The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I
walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower
—Thich Nhat Hanh
Deep in the heart of darkness, in a time of napalm, carpet-bombing, and
Agent Orange, a flower bloomed in the form of a young Buddhist monk
named Thich Nhat Hanh. Instead of closing his heart to the horrors of
the Vietnam War, he did the opposite: he opened up to the ultimate
source of strength. He opened up to true love, and in doing so, he
inspired what has become a worldwide movement of politically engaged
Thay, as he is affectionately known, recognized that true love begins
with looking deeply, with emptying the heart of preconceptions and
allowing spaciousness to occur. With this empty heart, empty of all
illusion, comes compassion, comes courage, comes joy, comes wisdom.
Comes true love. With a lived understanding of how all life interconnects—what he calls
“interbeing”—Thich Nhat Hanh went beyond mere thought or contemplation
and took action. In the midst of the Vietnam War, he founded the Order
of Interbeing, started an important peace magazine, and launched Youth
Social Services, a group of committed practitioners who saw the
Buddha’s teachings as a truth that required them to be “lotuses in a
sea of fire.” He gave birth to “Engaged Buddhism,” a movement that
would spread around the world from its small base in Vietnam.
In 1966, at the age of forty, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from his
beloved Vietnam. His crime was to see the suffering of the Communist
and the nationalist, the soldier and the civilian, the victim and the
perpetrator as interdependent. He was considered a traitor by the power
brokers on both sides for acknowledging the humanity of everyone
entangled in that awful web of war.
During his four decades of exile, Thay did not rest. He traveled
throughout the world, offering his message of reconciliation and peace.
After the war’s end, he brought together Vietnam War vets and
Vietnamese refugees to help them find reconciliation and healing. He
worked in prisons, led peace walks, and spread the dharma, going
wherever his wisdom was needed. Once, when Thay was returning from his
first visit to prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution
(which would become the basis for his book Be Free Where You Are), he
said he would much rather be in prison than in the Pure Land, because
it is in the places of the greatest suffering that the greatest
opportunities to practice compassion exist.
But in the long years away from his beloved Vietnam, as he rose to
worldwide prominence as a Buddhist teacher, Thay always heard the call
of his homeland. Again and again he asked for permission to return but
was denied. Finally, in 2005, Thich Nhat Hanh was allowed to go home.
He and members of his sangha traveled throughout Vietnam, working to
reinstate the Buddhist monastic tradition that had been fractured by
years of war and Communist rule.
In the spring of 2007, Thich Nhat Hanh brought members of his community
with him on a second tour, and I accompanied the party as a filmmaker
and chronicler of this historic return. While I was there, I had the
good fortune to interview Thich Nhat Hanh, who talked at some length
about his reasons for returning to Vietnam and what he was doing there.
“The tour is an opportunity to go back to Vietnam and practice with
people,” he told me. “For forty years, I was unable to offer teaching
and practice to the people of Vietnam. So my only purpose is to be with
the people, to meet with them, and to offer them retreats, days of
mindfulness, dharma talks, and walking meditation. Most of the people
who participate were born during my absence. Yet when I see them, I can
recognize their patterns. They are the continuation of their parents
and they continue the practice. The younger generation is very inspired
by the fact that Buddhism has been able to be renewed, so that they can
receive the teachings, understand the practice, and take it up.”
But Thay said there was something else he wanted to do on this visit:
make a relationship with the war dead and help heal the wounds that
people still suffer from the war. “We will conduct ceremonies to pray
for victims of the war on both sides,” he said. “This is the first time
such ceremonies have been allowed. They are very traditional rites, but
they are also like a festival, in a way. The people who are still alive
come together and think of the dead people. They pray for them and
reconcile. The war has left many wounds within each person, and there
has been no chance to reconcile the warring parties. This is a
collective practice of healing. If we don’t transform the suffering and
the wounds now, they will be transmitted to the next generation. They
will suffer and they will not understand why. It’s better to do
something right away to transform the suffering and the injustice that
we have experienced.”
