thich-nhat-hanh-flowerThich Nhat Hanh (1926 – ) was born and raised in Vietnam. As a young man, he became a Buddhist monk. When Vietnam was gripped by civil war, he remained neutral. Although he did not support the North Vietnamese effort to reunify the nation by force, he was deeply involved in protests against the South Vietnamese government. In 1966, while he was touring the U.S. promoting peace, the South Vietnamese authorities told him he would not be allowed back into his native country. Since then, he has been a citizen of the world, teaching and modeling a distinctly modern Buddhist understanding of nonviolence. He has been the most influential leader of the movement called “engaged Buddhism,” which has brought the influence of Buddhism into nonviolent activism in the U.S. This influence is relatively recent; it is hard to say yet how much it may change the U.S. nonviolence tradition. But it is already important enough that it deserves to be studied as a contribution to the idea of nonviolence in the U.S.


For Thich Nhat Hanh, nonviolence is a natural and necessary part of Buddhist religion. To understand his teachings, then, one must start with the most basic religious foundation: “In Buddhism the most important precept of all is to live in awareness, to know what is going on…to be aware of what we do, what we are, each minute.” When we are totally mindful—in direct contact with reality, not just images of reality—we realize that “all phenomena are interdependent…endlessly interwoven.” This is the foundation of Nhat Hanh’s approach, not only to nonviolence but to all of life. He calls it the principle of “interbeing.” “In Buddhism there is no such thing as an individual.” There is no such thing as a separate object, event, or experience, because no any part of the world can exist apart from all others. Rather, everything that looks like a separate entity is actually dependent on, and therefore interwoven with, something else. Everything (object, event, idea, experience, whatever) is made up of other things. Whatever appears to be an isolated “thing” is actually a combination of its constituent elements. These elements are the influences from the other things with which it is interwoven. And those elements, too, are made up of other combinations. The world is an endless web of combinations.

But even this description of reality is misleading, because it is too static. The elements that make up the world are patterns of dependency and interweaving. In other words, they are relationships. When we are fully aware, we see that there are only relationships. All relationships are patterns of Interaction. So they are, by definition, dynamic; they are patterns of change. There are no individual things, but only ongoing processes. These processes are made up of other, constantly changing, processes. All of reality is combinations of patterns of relationships in process.

This is the basis of the traditional Buddhist teaching of “emptiness”: “Emptiness is a means of perceiving the nature of reality.” When Buddhists say that everything is empty (at least in Nhat Hanh’s interpretation), they mean that nothing has any independent permanent essence; nothing can exist by itself. Rather, every element is made up of other elements; paradoxically, each thing is made of what it is not. If all these other elements are removed, the thing is empty. But “emptiness” is not a negative concept. Since everything is dependent on and interrelated with something else, the chain of interbeing stretches out infinitely. Ultimately, everything is linked with everything else. “Empty, in this sense, means that it is full of everything, the entire cosmos.” Philosophically speaking, the entire cosmos exists in every part of cosmos. The point of Buddhism is to transform this insight from an abstract philosophical idea into a lived reality that becomes the basis for everyday life.

To achieve this transformation, a person must transform herself. More precisely, a person must learn and then experience the truth that our ordinary notion of “self” is a fiction. If no thing has independent, self-subsistent being, then neither does what we call our own self: “Life is one. We do not need to slice it into pieces and call this or that piece a self. What we call is a self is made only of non-self elements…We have to discard all distinctions between self and non-self.” We have to experience everything, including what we call the self, as a manifestation of the sum total of all processes, a web of relationships woven into a much larger—indeed, infinite—web. That means overcoming our normal state of feeling like a subject experiencing objects. Buddhism teaches the “non-discrimination mind,” which can see reality in its perfect state because it no longer sees as a subject looking at objects. Rather, at every moment it experiences the totality, of which the so-called self is an integral part. That totality is infinitely diverse, yet fully unified: “Unity is diversity and diversity is unity.”

