The image awakened a clear and strong desire in him to become just like that Buddha: someone who embodied calm, peace, and ease, and who could help others around him also be calm, peaceful, and at ease.

Buddhism, if updated and restored to its core teachings and practices, could truly help relieve suffering in society, and offer a nonviolent path to peace, prosperity, and independence

Buddhism, if updated and restored to its core teachings and practices, could truly help relieve suffering in society, and offer a nonviolent path to peace, prosperity, and independence

the importance of studying science and economics in order to understand the actual roots of suffering, and not rely only on chanting and prayer.

For example, Tiến Hóa Buddhist magazine. Thầy was also inspired by the writings of Zen Master Thích Mật Thể (1912-1961) and the author Nguyễn Trọng Thuật (1883–1940). Both figures saw the deep riches in Vietnamese Zen history and the capacity of Buddhism to bring about “a new spring” for Vietnam, the kind of Buddhist renewal also being proposed by other reformers and modernists elsewhere, for example, the Chinese Master Taixu (1890-1947). Thích Mật Thể studied with Master Tinh Nghiêm (Qing Yan) in China, and brought back his ideas to Huế.

Thầy and his friends stayed and studied at a number of other different temples, for weeks or months at a time, while they pursued their self-directed studies.

He dug deep into Vietnam’s own history to propose a truly Vietnamese way out of the situation, drawing on the very engaged role Buddhism had played during the Trần and Lý Dynasties between the 11th and 13th Centuries, that had so inspired him as a young monk.

How Thay’s Buddhism was different

With this new dream of a “rural practice center” Thầy definitively broke free of the mould of the traditional Buddhist temple with its ceremonies and rituals, and created an environment exclusively dedicated to spiritual practice, study, healing, music, poetry, and community-building. They enjoyed sitting meditation in the early morning, tea meditation in the afternoons, and sitting meditation in the evenings. Phương Bối was an experimental model for the renewal and reinvigoration of Buddhism. Though few may have foreseen it, Phương Bối became a prototype for Thầy’s many “mindfulness practice centers” that would flourish around the world by the end of the century.

Thầy’s influence in Asia bloomed, especially among the young, who were drawn to his new style of Buddhism, free from dogma, ritual, and superstition.

At his centers, he has stripped away many rituals, formalities, and esoteric observances to restore the living essence of Buddhist meditation practice. In so doing he has gone beyond simply teaching “Mahayana Zen” Buddhism, per se, to teaching a modern, renewed, revitalized Buddhism and meditation practice in harmony with the spirit of the Buddha’s original teachings.

Thầy has revitalized Buddhism for the twenty-first century, and transformed Buddhism from a devotional or scholarly pursuit into a living practice that can continue to renew itself.

He has integrated ancient Buddhist wisdom with elements from Western psychology, science, ecology, ethics, and education, to address the deep roots of fear, violence, oppression, injustice, and environmental destruction; and offer a way forward for the human family to touch peace, reconciliation and true happiness.

Using mindful walking to heal himself from depression

But Thầy had the intuition that, if only he could master his full awareness of breathing and walking, he would be able to truly heal. It was the very challenges of the 1950s that forged the deepening of Thầy’s personal practice, and gave him the spiritual strength he needed to find a way forward. As a young monk, Thầy studied the principle of counting and following the breath and trained in formal slow walking meditation (kinh hành). But Buddhist Institutes in Vietnam did not teach an applied meditation practice for personal healing; only meditation theory. And so, faced with deep suffering, Thầy had to discover for himself a healing way to meditate. He experimented with a new method to combine his breath and steps more naturally while walking and, instead of counting only the breath, he counted the steps in harmony with the breath. With this concentration he was able to tenderly embrace his pain and acute despair without being swept away by strong feelings.

Create something that is needed but not yet there

As Thầy reflected later, “It was not easy because the tradition does not directly offer Engaged Buddhism. So we had to do it by ourselves.”