What follows is the story, as I experienced it, of Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2007 return to Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City
Thay has a packed three-month schedule of retreats, teachings, and
ceremonies to heal the wounds of war, talking to crowds in temples
filled beyond capacity, leading groups of up to 10,000 on meditation
retreats, and bringing those of us blessed to be around him on a
journey into the depths of mindfulness. Although restrictions on
religious freedoms have recently been relaxed in Vietnam, one can still
be considered anti-Communist for worshipping at a Buddhist temple. But
the walls are slowing coming down, and Thay is stepping into the
opening by focusing on reconciliation, on helping to transform the
lasting suffering of war from pain into love.
I land at Tan Son Nhat airport on the day the tour begins and find Thay
seated on a bench surrounded by smiling monks and nuns, looking very
happy. A bespectacled monk named Thich Phap An, one of his senior
monks, approaches, and I explain that I am the Canadian filmmaker who
has been invited on the tour to gather footage for my feature
documentary, Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action, which chronicles
the rising tide of spiritual activism across the globe. I am three
months into my journey, searching the world for contemporary stories of
what Gandhi called “soul force,” what Alice Walker calls “the human
sunrise,” and what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “love in action.”
I began this leg of the voyage in New Zealand, visiting a Maori peace
village whose early nonviolent civil disobedience inspired Gandhi. In
Kenya, I attended the World Social Forum, the largest gathering of
grassroots change-makers in history. In South Africa, I visited the
Phoenix Ashram, where Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement was born. In India,
I visited with the Dalits (formerly, “untouchables”), who are in a
period of change and empowerment similar to the American Civil Rights
movement, and in Sri Lanka, I filmed the Sarvadoyan community, the
largest contemporary Gandhian movement in existence. And now I find
myself in Vietnam, with the monastics of Plum Village and Deer Park
(Thay’s monastery in southern California), along with a collection of
international sangha members, stepping into the heartland of Engaged
Our first stop is Ho Chi Minh City, renamed after what could be called
either “the fall of Saigon” or “the rise of Ho Chi Minh,” depending on
your perspective. It always comes down to perspective. Ho Chi Minh
City’s wide streets are lined with red banners and swarming with mopeds
and pedestrians. Crossing the chaos seems impossible at first, but
watching the locals at work, I can see the buzzing bikes part like a
school of fish in the face of a pedestrian. All that’s required is
After a silent, meditative breakfast with the other international
sangha members in our hotel restaurant, we take a bus to the Phap Van
temple, the base for Thay’s Engaged Buddhism back in the sixties. A
swarm of cameras greets the stately arrival of Thich Nhat Hanh, who
leads us on a slow, calming, walking meditation. Then we gather in the
dining hall to receive our robes and alms bowl. I’ve always been drawn
to the simplicity and focus I’ve witnessed in monastics, particularly
in the joyous Plum Village sangha, and I’m thrilled with this
opportunity to be a semi-monk for a month. I look around at my new
traveling companions—seventy foreigners from around the world—all
dressed up in light blue robes, tentative and slightly awed by this
sudden transformation. We are no longer civilians.
For the Vietnamese people, the presence of the international sangha is
very important. Many Vietnamese have rejected their traditional
Buddhist culture, partly because of the religious repression under
Communism but also out of a lack of self-esteem. The West is considered
a paradise, as seen on satellite TV—a world of big cars and flashy
products and seemingly endless wealth. The sight of a large group of
robed Westerners practicing Vietnamese Buddhism offers them a sense of
pride in their own culture.
After a delicious vegetarian lunch, eaten out of our new monk’s bowls,
we slip off our shoes and gather under a canvas awning set up in front
of the main temple. There we are greeted by Sister Chan Khong, who has
long been Thay’s closest assistant. As a fourteen-year-old, Chan Khong
(“True Emptiness”) was struck by the unfair gap between rich and poor
and began going from door to door in her neighborhood, saying,
“Consider me like the bird pecking at your rice pot. Give me one
handful of rice, that’s all, for those who don’t have enough.” Early
on, she knew that her role in life was to express her love in action.
