Thích Nhất Hạnh and Lessons for HR Professionals

Beautiful painting of Thích Nhất Hạnh by TriDung Vo (http://www.tridungvo.com/)

“Tomorrow, I will continue to be. But you will have to be very attentive to see me. I will be a flower, or a leaf. I will be in these forms, and I will say hello to you. If you are attentive enough, you will recognize me, and you may greet me. I will be very happy.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but sometime nearly a decade ago, maybe longer, I came across a book that helped me begin a journey towards a clearer more peaceful way to live. This book helped me begin my walk towards and with mindfulness.

Not the “cliché” mindfulness that has become a buzzword in many business circles, but a mindfulness of sincerity, a mindfulness of compassion – for the world around us and within us.

The book is titled Living Buddha, Living Christ, and its author is someone you may not have heard of, but someone you should get to know.

Thích Nhất Hạnh was born in 1926 in rural Vietnam. He became dedicated to Buddhism from an early age, entered the monastery, and was eventually ordained a monk. Once ordained, Thay, as his followers call him, Vietnamese for “teacher,” grew to become a peace activist and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as earning him exile from his homeland. He eventually ended up in France and formed Plum Village, a Buddhist, mindfulness community. He authored dozens of bestselling books, appeared on Oprah, and became a worldwide leader for peace.

Thích Nhất Hạnh with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during a peace summit in the late 1960s.

On January 22, 2022, Thích Nhất Hạnh passed away at the age of 95. I felt a great deal of sadness. I feel as though Thích Nhất Hạnh was a member of my family. His lessons deeply influenced my in ways that remain indescribable. If anyone could articulate my innerbeing in ways that are understandable, it would be the man known as Thay. His articulation of obscure and difficult knowledge was nothing short of poetic.

Although those influenced and touched by Thích Nhất Hạnh mourn, he himself would likely want them to know he isn’t truly gone. He is simply moved on to the next part of his journey.

“I am a continuation like the rain is the continuation of the cloud.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh

What began with Living Buddha, Living Christ led me to other works from the gentle monk. Everything he wrote was poetry – a catalogue of understanding, enlightenment, kindness. All of his works lead me to a better understanding of myself, of the world, and of beyond.

It also, as all good reading should, taught me how to be a better HR leader and person in general. Professional inspiration can be found in places we never thought to look if only we open our eyes to what is in front of us, removing the cataracts that blind us.

As a way to pay tribute to a man who inspired me, here is a list of ideas from Thích Nhất Hạnh that made me a better person and HR professional. I hope they help you find peace, encouragement, and success, as they have me.

Mindfulness: The first time I heard of the idea of mindfulness was in Living Buddha, Living Christ. In the book, Thích Nhất Hạnh defines mindfulness as “the energy to be here and to witness deeply everything that happens in the present moment, aware of what is going on within and without.” The power of this concept is someone’s own self-mastery. When someone is a master of the moment, they increase their ability to think, to act, to live on another level. No obsessing over the past that doesn’t exist, no worrying about a future scenario that hasn’t happened, just understanding what’s going on right now – the only time that truly exists.

Thích Nhất Hạnh practiced calligraphy as a meditative practice.

Mindful breathing: A root of a lot of meditative practices is focusing on the breath. “When I am breathing in, I know I am breathing in.” Sounds easy. It’s not. Think about it. Breathing is the one thing humans do without thinking. It’s so natural that is happens spontaneously and also automatically. We are so often completely unaware we are doing it. Learning to “know” that you are breathing is a gateway to truly “knowing” all the other things you do on autopilot. This is powerful but ever so challenging. Our minds are designed to think, and thinking they do! Most of the time without our knowing it – just like our breathing! Knowing that you our breathing can be a step to knowing that you are thinking and therefore a step to knowing a universe of action and possibility!

Tolerance and Acceptance: The entire book Living Buddha, Living Christ is written in a way that projects the author’s love and kindness towards people of other faiths. A Buddhist monk writing about all the positive aspects of a religion that is not his own, never once trying to convince any reader that his religion is superior – or that any religion for that matter is superior! It’s not preachy. It’s not judgmental. It’s just pure poetic kindness, which is based on accepting others as they are. Today, we need this more than ever. Things that divide us are arbitrary and false. The point of the writing is to open people’s minds to our contemplativeness.