Thay’s accessible writing style

The spirit and approach of A Rose Your Pocket broke entirely new ground in Buddhist writing, and crystallised Thầy’s distinctive writing style. There had never before been a book in Vietnamese which so lyrically applied Buddhist insights into a spiritual perspective on daily life, and it rapidly became a bestseller. Written in natural, poetic language that even children could understand, A Rose for Your Pocket didn’t have the form of a Buddhist teaching, but was in essence a guided meditation to help the reader to touch the wonder of their mother’s presence in the here and now. For the first time, a Buddhist monk was showing how meditative awareness could be a bright and gentle energy. The reader could touch the fruit of meditation without having to turn their heart and mind into a battlefield, fighting anger, grief, or craving. With its publication Thầy, who hitherto had been known as a poet, editor and Buddhist scholar, became known for his deep and accessible Buddhism.

Thay’s influences

After completing his year at Princeton, Thầy stayed on in the U.S. and continued his research at Columbia (1962-3). There, he made the most of the extensive Buddhist collection in the Butler Library, and benefited from the mentorship of the distinguished Professor Anton Zigmund-Cerbu and encountered the work of contemporary theologians.

He had been profoundly moved by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a German pastor and theologian, and a bold, outspoken critic of the Nazi regime, who was imprisoned and later executed in 1945.

Thầy discovered rare documents detailing the life of Master Tăng Hội, a monk of Vietnamese-Indian heritage in the 3rd Century, who became the first Zen Master in China, three centuries before Bodhidharma.

Master Tăng Hội practiced and taught Zen, and was a pioneer in the Mahāyāna tradition, drawing drew on the meditation texts of early Buddhism, including those emphasising conscious breathing and mindfulness (the Satipaṭṭhāna and _Ānāpānasati_sutras). Discovering the writings of such an important early Vietnamese Zen master was a deep source of inspiration, and laid a path for the kind of Zen Thầy would develop and teach in the West.

Thay’s insight on November 2, 1962 after reading Bonhoeffer

…I was awakened to the starry sky that dwells in each of us. I felt a surge of joy, accompanied by the faith that I could endure even greater suffering than I had thought possible. Bonhoeffer was the drop that made my cup overflow, the last link in a long chain, the breeze that nudged the ripened fruit to fall. After experiencing such a night, I will never complain about life again. […] All feelings, passions, and sufferings revealed themselves as wonders, yet I remained grounded in my body. Some people might call such an experience ‘religious,’ but what I felt was totally and utterly human. I knew in that moment that there was no enlightenment outside of my own mind and the cells of my body. Life is miraculous, even in its suffering. Without suffering, life would not be possible.

What Thay cultivated

understanding, compassion, tolerance, and deep listening.

“What we were doing was very similar—building community, blending the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and nonviolence.”

Personal renewal in the middle of chaos

“Engaged Buddhism is born in such a difficult situation, in which you want to maintain your practice while responding to the suffering. You seek the way to do walking meditation right there, in the place where people are still running under the bombs. And you learn how to practice mindful breathing while helping care for a child who has been wounded by bullets or bombs.”

“In a situation of utmost suffering like that, we [have to] practice in such a way that we preserve our hope and our compassion.”

“It did not seem that there was any hope of an end, because the war had been dragging on for so long. I had to practice a lot of mindful breathing and coming back to myself. I have to confess I did not have a lot of hope at this time, but if I’d had no hope, it would have been devastating for these young people. I had to practice deeply and nourish the little hope I had inside so I could be a refuge for them.”

Order of Interbeing neutrality

It embodied Thầy’s teaching of “not taking sides in a conflict,” and emphasised non-attachment to views, and freedom from all ideologies. For Thầy these precepts were “a direct answer to war, a direct answer to dogmatism, where everyone is ready to kill and die for their beliefs.”