This is not as abstract or far-fetched as it may sound. Consider how we learn to recognize chairs, for example. No one teaches us the definition or “essence” of a chair. (In fact, it can be extremely frustrating to try to figure out the essential definition of “chair”; exactly what counts as a chair and what doesn’t.) Instead, when we are little babies people point at, our put us upon, various kinds of seats and say “chair.” At first, that sound means nothing to us. We do not distinguish the chair from all the other visual and tactile stimuli bombarding our little brains. Gradually, we begin to make that distinction. We learn what a chair is by being able to separate out those relevant stimuli from the surrounding stimuli. As we are learning what a chair is, we are also learning what a table is, what a floor is, etc. More precisely, we are learning where the table ends and the chair begins, where the floor ends and the chair begins, etc. In other words, we learn what a chair is by learning to distinguish it from what is not a chair. We never actually learn the essential definition of “chair.” What we learn is the relationship between chair and not-chair. So the meaning of “chair” depends directly on the meaning of what is not-chair.

This is another way of understanding the teaching of “emptiness”: “All things rely on each other to be.” When we are fully aware and recognize emptiness, we see that the apparent boundaries between things, which we think are really there, are actually mental constructions. We realize that we can unlearn these boundaries; we can resist and overcome them. Again, though, to attain this awareness we must unlearn the most fundamental construction of all: the boundary we feel between the self and everything that is not-self. We must realize that, just as the chair depends on what is not-chair, so the self depends on what is not-self.

We can never define, or even know, our selves. We can know only the infinite relationships between self and not-self. That is because what we call the self has no independent existence apart from those infinite relationships. The reality is not the self or the things we call “other”; the reality is only the constantly changing patterns of relationship between self and not-self. The reality is only the endless web of connections. As Nhat Hanh puts it, everything “inter-is” with everything else. Since everything depends on the totality of all, everything is already inside of everything else.

This is hard to understand, because we normally think of our self as some essential core of personal being, some intangible essence or “true self.” We think that our perceptions, thoughts, feelings, desires, etc. are stuck onto that core and can be pulled off and replaced by others without changing the core. Buddhist teachers challenge their students to strip away all the perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and desires, to reveal the “true self.” They are confident that the student will fail. The student will discover that we do not “have” perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and desires. Rather we are all those processes, and nothing else. When we look carefully, we discover that those processes are all interactions between what we call self and what we call not-self. From this perspective, too, we are nothing but a constantly changing pattern of relationships. So everything that we call “out there” is already inside us.

The question for Buddhism is how to transform this philosophical theory into lived reality. The answer is to transcend the learned distinction between self and other, subject and object. The way to pursue this goal is to focus on our “interbeing” with the specific realities around us. “To understand something is to take that thing up and to be one with it.” When we pay careful enough attention to that oneness, we discover that there is “no distinction between the contemplator and the contemplated.”

One way to do this is through meditation: “Meditation is to see into our own nature and wake up.” Nhat Hanh teaches meditation through carefully focused breathing, through mindful walking, through careful attention to trees and other natural objects. “To practice mindfulness and to look deeply into the nature of things is to discover the true nature of interbeing. There we find peace and develop the strength to be in touch with everything.” We become fully present in the moment, not distracted by any concerns of past or future. This kind of meditation has always been an essential part of the Buddhist path to awakening.


Nhat Hanh also brings into Buddhism a modern element of social consciousness. Most people may begin meditating to seek solutions for their own problems. Eventually, though, meditation teaches that personal solutions must involve solutions to society’s problems, and vice versa. The basis of this “engaged Buddhism” is the realization that every person is made up of all the elements that are not herself. All the other people in human society are within each one of us. All those who are victims of injustice, and perpetrators of injustice, are within each of us. So everyone shares responsibility for the social conditions that create every social evil. Each one of us, if we are fully aware, will identify with the criminal as well as the victim. As he put it in a poem: “I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee / on a small boat, / who throws herself into the ocean after / being raped by a sea pirate, / and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable / of seeing and loving.”

“Engaged Buddhism” teaches a cyclical process. By understanding the true nature of self, we better understand the true nature of society; then we use that enhanced understanding to gain an even deeper understanding of self, which leads to deeper understanding of society, and so on. Ultimately, we understand that self and society have no separate existence. They are just two ways of looking at the same unified reality. Our society makes it hard to realize this. Society teaches us to worry about the relationship between individual and society, as if the two were separate pieces of a puzzle that must somehow go together, yet cannot fit together. Society perpetuates this false problem because it wants us to be asleep, so that we will not do anything to change the status quo.

