The Secret to Peace and Happiness is Mindfulness and Meditation: Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

As the prospect of war with Syria intensifies, spiritual leader brings powerful message of peace to U.S. through meditative calligraphy exhibition

No mud, no lotus – this wise phase coined by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is just one of many of the teacher’s unique 88-piece collection of calligraphy art featured at the first-ever U.S. premier exhibit of meditative calligraphy in New York City.

Shop ▾

The 87-year-old’s North America tour could not be more timely.  With the United States on the brink of war with Syria and a world rife with conflict and suffering, Thich Nhat Hanh’s message of hope and peace at the opening of his exhibition this week was much appreciated and welcomed by New Yorkers.

A Buddhist monk and civil rights activist during the war in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) worked tirelessly to make peace and bring reconciliation between north and south Vietnam.  His courageous efforts both in Vietnam and in the west to generate peace moved Martin Luther King, Jr. to call him “an apostle of peace and non-violence” and nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Forced into exile because of his efforts, he continued his social activism internationally, founding the monastic community in Plum Village in France, and monastic lay communities all over the world while extensively traveling globally to teach the art of mindful living to people of all backgrounds.

Holistic health and new age guru Deepak Chopra, hosting Thay’s exhibition in collaboration with ABC Home at the Deepak HomeBase, explained to AlterNet the importance of Thay’s teachings in the current climate of global conflict - emphasizing that peace can only be spread by those who are peaceful and not by “angry” peace activists:

"In the world at the moment we are trying to solve conflict through conflict.  The teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh is that peace is available right now in every breath, in the presence of peace. Peace is not an idea, it’s a state of being and  embodies that through the great teaching that ‘there is no way to peace, rather peace is the way’”, he said.

Thich Nhat Hanh's calligraphic art represents accessible, down-to-earth, practical Zen messages that are not only profound but applicable to everyday life such as this is it and I have arrived, I am home.   Such teachings are simple, yet enlightening serving as a reminder to live for the ‘here and now’ and ‘touch the wonders of life’.  What makes his calligraphy distinctive is that it is more than art – it is a meditative practice that one can apply to everyday life.

Thay’s belief is that through the practice of mindfulness we can learn to live happily in the present moment instead of getting lost in the past or worrying about the future. The way to peace is to live in the present, he explains:

“When we know how to be at peace, we find that art is a wonderful way to share our peacefulness.  Writing calligraphy is a practice of meditation.  I write the words or sentences that can remind people about the practice.  For instance, breathe and enjoy the kingdom of god in the here and now.  If you are there in the moment, you can recognize so many wonders in that moment.  So breathe in, bring your mind back to your body, and you can touch many wonders in this moment.

“If you focus your tensions on your inner breath, something extraordinary will happen - the clock in your mind will stop.  There will be silence.  So your regret and sorrow will eventually pass and your fear and uncertainty about the future will also stop and in turn you become much freer. That is what we call the practice of mindful breathing – bringing the mind whole through the body and helping you to be fully present in the here and now to get in touch with the wonders of life for your nourishment and well-being,” he said.

But how does the combination of calligraphy and meditation generate a state of peacefulness in which we can learn to live happy in the present moment? Sister Dedication, one of Thay’s monastic disciples ordained in a French monastery explained to AlterNet:

“When you combine the message of mindfulness practice with beautiful art, it is very easy to receive joy and beauty and to receive and apply messages of mindfulness in your life.  We talk about the art of mindful living - mindfulness is not hard labor, mediation is not hard work. The challenge is to remember to pause, to remember to stop so as to arrive in the present moment.

“When we look at Thay’s calligraphy, for example the phrase - I have arrived I am home, any one of us can take it as an invitation to ask – where is home? Is this home? The message is: ‘home is in the present moment’. So each calligraphy has a message that we can apply right away.  The phrase, breathe, you are alive,is an invitation to become aware of our breathing, our body, relax, release tension and we feel much better after a few mindful breaths,” she said.

Deepak Chopra agrees:

"Calligraphy is an art form that directly reflects our state of consciousness. There are forms that reflect violence or anguish, such as Van Gogh’s pieces reflecting suffering.  Art is the language of the soul but calligraphy in particular reflects the language of nature and consciousness.  This art is written from a state of peace consciousness – most calligraphy is about that or about nature”.

Of course the challenge that remains is how does a person exposed to the hustle and bustle and daily stresses of life apply Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings in order to find peace and avoid getting caught up in anxieties about the future or feel dragged down by the past?

The Zen Master explains:

“Many of us don’t want to listen to the suffering inside ourselves because we are afraid we will be overwhelmed by anger, despair and loneliness inside. That is why we try to run away form our suffering and cover it up with consumption – such as through Internet, music or alcohol. We try to run away from our self. But if you know how to practice mindful thinking, you can generate an energy of mindfulness to help us move away from our fears,” he said.

Sister Peace, an African-American woman who previously worked for a mayoral office before choosing to dedicate her life to Thay’s teachings, offered AlterNet some guidance:

“How many times do we sit in our offices staring blankly? Are we even aware we have a body? When we breathe, we connect our body and our mind together which brings a sense of calm in helping us to de-stress and revitalize in order to continue our work.  Once we realize this connection, we realize our own beauty. And when we accept ourselves, our jobs, illness, loss of a job, any joy or challenge, we begin to recognize the beauty within us because we are ourselves. So to accept ourselves is to accept everything around us, our situation and the cosmos,” she said.

Deepak Chopra also highlights the importance of breathing:  “There are two simple things anyone can do - stop and become aware of your breath and that will immediately bring you back to the present moment.  The other thing you can do is stop and ask yourself, ‘Am I aware?’ and then say, ‘What am I aware of?’ and that immediately brings a person back into a beautiful state of settled awareness”, he said.

Moreover, it is important to come to the realization that happiness, peace and joy are all obtainable in the present moment and that meditation can actually enable us to change a challenging situation into a situation in which we have true freedom, as Sister Dedication explains:

“We can train ourselves to stop – for example, to transfer the incessant ringing of a cell phone into a positive moment just by taking the time to pause. A tiny pause throughout the day just by coming back to our breathing and re-entering ourselves before answering the phone allows us to get in touch with our true intention which is to be available for that other person at the end of the line and respond in a clear way,” she said.

Today, Thay’s zen calligraphies have become collector’s items selling for thousands of dollars with all the proceeds going to support his practice centers and food programs in developing countries.  He has become the spiritual head not only of his lineage within Vietnam but also of an international Engaged Buddhist community of over 700 monks and nuns. 

Paulette Cole, CEO and Creative Director of ABC Home said she was personally inspired and grateful for Thich Nhat Hanh’s vital work in teaching mindfulness in our world, and for embodying and stewarding the message of peace, particularly in such a troubled time in the world:

“Each calligraphy embodies moments of truth and guidance and an invitation to bring awareness home to ourselves. We hope to serve by amplifying Thay’s beautiful work in New York City by creating ripples of love and peace. His presence in our community has reenergized us on our path as a socially responsible love and action business,” she said.

The calligraphy meditation exhibition featured at ABC Home, is running for four months in New York City and is free and open to the public at the Deepak HomeBase, Deepak Chopra’s community space at ABC Home.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.