There was a time in my life — late June or early July of 2012, in the weeks following the worst depressive episode I’ve ever experienced — where the only thing I could do was sit on the beach, breathe, and read Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve thought of that time often, in the pandemic, and his death last Saturday at the age of 95 has made the memory more pressing. Nhat Hanh, a world-renowned Zen Buddhist, was a great teacher for uncertain and frightening times.
Thich Nhat Hanh was more than the cuddly, commodified “spiritual” figure he’s sometimes made out to be. He rose to prominence protesting the war in Vietnam. His ideas about nonviolence influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., who nominated him for a Nobel peace prize in 1967, saying that “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy than this gentle monk from Vietnam.” He was a profound influence on the great Black feminist bell hooks: “His work was ever-present in my work,” hooks wrote.
So, no: Thich Nhat Hanh’s spirituality was never the fluffy, healing-crystal, pay-$2,000-for-a-retreat-to-heal-your-past-life-trauma kind, although late in his life, when you could find cute little books full of his aphorisms in every bookstore’s self-help section, he often seemed that way. In his work, Buddhism necessitated taking some responsibility for the world, in part because it involved the realization that “the world” and the self were not separate entities; compassion and social justice were interdependent.
I was in no shape to grapple with social justice in the summer of 2012. I barely understood compassion, and had none for myself. What drew me to Thich Nhat Hanh was the simplicity of his teaching, which mostly amounted to: If you are lost, stop running. Sit down, right where you are, and breathe. Experience the moment, without distracting yourself from it, and see what starts to emerge.
“Enlightenment,” in Thich Nhat Hanh’s work, was not some ethereal, otherworldly state, but a very practical talent for being fully present: “To be enlightened is to be enlightened on something,” he wrote. “I am enlightened on the fact that I am drinking a…