Awareness of interdependence makes it immediately evident that each of us shares responsibility for all that happens and will happen: “There is no phenomenon in the universe that does not immediately concern us.” As soon as we recognize that responsibility, we are moved to act to improve the situation: “If we are very aware, we can do something to change the course of things.” We are most motivated to work for change when we realize that our sense of being a separate self is illusory. We are all part of the same human process, all driven by the same processes. Changing that process means changing both situation and self: “Meditation is to see deeply into things, to see how we can change, how we can transform our situation. To transform our situation is also to transform our minds. To transform our minds is also to transform our situation, because the situation is mind, and mind is situation.”

Since the individual and society “inter-are,” each must nourish the other, or both will wither. The preservation of oneself is the same thing as the preservation of all; the improvement of oneself is the same thing as the improvement of all; the healing of one’s own suffering is the same thing as the healing of all suffering. This is what Buddhists mean by compassion. It is not reaching out to an other. It is (as the literal meaning of the word suggests) “feeling together with.” Compassion means experiencing one’s own fate and the fate of the supposed other as identical. Therefore, it means experiencing the other’s suffering as one’s own suffering.

Compassion does not make any moral judgments about who is innocent and who is to blame. When we make such moral judgments we take the stance of a subject observing objects. Thus we lose the sense of immediate interbeing that is the essence of compassion. But when we identify with everyone, we realize that our own being and society’s good and evil aspects all share same the essential nature. “When we realize our nature of interbeing, we will stop blaming and killing, because we know that we inter-are.” So we cannot reject anyone or anything as fundamentally evil. We stop splitting the world into good versus evil. Instead, we will love and become friends with everyone.

This does not mean, however, that we stop acting on behalf of right and justice. On the contrary, it means that we have a new motivation to struggle for social change. Most people base their efforts at moral improvement on the belief that they are among the “good people,” seeking to stop the “bad people.” This can too easily become self-righteousness, which is a mask for selfishness. At bottom, self-righteous morality stems from a desire to control the world by creating fixed boundaries, like the boundary between good and evil. When these boundaries are used to control others, they lead to misunderstanding, narrow-mindedness, and even cruelty. The desire for control, in turns, grows out of a desire for security: having something unchanging to hold on to, to maintain the illusion of a permanent self.

When we are truly mindful, we recognize that nothing in life is any more permanent or secure than an ocean wave. We are always riding the crest of a wave. To try to hold on to anything is to pursue an impossible illusion of security. When we accept the truth of this impermanence, we realize that all boundaries are human constructs imposed on the unpredictable, and therefore uncontrollable, process of reality. So we make no effort to control or impose ourselves on others. We simply respond to the demand of the moment, without expecting to control the future.

Why respond? It is a natural impulse to ease our own suffering. If we accidentally put a finger in the fire, we do not think about what to do; we instinctively take the finger out of the fire. Compassion means having the same instinctive desire to ease all suffering, wherever and to whomever it occurs. This is the motive for “engaged Buddhism” and its efforts to create a more just world.

Compassion also allows us to be more objective, because we can see things more clearly and be more fully aware of the whole situation: “To love is to understand.” Most importantly, to love is to understand that, when suffering is humanly caused, the perpetrators actually suffer along with the victims. To love is to understand that the perpetrators are causing suffering because they themselves have suffered. The better we understand the causes of suffering, the more effectively we can work to relieve it. And when we offer others love and understanding, no matter how evil their deeds, we may be able to defuse the anger that is often the source of those deeds. Certainly we will be better models of the behavior we ask from others.

We cannot reach out to the world compassionately unless we become the compassion we want to offer others: “If you cannot be compassionate to yourself, you will not be able to be compassionate to others.” “We can only be happy when we accept ourselves as we are. We must first be aware of all the elements within us, and then we must bring them into harmony.” This is certainly not easy. We all have a desire for security, which makes it hard to accept the fact of impermanence. We all have emotions and ignorance, which create illusions that block accurate perception. Most difficult of all, usually, is our own unacknowledged anger. Once we recognize our own seeds of anger, we can stop nurturing them. We can convert them into constructive feelings of forgiveness and understanding, nurturing the seeds of compassion.

