During a recent visit to Thailand’s Chiang Mai city, Thich Nhat Hanh, an internationally renowned Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, told hundreds of adherents that he had wanted to become a monk at age nine after he saw an image in a magazine of Buddha sitting peacefully.
"The Buddha was sitting so peacefully on the grass, not on a lotus flower, but he looked very happy and peaceful," said the 80-year-old monk, describing the magazine picture to the audience.
Hanh said the magazine portrait of the Buddha painted an idyllic and attractive picture in his young mind.
In a dharma teaching titled "Live Alive," the Zen master, poet, peace and human rights activist talked about his background and his understanding and practice of Buddhism to approximately 800 people that gathered to listen to him at the city’s Wat Suan Dok temple.
At the age of 16, Hanh said, he entered the monastery to become a monk with the full support of his parents. But along the way to monk-hood, he hit an ideological crisis.
"There was only one time I wanted to quit being a monk. That was when I realized that many of the high monks around me did not practice what they preached," Hanh told the gathering.
According to Hanh, though the high monks spoke of compassion and kindness, they did little to offer support to the hordes of people that lived in misery in his country.
"I wanted to quit the monastery to become a Communist fighter because I found the principles of equality and justice contained in that political movement very appealing," he said.
But upon reflection, he decided not to follow the Communist route because of his firm belief in the process of nonviolence to resolve social problems. In spite of upholding equality and justice, the Communist movement practiced violence as a means to create a just society. However, Buddhism strongly encourages nonviolence – a concept that completely resonated with Hanh.
"The most tempting thing in the life of a monk is not a beautiful young lady, but ideology," he said.
Deep in his heart, Hanh explained, he knew that Buddhism could offer tangible solutions to the problems that were evident in his war-torn country.
So began his journey to make Buddhism socially engaged and relevant through peaceful means, a journey that has made him famous with people from different religious backgrounds around the world.
As a result of his efforts, the monk was exiled from Vietnam to the United States in 1966, at the age of 40. He was banned by both the non-Communist and Communist governments in Vietnam for his role in undermining the violence he saw affecting his people.
While in the United States, he played a key role in inspiring the Vietnamese-American antiwar movement as well as peaceful resolutions to world problems.
In 1967, civil rights leader Martin Luther King nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, describing him as "the gentle monk from Vietnam" whose ideas for peace could be beneficial to humanity, if applied.
"As a monk I have been able to transform the suffering in myself to help other people," Hanh told the audience. "You cannot help another person to change unless you change, just like you cannot love another person unless you love yourself first."
Hanh is credited with establishing the School of Youth for Social Services (SYSS) in Saigon after the Vietnam War. SYSS was a grassroots relief organization that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, and resettled families left homeless during the war. He also coined the term "engaged Buddhism," which basically implies applying meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political and economic suffering and injustice.
"The life of a monk can be filled with love and love can help to make other people happy," he said. "If you cannot understand the suffering of another person, you cannot offer help."
Hanh added that many people around the world were sitting on heaps of burning coals, their lives characterized by tension, pain and sorrow. He blamed stress for the manifestation of disease in people’s lives.
"The teaching of Buddha shows how to remove the tension in your body. The fact that Buddha sat on a lotus flower means wherever you sit in life, you can be free and happy," he said.
However, to achieve this requires a diligent and vigilant practice of mindfulness in moment-to-moment living.
"We are used to running in our lives. There’s a belief that happiness is impossible here, right now, but maybe in the future. We do not live deeply each moment. There’s only one moment when we truly arrive, that is, the present moment," Hanh said.
The practice of mindfulness, he explained, demands that one be fully engaged with their place in the present moment, relieving oneself of the guilt of the past, the chattering voices of the present and the unrealized concerns of the future.
"If you bring your body to the present moment, you have available to you all the treasure of the world," he said. The present moment is the only place you can reach the future.
"Every step you take should bring you home. So invest 100 percent of your mind and body into each step to be able to arrive fully so that you can touch the wonders of life."
On how to achieve enlightenment, Hanh told the audience: "There is no way to enlightenment. Enlightenment is the way. Every small step if taken in full mindedness leads to small enlightenment, which will lead to the big enlightenment."