The Poetry and Teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn

Sunshine rides on space and poetry on sunshine.
Poetry gives birth to sunshine, and sunshine to poetry.

Sun treasured in the heart of the bitter melon,
poetry made of steam rising from a bowl of soup in Winter.

-Excerpt from "Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine" by Thich Nhat Hahn

On January 22, 2022, Thich Nhat Hahn passed away at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam. The Tu Hieu Temple was the same temple in which Thich Nhat Hahn was ordained approximately 80 years earlier, and where he began his journey as monk, teacher, and poet. 


Thich Nhat Hahn, or Thay as he is known by his followers, was born in 1926 and became a novice monk at the age of 16.  By 1949, he was ordained. In 1964, about 9 years after the start of the Vietnam war, Thich Nhat Hahn founded the School of Youth and Social Service. This organization is “a grassroots relief organization of 10,000 volunteers based on the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action.”(1) This school, and the subsequent Order of Interbeing, became foundational parts of Thich Nhat Hahn’s practice of engaged Buddhism and peace work.

In 1966, after a trip to the United States to protest the war, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam. His exile lasted for the next 39 years. However, this did not stop Thich Nhat Hahn from pursuing his activism work.  Over the next 20 years he spent his time writing, lecturing, and teaching the art of mindfulness.  In 1982, he established Plum Village, a monastic community in southwest France. Today, Plum Village has over 200 monks and nuns spread out over four different hamlets. 

Plum Village also welcomes around 10,000 visitors each year who are there to learn from Thich Nhat Hahn and study his approach to  mindfulness.

Buddha Hill at Plum Village: Photo Credit Plum Village
Buddha Hill at Plum Village; Photo Credit: Plum Village

Mindfulness

When visitors attend a retreat at Plum Village they are there to learn Thich Nhat Hahn’s unique application of mindfulness, which promotes a concept known as engaged Buddhism.

The following statement from Plum Village is an explanation of Thich Nhat Hahn’s view of mindfulness.

“Thich Nhat Hanh always teaches mindfulness within the context of ethics. With the energy of mindfulness comes mindful consumption, mindful relationships, and ethical livelihood. You cannot separate mindfulness from mindful speaking, acting, working, and engaging in the world.”(2)

Thich Nhat Hahn’s suggests that there should be no separation between your mindful practices and your everyday activities.  Mindfulness should infuse your daily activities. They should work together and become a form of engaged Buddhism.

Engaged Buddhism

Engaged Buddhism is where Buddhist practitioners take the skills and lessons that they have learned through mindfulness practice and dharma teachings into real world situations. The Order of Interbeing, and the larger lay community, are active practitioners of engaged Buddhism.  

To help the members of the Order stay oriented on their path, they agree to follow the 14 mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing.  These trainings are the essence of the Order and help “cultivate concentration and insight, which free us from fear and the illusion of a separate self.”(3) A few examples of these precepts are:

  • The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment to Views
  • The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Compassionate, Healthy Living
  • The Eleventh Mindfulness Training: Right Livelihood
  • The Twelfth Mindfulness Training: Reverence for Life

Currently, there are approximately 2,000 members of the global Order of Interbeing. These members often participate in activism focusing on the promotion of peace and justice within social, political, and environmental realms.   

Thich Nhat Hahn - Mudra of Compassion: Photo Credit Plum Village
Thich Nhat Hahn – Mudra of Compassion; Photo Credit: Plum Village

Engaged Buddhism and Ecology

Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on engaged Buddhism have contributed significantly to conversation around the climate crisis and conservation.  “Referencing ancient Buddhist texts, such as the Diamond Sutra, [Thich Nhat Hanh] explains Buddhist teaching of “no-self” in the light of ecology: ‘we cannot separate human beings from the environment. The environment is in human beings and human beings are part of the environment… [Even] the distinction between living beings and non-living beings disappears after meditation.’”(2)

As part of his teachings, Thich Nhat Hahn promotes individual and collective action in order to address the global environmental crisis.  He taught that you cannot just assume it is the “other” people who are causing the harm.  What are the things that you as an individual are doing that are contributing to the climate crisis?  He said that with a practice of mindfulness and an understanding of the depth of interbeing, we can begin to see our individual impact on the world and take steps to change it. 

