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Thich Nhat Hanh: A Day of Mindfulness

by Paul Griffin

I’ve just returned from a day of mindfulness with Thich Nhat Hanh.  This wonderful daylong program at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan was sponsored by the Omega Institute.  The focus of TNH or Thay’s message was building a more peaceful and compassionate community through the practice of personal or inner mindfulness.  In this post, I want to tell you more about what Thay taught today.

Thay, in remarkably good health of body and mind at the tender age of 83, gave a dharma talk after a opening hour of meditation and chants.  I felt Thay’s presence as powerful and peaceful.  He began by telling the inspiring story of his relationship with Martin Luther King in the 1960s.  They first met in Chicago on June 1st, 1966, when they sat down together to discuss civil rights and the war in Vietnam.  Thay related the details of another extended meeting with MLK in Paris in 1968, only months before King was assassinated.  Thay said that when he heard the tragic news he cried in his hotel; he knew that a great bodhisattva had been lost to the world.  And he knew that he personally was called to continue with King’s work of creating an enlightened society of mindfulness and compassion.


In 1967, it was MLK himself who nominated Thay for a Nobel Peace Prize.  Thay’s comments today on the bestowing of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama were interesting… 

He made it abundantly clear that he supports the decision to give Obama the prize.  He said, “Obama needs the support to keep him on the path.”  I was moved by Thay’s heartfelt insistence that this award was perfectly timed–despite the criticism to the contrary–that now was the ideal moment for the Nobel committee and for the world to support and protect Obama as he attempts to lead the world with courage, compassion, and open communication. 

The heart of Thay’s talk concerned the Four Nutriments of mindfulness, namely, a. Edible food, b. Sensory impressions, c. Volition or intention, and d. Consciousness.  Essentially Thay talked about mindful consumption in a very focused and intense way. 


For example, in discussing how important eating right is, Thay resorted to a story the Buddha told of two parents and their child crossing the desert.  They were struggling, they were starving, so the parents said, rather outrageously, “Let’s eat the boy, then when we cross the desert and settle down, we can have more children.”  So they did so.  And with each bite of their boy’s flesh, they felt immeasurably sad.  Nevertheless, they crossed the desert.  When the Buddha told this story, he asked his students, “Where the parents happy to eat the flesh of their own boy?”  And his students answered, “No.”  And the Buddha said, “Learn to eat in a way so that you are not eating the flesh of your own children.”


A shocking story.  The point is that in our culture, we do precisely that.  Forty thousand people die of starvation every day.  Thay encouraged his listeners to eat less meat and to eat more mindfully all the time.  He said, “Just the practice of mindful eating can already save our planet.”  He said, 1 cubic meter of water produces 1 kg of rice, whereas to produce 1 kg of meat, it takes 30 cubic meters of water.  He also talked about the negative effects of drinking alcohol.  He said, “If we drink that alcohol or eat that meat, we drink the blood of our children and we eat their flesh.”  An unsettling way to discuss the problem, yes, but a powerful and memorable way to effect change.


Today we practiced mindful eating as we shared a vegetarian meal with Thay.  Then we practiced mindful walking around the block of the Beacon Theater on Broadway and West 74th Street.  The program ended with an extended deep relaxation meditation.   

But what most moved me today was Thay’s discussion of the strong desire–the volition or intention nutriment–that is required along the path.  His face lit up when he talked about the motivation he had at age 16 to become a monk.  How strong that desire was!  How it burned inside him like a “bowl of fire”!  This strong desire must be wholesome.  This strong volition must manifest always as beginner’s mind.  This essential intention is the very source of the energy required to continue along the path. 

Thich Nhat Hanh helped reignite that fire in me today.  And I too wish it for President Obama.  And for all of the readers of the One City blog.  And for all sentient beings.


Comments read comments(8)
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Anan E. Maus

posted October 11, 2009 at 1:05 pm

He is truly a great man, an embodiment of non-violence and a visionary for the world.
We are lucky to have lived in the same era as he.

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David Vu,.M.D.

posted October 11, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Thich Nhat Hanh is a criminal under most vietnamese eyes in the USA.
He commited himself with the communists in the past. He got what he deserve now from the communists. There is a saying in Vietnamese:
Di voi Phat mac ao ca sa, di voi ma mac ao giay !
( Go with Buddha you will be wearing the Buddha coat, go with
the devil you will wear paper coat..)
Thich Nhat Hanh is the devil incarnate under the eyes of all
vietnamese who knew his past..
David Vu,M.D.

