Thích Nhất Hạnh – A great “Peacemaker” crosses the threshold
Our world lost an important peace activist on January 22, 2022. Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh contributed more to the spread of Buddhist teachings, the cultivation of “mindfulness” and harmonious living than any other human being in the 20th century. He grew up during three wars in his country of Vietnam. The occupation of Vietnam by the Japanese, by the French, Americans, and by the Vietcong.
Thích Nhất Hạnh was a humble, industrious, gracious, and reverent man. His bio from his website states the following about his early life.
Early life and influences
Thầy was born on October 11, 1926, into a large family in the ancient imperial capital of Huế in central Vietnam. His father Nguyễn Đình Phúc was from Thành Trung village in the province of Thừa Thiên, Huế, and was an official for land reform in the Imperial Administration under the French.
His mother, Trần Thị Dĩ, was from Hà Trung village, in Gio Linh District, in the neighboring province of Quảng Trị. One of six children, he lived until aged five with his extended family, including uncles, aunts, and cousins, at the home of his paternal grandmother—a large house with a traditional courtyard and garden, with a lotus pond and bamboo grove, within the old imperial city walls.
In 1942, at the age of sixteen, with his parents’ permission, Thầy returned to Huế to begin novice training at Từ Hiếu Temple, under Zen Master Thích Chân Thật (1884-1968)
Entering the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist tradition in the lineage of the renowned Master Linji (Rinzai) and Master Liễu Quán. After three years of instruction, he formally received the novice precepts in the early morning of the full moon of the ninth lunar month of 1945. This was during the time of the Japanese occupation of Vietnam (1940-1945).
In 1947, Thầy’s teacher sent him to study and live at the nearby Báo Quốc Institute of Buddhist Studies in Huế. His studies took place against the backdrop of the First Indochina War (1946-54). In 1949, 23-year-old Thầy left Huế with two other monks and a friend to further their studies in Saigon.
Along the way, the young monks decided to affirm their deep aspiration to become bodhisattvas of action by taking new names.
They all took the name Hạnh, meaning “action.” In this way, Thầy (Phùng Xuân) became Nhất Hạnh (“One Action”). As the name of every Vietnamese Buddhist begins with Thích, from this time, Thầy became known as Thích Nhất Hạnh.”
During the 1950s, Thích Nhất Hạnh assumed more responsibilities within the Buddhist community.
He started writing poetry and articles which pushed the boundaries of the art form in Vietnam, and the traditional teachings of Buddhist monasteries.
Time in the USA and war again in Vietnam
In the 1960s, Thích Nhất Hạnh traveled outside his country, receiving a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Princeton University in New Jersey. Thích Nhất Hạnh became a vocal proponent of a new Buddhist peace movement and submitted a report on human rights violations in Vietnam to the United Nations. He was doing additional research at Colombia university when the Diem government in Vietnam fell.
Thích Nhất Hạnh was called back to Saigon. By 1964, he was a prominent leader of the Buddhist movement for social justice and peace. He established rural centers for training and helped those affected by the floods and guerilla warfare.
1965 was the first-year American troops were sent to Vietnam under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Fighting escalated. Thich wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King asking for help. They wrote to other activists and writers around the world.
He and his colleagues founded the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) to pioneer “politically neutral” grassroots groups to train young people in practical and spiritual skills to give aid to bombed villages. They set up schools, medical centers, agricultural cooperatives, and resettlement camps.
In February 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh established the “Order of Interbeing”, a new order based on the traditional Buddhist Bodhisattva precepts. This was an innovative vision of an engaged Buddhism. It embodied Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching of “not taking sides in a conflict,”. He emphasized non-attachment to views, and freedom from all ideologies. These precepts were “a direct answer to war, a direct answer to dogmatism, where everyone is ready to kill and die for their beliefs.”
Action for “Peace Building” and exile
Thích Nhất Hạnh had written ten books by 1966. He was known by interfaith organizations and invited to speak in 19 countries. When he arrived in the United States and spoke about the agonies of the people of Vietnam, the media swarmed. One New York Post writer reported:
“When asked about ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy,’ he will ask, “What is the use of freedom and democracy if you are not alive?”
