photo: Boris Thayser, Flickr CC

by Paul Dekar

Renowned Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, born on October 11, 1926 in the city of Hue in Central Vietnam, author of over a hundred books, has bestowed upon us all an enormous gift of interconnection with one’s true self, others, nature, and beyond.

Nhat Hanh (“Thich,” pronounced “Tick,” is a Buddhist title meaning Venerable) received his primary education at a Mahayana Buddhist academy and at the age of 16 entered the monastic life. In the early 1960s, he came to the United States to teach at Princeton and Columbia. In 1963 he returned to South Vietnam to aid fellow monks in nonviolent peace work. Despite denunciation by the government, Nhat Hanh helped found a Buddhist university, a publishing house, and a peace magazine.

With Chan Khong, member of a women’s Buddhist monastic order, Nhat Hanh co-founded the School of Youth for Social Service, or SYSS. This grassroots organization set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and formed agricultural co-ops. Based on Buddhist principles of nonviolence and compassionate action, SYSS attracted over 10,000 young people who helped rebuild villages destroyed by war.

In July 1965, in response to growing military buildup in Vietnam, the United States chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation organized a group of religious leaders to visit South Vietnam. Delegates wanted to see what was going on and to initiate peace efforts with Vietnamese counterparts, including Nhat Hanh. This was the start of a long and meaningful relationship between Nhat Hanh and FOR.

The Netherlands, July 21, 1966. Photo: Peter van Zoest, Flickr CC

On May 1, 1966 at the ancient Tu Hieu pagoda in Hue, Nhat Hanh received from Zen Master Chan That the “Lamp Transmission,” making him a dharmacharya (teacher). As spiritual head of the pagoda and associated monasteries, Nhat Hanh taught Buddhist psychology at Vạn Hanh Buddhist University along with a body of literature in Mahayana Buddhism known as prajnaparamita, Sanskrit for “Perfection of Wisdom.”

Under FOR sponsorship, Nhat Hanh came to the United States, where he led a symposium on Vietnamese Buddhism at Cornell University. He called for peace at high levels of government and in civil society. He met a diversity of leaders, including then-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Nhat Hanh identified himself as an anti-Communist who mourned destruction by people at war with his country of peasants, 80 percent of whom were Buddhist. He said the United States had become too afraid of the Communists to enter into a peaceful relationship with them.

In late 1966, Vietnamese university students issued the Call for Peace, a statement that declared, “It is time for North and South Vietnam to find a way to stop the war and help all Vietnamese people live peacefully and with mutual respect.” The statement proved controversial. Nhat Hanh went into exile, leaving Chan Khong in charge of the SYSS. University leaders accused Nhat Hanh and Chan Khong of being Communist. They denied this and claimed to offer a third way, neither pro- nor anti-Communist.

In the spring of 1966, Nhat Hanh had visited the Roman Catholic Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky, where he prayed with fellow monk and writer Thomas Merton. Merton later recalled Nhat Hanh’s visit in a brief essay entitled, “Nhat Hanh Is My Brother.”

In Chicago, Nhat Hanh met Martin Luther King Jr., to whom he had written a letter on the meaning in Mahayana Buddhism of self-immolation. The two men held a press conference. The Chicago Tribune reported that King compared the civil rights movement in the United States with the protest of Vietnamese monks against the war. In 1967, K ing nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. In his letter to the Nobel committee, King argued that Nhat Hanh offered a way out of the nightmare. King explained that he knew no one more worthy of recognition than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam, whom he was privileged to call a friend. On April 4, 1967, King spoke at Riverside Church in New York City, where he repeated his opposition to the Vietnam war and cited Nhat Hanh.

A year later, after speaking in Memphis, Tennessee, King planned to continue to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to join Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton on retreat. All three practiced meditation for their spiritual fulfillment and that of others. Each sought to help others to live compassionately. One can only imagine how their dialogue might have unfolded had King not been murdered on April 4, 1968.

Subsequently, Nhat Hanh deepened his “Engaged Buddhism,” a term he coined at a time when his country was being ravaged by the Vietnam war. Engaged Buddhists embrace 14 principles, including speaking truthfully and constructively; not using the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit; living with a vocation that harms neither humans nor nature; and living in accord with the ideals of compassion, protection of life, and prevention of war.

During the early 1970s, Nhat Hanh served on FOR’s advisory council and staff. With FOR leader Alfred Hassler and Chan Khong, who had followed Nhat Hanh into exile, Nhat Hanh co-founded Dai Dong The Gioi, Chinese for “a world of great happiness.” This was an effort to link the global challenges of war, environmental degradation, and poverty at a time of growing awareness of climate crisis. The United Nations organized two international conferences: the Biosphere Conference in Paris in 1968 and the U.N. Conference on Human Environment, which took place in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. Dai Dong organized an alternative conference that sought to dramatize the depth and scope of existing world issues in such a way that it would be impossible for national delegations to ignore the crisis and instead would generate the urgency to make social and political changes necessary to realize the idea of a world community.