Paradoxically, even knowledge can block accurate perception. We seek security from our sense of certainty—clinging to what we are sure we know. When we resist new ideas and refuse to change our views, we cannot see the truth clearly. Most importantly, we cannot see the truth that the world is always changing; the next moment is unknown and unpredictable. Therefore, truth is always changing. No ideas are absolutely, permanently true. Ideas are only useful as means to reduce suffering. We should always be ready to give up our current ideas and knowledge when new circumstances call for new ones. Nhat Hanh says that even the Buddhist ideas he teaches, like the idea that there is no essential self, are only vehicles to heal suffering. Suffering is caused by attachment, even attachment to the idea of no-self. The way to compassion is nonattachment to all ideas, including both self and no-self.

In traditional Buddhism, the Buddha was most often presented as the one who knows how to heal suffering because he is “wide awake” (the literal meaning of the name Buddha). “Engaged Buddhism” teaches that each one of us can do this. Each of us has a Buddha nature, which is our innate capacity to wake up, to understand the truth of interbeing, and to love all reality. Everyone who wakes up embodies the Buddha and therefore becomes a Buddha body. In that sense, “You yourself are the Buddha.” We need not go to a monastery or a far-off mountain top to become the Buddha. Anyone or anything can help us wake up. Everything teaches us Buddha’s teachings, just by being what it is, a part of the endless web of interbeing.


For Nhat Hanh, there is no question about being committed to nonviolence. Becoming a Buddha, or just setting out on the path to Buddhahood, must mean living nonviolently. Awareness of interbeing brings an obvious realization: “When you kill a living being, you kill yourself and everyone else as well.” The idea that I can better myself by doing violence to another is not so much morally wrong as logically mistaken. Since all others are already within me, whatever harm I do to them I do to myself as well. Awareness of interbeing naturally evokes a commitment to nonviolence. It evokes compassion and a desire to help all, which leaves no room and no motive for any kind of violence.

The real question is how to make life follow logic; how to overcome learned tendencies toward violence and sustain a life of nonviolence. The answer he proposes is deceptively simple: “Our daily lives have the most to do with the situation of the world. If we can change our daily lives, we can change our governments and we can change the world. Our presidents and our governments are us. They reflect our lifestyle and our way of thinking. The way we hold a cup of tea, pick up a newspaper, and even use toilet paper have to do with peace.”

Nonviolence begins with changing the little habits of everyday life because so many of those habits now support the culture of violence. We are all part of that culture. Just as it is misguided to divide the world into “the good” and “the evil,” so it is misleading to divide society into “the violent” and “the nonviolent,” as if each person were all one or all the other. In fact, we are all on a continuum that blends the two. No one is ever perfectly nonviolent; everyone does some violence. And everyone practices, or has the potential to practice, some degree of nonviolence. So it is a mistake to begin by pointing an accusing finger at others. The place to begin is with oneself.

In meditation, as we learn to pay careful attention to our minds, we discover our own violence. We may not behave violently. But we all have seeds of anger and frustration, which cause the conflicts that are the source of violence. More precisely, Buddhist psychology tell us, we are anger and frustration, just as we are all the other thoughts and feelings flowing through us at any given moment. There is no real boundary between what we call our inner anger and what we call the external violence of society: “The bombs are us.” It is tempting to deny this, to imagine a boundary between self and world and to place all the violence on the other side of that boundary. That way, we do not have to deal with our own inner anger, which is the most frightening kind of violence. But resisting the anger inside us only increases the power those feelings have over us. Then it becomes more likely that those feelings will break out in external violence¾ perhaps aimed at the “bad” and “violent” people around us.