“The Vietnam War was, first and foremost, an ideological struggle. To ensure our people’s survival, we had to overcome both communist and anticommunist fanaticism, and maintain the strictest neutrality. Buddhists tried their best to speak for all the people and not take sides, but we were condemned as ‘pro-communist neutralists.’ Both warring parties claimed to speak for what the people really wanted, but the North Vietnamese spoke for the communist bloc and the South Vietnamese spoke for the capitalist bloc. The Buddhists only wanted to create a vehicle for the people to be heard—and the people only wanted peace, not a “victory” by either side.”

The importance of understanding

The tragedy marked Thầy and led him to dig ever deeper to discover the roots of hatred and violence, which he found to be in wrong perceptions. Thầy said, “We must use the sword of understanding to put an end to all views we have about each other; all notions and labels. All these labels must be cut off. Views can lead us to fanaticism. They can destroy human beings. They can destroy love.”


He reaffirmed the importance of not demonizing the enemy and described compassion as a sign of great courage and strength––not of weakness––and the best way to guarantee true security and peace.

Thay’s vision: the beloved community

shared global vision of a ‘beloved community,’ a fellowship among peoples and nations built on principles of nonviolence, reconciliation, justice, tolerance, and inclusiveness in which even enemies can become friends. Theirs was not a utopian vision, but a realistic, achievable goal attained when a critical mass of people can be trained in the principles and practices of peace and nonviolence.


Working long days, Thầy guided their small community to incorporate mindfulness and compassion in every action: whether making phone calls, drafting documents, writing letters, eating meals together, or simply washing dishes. The days would end with songs and silent sitting meditation.

in even the most difficult situations, with mindful breathing, peace, clarity, and insight are always possible.

we can embrace even the greatest adversity with courage and compassion, and that our true presence is the best gift we can offer those we love.


Deep ecology, interbeing, and the importance of protecting the Earth continued to evolve as a powerful theme in Thầy’s teachings, ethics, and writings.

The root of the problem

“There’s a lot of anger in the peace movement,” he observed. And so Thầy’s focus shifted from demonstrations and press conferences to the deeper work of transforming consciousness through mindfulness retreats and community living. “Even if we were able to transport all the bombs to the moon, we’d still be unsafe, because the roots of war and bombs are still there in our collective consciousness,” he said. “We cannot abolish war with angry demonstrations. Transforming our collective consciousness is the only way to uproot it.”

The power of community

Thầy had come to see the creation of physical environments of peace and communities of mindful living as the surest way to heal the wounds of war and suffering and to cultivate the seeds of peace, healing, reconciliation and awakening in the world.

Thầy saw the healing potential of exploring the art of mindful living, as a community, close to nature.

He came to value the importance of the teacher-student relationship: making a lifetime commitment to study and practice together without interruption in the context of a residential community of mindful living.


Thầy pioneered greater equality between nuns and monks, and emphasised decision-making by consensus rather than by authority, becoming the first Buddhist master from the East to combine seniority and democracy in the governance of the monastic community

Thầy emphasised the power of collective meditation practice for healing and transformation; and the importance of building local mindfulness groups (or ‘sanghas’), to offer companionship, joy, and solidarity, and address the loneliness, alienation, and individualism prevailing in the modern world.

How Thay’s meditation retreat differs from sesshins

Thầy developed a retreat program that incorporated a new style of guided sitting meditation, his new form of relaxed outdoor walking meditation, a more intimate and less formalised practice of eating meditation, guided lying-down relaxations, small discussion groups, tea meditation, “service meditation” (working in the garden, cleaning the bathrooms or washing pots), and guided instructions for deep prostrations (a practice known as “Touching the Earth”). He drew on his strong foundation in Buddhist psychology and understanding of Western culture to develop uniquely Buddhist practices for compassionate communication and reconciliation. All these practices, developed by Thầy himself in Plum Village in France, created a powerful new model for mindfulness retreats that has today been popularised around the world.

Thay’s views on ethics

Thầy insisted that ethics and mindfulness could not be separated; and that meditation or mindfulness without ethics is not true mindfulness.

