Profiles in Faith: Thich Nhat Hanh, Father of Engaged Buddhism
The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism announced that their beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh passed away peacefully at Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam on January 22, 2022, at the age of 95. World Religion News published an article on Thich Nhat Hanh in June of 2021 and offer this profile as remembrance of an extraordinary life.
Ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk at the age of 16 in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh conceived a form of Buddhism based on mindfulness practices that enable followers to overcome their personal suffering as well as find answers to society’s needs through social action. Popularly known by his nickname Thây, Nhat Hanh is the father of “Engaged Buddhism.” He is recognized as a global spiritual leader — a celebrity who is the best-known teacher of Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.
Nhat Hanh (“Thich” is the name adopted by all Vietnamese monks and nuns upon ordination) is also the author of more than 70 books, which have been translated into more than 30 languages. A poet and advocate for peace, he is celebrated for his teachings, which have influenced millions, from politicians, business leaders and teachers to activists, prisoners and ordinary people.
Nhat Hanh played a major role in introducing in the West the concept and practice of mindfulness — the art of living in the present moment — which has grown into an international movement of considerable proportions. Nhat Hanh has traveled the world, speaking about his quintessentially tolerant faith and creating “mindful communities,” or sanghas, a Sanskrit word that means “association” or “brotherhood.”
“Meditation is not an escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and what is going on,” Nhat Hanh teaches. “Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.”
War has deeply impacted Nhat Hanh’s life. He condemned the Vietnam War and left his homeland in 1966, embarking on a tour of 19 countries during which he called for an end to the conflict. Ironically, he was exiled from Vietnam for his peace activism for nearly four decades — because he refused to take sides in the hostilities, thereby making enemies of governments in both the communist north and U.S.-backed south of the country.
Early during his banishment, in his attempts to stop the Vietnam War, Nhat Hanh met several notable Americans, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Trappist monk, mystic and author Thomas Merton, Senator William Fulbright and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Nhat Hanh helped persuade Dr. King to oppose the Vietnam War. In 1967, Dr. King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. “Here is an apostle of peace and nonviolence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world,” Dr. King wrote to the Nobel Committee. Praising Nhat Hanh as “a scholar of immense intellectual capacity,” Dr. King added that his “ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
In His Own Words
“Dear Mr. President: Last night, I saw my brother (who died two weeks ago in the U.S.A.) coming back to me in a dream. He was with all his children. He told me, ‘Let’s go home together.’ After a millisecond of hesitation, I told him joyfully, ‘OK, let’s go.’ Waking up from that dream at 5 a.m. this morning, I thought of the situation in the Middle East; and for the first time, I was able to cry. I cried for a long time, and I felt much better after about one hour. Then I went to the kitchen and made some tea. While making tea, I realized that what my brother had said is true: our home is large enough for all of us. Let us go home as brothers and sisters.
“Mr. President, I think that if you could allow yourself to cry like I did this morning, you will also feel much better. It is our brothers that we kill over there. They are our brothers, God tells us so, and we also know it. They may not see us as brothers because of their anger, their misunderstanding, and their discrimination. But with some awakening, we can see things in a different way, and this will allow us to respond differently to the situation. I trust God in you; I trust Buddha nature in you.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, in a letter to President George W. Bush, dated August 8, 2006, written in the Buddhist spirit of right speech.
“A Buddha is someone who is enlightened, capable of loving and forgiving. You know that at times you’re like that. So enjoy being a Buddha.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, writing in Your True Home, one of more than 70 books he has authored.
“When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on — not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in The Times of London, explaining why he and his fellow monks risked their lives in 1964, while offering food and medical care to the needy during the Vietnam War.
“But it is not necessarily like that, because even if you are successful in making more money, you still suffer. You compete because you’re not happy and meditation can help you to suffer less. Many of us think you can only be happy when you leave other people behind; you are number one. You do not need to be number one to be happy. There must be a spiritual dimension in your life and in your business, otherwise you cannot deal with the suffering caused by your work or your daily life.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in a 2013 interview with The Guardian newspaper.
“When you communicate with compassion, you are using language that does not have the elements of anger and irritation in it. In this way we can help each other remove wrong perceptions. All the energies of anger, hatred, fear and violence come from wrong perceptions. Wrong perceptions result in a lot of anger, mistrust, suspicion, hate and terrorism. You cannot remove wrong perceptions through punishment. You have to do it with the tools of deep and compassionate listening and loving speech. With deep, compassionate listening and loving speech, we can bring harmony to our families, and our communities can become communities of understanding, peace and happiness.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, addressing the U.S. Congress, September 10, 2003.
