1. How did your childhood influence your spiritual path?
When I was seven or eight, I saw a drawing of the Buddha sitting on the grass, very peacefully. I was impressed, because people around me were very unhappy and not peaceful. This picture gave me the idea that I could someday be like him, someone who could sit very still and calm. I think that was the moment that I first wanted to become a monk.
2. Do you still experience struggle? How do you deal with it?
I think one of the biggest struggles each of us faces is with the notion “I am.” The belief in a separate self is the root of much suffering. Stopping and sitting quietly allows me to look into the nature of everything and touch the truth of inter-being. I learn to see that what we call the “self” is made up of many things that are always changing.
3. When was the last time you were deeply moved?
Every morning I leave my hut and take a walk. The sky is still dark and I walk gently, aware of nature all around me and the fading stars. One day I came back to my hut, after a beautiful morning walk, and wrote: “I am in love with Mother Earth.” I was as excited as a young man who has fallen in love. We entrust our heart to the Earth and she entrusts herself to us with her whole being.
4. What has been the biggest surprise of your life?
During the Vietnam War, I came to the West to ask for peace. Afterward, I was not allowed to return to my life in Vietnam. I dreamed of going home but would always wake up and find myself in exile. I practiced walking, breathing, touching the wonders of life around me, and I saw that the mountains, rivers, people, and children in Europe were beautiful, even in their differences. I survived because of the practice of walking and breathing mindfully. Gradually, I watered my seeds of happiness, and one day I realized that my recurring dream had stopped. I was no longer bitter about my exile and didn’t suffer because of it.
5. What is your favorite practice?
There are people who say that I teach only one thing: breathing in and breathing out. They are right. With mindful breathing, we’re more present for ourselves and for the world. It helps us transform the suffering within and to be in touch with the inter-being nature of reality. So we only need to practice mindful breathing—that is enough.
Author, monk, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh’s latest book is Love Letter to the Earth.