In 1978, Nhat Hanh inspired creation of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in partnership with FOR. According to its website, “we continue to learn from Thich Nhat Hanh and benefit from the thousands of people who come to engaged Dharma practice through his teaching.”

Working with his Vietnamese Buddhist colleagues, Nhat Hanh sought to help war victims, including boat people who came to the United States. He also wrote several books, two of which were published by FOR: The Miracle of Being Awake was published in 1975 followed, in 1987, by Be Still and Know: Meditation for Peacemakers, which was co-published with Pax Christi. FOR also recorded an album featuring him titled Cry of Vietnam: Three Vietnamese Voices That Cannot Be Silenced.  

Uncertain how next to proceed, Nhat Hanh entered a period of withdrawal. For five years, he lived at a hermitage in France where he meditated, wrote, gardened, and received occasional visitors. After 1983, Nhat Hanh’s vocation became more public. He helped form Plum Village in southwestern France. Characterized as a community of mindful living, Plum Village gathered people in conflict, such as Palestinians and Israelis, for peacebuilding retreats.

Encouraging people to live mindfully and compassionately, Nhat Hanh lectured and led retreats around the world. On September 28, 2002, Nhat Hanh, Chan Khong, and 45 members of Plum Village visited Memphis, Tennessee. As part of a wider effort to build opposition to the impending U.S. war in Iraq, Nhat Hanh led a mindful walk, ate a mindful lunch, and gave a talk as part of what organizers called PeaceWalk 2002.

Nhat Hanh explained to the gathering that practicing peace means being peace in such everyday aspects of living as walking and eating. During his talk, Nhat Hanh encouraged peacemakers to practice mindfulness by walking or eating silently in the present. He said such practices are essential to uproot seeds of war that germinate in one’s being. To prevent war in the future, we have to practice mindfulness today. Only by establishing peace in our hearts and in our ways of looking at things can we begin to deal with sources of violence and war such as anger, fear, hatred, misunderstanding, and possessiveness. Nhat Hanh taught participants the following chant, “I Have Arrived,” which goes:

I have arrived / I am home /
in the here / and in the now.
I have arrived / I am home /
in the here / and in the now.
I am solid. / I am free. /
I am solid. / I am free.
In the ultimate I dwell. /
In the ultimate I dwell.

Nhat Hanh stressed that during the war in Vietnam, people in the United States suffered, as well as the Vietnamese. In a poem, “Call Me by My True Names,” Nhat Hanh illustrated radical empathy by recognizing himself in a frog and in the snake that eats it, then in a starving child in Uganda and in the arms merchant who sells deadly weapons there. Finally he identified himself in a 12-year-old girl raped by a sea pirate and also in the sea pirate, whose heart most of us are not yet capable of seeing and loving. Darkness, he explained, cannot be dissipated by more darkness. Only understanding and compassion can dissolve fear, hatred, and violence.

One concrete outcome of PeaceWalk2002 was the decision of participants to create Magnolia Grove Monastery, a 120-acre residential monastery and mindfulness practice center in northwest Mississippi. A year later, Nhat Hanh returned for its opening. Ever since, Magnolia Grove Village has served as a place to rest with the present moment and to live peacefully.

Thay at march with kids, 2006. Photo: Duc, Flickr CC

In 2005, following lengthy negotiations, the Vietnamese government granted Nhat Hanh permission to revisit his birth country. He taught, published four of his books in Vietnamese, and traveled with monastic and lay members of his order. In 2007, he returned to Vietnam. The goals of these trips were to support new monastics in his order and to organize and conduct “Great Chanting Ceremonies.” These were intended to help heal wounds remaining from the Vietnam war. He continued to emphasize that with our capacity of smiling, breathing, and being peaceful humans can make peace, be peace, and do something to change the course of things.

In 2014, Nhat Hanh suffered a stroke at Plum Village, the monastery and retreat center in France that had been his home for over 30 years. He received treatment in San Francisco and France. Though he was unable to speak after the stroke, he continued to use his left arm and facial expressions to communicate with his community.

In October 2018, Nhat Hanh returned permanently to Vietnam. Mark Nguyen, one of the organizers of PeaceWalk 2002, visited Nhat Hanh in December 2018. Chan Khong took Mark to see Nhat Hanh through a window. Sitting inside looking out at Mark, Nhat Hanh acknowledged Mark with a slight nod. By all accounts, his health was remarkably stable.

Nhat Hanh offers a way of seeing ourselves and of looking at things that leads to diminished aggression, fear, and hatred in the world. He urges us to rely on each other and to seek to ensure that our children have a future. In his words, “Every day we do things, we are things, that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our life, our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment.”

Paul R. Dekar is author of several books, including Creating the Beloved Community: A Journey with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Dangerous People: The Fellowship of Reconciliation Building a Nonviolent World of Justice, Freedom, and Peace, and the forthcoming Thomas Merton: God’s Messenger towards a New World. Dekar is emeritus professor of evangelism and mission at Memphis Theological Seminary and now lives in Dundas, Ontario, Canada.