She became the St. Clare to Thich Nhat Hanh’s St. Francis.
Sister Chan Khong was one of the first six members of Thay’s Order of
Interbeing, and during the war she worked fearlessly for peace with
Youth Social Services. This group of courageous young people stepped
into the fray to offer support and solace on the front lines,
resettling homeless war victims, rebuilding bombed-out hamlets, moving
through the wreckage with profound grace. There were times when bombed
villages were rebuilt, only to be bombed, only to be rebuilt, only to
be bombed—again, and again, and again. Many of these young spiritual
activists were killed or wounded, but still they refused to hate, they
refused to take sides, they refused to give up.
Although Thay is credited with coining the term “Engaged Buddhism,” he
believes that all Buddhism must be engaged or it’s not Buddhism. He
explains that “when you practice sitting meditation in the temple and
you hear the bomb victims crying outside, you have to go out and help,
because to meditate is to be aware of what is going on in yourself and
also around you. In a situation of war, you have to be engaged to be
true to your tradition of compassion and love. But if you are so busy
doing the work of relief, you may lose your practice and you will be
exhausted. You’ll be burnt out. That is why you have to find ways to
maintain your practice, maintain your solidity, your freedom, your
peace while you are doing the work.
“Nonviolent action,” he continues, “is an expression of your love.
Society has so many social ills as a result of development and
globalization. If you have true love, you see what you can do to
transform the problems of drugs, alcohol, violence, and the breaking up
of families. There are so many, many ways for you to express your love.”
Ten Thousand Hearts
Following his first visit back to Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh established
the Prajna Monastery, near the town of Bao Loc, about six hours by bus
south of Saigon. It is a beautiful complex of temples, meditation
halls, and dormitories, perched on a hillside surrounded by groves of
pine trees and coffee plantations. The valley below is laced with soft,
meandering, red-dirt trails that are perfect for walking meditation and
that have small pagodas for quiet sitting. At one end of the valley, a
giant white Buddha sits under a tree, and at the other end, there is a
giant white Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, her soft
countenance glowing. A graceful temple with sweeping arches and cool
tiles for devotion and meditation is flanked by lions on each corner,
dharma protectors of fierce compassion. A sign carved in stone at the
foot of the hill reads: “I have arrived. I am home.”
Originally, there was only a single temple here. The abbot was a strong
supporter of Thich Nhat Hanh. All through the years of Thay’s exile the
abbot maintained contact and helped with the Plum Village social work
projects that spread throughout this region. When Thay came back to
Vietnam for the first time three years ago, he inaugurated a new
monastery on the surrounding lands. In the brief time between the
visits, this enormous center of peace has sprouted. Three hundred new
monks and nuns live here, and more are being ordained all the time.
This represents a reinvigoration of the Buddhist sangha in Vietnam, in
the Plum Village tradition.
After a “Lazy Day,” a day without responsibilities, we begin a formal
meditation retreat, along with ten thousand Vietnamese participants. No
one anticipated such a turnout, but it’s evident that there is a great
hunger for the teachings here. We sit together, ten thousand hearts,
taking in the soft radiance of a teacher returning to his homeland,
revitalizing a religion that had grown stale.
Thay says that religion is like the skin of the jackfruit. We must go
for the juice inside. We need to return to the original teachings. The
Buddha taught “signlessness”—not to be trapped by signs. Sister Chan
Khong tells me, “In the time of the Buddha, there was no Buddhism. You
must touch your own peace, your own light, your own deep understanding.
That is the Buddha in you. You can call it God, you can call it Allah.
Don’t try to put it into a box called Buddhism, Christianity, or
Judaism. Use the tool of signlessness offered by the Buddha. Then you
can touch the reality of beauty, of greatness.”
Infused With Love
By the middle of the trip, I am in love. I can barely contain myself
during the mindful walking meditations—it feels like mindful skipping.