“Meditation practice can help business to suffer less. That is good already because if your employees are happy, your business can improve. If your business is causing environmental problems, then because you have practiced meditation you may have an idea of how to conduct your business in such a way that you will harm nature less. Meditation can calm your suffering and give you more insight and more right view on yourself and on the world and if you have a collective wisdom, then naturally you will want to handle and conduct your business in such a way that will make the world suffer less.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in a 2013 interview with The Guardian newspaper.
“I have never wanted to build a luxurious, beautiful monastery here. When I am able to sell my books, the money has been used to bring relief to the hungry and to victims of the floods in Vietnam. There are still many people in our sangha who sleep in sleeping bags. … I used to sleep on a very thin mattress on a plank of wood on top of four bricks. That did not prevent me from being happy.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in The Times of London from his 2003 book, I Have Arrived, I am Home: Celebrating Twenty Years of Plum Village Life, in which he refers to Plum Village, a farmstead in France that he converted in 1982 into a Buddhist monastery, considered to be the largest and most active in the West.
“Our enemies are not man but intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination, which lie within the heart of man. I believe with all my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama … is not aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred and discrimination. These are the real enemies of man.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, in a 1965 letter addressed to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., titled, “In Search of the Enemy of Man.”
“Our society needs a collective awakening in order to save ourselves from the crisis we are in. So the practice is that awakening should take place in every step, every breath. And if you have awakening you know you have a path of happiness. You stop suffering and then you can help other people to do the same.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, in a 2013 interview with The Guardian newspaper.
“When they see the truth it is too late to act … but they don’t want to wake up because it may make them suffer. They cannot confront the truth. … They want to get busy in order to forget. We should not talk in terms of what they should do, what they should not do, for the sake of the future. We should talk to them in such a way that touches their hearts, that helps them to engage on the path that will bring them true happiness; the path of love and understanding, the courage to let go. When they have tasted a little bit of peace and love, they may wake up.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, in a 2013 interview with The Guardian newspaper, reflecting on the tardy global response to the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity loss.
“I remember the last time I saw him. It was in Geneva at a peace conference shortly before his assassination. He invited me for breakfast. I was late because I was busy with reporters, but he kept the breakfast hot for me. I was able to tell him that in Vietnam people had heard of him and that they thought of him as a Bodhisattva [enlightened being]. I was glad to be able to do that before he died.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, recalling his last meeting with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 for his role in trying to end the Vietnam War.
“The root of fear is our mistaken view regarding the nature of death. We fear death because we feel that once we become dead, we become nothing. Yet modern science teaches us that nothing is created, nothing is lost and everything is transformed. Observing a cloud we can ask whether it can die. Can a cloud from something become nothing? Looking deeper, we can see that the cloud can only become rain, snow, hail, and then again water vapor. Even our nature is like that of the cloud. Just as rain and snow are the continuation of the cloud, our actions of body, speech and mind continue us forever.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, September 10, 2014, in response to the question, “Is it possible to overcome the fear of death?”
“I have arrived in the Pure Land, a real home where I can … touch the paradise of my childhood and all the wonders of life. I am no longer concerned with being and nonbeing, coming and going, being born or dying. In my true home I have no fear, no anxiety. I have peace and liberation. My true home is in the here and the now. I have found true happiness.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, writing in his 2003 book, I Have Arrived, I am Home: Celebrating Twenty Years of Plum Village Life.
The Stories Others Tell
“Thich Nhat Hanh has the ability to express some of the most profound teachings of interdependence and emptiness I’ve ever heard. With the eloquence of a poet, he holds up a sheet of paper and teaches us that the rain cloud and the tree and the logger who cut the tree down are all there in the paper. He’s been one of the most significant carriers of the lamp of the dharma to the West that we have had.” — Jack Kornfield, Buddhist practitioner and author, quoted in a 2010 article in Lion’s Roar, a publication of a foundation devoted to providing Buddhist teachings, news and perspectives.
“I don’t think that I would have had the inner stamina, the depth of optimism, the depth of commitment, the depth of inspiration if I had not been accompanied by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.” — Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, quoted in the Huffington Post as crediting the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh for her success in brokering the 2016 Paris Agreement.
