Thich Nhat Hanh, Secular Buddhist

thThose of us who gathered for Social Circle last Friday evening spent a fair amount of time talking about Thich Nhat Hanh, whose recent hospitalization made headlines after rumors of his death had circulated online. The way the Internet lit up with expressions of concern and well wishes for the Vietnamese Zen monk, known to his students as Thay, was compelling evidence of the impact he’s had on American Buddhism and the mindfulness movement in general.

Jeff Wilson’s “Mindful America” details how Thay’s many books and CDs played a foundational role in the way mindfulness has been perceived and practiced in the West. I would like to suggest that part of that influence has been the secularization of Buddhism for Western lay practitioners. To be sure, Thay is true in many ways to his Mahayana roots. The tone of his teaching tends to be more ecumenical than atheist; he wrote books like “Living Buddha Living Christ” in which he equated the two religious figures, and phrases like “the Pure Land of the Buddha” and “the Kingdom of Heaven” occur frequently in his teachings. And yet what he has taught, and how he taught it, helped create a Buddhism that focuses on the existential needs of average people in this human life, a Buddhism that is clearly “secular” in the sense of being “of this era and this world.”

For one thing, in all of the hours of talks and several books I’ve personally consumed, I never once heard Thay refer to the supernatural. Concepts like rebirth and afterlife karma simply don’t occur in his teaching. When he does rarely use Mahayana concepts like the dharmakaya, he interprets them in naturalist terms. For the most part, he simply ignores the supernatural aspects of traditional Buddhist doctrine, and in this he helped set the tone for dharma teachers from all traditional lineages who also either omit karma and rebirth from their teaching or reinterpret them in scientific or psychological terms.

Thay’s central teaching is that the life we experience in the present moment is the only life we have to live. Only in present moment awareness, he teaches, are we our true selves. “The Pure Land of the Buddha can only be found in the here and the now,” he teaches. As a result, many of Thay’s practical teachings involve ways to stay in the present moment. “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment,” for example, is a collection of gatha poems designed to help us bring present moment awareness to everything from getting out of bed and eating, to speaking with others, to answering the telephone or driving a car.

This is another secularizing aspect of Thay’s message. For him, mindfulness is not for monastics alone, a means of concentrating awareness on one’s way to profound jhana states. As Wilson documents, Thay is one of the first mindfulness teachers in the West to make the application of mindfulness to the everyday tasks of the layperson’s life central to his teaching. In this way, Thay is a progenitor of MBSR and other mindfulness programs, with their emphasis on practical applications of mindful awareness.

Thay’s one frequent foray into metaphysics is his take on dependent origination, the concept he refers to as “interbeing.” Even this, however, is thoroughly grounded in naturalist terms. If we look carefully at a piece of paper, he teaches us, we can see the tree it came from, the rain and soil that nourished the tree, the cloud that gave the rain. All of these are present in the piece of paper. My body is the continuation of my parents’ bodies, and their parents before them. Since nothing is every truly born, nothing ever truly dies. Instead, everything is a manifestation of the interrelated unfolding of the universe in every moment. One can argue whether Thay’s teaching on interbeing have the flavor of religious consolation, but he never appeals to the supernatural to support it.

In every retreat CD I’ve heard, Thay goes out of his way to mention that “The Buddha was not a god. He was a human being, like you and me.” His emphasis on a Buddhism that addresses the existential concerns of everyday human beings has been, as Wilson documents, one of the forces that has secularized Buddhism in the West.

As I have argued before, as we discuss the role of Secular Buddhism, it’s important for us to keep in mind that, to a large extent, Buddhism in the West is already secular. Buddhism’s consistency with scientific principles and the fact that it does not demand faith in a deity have been key selling points in the West from the early years of the 20th Century. In order to appeal to people who have grown to distrust the consolations of supernaturalism , or who would be suspicious of an alien religion, Buddhist teachers in the West have either intentionally or unintentionally de-emphasized elements of Buddhist doctrine as they received it from Asian teachers. Recent innovations such as the mindfulness based interventions, which are largely (but not completely) free of Buddhist references, are the natural extension of that process. The Buddhism that is currently flourishing in the West is, therefore, a secular Buddhism, and we owe Thich Nhat Hanh a debt of gratitude for his role in making it so.

At Practice Circle this Sunday evening, November 23, 2014 at 8 pm CST, we’ll be working with some of Thay’s gathas.  I invite you to join us!  Find out how here.

No Comments

  1. David S on November 21, 2014 at 7:32 am

    I can’t say much about the man. I read one book of his and never talked with him.:) I’ve read that his followers call him buddha. I’m not sure why he thinks this is helpful for his followers to worship him. Does he call them buddha in kind?

    Mark, I’ve been reflecting upon lately what I can confirm within my practice and inquiring about what aspects of Buddhist thought are just that ‘thoughts’ added to experience. With this I am questioning more of what is being taught as Buddhist thought and much of it I see no differently than any belief system.

    I would like to comment on thinking such as “Since nothing is ever truly born, nothing ever truly dies.” I am struck by how there is a huge gap between this notion of being ‘mindfully present’ all while filling it with very intellectual views such as this. It is just more self-talk to reflect on. How does one come to know that nothing is truly born nor truly dies? Did one figure this out through experiencing death? No. It is another abstraction added to experience. And essentially I do not find it very truthful at all. If nothing is ever born nor dies then why respect life? Life would refer to nothing right? With such thinking I could kill people without any thought about someone dying right, because they are nothing. No one was there to begin with. It doesn’t necessarily give any more meaning to life to hold such a view. It rest upon this intellectual notion that there is no essence to anything, but contrarily even with this view there is still something. This notion all exists only in an intellectual framework and doesn’t ring true. Something important is missing, some ‘thing’.