Fortunately, being with the Plum Village sangha is a safe place for a
lover. No one thinks I’m crazy if I smile a little too widely. It feels
like everything is in sync. To me, every chirp of a bird is a love song
When I watch Thay as he leads the morning walking meditations, I sense
that his heart is blown wide open. His brand of Zen Buddhism is far
removed from the stick-thwacking, koan-churning stereotype of Zen. His
is a practice infused with love, in all its dimensions. You can see it
running through his students. The sangha beams with love and smiles.
Even when Thay is not around, I am still imbibing his teachings,
transmitted with authenticity by his students. This is not a grim,
repressed bunch of monks and nuns, fearers of life hiding out in the
security of the monastery. These people are engaged; they’re living
fully, in this moment, freely sharing their findings with the rest of
Phap An, one of Thay’s senior monks, says that before he met Thay he
spent years meditating on a deceptively simple koan: Who am I? It
became an obsession: Who am I lifting this arm? Who am I taking this
step? Who am I moving through space? Then he met Thay and discovered
meditation in action. He dropped the philosophy and started living,
being fully alive. There is some formal meditation at Plum Village, but
not a lot. More important is how you live life. How you fully show up.
It’s not about analyzing yourself into enlightenment. It’s about being,
now. Now. Now. Now.
When I ask Phap An about the meaning of love, he says, “When your eyes
open, then love happens. Love is a state of mind where you are very
bright, very clear. There is connectivity between you and the rest of
the universe. It is a source of energy that makes you dissolve among
things. Slowly a process of opening begins, your mind begins to expand,
and you begin to see things much more clearly. You hear the sound of
the bird chirping and you see the green on the bamboo. You feel a lot
of energy to be alive. That is love. It gives you the energy to serve.
You feel your life is very wonderful. That is a spiritual love.”
I love asking about love, now that I’m in love. I ask Sister Chan Khong
what love is, and her response is so beautiful I am in tears. She
speaks from such a deep place of knowing, with a sweet, soft, strong
voice. Sweet as a flower and strong as a lion. She says that we need to
love a person the way we love a tree—not just the surface, not just the
branches or the trunk, but also the roots. We need to know all of
them—their ancestors, their family, their friends, their dreams. This
is all part of who they are. What is it that really matters to them? A
lover always offers joy and eases suffering.
And there is plenty of suffering to ease in Vietnam. As Thay says, “The
war created so many victims. There has been so much injustice, for the
North Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese, the hundreds of thousands of
boat people who died at sea, the people who died in prisons and in
re-education camps, the soldiers of both North and South who died in
the battlefield in the mountains and rivers, many of whose bones have
never been found.”
A Simple Dinner With Thay
After a few weeks at the monastery I’ve gathered all the shots I need,
all the slow-moving images of walking monks and nuns, of bubbling
brooks and giant white Buddhas, of towering bodhisattvas of compassion
and roaring dharma protector lions, of rows of robed humanity seated in
the majestic temple with soft faces and eyes closed in deep
I have it all, save for my interview with Thay. I want to ask him about
the real meaning of love. We postpone our departure for Ho Chi Minh
City and go into a holding pattern. Every day, Sister Chan Khong gives
us an update, saying, “Maybe tomorrow!”
As the days of waiting pass, it begins to feel like the film Waiting
for Fidel, about a documentary crew that goes to Cuba to interview
Castro. They’re always told, “Tomorrow for sure.” The crew turns the
camera on themselves, and they slowly start to go crazy, drinking way
too much Cuban rum, arguing all the time, combusting in real time. They
never do get their interview, but they wind up with a hilarious and an
instructive film. Something always emerges. We’re not hitting the booze
here, though on occasion we do sneak out of the monastery for an ice
What emerges is a time of quiet reflection and gentle patience. A
chance to let the teachings soak in. There is a monastic retreat on,
all soft and silent, a sea of endless smiles. All month I’ve been
smiling and bowing like crazy. If I keep doing this back home, people
will think I’m nuts.
