I’ve never met Nich Nacht Hanh, but our paths have just missed a number of times. He’s one of the earlier generation of peace activists at whose feet I’d love to sit for a while. I am not a meditative person, rather I’m way too active and busy. But his witness and that of some other contemplative activists have stood as a persistent challenge to me to grow in mindfulness, not just for myself but for the work of peace itself that is so dear to me.
Thich Nhat Hanh (born 1926)
Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.
My actions are my only true belongings.
When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Nhat Hanh was born in central Vietnam. At the age of 16 he became a novice studying Buddhism, then was ordained as a monk in 1949. Thich was added to his name, which identifies Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns who are part of the Shakyamuni Buddhist clan.
Thich Nhat Hanh became the editor of Vietnamese Buddhism and founded Van Hanh Buddhist University, which specialized in Buddhist studies and Vietnamese language and cultural studies. He went to Princeton to further his studies in comparative religion. However, the growing war in Vietnam drew him back to his homeland to join with other Buddhist monks in nonviolent peace initiatives.
In the 1960s, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Services (SYSS). This was a grassroots relief organization that mobilized 10,000 Vietnamese young people to rebuild villages that had been bombed, resettle displaced families and set up schools and medical clinics.
In 1966 he returned to the U.S., specifically to work for peace. He met Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom he had carried on an earlier correspondence. He urged King to publicly denounce the war in Vietnam. In 1967 Dr. King gave his famous speech at Riverside Church in New York City where he condemned the war and the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.” In the speech he referred to the peace witness of the Vietnamese Buddhists. King, as a Nobel Laureate, nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize that year saying, “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.” Though Thich Nhat Hanh was not awarded the prize, he continued his work for peace, serving as a delegate for the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace talks.
As the war was winding down Thich Nhat Hanh was not allowed to return to Vietnam. In exile he worked to help rescue the boat people fleeing his homeland. He settled in France, establishing a meditation center that eventually was known as Plum Village Buddhist Center. There he taught classes on a wide range of topics, led retreats, and applied “mindfulness” to the various problems of the world. He welcomed people from all religions, nationalities and races to the center.
He was one of the founders and leaders of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists that seeks to engage in the inner transformation that brings healing to the world. Through this network he and other Buddhists joined with religious peace fellowships through the International Fellowship of Reconciliation where Thich Nhat Hanh has often been a featured speaker and writer. Among his 85 books of poetry, prayers, meditations and prose is Living Buddha Living Christ in which Thich Nhat Hanh explored ways of reconciling Christianity and Buddhism. He has been welcomed into Christian and Jewish settings to speak on issues of peace, forgiveness and active nonviolence. He sponsored a retreat for Israelis and Palestinians to listen and learn about each other.
In 2005 and again in 2007 he was finally allowed to return for a visit to his homeland after more than 30 years of exile. He continues as a voice for peace and for a healing mindfulness about the challenges of the world.
Meet more peacemakers
This profile on Thich Nhat Hanh comes from the pages of Interfaith Heroes 2. Interfaith Heroes 2 is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.