Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, Vietnam peace campaigner and ‘father of mindfulness’ – obituary

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Thich Nhat Hanh speaking out at a Washington news conference in support of the people of Vietnam, 1966 - AP Photo/Washington Star
Thich Nhat Hanh speaking out at a Washington news conference in support of the people of Vietnam, 1966 - AP Photo/Washington Star

Thich Naht Hahn, who has died aged 95, was a Vietnam Buddhist monk and teacher who played a prominent role in campaigning for peace and promoting the principles of non-violence during the Vietnam War, and whose books and teachings did much to popularise Buddhism among Western audiences.

Having trained as a monk and founded his own monastery in Vietnam, in the early 1960s Nhat Hanh incurred the wrath of the South Vietnamese regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem with his protests against the persecution of Buddhists by Diem’s Catholic regime, and his demands for an immediate ceasefire in the war with the communist North.

Nhat Hanh in Sydney to lecture on Vietnam in 1966 - Golding/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Nhat Hanh in Sydney to lecture on Vietnam in 1966 - Golding/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

In 1965, following the publication in America of his book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, which had been banned in his own country, Nhat Hahn wrote a letter to Dr Martin Luther King, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize the previous year, explaining the reasons behind the self-immolation of monks in Vietnam, and drawing parallels between their protest against persecution and the civil rights struggle in America:

“I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also 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 – not man himself.”

The following year he visited America to make a call for the cessation of hostilites in Vietnam, and met with King for the first time, urging him to speak out publicly against America’s growing involvement in the war.

In January 1967, in a sharp violation of protocol, King wrote to the Nobel committee urging them to award the Prize that year to Naht Hahn, saying: “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam”, adding that 1967 would be “a notably auspicious year” to bestow the Prize on Nhat Hanh: “Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, 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.”

Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire (1967, reissued 2022) with a foreword by Nhat Hanhs friend the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, gave a Vietnamese perspective on the Indochina wars
Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire (1967, reissued 2022) with a foreword by Nhat Hanhs friend the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, gave a Vietnamese perspective on the Indochina wars

Three months after writing the letter King made his famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York in which, for the first time, he publicly condemned the US involvement in Vietnam. King’s letter was in vain: in response to his open lobbying for Nhat Hanh, the Nobel Prize Committee did not make an award that year, and Nhat Hanh found himself denied entry by both North and South Vietnam.

He continued to travel widely, spreading his message of peace and brotherhood, and in 1969 he led the Buddhist delegation at the Paris Peace Talks. But he would not return to the country of his birth for another 36 years.

Thich Nhat Hanh was born as Nguyen Xuan Bao on October 11, 1926 in Hue Province, Vietnam. At the age of 16 he entered the monastery of Tu Hieu Temple as a novice monk, receiving training in Zen and Mahayana Buddhism before being fully ordained in 1949, taking the monastic name Thich Nhat Hanh. In the same year he founded the An Quang Buddhist Institute in what was then Saigon, with a simple temple built of bamboo and thatch.

Nhat Hahn’s life as a monk was radically shaped by the events unfolding around him in the wake of the collapse of French control of Vietnam.

In 1954, following the signing of Geneva Accords, the country was divided into two parts, the North under the control of the communist Viet Minh, and the Republic of Vietnam in the South under the control of the French-backed President Ngo Dinh Diem, resulting in more in more than one million people migrating from the North to the South.

Eschewing the traditional path of the contemplative monk in retreat from society, Nhat Hanh threw himself into social activism, or what he called “Engaged Buddhism”.

In 1957, he founded the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon, and established his School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), a grass-roots relief organisation of some 10,000 volunteers who went into rural areas on both sides of the conflict to establish schools, build healthcare clinics, and help to rebuild villages: the American press called them “The Little Peace Corps”.

At the same time he began publishing poetry and articles criticising the war and calling for reconciliation between both sides. His efforts incurred the odium of the government, resulting in his work being banned, even his books of Buddhist philosophy. Undeterred, Nhat Hanh continued to write and publish under a variety of pseudonyms.

Following his exile from Vietnam, Nhat Hahn settled in France, where he was given political asylum, and later citizenship. He founded a small community named Sweet Potato, where he retired for five years, cultivating his garden and writing.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr, left, in Chicago with Thich Nhat Hanh, second from left, arguing for a halt in bombing of Vietnam, 1966 - AP Photo/Edward Kitch
Dr Martin Luther King Jr, left, in Chicago with Thich Nhat Hanh, second from left, arguing for a halt in bombing of Vietnam, 1966 - AP Photo/Edward Kitch

In 1982 he founded Plum Village, a monastery and teaching centre in the Dordogne, which was to become the West’s largest and most active Buddhist monastery, with over 200 resident monastics and up to 10,000 visitors every year, attending courses in meditation and mindfulness, as well as establishing other centres throughout America and Europe.

A rich American socialite once offered a large donation to Nhat Hahn’s work if he could reassure her of the truth of the reincarnation, and that she would be reborn after death. Nhat Hahn replied: “If there is no self, who is going to be reborn?” – and went away empty-handed.

He became known for his ecumenical approach to Buddhism, combining teachings and practices from the Mayahana and Theravada traditions, along with Western psychological insights, expressed in a clear, direct and accessible way.

He published more than 100 books, translated into 25 different languages, on such subjects as mindfulness and meditation, the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity and the application of Buddhist teachings to everyday life.

Perhaps his most single popular piece of writing, reproduced and shared countless times on the internet, is the poem “Please Call Me By My True Names”, a lyrical expression of the Buddhist teachings on what Nhat Hanh called “interbeing”, or the interconnectedness of all things. The poem had been inspired by a letter he had received from a 12-year-old Vietnamese boat girl who had been raped at sea by a Thai pirate.

Nhat Hanh’s classic guide to mindfulness was first published in 1975
Nhat Hanh’s classic guide to mindfulness was first published in 1975

In 1982 Nhat Hanh was invited to address a United Nations Special Session on disarmament. Stepping up to the dais he told the assembled delegates: “I haven’t much to say, but on my way here I wrote a poem”, and pulling a piece of crumpled paper from within his brown robe read it aloud. \

“I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

“I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his ‘debt of blood’ to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp. My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans. Please call me by my true names.”

Thich Nhat Hanh in Bangkok, 2010 - REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom/File Photo
Thich Nhat Hanh in Bangkok, 2010 - REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom/File Photo

In 2005 he returned to Vietnam along with a party of several hundred monks, nuns and lay students. Greeted by thousands wherever he travelled in the country, his visit was treated with equal suspicion by some Vietnamese Buddhists, who feared that he was being used by the government as a propaganda tool, and by government officials worried about his popularity.

Asked by a Party member at one meeting whether it was possible to “take refuge” in Buddhism and still love the Party, he replied: “Of course, if you take refuge you will be able to love the Party even more” – a reply that elicited warm applause.

In recent years, Nhat Hanh founded Wake Up, a worldwide movement of thousands of young people training in the practices of mindful living, and launched an international Wake Up Schools programme training teachers to teach mindfulness in schools in Europe, America and Asia.

Today, mindfulness is recommended by Britain’s evidence-based National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a form of therapeutic meditation that may help to prevent depression.

Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, credited Nhat Hanh with being “there at the very start of bringing mindfulness from east to west”, describing it as “an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment. It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”

In a measure of how far Nhat Hanh’s teachings had travelled from his first bamboo and thatch temple in Saigon, on a visit to the United States in 2013 he led mindfulness training events at Google, The World Bank and the Harvard School of Medicine.

Thich Nhat Hanh, born October 11, 1926, died January 22 2022

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