One morning, as I am walking up the path from my favorite little
valley, who should I run into but Thich Nhat Hanh, alone with his two
attendants. I stop and bow, and he gives me a great big beaming smile.
I am a little awestruck, because normally when I see him he is sitting
in front of 10,000 people or leading a walking meditation with
thousands behind him. I beam back and am about to continue on, but he
says, “I think today we can do the interview. I’ll let you know.”
“Thank you so much!” I eagerly reply.
We bow, trade smiles, and I continue down the path. A few hours later,
the interview is confirmed. I go down to the kitchen and meet Sister
“Are you ready? Do you have your camera?”
“Right here.” I pat my monk’s bag, camera stowed away inside.
“First get some food and bring it down with you.”
Ah, so we are having dinner with Thay first. My producer, Cher, and I
fill up our bowls with the simple vegetarian food—rice, jackfruit, a
little tofu, and some steamed water spinach. Sister Chan Khong leads us
down the path to Thay’s house, a simple, lovely little house, like a
miniature version of one of the temples. We slip off our shoes and step
inside. Thay is seated behind a low wooden table with a tray holding
small bowls of vegetables, red rice, and fresh herbs. Two meditation
cushions are laid out for us.
He smiles. “Come in, sit down.”
We sit down, along with Sister Chan Khong.
“I saw you down by the creek today. You were filming the waterfall?”
That morning, when I was on the path above Thay, I had filmed him
walking along the stream. He looked up at me while I was filming. I was
afraid that he felt I was invading his privacy, but by his smile I
could see that he was happy I was capturing the beauty of Prajna
“Yes, it’s so beautiful down there. So peaceful.”
Thay gestures to our bowls.
Out of respect, we wait until he has taken the first mouthful, and then
we begin to eat. He reaches into a small bowl of lemongrass shoots with
chopsticks and offers me a piece.
“Try this. It tastes so nice.” I put my bowl out and he drops it in.
“It is delicious,” I say. “The gardens here are so beautiful. Can you grow all year?”
“Yes, every season,” Thay says.
We eat in silence for a while, and then chat about the laypersons’
retreat. I tell him that I think it’s incredible how many people the
monastery can handle.
“We don’t have enough facilities, in fact,” he says in his soft voice.
“People are sleeping everywhere. And not enough toilets. We’ll have to
build more. Here, try this. Do you know what this is? I don’t know the
word in English.”
He offers us another tasty leaf.
“It tastes like cilantro,” I reply.
Thay takes a piece himself, tasting it carefully, taking such a simple
delight in the sensation. The sensual pleasures of a monk. He offers us
“A good laxative,” Sister Chan Khong says, which is a little too much
information. As she eats, she leafs through a Vietnamese magazine with
an article about the tour. Sister Chan Khong seems very comfortable;
she and Thay have been on this path together for more than four
“Vegetarian meat,” Thay explains, laughing gently as he hands us a
plate of fried mushrooms. “And how has your experience been here with
“It has been wonderful,” I say. “And it has really enhanced my
filmmaking practice. I always say that filmmaking is about being aware,
about truly seeing, but here, surrounded by so many mindful people, I
have been even more mindful. Even if I wasn’t directly participating in
the walking meditation, I was moving very mindfully from shot to shot.
Every moment has been a meditation.
Thank you for that.”
Cher adds, “The lay delegation wanted us to let you know how happy they
are to be with you, Thay. They asked us to pass that on.”
He bows with his hands joined together. Sister Chan Khong talks about
her visit to the free Buddhist-inspired schools they have set up in
places where the children have no access to education. It is always
sweet to see her with children—she seems to be the youngest of them
all. She describes to Thay how she had to go on the back of a
motorcycle to get to the more remote schools, bumping along the red,
dusty roads through coffee plantations and up the sides of mountains.
She laughs uproariously as she tells how the motorcycle driver tried to
reassure her by saying, “Don’t worry, if you crash, I will too!” She’s
vibrant and feisty, quite a contrast to Thay’s quiet joy.