Mindfulness is the only way to escape the cycle of violence. By paying careful attention, we learn to see and accept the reality of who we are, anger and all. We learn to see, even more deeply, that our anger is caused by our own suffering. We can hold our anger and suffering tenderly, understand it, and have compassion for it. As we become aware of interbeing, however, we realize that we call “our” suffering is actually the world’s suffering. So what we call “our” anger is actually the world’s anger, the source of the world’s conflict and violence. In this way, recognizing that we are all entangled in the same web of violence does not make us feel guilty. It makes us feel liberated. We no longer have to choose sides and fight for the good against the evil. Engaged Buddhists recognize the suffering that is always going on, on both sides of every boundary. So they can see that both competing sides are equally victims of the unjust institutions, social systems, and ideas that perpetuate suffering. The anger and violence of the whole world needs to be understood just as compassionately as our own.

Engaged Buddhists oppose all violence, but especially the institutionalized violence embedded in everyday life. Virtually all economic, political, and social policies in any modern society are based on a dualism that ignores the truth of interbeing. So everyday life is bound to perpetuate suffering. But engaged Buddhists are careful to oppose the policies, not the people implementing them. They recognize that even the most powerful are victims of their own policies and suffer from them. To avoid increasing the dualism that leads to suffering, they generally avoid partisan politics. They make their contribution to society not as members of a party, but as individual humans helping other humans.

When we see that the antagonists in any conflict are merely two sides of same the problem, we can stop fighting. We can become “”non-fear, non-anger, and non-despair,” and experience a new kind of calm, harmony, and peace. As Buddhist psychology would put it, we do not attain peace. We become peace. Nonviolence becomes more than an idea or a logical conclusion. It becomes a whole way of being. This is crucial, says Nhat Hanh, because ideas are never as important as relationships with people and things: “Breathing in and out, smiling together — that is real peace education.” What we call outside is actually inside us. So each one of us is a whole environment, constantly interacting with other environments. A peaceful person is a peaceful environment and so creates peace just by her presence. This is the true meaning of “being peace.”

It is important to stress again that “engaged Buddhism” does not teach passivity, nor is it an excuse for passivity. On the contrary, it is an effort to create the most effective kind of activism. A Buddha does not want to win victories, but only to ease suffering. So a Buddha wants everyone to have the same awareness of interbeing, of the fact that all share a common fate. Once we get beyond the idea of a zero-sum world, where every winner must create a loser, we can be free to work for the good of all. We can promote reconciliation between the two sides, rather than the victory of one over the other. Inner harmony give the spiritual strength to face, directly and honestly, everyone’s violence and suffering. With that full awareness, we can offer the most accurate analysis of a conflict situation and the suffering that has caused it. We can help each side tell of its own suffering and listen to the suffering on the other side.

And we can get the antagonists to listen to us, because they feel supported, not threatened. This is Thich Nhat Hanh’s major point of criticism of current peace activists. They show righteous indignation, but not the kind of universal love that is the only effective antidote to the violence that makes them indignant: “The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter.” The only way to make peace is to be peace, to set an example by showing love for everyone, no matter how wrong their behaviors may be.

Being peace and bringing full awareness is the way for activists to develop the most effective strategies for making peace. Paradoxically, these strategies are most effective precisely because a Buddha does not try to control their outcome. A Buddha understands that, because all reality is interconnected, there is no way to step outside of the situation in this moment in order to get control of it. Every effort to get that kind of illusory control only exacerbates conflict and violence. Rather, a Buddha lives fully in the present, doing what needs to be done in the immediate moment to ease suffering. “If we do our best, in full awareness and with a heart free from anger, we cannot worry about results.” Giving full awareness to the present moment, and being peace in that moment, is the best way to bring peace for the future. There can be no peace in the future if people are not peaceful in the present.

Finally, engaged Buddhism is also most effective because it protects the activist from burning out. When we are fully mindful, “we will know how to make small, steady steps,” and take satisfaction from them. Those who act from non-anger and non-fear do not judge themselves by their victories and losses. They are happy when things improve, but they are not crushed when things don’t improve. They can take the longest perspective because they are focused fully on the present moment. And they know that sometimes they should stop their political work for a while and turn back to introspective meditation, to “become oneself again in order to restore a point of stability.”

