When asked to describe himself, Thich Nhat Hanh usually says, “I am a lazy monk.”
During the Han dynasty, at about the beginning of the Christian era, many Indian and central Asian Buddhist monks traveled to China to share the dharma. Many of those who went by sea landed first in Vietnam, and there they started the prominent Luy Lau Center of Buddhist Studies, where traveling monks could rest, teach meditation and study Chinese before going on to China. The first treatise on Buddhism in Chinese (“Dissipating Doubts about Buddhism”) was written in Vietnam in the first century C.E. by the Chinese expatriate Mou Tzu.
The dhyana (meditation) school of Buddhism (Thien in Vietnamese, Chan in Chinese, Zen in Japanese) was introduced to Vietnam in the third century by Tang Hoi, a Buddhist monk of central Asian descent who taught meditation and translated many sutras into Chinese before going on to southern China in 255 C.E. According to the Kao Seng Chuan, the first Buddhist temple in the Kingdom of Wu was built for Tang Hoi, and the first monastic ordination in Wu was conducted by him. The text concludes, “After the arrival of Tang Hoi, the dharma began to prosper south of the Yangtse River.”
Two hundred years later, before Bodhidharma arrived in China, an Indian monk named Dharmadeva came to Vietnam to teach dhyana Buddhism. Beginning in the sixth century, six important schools of dhyana Buddhism were founded in Vietnam. Today the dhyana and pure land schools are the most important in Vietnam; in addition, because of contact with Laos and Cambodia, there are also Theravadin Buddhists.
Dhyana master Thich Nhat Hanh was born in central Vietnam in the mid-1920’s during the period of French colonialism. He became a monk at the beautiful Tu Hieu pagoda in Hue at the age of 16. As a young monk, he wrote many books, including a collection of poems, The Autumn Flute (1949); The Family in the Practice (1952); How to Practice Buddhism (1952); and Buddhist Logic (1952). He also wrote many newspaper articles, edited two journals, coined the term “engaged Buddhism,” and helped found what was to become the foremost center of Buddhist studies in South Vietnam, the An Quang Buddhist Institute, all before he reached the age of 30.
In 1960, Thich Nhat Hanh came to the U.S. to study comparative religion at Princeton University, and he was subsequently appointed lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia. In 1963, he returned to Vietnam to join his fellow monks in their nonviolent efforts to stop the war. That year, all mahayana and Theravadin Buddhists in the country came together to form the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
In 1964-65, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Service, teaching young monks, nuns, and lay students to go into the countryside to set up schools and health clinics, and later to rebuild bombed villages; La Boi Press, a prestigious Buddhist publishing house; Van Hanh Buddhist University; and the Order of Interbeing, guided by fourteen mindfulness trainings (precepts) of engaged Buddhism. He continued his prolific writing and served as editor-in-chief of the official journal of the Unified Buddhist Church.
In 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to the U.S. to lead a symposium on Vietnamese Buddhism at Cornell University and also to convey to Americans the suffering of the Vietnamese peasants caused by the war. When he called for a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal of U.S. troops, he was denounced by the South Vietnamese government and was unable to return home.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, 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.” Thich Nhat Hanh was granted asylum in France, and during the Paris Peace Talks he served as chair of the Buddhist Peace Delegation.
In 1982, Thich Nhat Hanh and his long-time colleague, Sister Chan Khong, founded Plum Village, a monastic retreat in southwestern France. When asked to describe himself, Thich Nhat Hanh usually says, “I am a lazy monk.”
Today hundreds of communities and small groups worldwide follow the way of mindful living taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. In November, 1997, Thich Nhat Hanh founded Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont, and his students are looking for land to begin other retreat and practice centers in the U.S. His books have sold more than 1.5 million copies and his retreats and lectures attract thousands of followers. His presence, many feel, conveys the essence of Buddhadharma, and his words, simple and direct, communicate the teachings of the Buddha in ways anyone can understand.