Calligraphic Meditation: The Mindful Art of Thich Nhat Hanh
ZEN MASTER THICH NHAT HANH
ZEN MASTER THICH NHAT HANH
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, loved and revered around the world. He is the man Martin Luther King, Jr. called “an apostle of peace and non-violence” when nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize, and has been described by The New York Times as “second only to the Dalai Lama” among Buddhist leaders influential in the West. His powerful teachings and bestselling writings on the practice of mindfulness have reached an audience of millions.
go as a river
It all began more than 50 years ago in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, monks and nuns were confronted with the question of whether to adhere to the contemplative life and stay meditating in the monasteries, or to help those around them suffering under the bombings and turmoil of war. Thich Nhat Hanh was one of those who chose to do both, and in doing so founded the Engaged Buddhism movement. Today, he continues to address a wide range of contemporary concerns, including ecology, politics, consumption, relationships, cultivating peace, community building, and global ethics.
breathe, you are alive
Today, Thich Nhat Hanh is the spiritual head not only of his lineage within Vietnam, but also of an international Engaged Buddhist community of over 700 monks and nuns, and tens of thousands of lay practitioners, who apply his teachings on mindfulness, peace-making, community-building, and serving society in their daily lives. Thich Nhat Hanh and members of his community offer these teachings all over the world—on campuses, at community centers, at outdoor gatherings—and at his global practice centers, including his home base in Plum Village, France, which is the largest Buddhist practice center in Europe. In recent years, Thich Nhat Hanh has been invited to address members of the United States Congress, the Parliament of India, UNESCO, the UK Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the World Parliament of Religions. Throughout all of this, he has written more than 100 books and created thousands of calligraphies.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Thich Nhat Hanh’s key teaching is that through the transformative 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. Dwelling in the present moment is the only way to truly develop peace, both in oneself and in the world, and is a practice that provides us with the opportunity to transform our suffering. He teaches the practices of mindful walking, mindful eating, deep listening, and mindful speech, adapting the teachings of the Buddha to resonate with contemporary life. He encourages us to wake up to the beauty of our planet and our interbeing nature, fostering respect for each other and the animals, plants, and minerals that share this planet with us.
Thich Nhat Hanh began to write calligraphies in 1966 to offer as gifts to his advanced students at the School for Youth and Social Service in Vietnam, a grassroots relief organization he founded that trained 10,000 young volunteers in Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action. As he began to establish practice centers in Europe and North America, his calligraphies served as visual reminders to everyone in attendance to be mindful. Peace is every step could be found on a monastery staircase, or this bread in my hands is the body of the cosmos in the dining hall. Over the years, he has continued to develop his own unique ‘calligraphy phrases,’ such as I have arrived, I am home, or breathe, you are alive, where insight, teaching, and art become one on paper.
no mud no lotus
Using traditional Chinese ink mixed with tea on simple rice paper, Thich Nhat Hanh tenderly expresses radical 21st Century phrases based on ancient Buddhist teachings, capturing and expressing his lifetime of meditative insight, peace, and gentle compassion. His calligraphies also express the fusion of East and West that has marked his extraordinary life, with many of the calligraphies written in a completely new and unique style in Roman script (in half a dozen European languages), yet with an absolutely Eastern Zen essence.
CALLIGRAPHIC MEDITATION: THE EXHIBITION
Thich Nhat Hanh’s first calligraphy exhibition appeared at the University of Hong Kong’s museum in October 2010, where its curator, Eva Yuen, said: “The artistic expression of Thich Nhat Hanh reveals…the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, pointing to the path of liberation.” Museum director, Yeung Chun-tong, offers this view: “Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings enlighten us as to how we can find happiness in our lives. He is, in fact, an artist who cleanses our hearts and souls.”
Thich Nhat Hanh’s calligraphic art represents accessible, down-to-earth, practical Zen – simple yet powerful, stark yet full of spirit, and with a message that is not only deeply profound, but applicable to everyday life. Yet it is more than art—it is a meditative practice. He is fully present for every moment, from drinking his tea, to sitting down and taking a brush, to dipping his brush into a cup of tea to mix the ink. He has said that he cannot write poetry if he does not garden the lettuces; the same is true with his calligraphy. Each calligraphy is made of mindful walking, sitting, breathing, smiling – and love.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s calligraphies have now become collectors’ items, and sell in the hundreds every year, with all proceeds going to support his practice centers and his Love and Understanding/Hungry Children program for children in Vietnam and other developing countries. He has always said that where his calligraphies are, he is there also, and these elegant, compact phrases serve as a reminder for his students around the world to arrive in the here and now, and touch the wonders of life.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
“If we just act with awareness and integrity, our art will flower, and we don’t have to talk about it at all. When we know how to be in peace, we find that art is a wonderful way to share our peacefulness. Artistic expression will take place in one way or another, but the being is essential. So we must go back to ourselves, and when we have joy and peace in ourselves, our creations of art will be quite natural, and they will serve the world in a positive way.
Thich Nhat Hanh making calligraphies in his Sitting Still hut in Plum Village, France
“In my calligraphy, there is ink, tea, breathing, mindfulness, and concentration. 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 the now or breathe and enjoy this wonderful moment. I think the word ‘wonderful’ means full of wonders. If you are truly there in the moment, you can recognize so many wonders in that moment. The kingdom of God, the Buddha land is there. So breathe in, bring your mind back to your body, and you can touch many wonders in this moment.”
“Calligraphic Meditation” has shown in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, France, Germany, and Thailand
- It is estimated that Thich Nhat Hanh has written more than ten thousand calligraphies to date.
- He uses Chinese and Japanese ink on rice paper sourced in Hong Kong and Vietnam.
- He uses a variety of brushes, some from Japan, others from French art shops, and still others from regular household paint shops in South West France.
- There is tea in every calligraphy! Thich Nhat Hanh uses his cup of tea to dip his brushes before mixing the ink on the block.
- In drawing the famous Zen Circles, Thich Nhat Hanh breathes in for a half-circle and out for a half-circle. Following the breath is an essential part to creating any calligraphy.
- Traditionally the Zen circle represents “Eternity,” or “Emptiness.” Perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh’s circles represent “Interbeing,” an English word he invented to express one of his core teachings.
- The Vietnamese language has used the Roman script since the 17th Century, and Vietnamese temples have their own tradition of calligraphic art in the Roman Script. Thich Nhat Hanh has taken his homeland’s calligraphic tradition to a whole new level, breaking free from the influence of Chinese style on Roman Calligraphic Script to develop an entirely new hand, both simple and free, and incorporating Modern European elements (such as the gentle running ‘r’ from the French).
- His most popular calligraphies are: breathe, you are alive; this is it; be beautiful, be yourself; peace in oneself, peace in the world, and I have arrived, I am home – the last being his signature statement (and practice), which he also describes as “The best, and shortest dharma talk I ever give.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh stamps every calligraphy with his seal, which reads “Trừng Quang Nhất Hạnh” in Chinese: 澄光一行 . Trừng Quang is the Lineage Name given to him by his Teacher, and Nhất Hạnh is his Dharma Title, meaning “One Action.”