The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh
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This column will attempt to illuminate practical applications of the teachings of my favorite mentor, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk whom in my opinion is the foremost contemporary proponent of application of basic Buddhist precepts in our daily lives. While Thay (as he is known by his followers) is a leading practitioner of Zen Buddhism, his approach to helping us enrich our lives and the lives of those around us is extremely inclusive. Indeed, his followers include countless numbers of people with Judeo-Christian leanings, including my wife and myself. This column will highlight potential applications of his teachings that I believe have particular relevance to people in recovery from addictive disorders, together with their relevance to all of us when we are confronted with severe mental-emotional trauma.
Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Central Vietnam in 1926 and today, at ninety-two years old, remains an extremely prolific and influential author, teacher, and proponent of nonviolent living. During the Vietnam War he was extremely active in promoting a peaceful end to the war, both in his homeland Vietnam and in the United States, where he was a renowned lecturer at several prestigious universities (“Thich Nhat,” 2018). In 1966, he met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and urged him to publically denounce the war. In 1967, Dr. King nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize, stating, “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam. . . . His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity” (King, 1967).
Thay’s distinctive approach combines a variety of Buddhist teachings, particularly from the Zen tradition, with offerings of Western psychology to promote mindful breathing and other practical applications of mindfulness. He is a foremost leader in the Engaged Buddhism movement, promoting people’s active roles in creating change (McMahan, 2008). His writings and teachings place a particular emphasis on compassionate self-care and healing as integral components in leading a compassionate, purpose-driven life.
I believe that Thay’s core teachings provide extremely practical and compassionate advice for anyone seeking to lead a more peaceful, joyful, and meaningful life.
Many people struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse succumb to addiction in a misguided effort to escape from the seemingly intolerable pain and suffering present in their lives. I believe that Thay’s teachings are extremely complementary to both the spirit and content underlying the various Twelve Step programs. As many people grounded in their recovery are seekers, I am confident that large numbers of struggling alcoholics and addicts have embraced Thay’s teachings on their road to recovery.
The following are some salient teachings of this wise master of particular relevance to recovery from addictive disorders.
Embracing and practicing core precepts of Buddhism in our daily lives includes the following:
- Adhering to nonviolence in our thoughts, words, and actions
- Extending our heartfelt compassion to all living entities, be they our fellow humans, our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom, or all plant-life. Thay especially emphasizes the need to extend compassion to ourselves, whomever we encounter, and our beautiful yet fragile living planet.
- Recognizing that suffering is inevitable in our lives, and learning to transform our suffering through engaging in thoughts, words, and deeds that promote peace, contentment, and beneficent outcomes for all concerned
- Embracing our negative feelings—such as anger, irritability, and despair—and the negative feelings of others with compassion, as a mother would attempt to comfort a frightened child
- Accepting that all things in life are impermanent, and avoiding the cultivation of unhealthy cravings that promote greed, violence, and dominance over others
- Appreciating that compassion and understanding lie at the core of all true manifestations of love
Thay expounds on the art of transforming suffering in his wonderful book No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering (Hanh, 2014b). Just as manure must unite with soil to produce a beautiful flower, he emphasizes that suffering is ultimately needed to produce joy and happiness. In his words, “Without suffering, there’s no happiness” (Hanh, 2014b). Without suffering, Thay argues, we would be unable to develop compassion, which forms the basis for all true expressions of love.
He poignantly states that the main affliction of modern civilization is that we do not know how to handle the suffering inside us—we try to cover it up with all kinds of consumption. These include obsessively accumulating wealth and engaging in toxic, addictive behaviors including misuse of alcohol and other drugs, food addictions, and exploitative sexual expression with total disregard for others. He advises us to be truly present with our suffering, stating that the best way to be with our suffering without becoming overwhelmed is to cultivate the quality of mindfulness.
Elaborating on the Quality of Mindfulness
Thay describes mindfulness as the capacity to be totally present in the present moment, to know and fully experience what is happening in the here and now. His teachings place a great deal of emphasis on use of mindful breathing to build a bridge between our minds and our bodies, while anchoring our awareness in the here and now.
In the beginning of my favorite book by him, You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment (Hanh, 2010), Thay elaborates on focusing on our breathing as the gateway to instantly accessing mindfulness. In his words, “There is no need to manipulate the breath . . . What we are doing (in mindful breathing) is simply lighting the lamp of awareness to illuminate our breathing” (Hanh, 2010). To cultivate mindful breathing, as we breathe in he advises us to say to ourselves, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” Likewise, as we breathe out we silently say, “Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.”
Try this exercise for six breaths, perhaps for as long as a minute. As we conclude this exercise, we may notice that our minds are free from the constant clamor and clutter caused by an endless barrage of intrusive and often unpleasant thoughts. This troublesome state is the default setting of our “monkey mind,” as Buddha’s followers call it. Letting go of these bombarding thoughts, we have entered the true realm of mindful awareness. To fully experience this pleasant state of awareness, we may take a walk in nature, engaging in mindful breathing as we lovingly gaze at a beautiful tree, cacti, or animal we encounter along the path.
Many people, myself included, find this simple, mindful breathing exercise to be extremely liberating, particularly in freeing our minds and hearts from the baggage of anger and irritability we all succumb to from time to time. Clearing our minds through consciously focusing on mindful breathing can be extremely empowering in returning ourselves to a grounded, in-control state of mind whenever we find ourselves experiencing severe mental-emotional trauma to the point of overwhelment.
To cultivate the ability to apply the quality of mindful detachment in our day-to-day lives, Thay advises us to nourish our awareness of each moment and to sustain ourselves in a pleasant state of mindful awareness by carefully choosing our surroundings and taking care to avoid toxic places, people, and situations whenever possible. This particularly applies to codependents and people struggling with addiction.
Reflections on Love
Thay’s teachings on love emphasize that true love entails gifting our loved ones with our full presence, compassion, and understanding. In his words, “Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love” (Hanh, 2014a).
Compassion is the capacity to understand suffering in ourselves and in other people. We must first understand our own suffering before we can help someone else understand theirs. In expounding on the nature of love in a deep relationship, Thay emphasizes that reverence is the nature of true love—true love cannot exist without trust and respect for ourselves and others. The roots of any deep relationship are mindfulness, deep listening, and loving speech. In the interest of promoting ongoing harmony, Thay advises that we practice conscious breathing with our partners. If we do this, mindful breathing will be there to promote harmony when things get rough.
I hope this column has whetted your appetite to learn more about the relevancy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings in learning to transform the suffering we all experience as part of the human condition and, in particular, their potential relevancy in treating people with addictive disorders. In closing, I encourage you to choose and read one or more of his many fine books. Until next time—to your health!
Duc. October 22, 2006. Thich Nhat Hanh marche meditative 06 [Photograph]. Retrieved from
Hanh, T. N. (2014a). How to love. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Hanh, T. N. (2014b). No mud, No lotus: The art of transforming suffering. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Hanh, T. N. (2010). You are here: Discovering the magic of the present moment. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
King, M. L. Jr., (1967). Nomination of Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize [Letter]. Retrieved from https://www.mindfulnessdc.org/mlkletter.html
McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
“Thich Nhat Hanh.” (2018). Retrieved from https://plumvillage.org/about/thich-nhat-hanh/