No Mud, No Lotus: Thich Nhat Hanh's journey through war to peace

In 1966, Jim Forest was a travelling companion to Thich Nhat Hanh in the United States, while Paul Davis was a young U.S. Marine in Vietnam. Both men were forever changed by their encounters with Thich Nhat Hanh.

Photographer Paul Davis recounts the days in Vietnam and being ordained into the Order of Interbeing. (Images: Paul Davis)

5 years ago
Duration 1:14
Photographer Paul Davis recounts the days in Vietnam and being ordained into the Order of Interbeing. (Images: Paul Davis)

In his 91 years, Thich Nhat Hanh has touched many lives. He used to say to his students that "the best teacher is someone who helps you find your own inner teacher".

These people were all influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh in many different ways and used his mindfulness practices to change their lives.

Paul Davis

Paul Davis: Self-Portrait at 19 years old in Vietnam during the American War with the Marine Corps. (Paul Davis )

When Paul Davis was a young Marine in the thick of the war, he worked on a crew that was removing landmines from the village roads in Vietnam.

Davis' life was completely changed by Thich Nhat Hanh and he went from being at angry war demonstrations in 1971, to silent peace protests twenty years later.

"I was at a large peace protest over the Iraq War, and I walked with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. And we didn't chant, we just walked, there was a nun that was playing a drum. And it was amazing, when we walked by people would lower their angry signs, they would stop shouting through their bullhorns, and there was this very peaceful group that was walking through the middle of a lot of anger.  And I think that's... one of the major lessons I got from Thich Nhat Hanh which was not taking sides but speaking out simply for a peaceful alternative to war."

Davis was captivated by Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings, and eventually accompanied him back to Vietnam in 2005. It was Thich Nhat Hanh's first trip to his homeland after 39 years of exile.

Paul Davis is a photographer, Vietnam veteran, and ordained lay member of the Order of Interbeing.

Jim Forest

Jim Forest is an author and longtime peace activist. He was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which was supporting Thich Nhat Hanh's tour of the United States.

He ended up becoming Thich Nhat Hanh's travel companion and assistant for much of that tour, and sharing very personal moments with him in between cups of ginger tea.

Jim and Nancy Forest (Jim Forest)

" Well I remember one night when we were in Nyack, New York; north of New York city. He had gotten a telegram that day that his brother had been killed in the war. Even now, I think of it with tears. I remember it was snowing, I think, that night and he stood at the window looking out at the snow... in complete silence. The silence was long and deep." says Forest. "He looked at me and he said 'Nothing is wasted. Nothing is wasted.' And I have treasured those words ever since. This sense that even in the face of death, even in the face of inconsolable loss, a life worth living is never lost. "

They remained friends for years and years afterward.   

Another side of Thich Nhat Hanh - enlightening personal stories of encounters with two of his students: Kaira Jewel Lingo and Brother Phap Dung

Kaira Jewel

Kaira Jewel Lingo spent 15 years as an ordained nun in Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition.

(Kaira Jewel)

As a biracial woman, Kaira Jewel wasn't seeing very many different reflections of herself in her community. Thich Nhat Hanh worked with Kaira Jewel - and others - to start giving retreats inclusive of visibile minorities,  which made hundreds of people feel involved in the movement. During her time with him she learned many lessons from Thich Nhat Hanh, including the lesson that the path to enlightenment was not one without suffering.

"You know we want so much to practice and have a spiritual life, and you know we see this beautiful thing called enlightenment that we want to strive and go towards. But he was saying look at your feet, look where you are. You're standing in the mud- that's the path. It's not anywhere else than where you're standing. You may not want to be in the mud, but that's really how you grow. Enlightenment is made of the mud. Just like the lotus. The lotus is coming out of the mud, and enlightenment is growing out of your suffering."

Her path eventually led her to leave the community and to become a lay teacher based in Washington, DC. She works with activists, artists, educators, families, and youth.

Brother Phap Dung

Brother Phap Dung grew up in Los Angeles after his parents immigrated from Vietnam to the US when he was nine years old in the 1970s.

Brother Phap Dung (Wakeupschools.org)

He experienced a lot of discrimination as a kid in Los Angeles in the years after the Vietnam war and he internalized the hatred he was facing to the point that he didn't want anything to do with his Vietnamese heritage at all.

Meeting Thich Nhat Hanh changed his life.

Brother Phap Dung became a student of Thich Nhat Hanh and was ordained in 1998. During his time with him he says he got an insight into his two different sides.

"You see two sides of him, you know he's very gentle, very compassionate, very soft. You know, doing the retreat it's kind of like a mother energy. It's more soft, and you know kind of like a lullaby energy. And that's what people need first for their healing. Because they are suffering from their family, from society. They're in despair and you need to tend them until they heal and find health.

And then, there's another side of our teacher once you're strong enough....He's very gentle, he explains it, but if you're not careful you have a notion of something or you're not mindful he can pull the rug. And you're left there and you know  it's sometimes painful because it hits your ideas and your self and your identity quite a bit. So there's a fierce compassion."