Thich Nhat Hanh and Poetic Expression

As a poet, Thich Nhat Hanh used verse to help explain the concepts of interbeing and the human connection to the natural world.  He would use simple imagery to help illustrate that we are all connected to each other. Below are a few examples of his writings.

Excerpt from “Interrelationship” by Thich Nhat Hahn

You are me, and I am you.
Isn’t it obvious that we “inter-are”?
You cultivate the flower in yourself,
so that I will be beautiful.
I transform the garbage in myself,
so that you will not have to suffer.

Excerpt from “Earth Touching” by Thich Nhat Hahn

Here is the foot of a tree.
Here is an empty, quiet place.
Here is a cushion.
Brother, why don’t you sit down?

Sit upright.
Sit with solidity.
Sit in peace.
Don’t let your thoughts lift you up into the air.
Sit so that you can really touch the Earth
and be one with her.

“Interbeing” by Thich Nhat Hahn

The sun has entered me.
The sun has entered me together with the cloud and the river.
I myself have entered the river,
and I have entered the sun
with the cloud and the river.
There has not been a moment
when we do not interpenetrate.
But before the sun entered me,
the sun was in me—
also the cloud and the river.
Before I entered the river,
I was already in it.
There has not been a moment
when we have not inter-been.
Therefore you know
that as long as you continue to breathe,
I continue to be in you.

A collection of Thich Nhat Hahn’s poems will be published in a book Call Me by My True Name due out in October, 2022. This book is currently available for pre-order.  You can also find more of his poems at the Plum Village website.

“There’s a revolution that needs to happen and it starts from inside each one of us. We need to wake up and fall in love with Earth. Our personal and collective happiness and survival depends on it”

Thich Nhat Hahn
Thich Nhat Hahn receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Hong Kong University: Photo Credit-Plum Village
Thich Nhat Hahn receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Hong Kong University; Photo Credit: Plum Village

Resources

  1. The Life Story of Thich Nhat Hanh: Plum Village 
  2. Key Teachings: Plum Village
  3. Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings: The Order of Interbeing
  4. Poems: Plum Village

Thich Nhat Hahn has written over 100 books in English ranging from classic buddhist teaching to specialty books on love or anger. Check out this list on storefront for some examples of his other writings. 


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16 thoughts on “The Poetry and Teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn

Add yours

    1. Hi Adele, I am glad that enjoyed this post. I was looking for a way to honor Thich Nhat Hahn’s work. He has definitely had an impact on my life. Thanks for the comment!

      1. Thank you for the introduction to Thich Nhat Hahn. I will be reading more of his writings thanks to you. His life touched a lot of people.

      2. Yes, he was a great teacher. There are so many of his teachings available on the internet that it should be pretty easy to get a good understand of his thoughts and teaching style. Happy reading!

    1. Hi Barbara, I am glad that you found this useful. The Plum Village and the Order of Interbeing website also have lots of information about Thich Nhat Hahn’s life and work. I hope all is well,

  1. What an in-depth, well researched piece this is, Mark. I’m not sure, but I may have read some of Thich Nhat Hahn’s poetry at this site: https://songngutaitram.org/ You may be familiar with it–it’s a Vietnamese poetry blog with some fascinating translations. Thich Nhat Hahn seems to have lived a full life. His poetry featured here is startlingly beautiful in its simplicity. I was especially struck by this quote: “There’s a revolution that needs to happen and it starts from inside each one of us. We need to wake up and fall in love with Earth. Our personal and collective happiness and survival depends on it.” So much truth in these words. Thanks for bringing awareness of Thich Nhat Hahn to us. 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, yes I know songngutaitram.org. I notice that they have posted a few of his pieces. Thich Nhat Hahn’s application of Zen and Mindfulness was so completed that even his simple instructions were embedded with tons of wisdom. For example for mindful walking, his instructions are just walk. It is so much harder to just walk and be present in walking than you would think! Thanks again for the thoughtful comment. Talk soon,

    1. Hi Julie, I agree with that statement. There is something that is so relatable about his work. Thanks for the comment and I hope all is well,

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