Hanh, Thich Nhat
Thich Nhat Hanh
BORN: 1926 • Vietnam
Vietnamese religious leader; writer
Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced tik not hawn) is often referred to as the most beloved and respected Buddhist teacher in the West (the countries of Europe and the Americas). He was forced into exile from his native Vietnam in 1966, while on a speaking tour in the United States. He was trying to promote peace between the warring parties of the U.S.-supported South Vietnam and the communist-supported North Vietnam. Communists support an economy in which all goods are owned collectively by the people and distributed by the government according to need. Communists may support the overthrow of the government by the masses, or working class. While Thich Nhat Hanh was in the United States, both Vietnams banned his return. Since his exile he has made his home in France, at the Plum Village Buddhist Center, which he founded. He has continued to travel and teach Buddhism and peace in the West, and is the author of close to one hundred books. He has also spoken and written widely about bridging the religions of Buddhism and Christianity.
"Meditation is about awareness of what is going on—not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you."
Thich Nhat Hanh was born in 1926 in central Vietnam. He left home as a teenager to become a Buddhist monk and was officially taken into the religious order in 1942. At that time he took the religious name of Thich Nhat Hanh. The word thich is a title for monks and nuns in Vietnam, which is taken as their new "family name." Nhat means "of the best quality," and hanh means "good nature" or "right conduct." Thich Nhat Hanh's followers also sometimes refer to him as Thay, or "teacher."
At the time of Thich Nhat Hanh's birth, Vietnam had been ruled by the French since the late nineteenth century. The Japanese invaded the country in 1940, during World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). A communist revolutionary group called the Viet Minh, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), saw this as a possible opportunity to be freed of French rule. After Japan surrendered in 1945, the Viet Minh declared the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French refused to leave, however, and a long period of unrest and warfare between local rebels and the French began. The French finally withdrew in 1954, and Vietnam was divided into North Vietnam, the stronghold of Ho Chi Minh's communist forces, and South Vietnam, where the French had been centered around Saigon and which was essentially democratic. The Cold War (1945-91; a period of political hostility between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies) then brought about the involvement of the United States, which was fearful of a communist takeover of South Vietnam. The Vietnam War (1954–75), during which the United States fought with South Vietnamese forces against the North Vietnamese, was another long and bloody war in the country's history.
Thich Nhat Hanh grew up during this long period of warfare. Early in his career, he helped create a movement known as Engaged Buddhism to try to make positive changes to Vietnamese society. The movement paired nonviolent civil disobedience with more traditional Buddhist practices, such as meditation, a focusing of thoughts on a single point, usually to gain greater understanding. One result of these efforts was the 1950 founding of a major center of Buddhist studies in South Vietnam, the An Quang Buddhist Institute. Speaking in 2003 with John Malkin of the Shambala Sun, Thich Nhat Hanh explained the principle of engaged Buddhism: "Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about awareness of what is going on—not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you." He further explained, "When I was a novice in Vietnam, we young monks witnessed the suffering caused by the war. So we were very eager to practice Buddhism in such a way that we could bring it to society. That was not easy because the tradition does not directly offer Engaged Buddhism. So we had to do it by ourselves. That was the birth of Engaged Buddhism."
In 1961 Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to the United States to both study and teach comparative religion at Columbia University and Princeton University. Two years later, however, South Vietnamese monks asked him to return home to help try to put a stop to the warfare among the United States and Vietnamese troops. Back in his native country Thich Nhat Hanh assisted in organizing a nonviolent resistance movement. He also spread the concept of Engaged Buddhism through the 1964 creation of the School of Youth for Social Service. This program sent more than ten thousand young people to the countryside to help Buddhist monks and nuns build schools and health clinics. It was sometimes compared to the Peace Corps, established several years earlier by the U.S. president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963).
La Boi Press, which became one of Vietnam's most important publishing houses, was established by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1964. His messages of peace were then printed in books and articles. They called for an end to hostilities and a search for common ground between the warring parties. Both South Vietnam and North Vietnam, however, censored his writings.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation and Cornell University invited Thich Nhat Hanh to the United States again in 1966. He traveled and spoke at many private and public meetings, even holding conversations with officials from the presidential administration. His efforts on behalf of peace, however, resulted in his being banned from returning to either North Vietnam or South Vietnam. At forty years of age, he was effectively left without a home country.
During his extended stay in the United States, Thich Nhat Hanh became friends with civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). King was a fellow advocate of nonviolent resistance, which he had used during his fight for equal rights for African Americans in the United States. In 1967 King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Buddhism in Vietnam
Buddhism is Vietnam's primary religion and is practiced by more than half of the population. Buddhism came to Vietnam around the first century ce, from India. By the end of the second century Vietnam had developed a major Buddhist center, Luy Lau, north of modern-day Hanoi. This became a popular stopover for many Indian Buddhist monks on their way to and from China. Over time the principles of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism became dominant in Vietnam. Both of these are divisions of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism and are heavily practiced in China and Japan. The Mahayana branch of Buddhism formed after a doctrinal split (a split over beliefs) about one hundred years after the Buddha's death.
