Ode to Thich Nhat Hanh, Inspired by Earth Day

Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, compassion, and the insight of interbeing in our daily lives and promote peace education, mindful mediation, and reconciliation within families, communities, ethnic and religious groups, nations and the world. We are committed not to kill and not to let others kill. We will not support any act of killing in the world, in our thinking or in our way of life. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life, prevent war and build peace.

~ Twelfth mindfulness training of the Order of Interbeing, Plum Village tradition of Zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh




I was first introduced to the teachings of Zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh as an undergraduate student in the late 90s, at McGill University’s School of Environment.

I had started taking a yoga class and fell in love with the practice. An anxiety-ridden college student with pretty low self-esteem, yoga was helping me to discover within myself a sense of inner peace that I had never known. In telling my cousin about this passion for yoga and my new discovery, he said, “There’s a book you have to read…” and wow, was he ever right!

Peace Every Step book coverThe book was Peace Is Every Step by Vietnamese Zenmaster Thich Nhat Hanh, and it has probably changed my life more than any other book I’ve ever read. When I read his words, that we can create peace in everything we do, from walking to breathing to the way we wash the dishes, my heart sang, “This is how I want to live my life!” This was so counter to the culture of being a university student, a place where people wore stress and overwork like a badge of honor, and where alcohol was the main outlet for this stress. This idea of another way of living, by creating peace in everything we do, was revolutionary to me. That little book has shaped the trajectory of my life ever since, taking me down a path to the Peace Corps, the peace education program at the University for Peace, becoming a yoga teacher, and my current work teaching peace studies and serving as the Director of Education for the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

Thich Nhat Hanh has led an incredible life of peace activism. Thay, as he is affectionately called by his students (it means “teacher” in Vietnamese), ordained as a Buddhist monk when he was 16, and in the early 1960s founded the School of Youth for Social Service, a community development volunteer corps to help rebuild communities and provide basic services in wartorn Vietnam. Through his social action work outside the monastery, he founded the engaged Buddhism movement, based on the idea that Buddhist practitioners should be active in the woThich Nhat Hanhrld, relieving suffering and cultivating peace both in themselves and in the world, and that Buddhism is as much – if not more – about how we live our lives and how we engage in our world than the time we spend on a cushion or the sutras we study. Because SYSS was nonpartisan and did not take sides during the war, its members were very vulnerable to attacks and were targeted by both sides in the conflict.

Thay left Vietnam in the mid-sixties to go on a teaching tour in the US, speaking out against the war and calling for peace. There he met Martin Luther King, Jr., and urged him to come out against the war. King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, and he was highly influential in King’s public stance against the war. In 1969, Thich Nhat Hanh was a delegate for the Paris Peace Talks, and in 1973, when the peace accords were signed, he was denied permission to return to his home and went into exile in France, where he still resides to this day, at the monastery he founded there, Plum Village. In November 2014, at the age of 89, Thay experienced a severe brain hemorrhage, and was just recently released from the hospital to continue rehabilitation at his home, which is very happy news!

I had the opportunity to be on retreat with Thay at Deer Park Monastery (2011 and 2013), and he taught me so much about the importance of presence in both teaching and peacemaking.

What I learned from him is hard to convey in words, but I will do my best. Thay has such a powerful, peaceful presence that he transforms the field around him, creating a wide zone of peace and generating peace in every action. It’s palpable. He truly embodies what he writes and teaches, in his steps, in the way he sips tea, in the way he opens a door. Given how deeply his words impacted me, to see those words embodied in the very real spirit of this gentle monk was incredibly powerful, and awakened in me the realization that each of us has the potential to transform ourselves and the world around us in this same way. Each of us, by our very presence and way of being, can change the world, and he is a living example of this. He truly creates peace in every step.

As a peace educator, being with Thay, an incredibly skillful teacher (he’s called Teacher, after all!), deeply influenced my own teaching. As a teacher, you can’t teach effectively if you are not present to your students – or to yourself and the world around you. Also, just by your presence and your example, you have the power to transform your students and your classroom, and I believe this to be particularly important in the field of peace education. This is something that I share with my students at the beginning of the semester, emphasizing the importance of our presence for each other in creating a learning community, and the importance of presence in peacemaking. You cannot resolve a conflict if you are not present! And for that matter, you stand to possibly create a lot of unnecessary conflicts if you are not present – if you are not listening actively, hearing what others have to say, seeking to understand. Presence is the foundation of our classroom interactions, and we begin each class with the sound of a bell to bring our attention together.

In honor of Earth Day, another one of Thay’s teachings that I would like to share is that of interbeing, another term that he coined (he is very creative like that). More than just interconnectedness, interbeing means that our very existence is intertwined, that we are not separate at all, that we exist because everything else exists. We inter-are, with other humans and with the entire cosmos.

One of his most recent books is called Love Letter to the Earth, and it is just that: his expression Love Letter book coverof our interbeing with the Earth, and his call to action for mindful living for ecological healing. It is through this understanding and awareness of our interbeing with each other and the planet that we have the potential to solve our current environmental crises. The book highlights our potential to create a new relationship with the Earth by seeing ourselves as the Earth, rather than seeing the Earth as something outside ourselves. He writes:

We often forget that the planet we are living on has given us all the elements that make up our bodies. The water in our flesh, our bones, and all the microscopic cells inside our bodies all come from the Earth and are part of the Earth. We are a living, breathing manifestation of this beautiful and generous planet.

For the Sustainability, Justice and Ethics course I teach at San Diego City College, I give students the option of writing a love letter to the Earth as their final paper for the course as a way of expressing their personal environmental ethic. You can view the prompt here.

On the topic of Earth Day, I would also like to share some of my favorite Earth Day education-related resources, which are sources of great inspiration for me and indispensable to my teaching practice:

A People’s Curriculum for the Earth by Rethinking Schools: a fantastic resource filled with articles and lesson plans to teach the environmental crisis. When I received the book in the mail, I used it the very next week in class. Rich with role plays, simulations, stories, poems, and graphics, it is a must-have resource for anyone who wants to teach about sustainability, environmental justice, and preserving our planet.

Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown: The book serves as a guide to the Work that Reconnects, which Joanna Macy developed over decades as a peace and environmental activist, Buddhist scholar and practitioner, deep ecologist and systems thinker. The book offers numerous activities that can be adapted for classroom use. One in particular that I have found to be particularly powerful with my students is “Council of All Beings.” Read an excerpt here, and get an adapted lesson for that activity from The Institute for Humane Education.