Recently the 95-year-old Vietnamese mindfulness master Thich Nhat Hanh passed away. In an interview with DR News, Danish meditation coach Frank Poulsen speaks about how Thich Nhat Hanh over the years greatly influenced the development of Buddhism in the West.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet, and peace activist. He was born in 1926 and has written about 100 books. In 1960, he set up a humanitarian organization in Saigon that aimed, among other things, to rebuild villages and provide homes for families who had become homeless during the Vietnam War. He later traveled to the United States to tell the Americans about Vietnam’s suffering but after a trip in 1966, where he met civil rights activist Martin Luther King, he was denied entry back to his native Vietnam. The two had both called for an end to the Vietnam War.
The same year, Thich Nhat Hanh was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King and in 1982, he founded the first monastic practice center Plum Village in France. Plum Village is now home to nuns and monks and since the establishment, there have been centers in several places in the world where people can come and practice.
After 39 years in exile in France, he returned to Vietnam in 2018.
About 10 years ago Frank Poulsen first visited one of his monastery practice centers and there he was so inspired by the way of thinking and the way of life that he took it to Denmark. He now practices parts of it at the same time as being an instructor and owner of zenbusiness.dk.
Some of what Frank Poulsen fell for was the idea of not being a slave of his own mind, minimizing the negative thoughts, and being present. “Thich Nhat Hanh was down to the last detail in terms of what we should eat, when we should get up, and how we communicate with each other,” Frank Poulsen says. “And the more you can succeed in being in the moment, the less you are present in the negative thoughts and stresses,” Frank Poulsen adds.
At the monastery in Cologne, Frank Poulsen was taught by the leader Thay Phap An, who was one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s closest. It was here that he really practiced the type of everyday life that Thich Nhat Hanh advocated which, amongst other things, included no talking from 9.30 pm until after breakfast.
“When we talk, we are very much in our thoughts. One may need to play smart and put oneself in the center. And if there really is something you are looking to break down in zen, it is such concepts,” Frank Poulsen says.
In addition to being present in the moment, Thich Nhat Hanh was also a strong supporter of the idea that we are connected and influence each other.
“Therefore, it is also very natural that he was a great peace and environmental activist because there is an understanding that if we cut down the forest, then we do it in the end against ourselves,” Frank Poulsen says.
Lone Overby Fjorback, who is a center manager at the Danish Center for Mindfulness at Aarhus University explains that Thich Nhat Hanh also advocated for us to be aware that the things we do are following, for example, the UN’s world goals.
She cites as an example the young people who today are afraid of climate change and think it is hopeless. It is precisely being afraid and thinking something is hopeless that his teachings should help against.
“It’s about how to find peace with yourself so you do not sink into helplessness and aggression, but instead handle and use it,” Lone Overby Fjorback says.
She remembers herself how Thich Nhat Hanh in the middle of the Vietnam War advocated that, despite the war, one should notice the flowers that grow, and thus in that way “cultivate joy in the midst of the hopeless.”