their families, or by society," Phra Paisan said, adding "Aware of that, I could then forgive [them] and overcome the painful experiences."

Community of practice

Although Nhat Hanh never had the opportunity to return to Thailand after his visit in 1975, his legacy - in the form of articles and books - is large. "When you read the books, I'm there with you. We're interconnected and are never really apart from each other," he said.

During the National Book Fair talk, Rosana showed an original copy of Nhat Hanh's letter to her group of socially engaged Buddhists, that gave them moral and emotional support for their peace mission. He also sent manuscripts that the group translated for Thai periodicals.

Perhaps one of the most precious things that the Zen Buddhist teacher left for his students were a few pieces of paper, a manuscript of 14 mindfulness trainings of the Order of Inter-being (Tiep Hien).

"It is a guide for us to practice Buddhism while doing social work," said Rosana.

Once every two weeks, the group gathered to recite the 14 mindfulness guidelines, to review and contemplate their lives, and work towards peace and social service.

The training guides them to be aware of, and to overcome ideological divisiveness, reject political or religious righteousness, follow the path of "right livelihood", attempt to diminish social injustice and suffering. "We would ask ourselves if we do social work out of anger or hatred. Do we ignore the suffering around us? Are we trying to dominate others, or are we a part of that suffering?" said Rosana. The ritual comprised the mindfulness bell, recitation and group discussion.

This is, in fact, a concept of sangha that Nhat Hanh introduced in his community, Plum Village in France, and throughout the world. The sangha means the community of committed Buddhist practitioners, comprising of bhikkus, bhikkunis and laypeople, whose aim is to support each other on the path of right livelihood and Buddhist practices.

The idea and practice of the Buddhist sangha flourished again when Thai bhikkuni, ordained in the Zen Buddhist tradition at Plum Village, returned to Thailand and reintroduced it.

Since 2002, Bhikkuni Niramisa has conducted an annual retreat in Thailand. After each retreat, a number of participants are inspired to follow the concept of a committed community of Buddhist practice. Once a month, they organise a "Day of Mindfulness", to do walking and sitting meditation, recite the five mindfulness trainings, eat with mindfulness, do total relaxation, keep noble silence, and have a dharma discussion.

For five years now, the sangha of mindfulness has enjoyed an increasing number of participants from various backgrounds, from college students to the elderly. Contrary to the original group of practitioners, who were mainly concerned about social injustice and suffering, it seems today's members are more interested in incorporating dharma practices in their daily life and work.

Contemporary dharma: Mindful living

Over 60 years in the robe, Nhat Hanh was trained and teaches only one key Buddhist message: To be mindful.

His classic book is the Miracles of Being Awake (later edited and re-titled Miracles of Mindfulness). Phra Pracha, now Pracha Hutanuwat, translated the English text into Thai, which was edited by Phra Paisan Visalo, then a young student.

"I practiced mindfulness while working on the book. But it took me two years to really understand what it meant 'to wash the dishes for the sake of washing dishes'," said Phra Paisan. "Thây was perhaps the very first monk in modern times to introduce mindfulness into daily life," he said.

The book, first published by the Komol Kheemthong Foundation in 1976, has been an all-time favourite among Nhat Hanh beginners and fans, and it is now in its 17th reprint.

Nhat Hanh's penchant for the artistic and poetic strikes a chord with many of his contemporaries.

"His writing is easy to understand and there are no Pali terms. It is also very poetic. In terms of content, he is able to make dharma tangible and offers techniques that one can relate to and practice in real life," said Thitima Kunatiranon, from the Komol Kheemthong Foundation.

The mindfulness bell brings us to ourselves and our breathing. Such a reminder of mindfulness can be applied to the ringing of a telephone or traffic lights, she said.

Jitr Tantasathien, who works in marketing and advertising research, is among the growing number of younger people inspired by Nhat Hanh's books and practices.

"I have read Thich Nhat Hanh since I was a student at Chulalongkorn University. It talked to me because Thây said I could practice while eating oranges and seeing flowers. I can pick anything in life and practice with it. I am so delighted. Dharma becomes easy and touchable," he smiled. "Since then, I practice with many things I eat."

At the height of his career and business success, Jitr, in his late thirties, raised a question, "I have everything, then what? Where is happiness?"

After studying and practicing meditation, he realised that happiness is in mindful living, he said.

Once he discovers joy, he shares it with his colleagues at his office. He leaves dharma books around his office and organises "breathing time" sessions on Fridays at work.

"We would sit and breathe mindfully together for 10 to 15 minutes, that's it. So simple," he said.

"Before, we worked hard from Monday to Friday. Being stressful, we spent our weekends shopping, spending our hard-earned money on expensive and extravagant things that we may not need as an outlet for our stress and anguish at work. That is not life. I think we should be happy every day," he added.

As Nhat Hanh explains it, the complex and profound Buddhist philosophy becomes simple and practical.

"Dharma is timeless. However, as conditions in society change, those principles need to be re-interpreted and re-applied to be suitable for modern day lifestyle," said Rosana.

For example, the fifth precept does not only relate to alcohol and drug intake, but also discourages reckless consumption that can cause suffering to oneself and others; or the consumption of media that can destroy our mind and consciousness.

For the complex principle of itappajayata, or as science refers to it, the chaos theory, Nhat Hanh explained it in a simple way that all can understand and relate to.

"The air we breathe is our life. If we do things to contaminate the air, we are unwittingly killing ourselves. But if we protect the air [the environment], we are protecting our lives," she explained.

"We are interconnected with everything. We and our actions affect the world and universe. Aware of this, a Buddhist should know that even one seemingly insignificant act could bring about conditions that save or destroy the world," she said.

Aware of this, perhaps, Nhat Hanh spends his life promoting the seeds of mindfulness of people.

"Peace in oneself, Peace in the World," is his key message.

Toward peace and harmony

Below is the schedule of Thich Nhat Hanh's visit to Thailand (May 20 to 31).

MAY 20
2 to 8pm:Day of Mindfulness at Lumphini Park, Bangkok.
2:30pm: Dharma lecture on "Peace and Harmony in the Family and Society", at the Ballroom Hall.
6 to 8pm: Nhat Hanh and 90 monks from the Plum Village sangha will lead a peace walk around the park.
MAY 22
6 to 9pm: Dharma lecture on "To Live is to be Alive", at Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai.

MAY 23 to 27
Five day retreat at the Lanna Human Resources Development Centre, Chiang Mai.

There are still some places left for dormitory and tent accommodation. Applications may be made until April 30. For more information, call 08-6910-9611 or 08-9700-8720.

MAY 29
 6 to 9pm: Dharma lecture on "Complete Love and Compassion", at the auditorium of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, Vibhavadi Rangsit Road.

MAY 30
2:30 to 5:30pm: Dharma lecture on "Contemporary Buddhism: Buddhism for Society", at the main hall of Wat Maha That, Bangkok.

MAY 31
6:30 to 7:30pm: Dharma talk at Phutthamonthon, to mark the auspicious occasion of Visakha Bucha Day.

There is no admission fee for any of the dharma lectures, and all are invited. The lectures will be in English, with Thai translation. The door will be closed before Nhat Hanh begins his talk.

Donations are welcome.

For more information, visit the Thai-language web site at, email, or call 08-5318-2938/9.

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