Thich Nhat Hanh has published forty books in English translation. That constitutes a nice backlist, but there is still another sixty-some untranslated titles for his publisher to dip into. Clearly, Nhat Hanh is prolific, but his body of work is truly impressive considering his work ethic is tempered by his practice of mindfulness—a conscious embrace of the present moment. Although health concerns have finally slowed down the ninety-year-old teacher, Max Pugh & Marc J. Francis documented the Thien (Zen) Buddhist monk at the peak of his powers, as he interacts with the students and fellow monastics of his Plum Village spiritual community in Walk with Me (trailer here), which screens during this year’s SXSW.
Nhat Hanh first rose to prominence advocating a peaceful resolution to the Vietnam War, but when the war did indeed end, he was exiled from his country until 2005, which probably tells you everything you need to know about the so-called Peace Movement’s assumptions. Yet, one could argue his influence has been far greater than if he had remained in his homeland, as has been the case for the great teachers of Tibetan Buddhism.
Pugh & Francis manage to capture a sense of what attracts both the monastics and the visitors to Plum Village (near Dordogne, which also has a large British expat community). Obviously, the tranquil vibe starts with Nhat Hanh himself, but a sense of mindfulness permeates the place. We see it in practice when the entire community stops in mid-stride and mid-sentence whenever bells chime, to re-focus on the moment. It is also impossible to miss the beauty of their services, especially those involving performances by Sister Trai Nghiem and her fellow musical monastics. Many visitors are literally moved to tears by their sounds and probably a lot of audience members will be right there with them.
However, unlike the still spritely Dalai Lama, it is hard to draw a bead on Nhat Hanh’s personality, beyond his superhuman sereneness. Benedict Cumberbatch (who might replace Richard Gere as the go-to narrator for Buddhist-themed documentaries) reads excerpts from Fragrant Palm Leaves with all do sensitivity, but his syrupy voice reinforces our distance from the ostensive subject. Instead, Pugh & Francis apparently opt to show how the teacher is reflected in the disciple. Again, Walk with Me will sneak up and coldcock viewers with the depth of feeling experienced by an American monastic reuniting with the nursing home-bound father she rarely has an opportunity to visit.