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James Beattie

posted October 12, 2009 at 1:14 pm

In my eyes Thich Nhat Hanh is a true Bodhisattva, I do not know what crime he has committed in your eyes, dear brother David Vu.
If Thay is a devil, then he is a most lovely one, taking mindful steps in the pure land, a devil of healing and peace. Take a deeper look!
With Love,

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posted October 12, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Thank you for sharing his beautiful teachings with us. Also, thank you to the other Thich Nhat Hanh poster above.
His comments on Obama raise an interesting question about Buddhist activism. It is important to critique our leaders and stay on their case about issues that are important to us. However, Thay’s statement that Obama “needs our support to keep him on the path” makes it sound almost as if Obama is part of the sangha, the larger sangha of sentient beings. I do believe that he is a sangha member, in a way, that he has communicated aspirations that are very genuine. It is important to support him to keep him on the path, just as we would do for a sangha member, to remind him of his original aspiration. Or just as we would pray for a teacher’s long life. Our thoughts and words have power, as we know.
As another blogger said, Obama will now have to make all decisions thinking, “What would a Nobel laureate do?” It is similar to a Buddhist thinking “What would Siddhartha do?” and then trying to act for the best that is in them. This is a very good thing.
To what extent can we incorporate Thay’s teachings into our activism? What is the relationship between being politically active and seeing politicians that we might disagree with as sentient beings that need our support. I have a much easier time seeing Obama as a sangha person than Palin, but I don’t think Palin has awakened any real bodhichitta the way I really do feel Obama has. But is this just a reflection of my politics? Does this challenge ideas of separation of church and state?
I have been disheartened by some Buddhist friends recently who, angered by the snubbing of the Dalai Lama incident, speaking very crudely about Obama’s decision and saying “that’s not the change I voted for.” It seems related to the discussion of gurus and how disappointing it is when a guru is revealed to be a human being. Obama is a flawed human being, he will make decisions you disagree with. What I think he has tried to do, however, is awaken a positive aspiration in America. I don’t think we as Americans feel we deserve the Nobel Prize yet, but if we keep on expecting one man to do amazing things and all we contribute to it is armchair activism, we’ll feel totally justified in projecting our disappointment on Obama. What about looking at your thoughts, making positive aspirations in addition to engaging in community organizing activities?
Thanks also for the report on Thay’s teaching of mindful eating. I was once a practitioner of macrobiotics and my macrobiotic teacher had been a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. He said that he felt he kept himself relatively healthy in the camp through mindful chewing of all of his food.

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Tung Tran

posted October 13, 2009 at 2:20 am

Mr. Vu sounds very angry and unhappy. May he calm down and learn to look at things in an objective manner. This world doesn’t come in Black and White. Just because Thay Thich Nhat Hanh condemned the war doesn’t make him a criminal. I am Vietnamese and I wish there would be more people like Thay in this world.

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Q Dang

posted March 8, 2010 at 11:30 pm

I belong to a family that had very deep hatred for Communism and the Communists. My grand-father and my grand-ant were executed by the Communists. For me, sincerely, the life of a Communist was worth less than that of a cockroach. What I wished most was to see the Communists and Communism being destroyed, slaughtered and wiped out of VN. In 1978, I left Vietnam and came to the US in 1979. Shortly after, I joined one of the most fanatical anti-Communist organizations in Little Saigon. Even after more than 10 years living in the US, I frequently had nightmares being chased by the Communist police and militiamen. I will wake up in the middle of the night distraught and sweating. At the time I also heard great praise about a monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. I learned that he used to belong to what we called “Third Party”, which during the VN war, was calling for talks between the North and the South instead of killing each others. I did not have much liking for him, considering him as a traitor or maybe a Communist agent. Somehow, one day, with the support of my fiancé, we attended one of his talks just to see if he was as good as rumored.
While listening to Nhat Hanh, I felt tears in my eyes. I felt so touched by his simple yet so wonderful explanation of the Buddha’s teachings. I purchased dozens of his tapes and listened to him every day. Just a few days later, I easily came to a decision that my hatred for the Communists will cease to exist. Along with that decision, my nightmares being chased stopped completely. In the last 18, 19 years, not a single similar nightmare reappears. Not even once. I still don’t accept Communism, but my hatred for the Communists was gone for good. I am still working toward a free VN, but without the need to hate the Communists.
As a Vietnamese American, I want to make it crystal clear. Most of Vietnamese Americans have deep respect for Thich Nhat Hanh. Those who dislike him are the ones who wish to convert VN to a non-Buddhist country and are jealous of his popularity, and also those who are deeply anti-Communist. Thich Nhat Hanh is not a Communist. The only thing that Nhat Hanh is guilty of, is being too compassionated to the sufferings of others. Please enjoy slowly any of Nhat Hanh’s books and experience for yourself the miracle of converting the energy of hate into love and compassion.
To my inter-human-beings who are still harboring hatred in themselves, all I want to say is to try to change something through hatred and violence will only bring about more hatred and more violence. The Buddha said “In this world hate never yet dispelled hate, only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible.”
Wish you all well and have great life free of hatred.

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Lelia Pierson

posted June 14, 2010 at 8:25 am

You’ve done it once more. Incredible read.

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posted May 14, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Just beautiful Paul


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