“More than fifty percent of the population was born after he was gone, so he was connecting with a whole new generation or two of Vietnamese people. That’s important because in Vietnam young people see Buddhism as their grandmother’s thing, and they just want to go to the big city and live a Western, urban lifestyle. Thây is one of the few teachers who are successful in attracting young people, even to the monastic life.” — Sister Pine, a nun and member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s sangha, who accompanied him during his first trip to Vietnam in 2005 after his 40-year exile, quoted in a 2010 article in Lion’s Roar, a publication of a foundation devoted to providing Buddhist teachings, news and perspectives.
“It’s like the circle that he often draws with the calligraphy brush. He’s returned to Vietnam after 50 years of being in the West. When he first left to call for peace during the Vietnam War was the start of the circle; slowly, he traveled to other countries to do the teaching, making the rounds. And then slowly he returned to Asia, to Indonesia, Hong Kong, China. Eventually, Vietnam opened up to allow him to return three other times. This return now is kind of like a closing of the circle. It’s also like the light of the candle being transferred, to the next candle, to many other candles, for us to continue to live and practice and to continue his work. For me, it feels like that, like the light is lit in each one of us.” — Brother Phap Dung, senior disciple and monk at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village monastery in France, referring to the Zen master’s return to Vietnam after suffering a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak any of the seven languages in which he was once fluent.
“Nhat Hanh gave some sense of the topics that were most on his mind that afternoon: He talked first about global warming and then about eating low on the food chain. He told a Buddhist story of a couple who were forced to cross a desert with their young son and, running out of food, killed and ate the child, whose diminishing corpse they carried with them, constantly apologizing to it. After the Buddha told that story, he asked the monks, ‘Do you think the couple enjoyed eating the flesh of their own son?’ Nhat Hanh recounted. The monks said ‘no, impossible.’ The Buddha said, ‘let us eat in such a way that will retain compassion in our heart. Otherwise we will be eating the flesh of our son and grandson.’ It was a stark and stern reminder of the steel beneath the flowing robe, gentle smile and peaceful demeanor.” — Time magazine writer David Van Biema, recounting a 2007 conversation he had with Thich Nhat Hanh during the monk’s U.S. tour.
“[I]n classical Buddhism, meditation and enlightenment are often considered an individualistic ethic. But for Hanh, enlightenment is only possible when one ‘stays in touch’ with the world. The interrelatedness of life is foundational to his writings; his aspiration for ‘interbeing’ fosters an appreciative understanding that one’s apparently separate self is actually thoroughly intertwined with other selves. In our atomized world, his vision of a sharing life should be cherished.” — September 2015 article in East Bay Express, an alternative weekly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Titled “The Gentle Thich Nhat Hanh: In Praise of Activism with Honesty and Compassion,” the article’s publication coincided with Nhat Hanh’s medical treatment, at the UC San Francisco Medical Center following a stroke.
A Life in Brief
Thich Nhat Hanh was born October 11, 1926 in Hué, the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam. He began his monastic life at age 16 but later left a Buddhist academy because it did not teach modern subjects such as Western philosophy and literature. He went on to study science at Saigon University and edited a humanist magazine.
In 1962, a year after he went to the U.S. to teach Comparative Religion at Princeton University, Nhat Hanh was invited to research and lecture on Buddhism at Columbia University. He spoke compellingly at numerous U.S. universities about the Vietnam War’s devastation, the Vietnamese people’s desire for peace, and appealed for an end to U.S air warfare in the country.
In the mid-1960s, as U.S. troops began entering South Vietnam, Nhat Hanh was teaching at a Buddhist college in Saigon. Along with his students, he issued statements calling for peace.
The First Indochina War in Vietnam, which lasted from 1946 to 1954, was transformative for Nhat Hanh. A seminal memory for the monk was that of a French soldier who stormed into the temple where the young Nhat Hanh was, and demanded all the rice at gunpoint.
“The soldier was young and thin and pale,” Nhat Hanh recalled. “I had to obey his order to carry the heavy bag of rice to the jeep. Anger and unhappiness rose up in me. Many times over the years I have meditated on this soldier. I have focused on the fact that he had to leave his family and friends to travel across the world to Vietnam, where he faced the horrors of killing my countrymen or being killed. I came to realize that the Vietnamese were not the only victims of the war — the French soldiers were victims as well.”
In 1969, Nhat Hanh led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace talks. But he refused to favor either of the combating sides in the Vietnam war, which prompted both the south and the north of the country to ban him from entering his homeland, an exile that lasted 39 years.
