The Heartivist Legacy of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week, the prolific author and thinker Thich Nhat Hanh died; although in penning that sentence I recognize he would take offense to the very idea. He did not believe in death, once writing: 

This body is not me. I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
And I have never died.

Although our spiritual traditions were different, Thich Nhat Hanh entered monastic life around the same age as I did, albeit around 60 years earlier. His teachings on peace and non-violence were transformational in my own personal understanding of the link between social change and inner transformation. Writing about the Vietnam war, he observed many peace activists who were consumed by anger, reflecting that:

“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds- our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women.”

He noted in many of his speeches and articles the discordance he felt at seeing people do the work of a peacemaker while they themselves were not at peace. This understanding of the different qualities of “being” versus “doing” is still something I find deeply resonant. He helped the world understand that we cannot give that which we do not have; that our own lives have to be our message; and that, in activism, our own inner life deserves as much attention and care as those we wish to serve. 

He saw his eternal life in the continuation of compassion across the world; a legacy that I know has vibrance in our own beloved Pollination Project community and the spirit of heartivism present there. 

In his honor, may we all be attentive to the miracles before us, be they in “a glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a leaf, a caterpillar, a flower, laughter, raindrops;” 

May we find a sacred meditation in an everyday action, like drinking a cup of tea or eating an apple;

May we accept ourselves, knowing that this is what it means to be truly beautiful; 

May we walk as if we are kissing the earth with our feet. 


Photo credit © Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism