The Plum Village Tradition

Founded by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the Plum Village tradition has deep Buddhist roots. Thich Nhat Hanh has been deeply committed to developing a Buddhist practice that responds appropriately to the needs of society. Dubbed “The Father of Mindfulness”, he has created a set of teachings and practices that are profound yet accessible.

Based on an interview with Brother Phap Dung, a senior Plum Village Dharma teacher, here we share some of the key aspects of the Plum Village tradition.

The Plum Village Tradition’s Early Roots

The Plum Village tradition is Buddhist in its background, and derives from our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Born Nguyễn Xuân Bảo in the city of Huế, Central Vietnam, in 1926, at the age of 16, he entered the monastery at nearby Từ Hiếu Temple.

Thich Nhat Hanh received training in the Vietnamese Pure Land tradition; part of the wider Mahayana Buddhist tradition, and also of Mahayana Zen Buddhism. He is part of the Linji lineage.

Before leaving Vietnam in 1966 to come to the West to advocate for peace, Thich Nhat Hanh was given a ‘lamp transmission’ by his teacher, Zen Master Chân Thật. This ceremony signifies a continuation of the spiritual lineage. His teacher offered him this gatha (poem):

When we are determined to go just in one direction, we will meet the spring, and our march will be a heroic one. 
Our actions should be free from speculation or competition. 
If the lamp of our mind shines light on its own nature, 
Then the wonderful transmission of the Dharma will be realised in both East and West.

Engaged Buddhism

From a young age, Thich Nhat Hanh was influenced by the idea that Buddhism could be a strong force for good in society:

I read magazines and books and knew that in the past Buddhism had played an important part in bringing peace and stability to my country.

His aspiration to renew Buddhism to better suit the needs of the modern world came to the fore during the war in Vietnam. He founded the School of Youth for Social Service to provide training for young people wanting to help others. At one point, it included 10,000 young peace workers providing medical, educational, and agricultural support to people in rural Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, and his other students would use their meditation practice to stay calm and centred, and to ward off despair while working in dangerous and deadly wartime conditions. This combination of Buddhist practice and social action became known as Engaged Buddhism.

Thich Nhat Hanh connected with Martin Luther King, Jr during the time of the Vietnam War and the US Civil Rights movement, convincing the Civil Rights Leader to speak out against the war. King nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize, but it was not awarded that year.

All Walks of Life

After departing from Vietnam to the West as a peace advocate in 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh was not allowed to return to his home country until 2005. During this period, he continued to evolve his own Buddhist teachings, making them more accessible to modern society.

He used the term “applied Buddhism” to refer to a set of practices that are not just a religion, but a way of acting, working, and being in the world.

In this spirit, Plum Village has engaged with politicians, scientists, business people, social activists, environmentalists, young people, school teachers, children, and families. 

For any topic that arises in our society, we here in Plum Village try to apply Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings, and see how they can reduce suffering and increase joy, peace and happiness.

Brother Phap Dung

The Present Moment is Key

In the Plum Village tradition, Buddhist practice is not just a devotional religion in the temple; it is a way to live everyday life harmoniously, with awareness and peace.

The foundation of what Plum Village teaches is directly connected with the present moment, through our bodies and our breath. This is encapsulated in the phrase “I have arrived, I am home”, which tells us we do not need to change anything or to wait for something to happen in the future. We can be at peace and at home, right here and right now, in the present moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh has adapted practices for the particular needs of people in the West. For example, he has emphasised walking meditation as a method for slowing down, and Deep Relaxation as a way to rediscover rest.

Transformation and Healing

At Plum Village, one of the main ways we deal with our shared suffering is through retreats. We come together with a group of people for five days or a week. Retreats involve daily mindfulness practices, living and working together, and sitting in circles to listen deeply to each other. Here, many, many people have experienced considerable healing and newfound contentment.

The approach at Plum Village involves learning how to handle the challenges that you face, your suffering, and your pain. Though this has a therapeutic aspect, engaging with the world is also important. Each of us has our own suffering, but we also share in the suffering of our loved ones, our acquaintances, and of our society.

As well as teaching individuals to heal their suffering, the Plum Village tradition emphasises the importance of creating joy and happiness together. One way to do this is by bringing our awareness to the conditions of happiness and contentment in the present moment – but we also ensure our retreats include time for music and mindful celebration together.

Foundational Texts of the Plum Village Tradition

Two of the key sutras (Buddhist texts) that have heavily influenced the Plum Village tradition are:

Although usually associated with Theravada Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh has incorporated these texts and their emphasis on mindful breathing and awareness of the body.

He has written books about each: Breathe, You Are Alive! and Transformation & Healing. (The book Awakening of the Heart includes both of these, as well as commentaries on other sutras.)

Another book to help us understand the Buddha’s foundations to the Plum Village tradition is The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. In it, Thich Nhat Hanh gives his interpretation of key Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-Fold Path.

Ethics and Interbeing

The Buddha offered his lay (non-monastic) followers Five Precepts as an ethical code of conduct. Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community have adapted and updated these precepts into the Five Mindfulness Trainings, to make them relevant for the world we live in. The word “training” emphasises their intent as a direction of travel, rather than a strict list of dos and don’ts. Many thousands of people around the world have formally received this guide to an engaged way of life.

The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are another set of ethical guidelines that are received by members of the Order of Interbeing: an international community of committed monastics and lay practitioners. They have their roots in the ten precepts outlined in the Sutra Spoken to the King of the Ocean.

The concept of inter reliance, or “interbeing”, is also a key foundation of the Plum Village tradition. It is Thich Nhat Hanh’s way of explaining Buddhist teaching on emptiness. He chose the word “interbeing” to describe the way nothing can exist in isolation; that everything relies on something else.

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The teaching of interbeing applies particularly to our planet. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that we must fall in love with our planet in order to respond to the Climate Crisis. With mindfulness, we can see we are not separate from the Earth. (See the book Love Letter to the Earth.)

The Plum Village Tradition Today

Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a stroke in 2014 and returned to Vietnam, where he is residing in his root temple. The many monastic and lay Dharma teachers and students continue his Plum Village teachings. There are 10 monasteries in the Plum Village tradition around the world, and many more practice communities (sanghas).

Thich Nhat Hanh was keen to see new and innovative ways to spread the Plum Village teachings, including the use of technology. The Plum Village App represents one of these innovations, and allows thousands of people to connect with the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and Plum Village.

Please support us in this non-profit effort to make the Plum Village tradition more accessible to as many people as possible.

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