Thich Nhat Hanh went to Chicago and met with Dr. Martin Luther King. Then onto Washington, D.C. where he presented a five-point peace plan for his country. This included an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of American troops. After the press conference, he was denounced by his own government in the south of Vietnam and denied entry for almost forty years.
Thích Nhất Hạnh continued traveling, speaking, and writing. He met with priests, clergymen, rabbis, politicians, and academics teaching techniques of meditation, breathing, and healing. He continued his activism advocating for Vietnamese refugees and sponsored boats from Singapore for the “boat people”.
Throughout the 1970s he continued to teach and looked for a more permanent place to create a “mindfulness center and community”.
In 1975, Thích Nhất Hạnh’s book, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” became a best seller. It is published in 30 languages. It “quietly sowed the seeds of a revolution” and brought attention to mindfulness practices from inside Buddhist monasteries out into a wider audience. He made meditation accessible through his teaching and writing.
He founded “Plum Village” in southwest France in 1982. His community received over 10,000 visitors every year over the next twenty years
Thích Nhất Hạnh at ordination of monks in Plum Village, France
In the 1990s, Thich Nhat Hahn opened monastic-led mindfulness practice centers in the U.S.A.
They are in Vermont (Green Mountain Dharma Center) and California (Deer Park Monastery).
Thích Nhất Hạnh emphasized the power of collective meditation practice for healing and transformation. He ordained hundreds of senior lay students to become Dharma Teachers continuing his work and teaching throughout the world. There are mindfulness communities in Europe and Australasia. He focused on the importance of building local mindfulness groups (or ‘sanghas’), to offer companionship, joy, and solidarity, and address the loneliness and alienation plaguing the modern world.
Although his early monasteries in Vietnam suffered bombing, fires, and the massacre and torture of many monks, Thich Nhat Hanh was committed to returning and in 2005 he was granted re-entry to Vietnam.
His teaching and presence inspired over 400 newly ordained monks. However, the government harassed them and once again Thich Nhat Hanh was forced to leave.
Thích Nhất Hạnh continued teaching in all levels of society including businesspeople at large corporations like Google, military units, politicians, school children, medical practitioners, police officers, farm workers and blue-collar workers.
He met with the heads of state in China, India, Japan, the USA, France, and the United Nations. Hạnh could speak with and listen to, anyone from any station in life, at any age, and from any background and culture. He was a unique and extraordinary human being. Thích Nhất Hạnh’s own life was a living example of resilience, perseverance, and selfless service. In 2012, Thich Nhat Hahn and his brother Phap Niem, recorded “The Great Bell Chant-The End Of Suffering” for the world.
After suffering a brain hemorrhage and recovering, Thích Nhất Hạnh applied to return to Vietnam in 2018. He wanted to spend his remaining days on Earth at the Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, where he first began his monastic life.
It was reported he died “peacefully” at the age of 95. Thích Nhất Hạnh crossed another threshold. He is already missed.
About the Author:
Joanne Patti Munisteri lives a ‘different’ life. One that has taken her around the world working as a contractor in education, health, research, analysis, and training. Munisteri is a certified Combat Analyst and Social Scientist. She was part of the Human Terrain System (HTS) with the US Army, training at Ft. Leavenworth. Munisteri earned her Bachelor of Science from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Her graduate degree from Massey University in New Zealand. Her Diploma in Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine from the New Zealand School of Acupuncture and TCM in Wellington, New Zealand.
Joanne continues to be rostered on the US Department of State Specialist programs and with USAID. Her technical writing is found in Small Wars Journal, Real Clear Defense, the Journal of Traumatic Stress Disorders and Treatment, Research Gate, and the New Zealand Herald. In addition, Defiance Press published her non-fiction book, “Traveling Off the X” in October 2021. Joanne continues to work in the education and training sector.
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