Nhat Hanh applies the same lesson to the newest phase of nonviolence: nonviolence against nature. He suggests that Buddhism offers the most powerful basis for environmentalism. Just as every person is within me, bound to me in interbeing, so is all of nature. Nature is our “larger self.” All our environmental problems stem from the illusion that there is a basic difference between the human self and nature. Once we see through this illusion, we extend our compassion to every natural species. We respond immediately, in the present moment, to suffering anywhere in nature. But we understand that suffering anywhere is our own suffering. So we must also take care of nature to ease our own suffering. We need the right kind of natural environment to get personal harmony, and we need personal harmony to have the right kind of natural environment. “The best way to take care of the environment is to take care of the environmentalist.” And the best way to take care of the environmentalist is to grow in nonviolence, in meditative mindfulness, in full awareness of the truth of interbeing.

Thich Nhat Hanh is the only figure studied in this book who was alive to see the dawn of the 21st century. At that time, his teachings were gaining an increasingly large following in the U.S. His books were selling many copies and his personal appearances drawing huge audiences. Yet organized Buddhist action for specific changes in society seemed to be less successful. While such actions were not uncommon, they had not created a very large community of permanently committed, highly visible activists. In Asia, engaged Buddhist activism has succeeded in creating large and successful movements in the political and economic arena. Apparently, something different happens when Buddhism comes to the U.S.

Nhat Hanh’s writings may offer one clue to this difference. Insisting that good and evil are found in everyone, he gives many Americans the impression that value judgments of any kind should be avoided. This impression is an oversimplification of his thought, but it may appeal to people who do not want to take any definite stand for or against specific behaviors or policies. Although organized nonviolent activism avoids labeling anyone an enemy, it does require a certain sense of opposition to behaviors or policies. The people who promote those targeted behaviors or policies inevitably become opponents, those on “the other side.” A certain kind of righteous indignation, or even anger, may also be a necessary ingredient in movements for social change. Nhat Hanh’s words could easily be taken to mean that it is wrong to take sides, that no one should ever be seen as on “the other side” or an object of indignation, much less anger. This would mitigate against any kind of organized activism.

If evil is within all of us, then the best way to begin changing the world is to change oneself. So Nhat Hanh would appeal most to people who want to be introspective and “work on themselves,” rather than joining movements for political, economic, and social change. Following the slogan, “Peace begins with me,” these individuals might rest content with their own spiritual development as their contribution to improving the world. Again, this would mitigate against their joining activist organizations working directly for specific changes in the world.

Critics of engaged Buddhism would claim that too many of its adherents, trying to cultivate the Buddhist ideal of “no-self,” actually end up preoccupied with self. Their efforts to improve the world, though surely well-intentioned, will have little impact on the world. This might reflect a distinctively American (particularly Protestant) tradition of religion as individual spiritual growth and self-development. It might also reflect a distinctively American contentment with the socioeconomic status quo, at least in the middle and upper-middle classes, where Buddhism tends to have most appeal.

Critics might also suggest that Thich Nhat Hanh’s American readers and audiences are drawn by the apparent simplicity of his teachings. Although Nhat Hanh’s words are informed by a rich, complex Buddhist tradition, the words themselves tend to be simple and direct. He usually avoids or downplays the complexities that his words could entail. Often, he can easily give the impression that Buddhist theory and practice is quite easy. This could appeal to the American penchant for quick and easy solutions to difficult problems. Americans may also be drawn to Nhat Hanh’s rather bright and sunny style. His words seem to have no “shadow side.” Although he acknowledges that he, like everyone, has seeds of anger, those seeds seem to have no effect upon his teaching. Readers and audiences are not likely to find their own anger and fear reflected in his words. Perhaps he appeals most to those who are trying to avoid their own anger and fear, even though he explicitly calls on people to face these feelings directly. People who want to avoid anger and fear may be precisely those who also want to avoid an adversarial stance, and therefore stay away from organized activism.

For all these reasons, it may be difficult to build an American activist movement based on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. However, it may be just a matter of time. Buddhism is gradually gaining more adherents in the U.S. Within the Buddhist community, engaged Buddhism is gradually gaining more adherents. Whatever its practical outcome, the influence of Thich Nhat Hanh has already pushed the idea of nonviolence in new directions and enriched the nonviolence tradition. It is far too soon to predict what its lasting influence might be.

Notes to Chapter 13: Thich Nhat Hanh


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