Fluent in French, Nhat Hanh took refuge in France, where he continued to teach, lecture and write about Buddhist dharma (doctrine) and mindfulness as antidotes to violence, war and climate change. He also opened numerous mindfulness practice centers overseas. During a visit to the U.S. in 2013, he led high-profile mindfulness events at the Silicon Valley headquarters of the tech giant Google, The World Bank and the Harvard School of Medicine.
In November 2014, shortly after his 88th birthday, Nhat Hanh suffered a severe stroke. Although partially paralyzed and unable to speak, he continues to offer Buddhist teachings and inspiration through gestures and the sheer power of his peaceful presence. He lives in Tu Hieu Temple, where he was first ordained as a monk in 1942, and where he wishes to spend the rest of his days.
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Achievements We’ll Remember
• 1940: Thich Nhat Hanh, 16 years old, is ordained as a Buddhist monk in Tu Hieu Temple, in Hue city, in his native Vietnam.
• Early 1950s: Nhat Hanh is active in a movement aimed at renewing and reinvigorating Vietnamese Buddhism. He gains distinction as one of the first monks to study a secular subject at Saigon University.
• 1961: Nhat Hanh travels to the U.S. to teach Comparative Religion at Princeton University.
• 1962: Nhat Hanh teaches and researches Buddhism at Columbia University.
• Early 1960s: Nhat Hanh establishes the School of Youth and Social Service, a grassroots Vietnamese relief organization of 10,000 volunteers founded on the Buddhist principles of nonviolence and compassionate action. He also helps establish the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon as well as a publishing house and a magazine devoted to peace activism.
• 1966: At a time when the Vietnam War is escalating and the teachings of the Buddha are desperately needed to combat the hatred, violence and divisiveness sweeping his country, Nhat Hanh launches the Order of Interbeing, a community of monks and the laity, based on traditional Buddhist precepts. The order’s first six members, ordained together on February 5, 1966, were students and colleagues of Nhat Hanh who rebuilt schools, established medical centers and offered food and other assistance to people in war-torn villages, through projects organized by the School of Youth and Social Service.
• 1966: Nhat Hanh travels to the U.S. and Europe to lobby for peace and an end to the Vietnam War. He meets with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who nominates him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize.
• 1969: Nhat Hanh is banned from returning to Vietnam after he refused to support either side of the conflict when he led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace talks aimed at resolving the Vietnam War. Nhat Hanh’s exile lasts 39 years.
• Early 1970s: Nhat Hanh continues to teach, speak and write about mindfulness and “living peace.” He lectures and conducts research on Buddhism at the University of Sorbonne in Paris.
• 1975: Nhat Hanh establishes the Sweet Potato Community, a mindfulness center near Paris.
• 1982: Nhat Hanh relocates the Sweet Potato Community to a larger site in the southwest of France, near Bordeaux. He calls it Plum Village, a place aimed at “creating a healthy, nourishing environment, where people can learn the art of living in harmony with one another and with the Earth.” Attracting over 10,000 visitors each year, and with more than 200 resident monks and nuns living and practicing in four separate hamlets across the countryside, Plum Village grows into Europe’s largest and most active Buddhist monastery.
• Over the years, more than 100,000 people who have attended Nhat Hanh’s retreats have made commitments to follow his universal code of ethics in their daily lives. Known as “The Five Mindfulness Trainings,” the code involves: Reverence For Life; True Happiness; True Love; Loving Speech and Deep Listening; Nourishment and Healing.
• Nhat Hanh also founded Wake Up, a global movement of youth practicing mindful living, and Wake Up Schools, a program designed to train educators to teach mindfulness in schools across Europe, the U.S. and Asia.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Religion
Like most Vietnamese, Thich Nhat Hanh practices the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, which is the dominant form of the faith in China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and several other countries.
Mahayana Buddhism envisions universal salvation, with the goal that it is possible for all sentient beings to achieve buddhahood by becoming a Buddha.
Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism combines elements of Zen, a Mahayana school whose roots go back to China some 15 centuries ago. Zen is called Thien in Vietnamese, it is loosely translated as “Meditation Buddhism.”
Buddhism reached Vietnam at least 18 centuries ago, via China, where it traveled from India, the land of the faith’s birth. Although it is the most visible religion in Vietnam today, less than 10 percent of Vietnamese are estimated to actively practice Buddhism. For the past half century, Vietnam’s communist regime has subjected Buddhism to a string of oppressions. Monks are frequently harassed, threatened and detained by authorities.
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