Thich Nhat Hanh on Buddhism, Mindfulness, and the Holy Spirit

“We can touch the living Buddha. We can also touch the living Christ. When we see someone overflowing with love and understanding, someone who is keenly aware of what is going on, we know that we are very close to the Buddha and to Jesus Christ.” Thich Nhat Hanh

One of the things I love about my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thây), is that the wonderful non-dogmatic, ecumenical spirit he brings to his dharma teaching. Thây was a close friend with Christian mystic Thomas Merton and has always been able to communicate with people of different faiths, finding common ground.

When talking to my Christian, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, and atheist friends, I’ve always tried to remember these words from his book Living Buddha, Living Christ:

“God as the ground of being cannot be conceived of.  Nirvana also cannot be conceived of.  If we are aware when we use the word “nirvana” or the word “God” that we are talking about the ground of being, there is no danger in using these words.

But if we say, “According to Buddhism, this exists,” or This does not exist,” it is not Buddhism, because the ideas of being and non-being are extremes that the Buddha transcended.

When we share the Dharma, we must speak carefully so that we and our listeners do not get stuck in words or concepts. It’s our duty to transcend words and concepts to be able to encounter reality. To be in touch with the source of our own wisdom is the way to show most eloquently that the Buddha is alive.

We can touch the living Buddha. We can also touch the living Christ. When we see someone overflowing with love and understanding, someone who is keenly aware of what is going on, we know that we are very close to the Buddha and to Jesus Christ.

Recently, I had a good discussion with a friend who is a Christian about what “holiness” is and whether or not there is such a thing in Buddhism. As a practicing Buddhist who came from a Christian background, I told him yes, that I had found no loss of the “holy” in the Buddhist path. Indeed, I felt that the scope and breadth of what I found to be “holy” had expanded to include the most mundane things.

Why? Because I found Buddhist mindfulness and meditation had the effect of stripping away the veil of the “ordinary” and mundane from my eyes.  Mindfulness helps me look into the nature and the very deep marvel and mystery of existence itself. When I am mindful, when I bring the compassionate eyes of an aspiring Bodhisattva to my marriage, to my friends, to my work, to nature—to every aspect of my life—I find I am sometimes almost overwhelmed by the joy and happiness and sense of bliss I feel in just being present for myself and others.

When we get caught up in words and concepts—whether we are Buddhist or Christian or whatever—we tend to become blind and stop seeing the person in front of us. While conceptually, we may agree to disagree with others about the nature of the ultimate, we shouldn’t stop trying to see where we can meet in love and wisdom in the here and now. And what speaks most loudly to others is not our words or beliefs, but our lives—our character, our actions, and our way of being in the world.

Listening to Thây talk about the Buddha, Christ Jesus, God, nirvana, the ground of being, the Holy Spirit, one might conclude that he does not understand how the profound differences between these words as people of different faith understand them. But Thich Nhat Hanh is a deep scholar of Buddhist Theravadan and Mahayanan texts.  It’s clear from his books that he also very familiar with Christian doctrine and that throughout his life he has been in a dialog  with Christian priests and thinkers.

If you look deeply into his books on these subjects, and ponder what he’s trying to do in them, you’ll see that Thây isn’t naively trying to say Buddhist and Christian beliefs don’t radically differ on many points. What’s he is pointing to is a common ground beyond all words and concepts where heart may meet heart, a place where we can see and love and respect each other—a place where we can put aside sectarian conflict and violence and rest in loving-kindness and understanding.

Here are some more thoughts on the subject, which Thây shared in a talk at Plum Village. I hope it inspires Buddhists, as well as people of other faiths, or non-faith, to consider how we can meet together in the holiness of mindful presence and loving-kindness, whatever words we use to describe the unveiling of reality:

Many years ago when I visited Italy, I met a Catholic priest who organized a public talk for me. We had time to talk with each other, and I asked him this question: “My friend, what is the Holy Spirit to you?” And he said that the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, sent by God to us. I thought that expression is beautiful, and as a Buddhist practitioner I can accept it very easily.

The Holy Spirit is the kind of energy that helps you to be compassionate, to be healed of your ill being. I think Catholics and Protestants would agree about that: the Holy Spirit is the agent of healing, of transformation, of joy, of being there.

In Buddhist circles, we say very much the same thing to describe mindfulness. To us, mindfulness is the energy that can help us to be there, in the here and the now. Mindfulness helps us to be alive, and since we are there, we are capable of touching life deeply, of understanding, of accepting, of loving. If we continue to develop that energy of understanding and loving, then we will get the healing and transformation that we need. That is why the Holy Spirit is exactly what we call the energy of mindfulness.

I can say that a Buddha or a bodhisattva is someone who is made of the energy of mindfulness. Each of us has a seed of mindfulness within ourselves. If we practice walking, sitting, smiling, breathing, eating, doing things every day with mindfulness, we help that seed of mindfulness in us to grow, and it will generate that energy of mindfulness that helps us to be alive, fully present in the here and the now, helping us to understand, to accept, forgive, and to love, to be healed. That is why it is correct to say that the energy of mindfulness is the energy of a Buddha, of a bodhisattva.