    I was born and I will die. Truly this has more depth of meaning for me knowing life is temporary and is thus something to cherish, and others likewise. No need to convince myself that I will not die because nothing dies. It just creates more work mentally to take such a view and believe it.

    “Buddhism’s consistency with scientific principles….” Which Buddhism are you talking about? One type of Buddhist thinks we do not die because consciousness is part of everything. I do not think even quantum physics would agree with that (although many mistakenly believe it verifies this). Another type of Buddhism has reincarnation and science does not validate such a belief.

    I’m taking issue with this statement because I find this tendency to prop up Buddhism with science is ill-founded. If any scientist were to ask if the Dalai Lama believed that consciousness arose from the brain we might see a divide appear where an assumption of agreement had been imagined. I doubt he would agree. In Tibetan Buddhism there are beliefs and practices which are very far removed from scientific thinking. Such beliefs are not in agreement and are simply not discussed. It is something which is kept conveniently silent and out of sight from western scientists as they hook electrodes up to their scalps. The discussion of the differences has not yet come to the table.

    By saying this I am simply looking for some measure of understanding that Buddhism represents far more diversity of thinking than a secular interpretation that holds scientific thinking close in mind. Because of this it isn’t true that Buddhism is consistent with scientific principles. The parts which can indeed be co-related have to be understood as just that, parts of Buddhist thinking, not Buddhism itself as a whole. And being co-related does not mean they share the same meaning. Patterns of relatedness can appear without being fundamentally the same, just an over-lap coinciding between two vastly different understandings.

  2. Mark Knickelbine on November 21, 2014 at 8:28 am

    David —

    I have no idea what goes down at Plum Village, but I do notice that Thay’s sangha does seem to have an exceptional degree of personal devotion to him. I haven’t seen any evidence that he actively encourages people to worship him.

    My intention in this piece is not to endorse Thay’s teachings, but to point out their role in secularizing Buddhism in the West. I am also suspicious of attempts to suggest that Buddhist doctrine or cosmology somehow presages modern scientific understandings of the world. I agree that there isn’t a single stable Buddhism (just as all identities are nothing more than useful, temporary fictions) and that Secular Buddhism, as with any other kind, is a construct. My interest is in examining how the secularization of Buddhism is a continuing process of evolution as these ideas continue their encounter with western modernity.

    • David S on November 21, 2014 at 5:15 pm

      Yes Mark, I understood your overall intention because you write well and this comes out overall. My interest in commenting stems from the often used phrasing of ideas which I think supports uncritical thinking. I’m not holding you to account. I just feel the need to interject some ideas into these almost sloganeering ways Buddhism assumes this position of truthiness through their repetition and penetration into the culture at large.

      As far as evidence of Thay encouraging people to worship him, well he is the leader/teacher and he could most readily put a stop to it now couldn’t he? Interesting that referring to him as buddha flowers under his tutelage. Does he refer to them equally? I do not know. Just something I have heard about that piqued my attention. And well, this sort of thing is to be expected in a spiritual based group focused upon a sole leader. Buddhism has a history of disciples bending their minds in a worshipful posture towards their teacher. It fits doesn’t it? Maybe it is simply an honorific expression of gratitude. Even if this is so, the question remains does he return it in kind? And if not then why not?

  3. iammickey89 on November 27, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Which books of his do y’all recommend? Preferably those with Kindle versions. Also might be important to note that my recreational investigation into secular Buddhism has so far only involved Beliefs and Confessions.

  4. Ted Meissner on November 29, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    I’d recommend Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and the books by Martine Batchelor are also excellent.

  5. Ramsey Margolis on November 29, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Ted, iammickey89 is asking for suggestions as to which of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books she or he might read. As I’ve not read any, I won’t comment.

    • Ted Meissner on November 30, 2014 at 9:57 am

      I’ve read some, but not in depth and couldn’t offer recommendations specific to TNH.

  6. Gregory Clement on December 6, 2014 at 7:19 am

    I know of TNH only from his books but they have impressed me greatly. He seems a very warm, kind, genuinely good man. Some of his theoretical teachings seem questionable or hard to grasp but this doesn’t trouble me much. The theory is just a froth floating on the reality of his life and personality.

    I seem to remember that he says we are all Buddha, because we all have the potential to be enlightened. We have Buddhahood within. Perhaps it is in this sense that people call him Buddha. I suspect he says the same to them.

    ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’ is the first of his books that I read, and I often recommend it to beginners. Towards the end he suggests a large number of meditation exercises that are simple, accessible, but very worthwhile – making and drinking a cup of tea, for example. Give it a try (both the book and the tea-making).

  7. polzin on June 5, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    You wrote “Concepts like rebirth and afterlife karma simply don’t occur in his teaching.”.
    Well, rebirth appears, but in contrast to reincarnation and in a way that I find quite appealing. See for example:

    Or more in depth:

    • Mark Knickelbine on June 6, 2016 at 8:41 am

      Polzin —

      First of all, thanks for revivifying this article! This is just the kind of teaching I was referring to. He takes the concept of rebirth and presents it in a way that does not require a nonmaterial supernaturalism (as the kind of rebirth that Gotama is recorded to have seen in the Third Watch of the Night clearly does). The point is not to achieve a better rebirth or to keep from being reborn, but to relinquish fear in this life.

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