Thich Nhat Hanh
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, revered throughout the world for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace. He is a gentle, humble monk – the man Martin Luther King called “An Apostle of peace and nonviolence.” The media has called him “The Father of Mindfulness,” “The Other Dalai Lama” and “The Zen Master Who Fills Stadiums.”
His key teaching is that, through mindfulness, we can learn to live happily in the present moment—the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world.
Thich Nhat Hanh has been a pioneer in bringing Buddhism to the West, founding six monasteries and dozens of practice centers in America and Europe, as well as over 1,000 local mindfulness practice communities, known as ‘sanghas’.
He has built a thriving community of over 600 monks and nuns worldwide, who, together with his tens of thousands of lay students, apply his teachings on mindfulness, peace-making and community-building in schools, workplaces, businesses – and even prisons – throughout the world.
The Life of Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh, (now affectionately referred to as “Thay” by his students), was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in central Vietnam in October of 1926. Interested in Buddhism from an early age, he entered the monastery at Tu Hieu Temple in Vietnam at sixteen and worked with his primary teacher, Zen master Thanh Quy Chan That. In 1949, Nhat Hanh, then 23, was ordained as a monk after receiving training in Vietnamese traditions of Mahayana Buddhism and Vietnamese Thien Buddhism.
Nhat Hanh became editor-in-chief of the periodical created by the Unified Vietnam Buddhist Association, Vietnamese Buddhism. He went on to begin his activist work, founding La Boi Press and the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon. Nhat Hanh also founded the School of Youth for Social Service, a neutral corps of Buddhist peaceworkers who established schools, built healthcare clinics, and rebuilt villages in rural areas.
The Vietnam War and Engaged Buddhism
Nhat Hanh studied comparative religion at Princeton University in 1960 and was subsequently appointed a lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University. He had become fluent in English, Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and English. He returned to Vietnam in 1963 to continue initiating nonviolent peace efforts.
The founding of the Engaged Buddhism movement was his response to the Vietnam War. Nhat Hanh’s mission was to engage with suffering caused by war and injustice and to create a new strain of Buddhism that could save his country. In the formative years of the Engaged Buddhism movement, Nhat Hanh met Cao Ngoc Phuong, who would later become Sister Chang Kong. She hoped to arise activism for the poor in the Buddhist community, working closely with Nhat Hanh to do so. She remains his closest disciple and collaborator to this day.
Three years later, Nhat Hanh returned to the U.S. to lead a symposium at Cornell University on Vietnamese Buddhism. There, he met with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and requested that King denounce the Vietnam War publicly to his large following. Dr. King granted the request in the following year with a speech that questioned America’s involvement in the war. Soon after, he nominated Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize. “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [the prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity,” he wrote.
Nhat Hanh served as the delegate for the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace talks in 1969, and the Paris Peace Accords were later signed in 1973. Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam after these events and remained in France, a turn of events that deeply hurt the monk, and would keep him from his birthplace for many years to come.
Establishing the Order of Interbeing
Today, Nhat Hanh heads the Order of Interbeing, a monastic and lay group that he’d founded in 1966. In 1969, he founded the Unified Buddhist Church, and later in 1975, formed the Sweet Potatoes Meditation Center southeast of Paris, France. As the center grew in popularity, Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong founded Plum Village, a vihara (Buddhist monastery) and Zen center, in the South of France in 1982. Both Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong reside at Plum Village today. The center is open to the public for much of the year and houses retreats that see people traveling from across the globe to attend. Additionally, many dharma centers across the U.S. have been established as part the Order of Interbeing.
Returning to Vietnam
After many negotiations, the Vietnamese government allowed Nhat Hanh to return to Vietnam for a visit in 2005. He was able to teach, publish four books in Vietnamese, travel the country, and return to his root temple. Although his first trip home stirred controversy, Nhat Hanh was allowed to return again in 2007 to support new monastics in his Order, organize chanting ceremonies to help heal remaining wounds from the Vietnam War, and to lead retreats in his birth country.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Health
Nhat Hanh suffered a brain hemorrhage in November 2014. He was taken to a stroke rehabilitation clinic at Bordeaux University Hospital, where he was able to recover enough to enjoy sipping tea outdoors and listen to the sounds of the outside world.
In October 2018, he returned to his home country of Vietnam to “live his remaining days” at the temple where he trained as a youth. “Thay’s health has been remarkably stable, and he is continuing to receive Eastern treatment and acupuncture,” wrote Plum Village representative Sister True Dedication. “When there’s a break in the rains, Thay comes outside to enjoy visiting the Root Temple’s ponds and stupas, in his wheelchair, joined by his disciples. Many practitioners, lay and monastic, are coming to visit Tu Hieu, and there is a beautiful, light atmosphere of serenity and peace, as the community enjoys practicing together there in Thay’s presence.”
Check plumvillage.org “Where is Thay” for updates.