Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced tick-not-hawn) is one of the most well-known Buddhists in the world today. He is regarded as the founder of "socially engaged Buddhism," and was nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 in recognition of his work to end the war in Vietnam. He is the author of more than 100 books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages. These books include works on Buddhist philosophy and practice, history, fiction, and poetry. Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Vietnam in 1926. His given name was Nguyen Xuan Bao. Thich Nhat Hanh is the name he received after becoming a monk. "Thich" is a title of respect given to all Buddhist monks and nuns in the Vietnamese tradition. "Nhat Hanh" means "One Action." Thich Nhat Hanh is most commonly referred to by his followers as "Thay," which means "Teacher."
Thich Nhat Hanh became a Buddhist novice at the age of 16 and received full ordination as a monk at the age of 23. A Buddhist revival was taking place in his homeland during this time, as the Vietnamese people sought to revitalize their own culture and traditions in response to French colonial rule. After World War II, Vietnam declared its independence, which led to a decade-long war with the French. After the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, a war with the United States began. This war would result in the deaths of nearly 3 million people. Throughout his life in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh lived in the context of war, and it was in response to injustice and war that his understanding of Buddhism developed. Dissatisfied with simply finding a path to personal peace, he stressed that Buddhists must be socially engaged and must seek ways to actively address problems such as war and poverty. This social engagement, he argued, was required by the Buddhist vow to relieve the suffering of others.
In the midst of war in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh helped to found several institutes for Buddhist studies and a Buddhist publication house, assisted in the formation of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, founded the Order of Interbeing, and established the School of Youth for Social Service. The School of Youth for Social Service trained young people and sent them out into the villages to engage in projects of education, health care, community organizing, and grassroots economic development. As the war escalated and many villages were destroyed, much of the effort of the School turned to relief and reconstruction projects. Many students and colleagues of Thich Nhat Hanh were killed during the war. Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers sought to foster reconciliation, and were committed to nonviolence, refusing to support any armed group. This position of neutrality led them to be viewed suspiciously by all of the armed parties, and they suffered violence from all sides.
In 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh left Vietnam to visit the United States. He had previously spent 2 years living in the United States as a student of comparative religion at Princeton University and as a professor at Columbia University. This time he came with a mission to call upon the American people to put an end to the war in Vietnam. He met with members of Congress, peace groups, and with people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Merton, the famous Catholic monk and author.
After his visit to the United States in 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh was refused entry back into Vietnam. He has lived in exile from Vietnam ever since. Currently he lives in Plum Village, a community that he founded in southern France. The community is made up of monks, nuns, and other members of the Order of Interbeing, refugee families, and many visitors who come each year for retreats. Thich Nhat Hanh also regularly travels throughout the world to speak and lead retreats, including trips to the United States every other year. Many of the retreats that he gives in the United States are for veterans of the Vietnam War, trying to help these veterans to heal from their spiritual and psychological wounds of the war.
The religious teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh center upon the practices of mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness involves being fully present to the present moment, and in so doing coming into touch with the joys and wonders of life. Being in touch with the joys and wonders of life does not, however, mean overlooking life's suffering. Rather, through mindfulness and meditation one is able to look honestly at the negative realities of life without being overcome by grief, anger, or despair. Practices of mindfulness and meditation enable one to transform these negative emotions such as anger into positive action for reconciliation, healing, and social justice.
For Thich Nhat Hanh, as for Buddhists in general, the central virtue is compassion. By "looking deeply" through meditation, one comes to understand that those who cause harm do so as a result of their own brokenness and suffering. Rather than seeking to destroy them, the appropriate response is to seek ways to bring about healing.
At the heart of Buddhism are five ethical precepts. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to them as the five "mindfulness trainings." These include commitments to (1) foster compassion for all living beings/don't kill; (2) foster generosity/don't steal or exploit; (3) foster responsible sexuality/don't engage in sexual activity without love and a long-term commitment; (4) foster loving and truthful speech/don't lie, gossip, or slander; and (5) practice mindful consumption/don't use substances that cloud the mind such as drugs and alcohol.
Thich Nhat Hanh stresses that these practices of mindfulness, meditation, and commitment to the ethical precepts are not of value only to Buddhists. They are practices that persons of all religious traditions can benefit from. Thich Nhat Hanh's life serves as a model for how life experiences can influence the direction of one's religious development and in what ways one's religious life can impact the lives of others.