After dinner, Thay offers us cookies for dessert, and then we set up
the camera for the interview. “If you ask good questions, you’ll get
good answers,” he tells me.
He looks deep into my eyes, holding me in his powerful yet gentle gaze
as he answers my question about the meaning of love. “Love in Buddhism
has very specific meanings,” he says. “First of all, it is
loving-kindness, the capacity of offering joy, offering happiness,
relief. The second element of true love in Buddhism is compassion.
Compassion is the capacity of removing the pain and suffering in the
other person. The capacity of helping him or her transform something
inside. And the third element of true love is joy. So true love should
have the element of joy.
“And the last element of true love in Buddhism, is equanimity,
inclusiveness. You do not exclude anyone. No discrimination. This is
the very element of true love. If you love in that spirit, you remain
free. You will not suffer and you do not make the other people suffer.
And when you have that kind of love within, everything you say,
everything you do, expresses that love.”
Three Requiem Masses
The greatest expression of Thay’s love is the Grand Requiem Masses for
the three to five million people who died in the war. They are held in
three cities for three days each, in the north, center, and south of
Vietnam, three acupuncture points on the psyche of Vietnam to heal the
wounds of war. Thay notes that the liturgy and chanting is quite
different in each place, reflecting the qualities and traditions of
Vietnam’s various regions. People around the world are also invited to
join in the ceremonies, to say their own prayers in whatever way they
like. Even the non-religious can take part, and Thay suggests that
Communists read from their texts that celebrate humanity.
Thay explains, “This is really a therapy practice. It is something very
ancient and deep in the Vietnamese tradition. Most of us believe that
the spirit of the deceased responds to our invitation to eat with us
during the ceremony. We will offer them food, drink, and especially the
dharma, so that they can listen to the dharma chanting and transform
their suffering and feel that they can be reborn in good places.”
The first of the healing ceremonies is held a month into the tour at a
large temple in Ho Chi Minh City. The complex is alive with banners,
altars, and subterranean rooms filled with sheets of paper listing the
names of the dead. Thousands of people stay throughout the three days
of elaborate processions and rituals. The monastics travel to the
graveyard of those deemed “anti-Communist” that has been closed to all,
even family members, for decades. They invite those neglected dead to
join us—everyone is welcome. Flickering paper lotus flower boats are
released on the dark river. Incense offerings are made. The chanting
goes well into the night.
Thay opens the ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City with a powerful dharma
talk. He sits before us, calm, open, and bright-eyed. He asks us to
consider where our loved ones who have died have gone. One needs to
look deeply, he says, to see that they are present in us. Just as the
cloud becomes the rain, and then the rain becomes tea, so our ancestors
continue on in us. If we are well, light, and free in our mind and
body, then the ancestors in us will be too. Our loved ones only change
shape and form—there is no coming, no going, no birth, no death. All
those who died unjustly during the war need the collective energy of
the country to heal.
As we sit through the long hours of the ceremony, the full weight of
what happened to this battered land comes rushing in. My tears begin to
fall, the rain of ancestors. I welcome these tears. Since I opened my
heart to love, I’ve found that I am no longer afraid of tears. Sister
Chan Khong tells me that when they bombed Hanoi, Thay wept because his
people were dying. And yet when they bombed Afghanistan and when they
bombed Iraq, he also cried with the same depth of concern. He made no
distinction. They all deserved our tears. Thay wrote a letter to George
W. Bush, wishing that the president could open his heart enough to feel
for the people he was bombing. He said, “I wish that you could cry like
me. You would suffer, but then you would make all the best decisions.”
There is nothing weak about Thich Nhat Hanh, even though he has such an
open heart. He is a living testament to fierce compassion. As our time
together draws to a close, he looks at me with a strong, clear gaze and
says, “In the Buddhist tradition, love is born from understanding. In
order to understand, you have to take the time to look deeply and to
listen deeply. If you have that kind of love, every word you say,
everything you do, will be nonviolent, not as mere tactics but as an
expression of your love. Understanding the suffering of the other
person brings true love.”