While more traditional Buddhist doctrines, or beliefs, hold that the achievement of supreme knowledge and understanding must take several lifetimes to achieve, Zen Buddhism focuses on enlightenment for the student by the most direct means possible. Followers seek to accomplish this usually through meditation and the study of koans, or question-and-answer sessions between masters and students that often seem illogical and require great effort to understand. Pure Land Buddhism also seeks enlightenment in one lifetime. In Pure Land Buddhism, a sort of heaven, Sukhavati, is ruled over by Amitabha, a buddha, or enlightened one. Pure Land Buddhism also emphasizes meditation and the saying of mantras, or chanted prayers. In Vietnam, Zen is practiced largely by monks and nuns. Pure Land is practiced mostly by the laity, or the general populace.
Because of the influence of neighboring China, both Daoism and Confucianism also became popular in Vietnam. Indeed, Confucianism became more dominant than Buddhism for several centuries. Also, the French who colonized the land in the nineteenth century discouraged the practice of Buddhism, which they saw as a threat to their authority. They imported their own religion, Roman Catholicism, a branch of Christianity. By the twentieth century, however, Buddhist revival movements began to spread across Vietnam, with many of the religion's beliefs undergoing modernization.
Thich Nhat Hanh traveled to Europe, where he met with the Catholic pope and several heads of state. He then remained in France, forming the Unified Buddhist Church in 1969 and leading a Buddhist delegation to the Vietnam peace talks. The war finally ended in 1975, with the victory of communist North Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh was still denied permission to return to his homeland, and so he instead set up a small Buddhist community, Sweet Potato, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Paris. He continued to work for peace and organized rescue operations for those fleeing Vietnam, which was then unsafe for anyone who had supported the south. Resistance to his operations from the governments of Thailand and Singapore, which were overwhelmed by the arrival of the Vietnamese refugees, made it impossible for him to continue his operations. Thich Nhat Hanh thereafter went into semi-retreat at Sweet Potato, where he meditated, gardened, and continued to write.
In 1982 Thich Nhat Hanh established a much larger retreat center and Buddhist community, Plum Village, in southern France. He began to travel extensively in the United States, speaking to a wide variety of groups, including environmental activists, businessmen, prison inmates, police officers, and even members of the U.S. Congress. His practice of "mindfulness," or being aware not only of world affairs but of the consequences of one's own actions, appealed to people of all faiths and nationalities. In 1993 he spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and attracted a crowd of twelve hundred people. Berkeley, California, named a day in his honor. He opened the Green Mountain Dharma Center and Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont in 1997 and founded the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, in 1999.
Thich Nhat Hanh played an important role in getting the United Nations to pass several resolutions on peace and nonviolence. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Thich Nhat Hanh's voice was again among the strongest that called for peace and an end to the fighting. He told Bob Abernathy of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, "Using violence to suppress violence is not the correct way. America has to wake up to that reality."
In the interview Thich Nhat Hanh also observed, "There are ways to transform and to reduce the amount of suffering in our families, in our schools. We, as practitioners of transformation and healing, we know how to do it, how to reduce the level of violence." To this end, Thich Nhat Hanh developed fourteen rules for good living:
- Do not be bound by doctrines and theories.
- Do not think there is one changeless or absolute truth.
- Do not force others to accept your views.
- Do not close your eyes to suffering.
- Do not become wealthy while others go without food.
- Do not hold on to anger and hatred.
- Do not say things that cause discord.
- Do not say untruthful things.
- Do not use Buddhism for personal gain.
- Do not do work that is harmful to humans or nature.
- Do not kill.
- Do not possess things harmful to others.
- Do not mistreat your body.
- Finally do not assume that your teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, is able to follow each of these rules perfectly.
Thich Nhat Hanh was finally allowed to visit his native Vietnam in 2005, almost forty years after he was exiled. Writing in Time International, Kay Johnson called his return "a homecoming more fitting for royalty or a rock star than a monk." Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh's work for peace and religious tolerance has made him well-known, if not famous, throughout the world. Yet his fame has not weakened the convictions he holds as a Buddhist monk.
For More Information
Nhat Hanh, Thich. Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1999.
Gottlieb, Roger S. "Mad as Hell?" Tikkun (May 2002): 75.
Hey, Barbara. "Paths of Peace: The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh." Better Nutrition (March 2003): 42.
Johnson, Kay. "A Long Journey Home." Time International (January 24, 2005): 47.
Lefebure, Leo D. Review of Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh. Christian Century (October 16, 1996): 964.
Long, Michael G. Review of Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World, by Thich Nhat Hanh. Christian Century (November 29, 2003): 38.
Abernathy, Robert. "Thich Nhat Hanh." Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week703/feature.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"About Thich Nhat Hanh." Parallax Press. http://www.parallax.org/about_tnh.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Howlett, Debbie. "Buddhism and the Badge." USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2003–08–19-stress-retreat_x.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Nhat Hanh, Thich. "In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You: An Interview with Thich Nhat Hanh." By John Malkin. Shambala Sun Online. http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1579&Itemid=243 (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Nhat Hanh, Thich. "Questions and Answers." State University of New York at Stony Brook. http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/dailylife/thayq-a.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Schlumpf, Heidi. "Practicing Peace." National Catholic Reporter. http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/archives2/2003c/091203/091203a.php (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh." BuddhaNet. http://www.buddhanet.net/masters/thich.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).
"Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh." Dharma Memphis. http://www.dharmamemphis.com/magnolia/tnhbio.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).