How the Great Zen Master and Peace Activist Thich Nhat Hanh Found Himself and Lost His Self in a Library Epiphany

“To live, we must die every instant. We must perish again and again in the storms that make life possible.”

How the Great Zen Master and Peace Activist Thich Nhat Hanh Found Himself and Lost His Self in a Library Epiphany

“The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself… to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is,” Iris Murdoch wrote in a 1970 masterpiece — a radical idea in her era and in her culture, counter to the notions of individualism and self-actualization so foundational to Western philosophy. Today, practices like metta meditation and mindfulness — practices anchored in the dissolution of the self, which remains the most challenging of human tasks even for the most devoted meditators among us, offering only transient glimpses of reality as it really is — flood the global mainstream, drawn from the groundwater of ancient Eastern philosophy and carried across the cultural gulf by a handful of pioneers in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Zen Master, peace activist and great Zen Master was chief among them. Thich Nhat Hanh (October 11, 1926–January 22, 2022), who arrived in America in 1961 to study the history of Vietnamese Buddhism at the Princeton Theological Seminary, bringing what he learned back to his native Vietnam two years and devoting himself to the project of peace, for which the South Vietnamese government punished him with a four-decade exile. Half a lifetime later — having been nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, having founded the found of civilizational optimism that is Plum Village in France, having survived a stroke that left him unable to speak or walk — he was finally allowed to return to his motherland, leaving the West that celebrated him as the father of mindfulness.

Thich Nhat Hanh. Photo courtesy Plum Village.

The journal Thich Nhat Hanh began keeping upon his arrival in America as a young man was published half a century later as Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962–1966 (public library). These remain his most intimate writings — a rare record of his unselfing, which made him himself: the monk who brought mindfulness to the world.

In an extraordinary diary entry penned ten days before his thirty-sixth birthday — the age at which Walt Whitman opened his Leaves of Grass with the declamation “One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person” — Thich Nhat Hanh contemplates the illusory and interdependent nature of the self as he faces his own multitudes, pitted in the universal inner conflict that comes with being a person in the world, a private cosmos in a public sphere:

It’s funny how much our surroundings influence our emotions. The environment can influence our emotions, such as our joys, sorrows, and likes and dislikes. We often allow our environment to dictate how we feel. We go along with “public” feelings until we no longer even know our own true aspirations. We become a stranger to ourselves, molded entirely by society… Sometimes I feel caught between two opposing selves — the “false self” imposed by society and what I would call my “true self.” How often we confuse the two and assume society’s mold to be our true self. Peaceful reconciliation is rare when we are fighting between our selves. Our mind becomes a battlefield on which the Five Aggregates — the form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness of our being — are strewn about like debris in a hurricane. The result is that trees fall and branches snap, and homes are destroyed.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that two centuries later, Coleridge saw the storm as a way to see the soul. A century ago, Van Gogh extolled how storms can be a powerful tool for clarifying human nature.

These are the most lonely moments. But every storm we endure, it is a chance to grow. These storms are what make me who I am today. It is rare that I hear a similar storm approaching until it has already arrived. As if it were walking silently in silk slippers, the storm seems to suddenly appear. It must have been simmering for a while in my thoughts and mental structures, but it seems to suddenly appear without warning. Nothing outside can stop such a furious hurricane. My life is broken and battered, but my soul is saved.

Art by Akiko Mikaoshi, The Storm

In consonance with Alain de Botton’s insight into the importance of breakdowns, he looks back on what the most formative storm of his life taught him:

I saw that the entity I had taken to be “me” was really a fabrication. It was clear that my real nature was far more complex, ugly, and beautiful than I imagined.

In a recollection that makes my own bibliophiliac soul tremble with the tenderness of recognition, he goes on to detail what occasioned the storm of his unselfing — his version of the garden epiphany that revealed to Virginia Woolf her life’s purpose:

The feeling began shortly before eleven o’clock at night on October first. While browsing the Butler Library’s eleventh-floor, I felt a strange sensation. The library was closing soon, so I noticed a book about my area of research. It was on the shelves, so I took it from there and held onto it with my hands. The book was heavy and large. It had been printed in 1892 and was given to Columbia Library that year. A slip of paper was found on the back cover that listed the names and dates the borrower took the book out of the library. It had first been borrowed in 1915. The second borrowing was made in 1932. The third would be me. Do you see the possibilities? Only three other people borrowed the book from me on October 1, 1962. In the same spot that I was standing, there had been only two others for 70 years. So, when the book came off the shelf, I decided to go and check it out. It was overwhelming to want to be able meet these two individuals. I don’t know why, but I wanted to hug them. However, they were gone and so will I. It is impossible for two points to be on the same straightline. Although I could meet two people at once, it was not possible to do so in space.

All lines vanished into a vast field of awareness that transcends time and space.

I feel as though I’ve lived a long time and have seen so much of life. I’m almost thirty-six, which is not young. As I stood amongst the books at Butler Library I realized I’m neither young nor old. I’m also existent and nonexistent. Friends know that I am as mischievous and playful as when I was a kid. I like to play and get involved fully in life. Also, I know how it feels to get mad. Also, I enjoy being complimented. Sometimes I find myself in tears and sometimes laughing. Yet, there is more to me than these emotions. It’s not possible to touch it. If there isn’t anything, why would I be so certain that there is?

As I held the book in my hand, I experienced a moment of insight. I realized that I was empty of all ideals and hopes. I don’t have any promises that I will keep to others. The sense that I was an entity within other entities vanished in that instant. It was clear to me that my insight didn’t come from despair, despair, fear and/or ignorance. The veil was lifted silently. This is it. If you beat me, stone me, or even shoot me, everything that is considered to be “me” will disintegrate. Then, what is actually there will reveal itself — faint as smoke, elusive as emptiness, and yet neither smoke nor emptiness, ugly, nor not ugly, beautiful, yet not beautiful. It’s like a shadow that appears on a screen.

London’s Holland House library, home to thousands of historic and rare books, destroyed after the 1940 blitz. You can also get a printed copy.

The feeling of losing oneself, however, was followed by a sense that he had arrived at his own essence, which is the unity of all of existence.

In that instant, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of knowing that something had happened. Retour. My clothes, my shoes, even the essence of my being had vanished, and I was carefree as a grasshopper pausing on a blade of grass… When a grasshopper sits on a blade of grass, he has no thought of separation, resistance, or blame… The green grasshopper blends completely with the green grass… It neither retreats nor beckons. It does not know philosophy, ideals or anything else. It simply appreciates its normal life. Dash across the meadow, my dear friend, and greet yesterday’s child. When you can’t see me, you yourself will return. Even when your heart is filled with despair, you will find the same grasshopper on the same blade of grass… Some life dilemmas cannot be solved by study or rational thought. We just live with them, struggle with them, and become one with them… To live, we must die every instant. The storms that make it possible for us to live must cause us to perish.

Thich Nhat Hanh during his 1980s exile in south-west France. Photo courtesy Plum Village.

Complement this fragment of Fragrant Palm Leaves — a superb read in its totality — with the poetic physician Lewis Thomas, writing in the same era, on how a sea slug and a jellyfish illuminate the permeable boundary of the self, then revisit Thich Nhat Hanh on the art of deep listening, the four Buddhist mantras of turning fear into love, and his timelessly transformative teachings on love as the art of “interbeing.”

Donating = Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. Every dollar counts.


MarginalianGet a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Related Posts