Thầy drafted a new universal code of ethics in the Buddhist tradition—The Five Mindfulness Trainings

Thầy was invited to bring his teachings on applied ethics to China

Mindfulness teachers that attended Thay’s retreats

Joan Halifax, Jack Kornfield, Joanna Macy, Sharon Salzberg and Jon Kabat-Zinn

Thay’s idea of interbeing (and a peek to his epistemology)

Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk in Plum Village, October 1, 2013: “We have to inter-be. We use the word interbeing in order to free ourselves from the idea of being. We say we inter-are to free ourselves from the idea that we can be by ourselves alone. As soon as we are free of the idea of being we are free from the idea of non-being. Thanks to the idea of interbeing we are free from both being and non-being. That is thanks to the skill of the “wisdom of adaptation.” We may still use words and concepts but we use them very skilfully to gradually free ourselves from words and concepts. We make use of new notions like co-arising and interbeing in order to free ourselves from old notions like birth and death, being and non-being. Once we are free from these ideas we can then also let go of the notions interbeing and co-arising; just like when we use a spade to dig a well, once we have dug the well we put the spade down. We do not need to carry it around with us everywhere. While co-arising and interbeing help us transcend birth, death, being and non-being, they are not an ultimate truth to be held on to forever.” (translated from Vietnamese)

“To be is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone; you have to inter-be with every other thing.”

Thầy went on to teach that you cannot have happiness without suffering, the mud without the lotus. The ‘insight of interbeing’ became central to his teachings on communication, ecology, conflict-resolution, political division and even personal family relationships. The word ‘interbeing’ although it still uses words and the idea of ‘being’ is a skilful way to go beyond dualistic ideas of separation to touch the true nature of reality. Interbeing became one of Thầy’s most distinctive contributions to Buddhist teaching.

“My father is there in every cell of my body,” he said in one of his talks. “My mother also. My grandfathers, my grandmothers, my ancestors, they have not died; they are fully present in every cell of my body. When I hear the bell, I invite all of them to join me in listening. As we hear the bell, we can say silently: We listen, we listen. This wonderful sound brings us back to our true home.”

True home (private property) and freedom cannot be taken away

“thanks to the practice I was able to find my true home in the here and the now. Your true home is not an abstract idea, it is a solid reality you can touch with your feet, with your hands, with your mind. It is available in the here and the now, and nobody can take it away. They can occupy your country, yes. They can put you in prison, yes. But they cannot take away your true home and your freedom.”

freedom that an outsider can observe may be hindered. but the sense of freedom is always personal and can be transformed whatever the situation is. one can be free inside without being free outside.

Must read works

The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings - Buddhist primer

Old Path White Clouds - biography of the Buddha without miraculous embellisment

Joyfully Together: The Art of Building a Harmonious Community

Although Thầy succeeded in making Buddhism accessible to western audiences, he maintained that Buddhism should never be diluted.

Buddhism out of its contexth

The nineties and early 2000s saw Thầy bringing Buddhist practices and teachings out of their primarily religious context to be of service to the world

Thầy offered concrete recommendations to support ethics, prosperity, and progress in civil society, education, and international relations.


The insight of ‘interbeing’ became a foundation for his engaged action. Thầy published The World We Have (2008), fearlessly telling the truth, and outlining a Buddhist approach to the growing environmental crisis

In 2007 he led his entire community to become vegan, as a powerful message on how a plant-based diet can reduce suffering and protect the Earth.

True happiness

Thầy’s teachings emphasized the importance of touching what he called ‘true happiness’ right in the heart of the present moment. He maintained that helping people touch true happiness is the best way to address the root causes of injustice, inequality, and a runaway consumption society. When we know what true happiness is, he says, it is very easy to live more simply, and to take care of ourselves, our relationships, and the Earth.

Defying catedgorization in Buddhism

Over his decades of teaching, Thầy has defied categorisation as a teacher of Zen, Pure Land, or Theravada Buddhism, preferring to say that he was “presenting the teachings of Early Buddhism in a Mahayana spirit,” or “taking Mahayana Buddhism to bathe in the waters of Early Buddhism.”