Thich Nhat Hanh and Mindfulness Trainings

A Guide to a Peaceful and Compassionate Life

Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh in 2006. Peter Kramer / Getty Images

Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926) is a Vietnamese monk, teacher, author, and peace activist who has lived and taught in the West since the 1960s. His books, lectures and retreats have brought the dharma to the world, and his influence on the development of Buddhism in the West is immeasurable.

Nhat Hanh, called "Thay" (teacher) by his followers, is primarily known for his devotion to Right Mindfulness. In Thay's teachings, it is the practice of mindfulness that unites the Buddha's doctrines into a comprehensive, interconnected path.

"When Right Mindfulness is present," he wrote, "the Four Noble Truths and the other seven elements of the Eightfold Path are also present." (The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, p. 59)

Thay presents the elements of Buddhist practice through his Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are based on the first five Buddhist Precepts. The Mindfulness Trainings describe a deep morality that also can be followed by non-Buddhists as guidelines to a peaceful life. Here is a brief explanation of each of the Mindfulness Trainings.

The First Mindfulness Training: Reverence for Life

"Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life." -- Thich Nhat Hanh

The First Mindfulness Training is based on the First Precept , abstain from taking life. It is also linked to Right Action. To act "rightly" in Buddhism is to act without selfish attachment to our work. "Right" action springs from selfless compassion.

So, to be committed to not killing is not about embarking on a righteous crusade to make everyone become vegans.

Thay challenges us to go deeper, to understand where the urge to kill comes from and to help others understand it also.

The Second Mindfulness Training: True Happiness

"Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need." -- Thich Nhat Hanh

The Second Precept is "to refrain from taking that which is not given." This precept is sometimes shortened to "do not kill" or "practice generosity." This training calls on us to realize that our clinging and grasping and hoarding come from ignorance of our true nature. The practice of generosity is important to opening our hearts to compassion.

The Third Mindfulness Training: True Love

"Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends." -- Thich Nhat Hanh

The Third Precept usually is translated "abstain from sexual misconduct" or "do not misuse sex." Most orders of Buddhist monastics are celibate, but the Third Precept encourages laypeople to first, do no harm in their sexual conduct. Sexuality does no harm when it comes from genuine love and selfless compassion.

The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Loving Speech and Deep Listening

"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations." -- Thich Nhat Hanh

The Fourth Precept is "to refrain from incorrect speech."This is sometimes shortened to "do not deceive" or "practice truthfulness." See also Right Speech.

In many of his books, Thay has written about deep listening or compassionate listening. Deep listening begins with putting aside your own issues, your agenda, your schedule, your needs, and just listening to what others are saying. Deep listening causes the barriers between self and other to melt away. Then your response to the speech of others will be rooted in compassion and be more genuinely beneficial.

The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Nourishment and Healing

"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness." -- Thich Nhat Hanh

The Fifth Precept tells us to keep our minds clear and refrain from intoxicants. Thay expands this precept to a practice of mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. He teaches that mindful consuming means to ingest only items that bring peace, well-being, and joy to one's body. To risk one's health through careless consuming is a betrayal of one's ancestors, parents, society, and future generations.