Peace and Nonviolence: Conflict is inevitable. Violence, however, isn’t. I used to think of violence in terms of physicality. I have come to believe that violence is much more than that. Violence can be thought of as doing any act that harms another person, creature, or our world, which is in itself a living ecosystem. Making fun of someone. Not taking your pet to the vet. Littering. All these actions can be thought of as violence.

Violence is never far. It is possible to identify the seeds of violence in our everyday thoughts, speech, and actions. We can find these seeds in our own minds, in our attitudes, and in our fears and anxieties about ourselves and others. Thinking itself can be violent, and violent thoughts can lead us to speak and act violently. In this way, the violence in our minds manifests in the world.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh

This perspective helped me realize that I can be a better person. I have been a violent man in many ways, and I can do better. I’ve come to believe that the best way to act is in the antithesis of violence – compassion. We must be able to transform our violence and fear into something beautiful. Acting compassionately is acting nonviolently.

The Interconnectedness of Nature: Separateness is an illusion. Everything is connected and part of the same whole. When you eat your cereal in the morning, you are not eating little crunchy bits of goodness. You are eating the sun, the clouds, the rain. You are eating the earth, which produced the metal for the spoon. You are eating the grass that the cow ate, which produced your milk. Or, you are eating the soil from which the almonds grew that produced your almond milk. Everything is connected. Nothing exists without the other pieces. When we do harm to one, we do harm to all. Think about the workplace in such terms! No one can exist without the person next to them, or the coworker they do not see nor have met.

Engaged Buddhism: Is a concept created and purported by the Thay. It was habit for many Buddhist monks to stay out of society and not get involved on a larger level. Thích Nhất Hạnh looked to change this by applying the teachings of Buddhism to social life in order to bring about social change, including relieving or eliminating economic suffering and social injustice. These teachings are aligned with the Stoic value of living in the world, with the world, and amongst the world. Thay believed that there was no reason to obtain enlightenment if it didn’t make the world a better place, and all people deserved opportunities for betterment. To do this, one must be educated; one must be with others, not apart. We must be open to the experiences of other people and do our part to relieve their suffering. I can think of few other beliefs that HR leaders should embrace. We need to be with our folks. We need to support our folks. We need to relieve their suffering. Only then can HR move beyond into a better place in the hearts and minds of our people.

No mud, no lotus: The first Buddhist truth is that there is suffering in the world. Thích Nhất Hạnh taught me that suffering can serve a purpose. Lotus flowers are considered one of the most beautiful plants that nature gives us. Lotus flowers cannot bloom without mud. In the same way, we cannot become who we were meant to be unless we accept our suffering and look to it in ways that helps us. We need to be embracing of our experiences and our powerful emotions. We need to acknowledge them, not fight them, or bury them, or ignore them. That doesn’t relieve our suffering; it only prolongs it, or enlarges it, or pushes it onto other people. Looking into our suffering helps us open up and see things that make us better. So, suffering is something we need. Without it we cannot grow.

Impermanence: Suffering, while necessary, is unpleasant. While we need it, we also need happiness and enjoyment. Our emotions are a complex web of interconnection that make us who we are. All of it is impermanent. Our suffering will not last. Our happiness will not last. Being open and welcoming to all we feel and experience – good, bad, indifferent – will help us realize that change is good and necessary. It’s the only constant in life. Being accepting of this will increase our ability to be resilient and adaptable.

Smile, and know you are smiling. Your smile can bring joy to you, and in turn, bring joy to others. Happiness is simple if we know how to live in a way that allows us to be free. RIP Thay. The next time I see a leaf fall from the oak tree in my backyard, I will smile and greet you by saying thank you for everything.

Published by Paul LaLonde

Husband. Father. Passionate about HR, helping people, and doing the right thing. Also, heavy metal, craft beer, and general nerd things! #SHRM19Blogger. Find me on Twitter at @HRPaul49 and LinkedIn. Thoughts, views and opinions on this site are solely my own and do not represent those of my employer or any other entity ​with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated.

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