Written by Nimesh Wijewardane
Thich Nhat Hanh at the Plum Village monastery in southern France | Credit: Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism
On January 22, 2022, the world lost an extraordinary spiritual leader. Thich Nhat Hanh was a world-renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, and prolific author and poet. He was a beloved teacher and a guiding light, affectionately called Thay by his followers, the Vietnamese word for teacher. I count myself among the many people whose lives have been touched and profoundly transformed by his wisdom and compassion. Thay coined the term “Engaged Buddhism”, arguing that Buddhism, properly understood, is not merely about individual liberation but collective liberation, that Buddhists cannot simply retreat from the world and all its concerns and attain Nirvana in isolation but instead must engage in political and social struggles against oppression and injustice. Thay recognized that a religious community cannot simply stay on the sidelines but must take a stand. He tirelessly promoted nonviolent solutions to conflict and encouraged us to open our eyes to the interdepence of all living beings on Earth, and once aware of this state of “interbeing” to not only avoid harming human life but to also avoid harming nonhuman animals and the natural world. For Thay, nonviolence was a way of life, rooted in this idea of interbeing. He wrote, “Nonviolent action, born of the awareness of suffering and nurtured by love, is the most effective way to confront adversity.”
Thich Nhat Hanh was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in the city of Hue in central Vietnam. At age 16, he joined a Zen monastery. After several years, he took the official vows of monk and became active in the youth-led Buddhist reform movement in Vietnam. Thay taught and wrote about Buddhism, seeking to make Buddhism more relevant to the modern world. Thay’s growing popularity threatened the conservative Buddhist establishment, who discontinued a journal he had been editing and canceled his classes.
In response to this opposition, Thay went to the United States in 1961 to study comparative religion at the Princeton Theological Seminary and later became a lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia. Yet aware of the suffering in his homeland, he returned to South Vietnam in 1963 to engage in peace work alongside fellow monks. Since 1954, Vietnam had been divided between the Communist North and the pro-West South, with ongoing armed struggle between the government of South Vietnam and the communist guerrillas. Thay founded the School of Youth for Social Services, a grassroots relief organization consisting of over 10,000 volunteers which established schools and health care clinics in rural South Vietnam and helped rebuild bombed villages. In 1964, Thay published an anti-war poem titled “Condemnation”, writing "whoever is listening, be my witness: I cannot accept this war...". The poem was denounced as pro-communist propaganda. Thay’s conception of Engaged Buddhism grew from the bloodstained soil of the war in Vietnam. In an interview with the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar, Thay said, “When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of 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.”
In February 1966, Thay ordained six leaders who had been part of the School of Youth for Social Services and established a new religious order, the Order of Interbeing, a community of Buddhist monks, nuns, and laypeople based on the Five Mindfulness Trainings and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, modern versions of the precepts Buddhists have practiced for centuries. These mindfulness trainings include 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. Since the 1960s, The Order of Interbeing has grown into an international movement.
Thay traveled to the US in May 1966 to enlighten the American public about the Vietnam War’s devastating impact and appeal the US government to cease its bombing campaign. During that visit, Thay met with Martin Luther King Jr. and urged him to publicly denounce the Vietnam War. At a press conference with Thay, King spoke out against the war for the first time. In 1967, King gave a famous speech at Riverside Church boldly articulating his opposition to the Vietnam War. Later that year, King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, writing “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
Thay’s 1996 trip to the US was only meant to last a few weeks, but turned into decades of exile. After he presented a peace plan urging America to stop bombing and to offer reconstruction aid without ideological strings, the government of South Vietnam declared him a traitor and banned him from returning. After the Communists seized control of the South in 1975, he was again refused permission to enter Vietnam. His principled anti-war stance had made him an enemy of both sides.
In exile, Thay settled in the south of France and established the Plum Village Monastery, which would be his new home for decades, and remains the largest Buddhist monastery in Europe and America. Thay became one of the main ambassadors of Buddhism to the West, writing more than 100 books and bringing the concept of mindfulness into the mainstream. Thay spoke out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying, “We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they rely only on the armed forces to remove terrorism.” He encouraged us to address the root causes of violence and cultivate peace in our hearts. Thay brought together Israelis and Palestinians for peacebuilding retreats at Plum Village, continuing his lifelong commitment to ending conflict. Thay also spoke out about the urgency of addressing climate change, writing, “There’s a revolution that needs to happen and it starts from inside each one of us. We need to wake up and fall in love with Earth. Our personal and collective happiness and survival depends on it.” Throughout his writings, interviews, and speeches he continued to draw connections between the personal and the collective, promoting mindfulness not merely as a tool for self-help but as a necessary precondition for avoiding war and climate catastrophe.
Thay’s teachings have had a significant impact on me. In my Sri Lankan American family, I was raised as a Buddhist, but in my teenage years, I had begun to drift away from Buddhism, questioning whether I truly believed in its precepts, whether it was truly applicable to my life, and unsure of how Buddhism aligned with my political convictions. Buddhism, at least the kind practiced by those in my Sri Lankan American community, seemed to be apolitical, almost entirely detached from and unconcerned with issues of oppression and injustice. But as a high school student on the Internet, I was lucky enough to stumble upon some of Thay’s writings in the online Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar. I was struck by the beauty and simplicity of Thay’s words, the ease at which he distilled the abstract and somewhat complicated ideas of dharma in a clear and compelling way. Each perfectly crafted sentence seemed intuitively true. Engaged Buddhism gave me a framework with which to reconcile my faith and my political activism. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I am a Buddhist not merely because of my upbringing but because of Thich Nhat Hanh. During my freshman year of college I struggled with loneliness and depression but on one bright February afternoon I found “The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh”, a small collection of some of his writings, in an independent bookstore in Georgetown and bought it. In spring, I would sit outside in the quad of George Washington University’s Mount Vernon campus and read Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, which brought me comfort, reminded me of the temporality of all things, and encouraged me to bear witness to the miracle of life. Sitting on a wooden bench, watching the world ablaze with sunlight and contemplating Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, I felt pretty close to enlightenment. Thay has a beautiful phrase-“No mud, no lotus”, a reminder that happiness and suffering are deeply intertwined, that you can’t have one without the other. Whenever I find myself dealing with a difficult situation, I chant that phrase to myself, over and over- “No mud, no lotus.”
Thay wrote that birth and death are but illusions, that we are never really born and never really die. I know that Thay will continue to live on in in the hearts and minds of all the people who have been awakened and inspired by his life and his teachings.
Thich Nhat Hanh's calligraphy