Global conflict, racial injustice, threats to democracy, a pandemic, and a refugee crisis — the 1960s have many lessons for today, including what was then an emergent interest in mindfulness. While many people helped raise the profile of this practice on a global stage, an important nexus of teachings is the venerable Thien (Vietnamese Zen) Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who died at the age of 95 just about a year ago, on January 22, 2022. He left a tremendous legacy as one of the major figures to bring mindfulness to the West and to expound the principles of engaged Buddhism as part of his own peace efforts during the Vietnam War.
Last April, filmmakers Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis worked with Plum Village, Nhat Hanh’s spiritual community, to produce A Cloud Never Dies, the first film about his life. Two weeks ago, Pugh released I Have Arrived, I Am Home, about Nhat Hanh’s final years. Together with 2017’s Walk With Me, the filmmakers’ documentary about life at Plum Village, these three films offer a multifaceted view into the Thien teacher’s life, work, and passing. If I can suggest an order for viewing the films, it would be Walk With Me, followed by A Cloud Never Dies, and closing with I Have Arrived, I Am Home.
Today, Nhat Hanh is most known for his writings on mindfulness, a practice that has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry. The monk’s groundbreaking book Miracle of Mindfulness helped introduce the practice to the Western world, and he went on to publish more than 100 books up until his dying days. In Walk With Me, we visit the modern Plum Village community and get an inside view of its practices. Through beautiful footage of daily affairs at the monastery, which also hosts lay practitioners, we can see the simple power of a quiet meditation practice grounded in walking slowly and gently.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaching village children in rural Vietnam, 1964. Thich Nhat Hanh pioneered Buddhist engagement in social work and rural development, founding in 1965 the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam, a kind of Peace Corps. Here he is in October 1964 teaching rural children to read and write using a song about the bodhisattva of compassion. (© Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism)
But more than mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh helped popularize the idea of engaged Buddhism, the word he coined to describe efforts in Buddhist circles to move out of monasteries and engage directly with the world’s injustices. It’s with this concept that A Cloud Never Dies shines, grounding viewers in the reality of the monk’s peace efforts during the Vietnam War, which first brought him to prominence on the world stage.
Images of the war contrast with the peaceful life he began at the monastery. The documentary helps illustrate the relationship between individual peace and social peace, and why the two must be connected. Nhat Hanh’s efforts eventually led to exile in France, where he founded the Plum Village community as a spiritual home for Vietnamese refugees decades before the events depicted in Walk With Me.
“I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle monk from Vietnam,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 when he nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize (no award was given that year.). “His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
King, like Nhat Hanh, spoke of both peace and resistance and suffered dearly for his efforts, and I wish the documentary attended to this relationship more deeply. That said, the connection between these two spiritual figures is an important foundation for understanding why and how mindfulness as a movement grew in the 1960s: It’s one of the vital tools necessary for engaging with the world’s tumult and violence.
“Suppose you are meditating in the meditation hall,” Nhat Hanh says in A Cloud Never Dies as he lays out his case for social engagement, “and if you hear the bombs falling around. The meditation hall has not been hit by a bomb yet, you are safe. But since you are meditating, you are aware that the bombs are falling and destroying houses and people around the meditation hall. And you know that you just cannot continue to sit in the meditation hall.”
March for nuclear disarmament, New York City, June 17, 1982. Thich Nhat Hanh was in New York in 1982 to lead a meditation and mindfulness retreat, and together everyone on the retreat joined the march. Left to right: Lewis Richmond, Richard Baker Roshi, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Several years later, Thich Nhat Hanh reflected, “There was a lot of anger in the peace movement. We should not walk ‘for’ peace. We should ‘be’ peace as we walk.” (courtesy Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism)
The action that comes afterward to help others during a time of conflict is what he calls “meditation in action.” So often, contemporary secular mindfulness discourse focuses on the importance of emotional regulation, but the ethical and engaged dimensions of meditation are also critical to understand.