We have that energy in ourselves, and if we know how to practice, we can generate that energy from within. To me, the expressions “Holy Spirit” and “Mindfulness” both point to the same thing—something that is very concrete, that is available us in the here and the now, and not just an idea, a notion.

Excerpt from a dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on July 20, 1998 in Plum Village, France.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

15 Responses to “Thich Nhat Hanh on Buddhism, Mindfulness, and the Holy Spirit”

  1. Hi you have a fine website It was very easy to post it’s nice

  2. Thank you for your insight . I am a beliver in Jesus Christ . Of recent i was in a discusion
    with an acquaintance and he was telling me
    that all roads lead to the mountain top . Hes Buddhist .Now i personally dont believe in the combining of religions . And his responce was
    that i haven’t sat at the foot of the Guru he’s
    sat at , and i retorted ,well you’ve never been
    baptized by the Holy Spirit ,and he answered
    back ,yes he has . The conversation wasn’t
    going well and we parted at odds . I later
    apologized and gave him book called ” zen
    golf “as peace offering .We’re both viet nam vets and taking golf at the va. I see now that i should apologize again. Im also taking tai chi
    and yoga ,im also going to start a mindfulness class they’er offering here at the
    va . I need all the help i can get . My question to you is I’ve read that the Buddha told his deciples on His death bed to work out their own salvation , so did the apostle Paul . Now i know what the salvation Paul was talking about but im not sure of the salvation Budda was talking about .( i dont want to disrespectful, which is the better saying ,the Buddha ,or just Buddha)? Im going to get the book this book ” Living Buddha ,living Christ”.
    Thank you.

  3. Yes. Take away church doctrine and we will see the heart of Christ.

  4. I never read these things before today. As a Christian who has travelled in countries of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu faiths my eyes were opened to the goodness in people of all beliefes. At first I struggled with my own preconceived doctrines but came to ask how was it that I saw the same God I believed in, active in the goodness and kindness of these other believers. I never questioned the teachings of Jesus,only the dogmatic teachings of the Christian churches.
    Having visited Thailand twice, I noticed the way buddhists actually lived the teachings of my own faith.Their humility, their naturally serving nature. These in fact are the teachings of Christ which it seems so many institutionalised Christians fail to grasp.
    In time (and all spiritual growth takes time) I came to see that there

    really is only one truth, only one God. a God of variety. Why would God only speak through one means of teaching? He’s the almighty who loves us all.I’ve loved finding these teachings here today, for the first time in a long while I don’t feel so alone in my own beliefes. (I also believe that I never read thes teachings earlier because I wasn’t spiritually ready for them.)still growing!

    • Wow. This was so incredibly and beautifully said. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve felt this way for a long time and just haven’t been sure how to put it into words…but you are spot on. Open minded Christians will see the same things you’ve started…other people living the teachings of your own faith. God is love and He created diversity so why wouldnt he try to reach people diversely too? Thank you for your convent.

  5. Thank you Steve, this is a wonderful post. I feel refreshed after reading it and also peacefully in touch with myself…

    Thank you.


  6. Reading a post like this can bring one into mindfulness and all I can say is “thank you.”

    michael j

  7. Yes, definitely “minus all the church doctrine added on later to the gospels”–so much of which detracted from what he was trying to do and teach. I know that you know that that was implicit in what I was saying, but I figured that I’d better clarify here, just in case!


    • Nancy, no problem! I know we are on the same page about that and I knew it was indeed implicit in what you said, based on our past conversation. Thanks for wanting to clarify.


  8. I read the book this past summer; it was my first real introduction to Buddhism, and I fell in love with “Thay” when I read it. I’ve read quite a bit on Buddhism since, but no one seems to touch me quite as deeply, and make me feel that he “gets it” (whatever “it” is!). It seems to me that Jesus would have to be described as a bodhisattva, and that anyone, regardless of what they call themselves (or not) regarding their spiritual beliefs, would do well to try to follow his example (although there are certainly other wonderful examples throughout history as well). (I’ve also said that, in many ways, Buddhists make better Christians–or at least follow Jesus’ teachings more closely–than many Christians I’ve seen in action!)

    Thanks, Steve. I’ve also been reading through your previous post on “Being Open to the Unknown,” and enjoying it very much. But I need to really give it a closer reading before trying to make any kind of intelligible comment…


    • Nancy! Hey my friend! Thanks for stopping by, as always.

      I have many great dharma teachers in my life, through their writings, but I agree that Thay is unique and no one speaks to my heart quite like him. Coming from a Christian background, as you know, I had to work through a lot of hurt and anger and a whole much a metaphysical gobbledygook, before I could reclaim the “wheat” from the Bible, and, frankly, I still find it hard. But yes, in Jesus’ life, and example, (minus all the church doctrine added on later to the gospels) there’s something to love and emulate that’s unique.

      Glad you are enjoying the “Being Open to the Unknown.” That’s a great talk by Ajahn Amaro — very poetic in the way my Thay is — in fact, he’s the most “poetic” of all the Theravadan teachers that I read regularly.

      Great to hear from you.

      With affection and gratitude for your friendship,



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