Smile, Breathe and Go Slowly ( Thich Nhat Hanh )

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

A year into this blog and I've only recently come to realize that just because my readers are reading a blog with the word Zen in the title, it doesn't mean that they know who Thich Nhat Hanh is or are familiar with his work. Through several recent emails and conversations I've come to realize my mistake.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist.  He is also a poet and an author, having written and published over 50 books. We do not need to be interested in Buddhism in order to benefit from Thich Nhat Hann's work.  His writings offer very practical methods of bringing mindfulness and loving kindness to the very center of our being.

I believe that Thich may be the most enlightened and sincerely mindful person alive and that his work can help you immensely in finding purpose in your life. For this reason, I would like to introduce you to Thich Nhat Hanh and some of his work.

Thich was born in Vietnam in 1926.  He became a Buddhist monk at the age of sixteen.

During the Vietnam War, Thich chose to help villagers suffering from the bombings and the aftermath of war rather than to sit and quietly meditate in his monastery.  In the early 60's he founded the School of Youth Social Service, rallying near 10,000 student volunteers to rebuild homes, organize agricultural cooperatives, and re-establish order in the lives affected by the ravages of war.

During travels to the United States during the 1960's, Thich spoke for peace in Vietnam.  During one of his visits he spoke with Martin Luther King, Jr and convinced him to oppose the Vietnam War publicly.  This helped to galvanize the peace movement that continued through the 70's and until the war was finally ended.  In 1967 Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps the best way to introduce you to Thich Nhat Hanh is through his writing.  His poem, 'Call Me by My True Names' speaks volumes about the person of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Here is what Thich had to say before presenting 'True Names' in his book Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life :

In Plum Village, where I live in France, we receive many letters from the refugee camps in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, hundreds each week. It is very painful to read them, but we have to do it, we have to be in contact. We try our best to help, but the suffering is enormous, and sometimes we are discouraged. It is said that half the boat people die in the ocean. Only half arrive at the shores in Southeast Asia, and even then they may not be safe.

There are many young girls, boat people, who are raped by sea pirates. Even though the United Nations and many countries try to help the government of Thailand prevent that kind of piracy, sea pirates continue to inflict much suffering on the refugees. One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself.

When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.

After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The tide of the poem is "Please Call Me by My True Names," because I have so many names. When I hear one of the of these names, I have to say, "Yes."

Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow -
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing 
on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, 
when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, 

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, 
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean 

after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, 

my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, 
with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood"

to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, 
so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, 

so full it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Below are a few of the great titles written by Thich Nhat Hanh

p.s. If you believe that Healthy Food Matters then visit my new blog at

Zen Presence - Ideas for Meaningful Living


  1. As a Christian, who thinks that we are given all ideas to consider and explore (that's why we have brains, right?), Thich Nhat Hahn is my personal hero (you have nothing to do with that, right as well?). His ideas are predominantly non-religious and non-denominational--the way things SHOULD be. It's all about love versus fear, God versus Satan, etc.

    Thanks for the history, background information. I always love more information about the Zen aspect of your blog--Zen is great, no matter what our religious tradition, and we need to learn all ideas in order to understand everything.

    1. Bethany,

      What a refreshing point of view you have. I love it when Christians are able to look past denominational lines and gain insight from leaders in other sects. Thank you for being one of those people. If the world had more people who thought like you, it would be a better place :)

  2. Nice post, Dan. Thich Nhat Hahn is a great teacher. I checked out the new food blog. Looks great.


  3. living compassion is the greatest good.

  4. I am always bothered when a person commits a heinous crime and he is called a monster, the devil etc. This makes him not human, but he is, and we all have the heinous criminal in us... he bothers me to no end, but he is a human being just like me. The people who play out our most primitive nature are not going to disappear until we acknowledge that their actions are something in all people that need to be understood and educated.

  5. Excellent, Dan. I've probably made the same mistake on my blog. I've quoted him numerous times, but I can't remember if I have ever offered my readers a profile. In any case, he is a truly great and wise teacher.

  6. Beautiful! I learned some new things about Thich Nhat Hanh. Thank you!