More than the other two films, A Cloud Never Dies helps illuminate the monk’s legacy as a spiritual leader rooted in the global turbulence and social upheavals of the 1960s, which propelled him forward to establish institutions like the Order of Interbeing and the School of Youth for Social Service. We also get a glimpse of the early days of Plum Village, and his attempts to start a school in Vietnam decades after his exile, only to see the school shut down.
To close out this biographical series, I Have Arrived, I Am Home offers a view into Nhat Hanh’s final days. Unable to speak due to a stroke, he lives quietly back at Tu Hieu Temple, the temple where he began the monastic life, and he takes his mindfulness walks in a wheelchair. Here, the monastic community both honors their teacher and prepares for life after his passing. Touching footage of monks and nuns in prayer and chanting while wearing N95 masks intermixes with dialogue from those close to him.
Still, I wish the filmmakers dove deeper into the monk’s prolific writing career and the media production efforts of the Plum Village community, which uses podcasts, apps, YouTube videos, and other forms of digital media to reach an ever wider community. The films reference Nhat Hanh’s talks at places like Google and the United Nations, but we don’t quite gain a sense of their impact. We learn a little about Sister Chan Khong, the monk’s longtime collaborator, but get only glimpses of the many women who practice and teach in engaged Buddhism.
I hope future documentaries touch on these issues, especially in light of the growing role of mindfulness in Western discourse. For now, these three films help us better understand Thich Nhat Hanh’s work and legacy with a long view. Through the lens of a 95-year-old’s long life, we can piece together the role of spiritual practice and spiritual communities as we navigate a new age of social upheaval and global conflict. Plum Village offers readings and discussion guides for viewers that point to exactly this.
Sister Chan Khong and the Buddhist nuns in Thich Nhat Hanh’s community on alms-round during a teaching tour of Indonesia in 2010. Thich Nhat Hanh has renewed the Buddhist monastic code and embraced the full presence of nuns in every role in the community, including teaching, working, decision making, and ceremonies, making it one of the most progressive sanghas in the world. (© Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism)
“Right now,” the guide notes, “there is a perfect storm of intersecting social crises brewing: war, assaults on democracy, a continuing pandemic, a vastly unfair global economy, deeply damaging systemic racism, the erosion of trust in governments, the persistence of life-stunting unhealed worldwide trauma, and the ecological devastation that threatens so much of life as we know it.” Much of the training that Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings and schools provide, the guide argues, is important preparation for people to navigate these times.
Indeed, there’s a moment in Walk With Me when a little girl talks to Nhat Hanh about the death of her dog, and she asks how to not be sad. He asks her to consider a beautiful cloud that she loves and that ultimately disappears. “Where is my beloved cloud now? So if you have time to reflect, to look, you see that the cloud has not died, has not passed away. The cloud has become the rain. And when you look at the rain, you see your cloud.”
The little girl begins to smile as she takes in the lesson, and he says: “And when you drink your tea mindfully, you can see your rain in your tea, your cloud in your tea.” It’s a lesson that’s clearly inspired the title for A Cloud Never Dies, and it encapsulates the reality of interconnectedness that is one of the foundational frameworks for a life spent in social engagement and social action.
Many films about spiritual leaders focus on the importance of the leader, and there’s always a danger that biographical documentaries will place disproportionate responsibility on a single charismatic figure and not the many people working with that person.
But in the spirit of Nhat Hanh’s teaching, the three films by Pugh and Francis collectively end with the sense that the responsibility for building peace in the 21st century lies with all of us — the communities and individuals practicing in the Plum Village tradition, those viewing these films, and anyone who’s been shaped by his writings and teachings. One man’s passing is just one part of a large story of social change that spans decades and generations.
Thich Nhat Hanh returned to Vietnam in 2005 after 39 years of exile. Here he is leading hundreds of monastics in a traditional alms-round procession in Huế. (© Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism)
A Cloud Never Dies, I Have Arrived, I Am Home, and Walk With Me, by Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis, are available to stream online.