Friday, January 11, 2013

7 Spiritual Practices learned from Thich Nhat Hanh

This article by Walter Mason originally appeared in the Eremos Journal. Eremos is an organisation dedicated to the cultivation of an Australian spirituality. You can hear about the history of Eremos in this interview with Rachael Kohn on ABC Radio National's The Spirit of Things. 

Perhaps one of the most accessible and beloved of the contemporary “spiritual masters,” the world’s second most famous Buddhist, Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has inspired more than a generation of spiritual explorers in the West. 

His open and inclusive attitude and his complete avoidance of religious dogma have seen his ideas about meditation, religion and lifestyle grow in strength and many of his spiritual concepts have become everyday parlance. 

Thich Nhat Hanh traces his lineage back to King Tran NhanTong, one of the great Kings of Vietnam, a real figure, who in 1229 renounced political power and became a Buddhist monk, establishing the Truc Lam Zen Sect, the first indigenous Vietnamese Buddhist Order. 

Tran Nhan Ton - Vietnam's monk king
While it’s hard at this remove to gauge the shape of thirteenth century Vietnamese Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation is notable for its lightness and its joyfulness, and for not being unrealistically demanding of time and commitment.

Amitabha Buddha Statue, Quy Nhon, Vietnam

The meditative exercises for which he is most famous are simple and easily-practised, with an emphasis on everyday applicability. He has popularised, for example, the practice of walking meditation, which is a revelation for many Westerners who shudder at the thought of hours sitting on the floor in full lotus position. And perhaps his greatest contribution to Western spiritual discourse has been his popularisation the Buddhist idea of mindfulness, of constant awareness of what the body is doing and what the mind is thinking. 

Nhat Hanh helps people work toward this state by introducing the idea of gathas, small and sometimes enigmatic poems that can be recited silently while the doer is engaged in mundane activity. 

These gathas are adapted from his own monastic practice, where monks are given a book of them to memorise so that they can sacralise the doing of chores and religious work such as the lighting of incense or the taking off of shoes outside the temple door. Thich Nhat Hanh has reinvented them for twenty-first century living, introducing verses to be remembered as one turns on the computer, for example, or is stuck in traffic at a red light. 

Nhat Hanh’s genius has been in finding a space for antique Buddhist ritual and practice in modern Western living.  

From a lifetime of following Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings and teachings, I have derived seven specific practices which have improved my life immeasurably:

7 Practices from Thich Nhat Hanh

Practice 1 – Seeing Deeply: Really investigating situations, emotions, relationships. The spiritual practitioner is urged to investigate the root causes and emotions of every experience through reflection, quietness and the active extension of compassion and patience.  

Practice 2Mindfulness of eating and of the conditions that brought this food to us: The necessary act of eating can become a mindful and profound experience. Thich Nhat Hanh encourages eating in silence, and in giving praise before the food is consumed. Both are traditional practices in any Vietnamese monastery. 

Maitreya, Buddha of the future, outside a monastery in Vietnam

Practice 3 – Observing the breath: At the heart of Nhat Hanh’s spiritual method is the ancient and intuitive practice called anapanasati – the mindfulness of breathing. It is such a tiny and easy thing to do, and yet it can bring so many changes to your life. Simply sit quietly and be aware of the breath going in and the breath going out.

Practice 4 – Reverencing our parents and our ancestors: This is quite a challenging idea for Westerners who might seek to lay blame for everything at the feet of their forebears. As a whole this idea, which is central to most East Asian philosophical systems, and certainly to Vietnamese Buddhism, is largely absent from most modern Western manifestations of spirituality. That is why it can be so powerful. 

Practice 5 – Pursue Social Service: Born in 1926 and entering the monastery at a young age, Thich Nhat Hanh had basically known nothing but his country at war. As a young monk he became increasingly concerned at the trauma the Vietnamese people were subjected to. Gradually he became a devoted religious practitioner and a concerned young radical. He encouraged lay people to become both more involved in Buddhism and to pursue social service. He established lay youth organisations that encouraged social welfare work underpinned by meditative practice and a deep study of the Buddhist scriptures. 

Practice 6 – Chap Tay (the traditional greeting): To quote Thich Nhat Hanh from Living Buddha,Living Christ – “When Buddhists greet one another, we hold our palms together like a lotus flower, breathe in and out mindfully, bow, and say silently, “A lotus for you, a Buddha to be.” This kind of greeting produces two Buddhas at the same time. We acknowledge the seeds of awakening, Buddhahood, that are within the other person, whatever his or her age or status.”

Practice 7 – The establishment of Sangha: The sangha was traditionally believed to be the celibate renunciates who practiced the Buddha’s strictest rules and lived as an exclusively spiritual community – the monks and nuns. Thich Nhat Hanh helped extend that meaning to be all of the community of Buddhist believers. But a couple of decades ago he extended its meaning again to embrace any spiritual community. He says we can never live fully as individuals, or even as members of a family. We need to establish ourselves in a larger community of people who might otherwise be strangers – this is called the sangha, and it is a group which has gathered together in an effort to be better people. Sangha building and sangha living is difficult – we might fall out with other individuals within that community. But ultimately our commitment is to the community and to the ideal of sacred community building. We rely on each other to smooth down our rough spots. 

If you enjoyed this article and would like to receive Eremos' very fine quarterly journal, you can join here

In March Walter Mason will be a part of a panel in Sydney exploring modern ideas of pilgrimage, hosted by Eremos. You can find out more, and book tickets, here


  1. As a member of Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Interbeing I found this a wonderful summary of his teachings. For your readers Thay will be touring Asia & North America this year, including stops in Thailand, South Korea & Hong Kong. There will be retreats & public talks. Go to the Plum Village site for more detail.
    With Gratitude & lotuses,
    True Auspicious Path

  2. Thank you Ettianne!
    How wonderful to know that Thay is touring again this year - I am sure he will touch many people's lives with his beauty and simplicity.

  3. Oh, the indefatigable Thay! I suspect he has learned a way to beat jetlag by slowing the movement of the dateline. And I too find this a really lucid account of the teachings, in tune with the way they are delivered.

  4. I have to comment on Practice 4: Reverencing our parents and ancestors. Finally, after 6 years, I did as I've been encouraged to do every year and hung photos of my parents on the wall during Pchum Ben this year. My relationship with my parents was rocky, but now that their pictures are on the wall, I see them in a whole new light. It's hard to put into words, but I seem to have finally put away all those criticisms and resentments I clung to for so long and can appreciate the fact that they are deserving of my respect and even reverence. Old wounds have healed and I think I've even grown up a little after putting those immature judgements aside.