Don’t be number one – reflection on the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh

I have been wanting to write about the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH; 一行禅师), a Buddhist monk and leader of global peace movement during the Vietnam War. Though I never met him, TNH’s influence on me has been profound. Today, I finally fought off the procrastination monster within and updated my blog with this – a new post since a while ago. I will loosely touch on some thoughts about leadership and our Asian heritage. None of what I write here will be peer reviewed or read by another person, what a relief!

Often, I vividly hear TNH’s voice in my mind: You don’t need to be number one to be happy

I have no way of knowing whether TNH is really the peace-radiating monk from within, that whether he is indeed peaceful internally. In an alternate universe, I could image someone like TNH as a social media influencer whose real life might not be that “flower-fresh”. In that universe, the books’ sale numbers were the ultimate goal of spreading his messages. We will never know. But his ideas and teaching have been more interesting to me than numerous insights generated by scholars studying happiness, behaviors, or “nudges”, who seemingly leverage advanced statistical techniques. (Or perhaps more amusingly, “AI techniques” 😂.)

TNH also made me reflect on my Asian heritage. In western media, Asian characters are seldom linked to leadership. For example, through hard work, Asians in North America states have built up the model minority status. But that’s typically associated with being the diligent follower – put your head down and work despite hardship and even unfair treatment, deliver what the boss said, even that boss was the Machiavellian type of leaders. Many of them are. TNH showed us a way that we can be a leader with a calm voice, making the world a better place instead of ruining it and profiting from doing so.

TNH’s path was perhaps no easier – as a monk coming to Europe in the 60s and 70s, a time perhaps the west was no friendlier towards Asians than today. I cannot begin to imagine how he many mountains he had to move to build a strong peaceful sangha, and spread his peaceful messages far and wide. In a world that is seemingly headed towards turmoil, I have been often delighted to see people of the same heritage as mine contribute positively to the world’s culture. As a science-fiction fan, allow me to mention some names: Kazuo Ishiguro, Ted Chiang (I loved his stories that blend in calculus of variations. I hope I will be writing about this in a post in the no-so-near future.), and Cixin Liu.

TNH’s messages are not the crowd-pleasing/outrage-provoking types like today’s political/tech influencers. Neither did he claim to know any fancy statistical tools or modern empirical psychology. His urges are rather basic, such as: breathe in and out, three times, picture ourselves as fresh flower on lotus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a naive flowery approach to solve all society’s problems. We won’t remove the sociopaths or narcissists among us by simple spiritual chanting. (But we can use optimization and optimal control for that) But to fight the perverse incentive systems and sociopaths, we must calm our mind first. We’d be better off waking up from the enthralling stories we tell ourselves – stories such as our being the victims of the reality. Only then, we have enough cognitive bandwidth to come up with feasible paths forward.

As still a listener of TNH’s peaceful words and a person sharing the same cultural heritage, I am grateful to have benefited from Thay’s teaching, and will strive to carry the torch.

Written on July 30, 2022