DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was exiled from his country for opposing the war in 1966, died Saturday at his home in Hue, Vietnam. He was 95. Thich became one of the world's most influential zen masters, campaigning for peace and urging the practice of mindfulness meditation. While still living in Vietnam, he started a movement called Engaged Buddhism, which combined meditation and anti-war work. He established dozens of monasteries around the world, the largest in southwest France. Terry spoke to Thich Nhat Hanh in 1997 and asked him about the work they did with Engaged Buddhism.
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TERRY GROSS: What were some of the things that you did during wartime in Vietnam to help other people?
THICH NHAT HANH: We trained young monks and young people so that they become social and peace workers, come into the area where there are victims of war to care for the wounded, to resettle the refugees and to set up new places for these people to live, to build a school for our children, to build a health center. We did all sorts of things, but the essential is that we did that as practitioners and not just social workers alone.
GROSS: You know, the image of mindful breathing and so on is an image of stillness, and in wartime, there's often the need to flee as fast as you possibly can. Were those two things compatible? Were you able to practice stillness and the ability to run for your life when you needed to?
NHAT HANH: That is a matter of training. The practice is in the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the energy that helps you to be aware of what is going on. Like, when you walk, you can walk mindfully. When you drink, you can drink mindfully. And when you run, you can run mindfully. Running mindfully is quite different from just running, and that is why mindfulness doesn't mean that you have to slow down or you do things very slowly. The essential is that you are mindful why you do things, whether you do it slowly or quickly. So when you try to help refugees and if they get lost in their panics and the fear, and if you also get lost in the panic and the fear, you cannot help them a lot. Therefore, you have to maintain some kind of calm in order to be a real helper. That is why the practice is so important while you are a social activist.
GROSS: During the war in Vietnam, when the Americans were in Vietnam, several Buddhist monks burned themselves in protest. I mean, they set themselves on fire and committed suicide to protest the war. As a Buddhist monk yourself, I'm wondering what you thought of that as a way of calling attention to the war.
NHAT HANH: I think before burning themselves, they had tried other ways trying to express their desire, that they won't be stopped, that people sit down and negotiate to end the war. But because of the fact that the warring parties did not listen to them and their voices are lost in the sounds of bombs and mortars, that is why they had to take that kind of tragic, drastic measure.
And some people say that that is an act of suicide, but it's not really so because when you are motivated by the desire to end war and to help the people to suffer - suffering, that is really the energy of compassion that motivate you to do it. And burning oneself alive is just one means in order to make our aspiration understood to the world.
GROSS: Did you know those monks?
NHAT HANH: I knew quite a few of them, like the monk Thich Quang Duc, who was the most and the first to immolate himself. I stayed with him in his monastery for many months. And we knew each other quite well. And I knew that he was a very kind, good-hearted monk.
GROSS: Your trip to America to protest the American presence in Vietnam resulted in your exile from South Vietnam. Were you actually given an official reason for being exiled?
NHAT HANH: Well, I did not intend to come and to stay for a long time in the West. In fact, I was invited to deliver a series of talks and took the opportunity to speak about the war, the version that was not heard by people outside of Vietnam because the Buddhists in Vietnam, we represent the majority who do not side themselves with any warring parties. And what we wanted really is not a victory, but the end of the war. So what I told people over here at that time did not please any warring parties in Vietnam. That is why I was not allowed to go home.
And it was very hard for me because all my friends were there, all my work was there. But because I was already practicing as a monk, mindfulness practice told me that you have to live each day of your life properly. So my practice at that time was to realize that the wonders of life were already there and were trying to do something to end the war in Vietnam. I could continue my life and getting in touch with these wonderful reflection and healing inside of me and outside of me. So in the process of working to end the war, I also practiced nourishing myself and making friends, realizing that life over here is also wonderful, not just in Vietnam. And the dream stopped to come back.
GROSS: When you teach mindfulness, you're in part teaching breathing, and breathing is really central to meditation. Why is breathing so important?
NHAT HANH: In our daily life, very often our body is there, but our mind is not there. Our mind can get lost in the past, in the future, in our worries and anxieties and fear. And they're not really there, alive. Our breath is something like a bridge linking body and mind. And as soon as you go back to your breath and breathing in and out mindfully, you bring your body and mind together. And there you are again, fully alive. And if you are really there fully alive, you have a chance to touch life in that moment, the wonders of life in that moment. Suppose you want to enjoy the beautiful sunrise. Breathing in and breathing out mindfully can help you to be truly there because in the practice, we learn that life is available only in the present moment.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
NHAT HANH: Thank you.
DAVIES: Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1997. He died last Saturday at the age of 95. On tomorrow's show, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer explores the conservative activism and influence of Jenny Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In a new article, Mayer reports that Thomas, who said the country faces existential danger from the deep state and the fascist left, has ties to many groups with cases before the Supreme Court. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.