The Life of Thich Nhat Hanh

Lindsay Kyte tells the story of what is perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh’s greatest teaching — his courageous life.

Lindsay Kyte
11 October 2019
Thich Nhat Hanh. Photo by Dana Gluckstein.

The Birth of Engaged Buddhism: 1926–1959

In 1926, a boy named Nguyen Xuan Bao was born in the ancient imperial capital of Hué, Vietnam. He was attracted to Buddhism from an early age. One of his first childhood memories was seeing a captivating picture of a smiling, peaceful Buddha. On a school trip, he was disappointed not to meet a Buddhist hermit, but when he drank from a natural well he felt deeply refreshed. He later described this as his first religious experience.

young thich nhat hanh
As a young boy, Thich Nhat Hanh was captivated by an image of a smiling, peaceful Buddha. Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

Nguyen Xuan Bao wanted to ordain as a monk at age 12, following in the footsteps of his older brother. His parents were initially hesitant, as he was so young and they knew monastic life would be challenging. However, by the time he actually ordained as a novice monk and received the novice precepts at age 16, he had their full support. In 1951, he took the full vows of a monk. He received the name Thich Nhat Hanh.

The young monk was sent for training to a traditional institute of Buddhist studies but was dissatisfied with the narrow curriculum. He left for the University of Saigon, where he could study world literature, philosophy, psychology, and science in addition to Buddhism.

By his mid-twenties, Thich Nhat Hanh already had an impressive list of accomplishments. He had founded his own temple, had several books published, and was known for his reformist take on Buddhism. At a time when the Vietnamese Buddhist establishment was largely apolitical, he believed Buddhists had to engage directly with people’s suffering — and that meant getting involved in the political life of the nation.

This was at the time of the eight-year war between France and the nationalist Viet Minh fighting to end colonial rule. “The walls of our temple in Hué were riddled with bullet holes,” Thich Nhat Hanh remembers in his latest book, Inside the Now. “French soldiers would raid our temples, searching for resistance fighters or food, demanding we hand over the last of our rice. Monks were killed, even though they were unarmed.”

Yet neither his faith nor his courage would waver: “We knew that the spirit of poetic inspiration, the heart of spirituality, and the mind of love could not be extinguished by death.”

Engaged Buddhism was born in response to the war between the nationalist Viet Minh, led by the communists, and the French army. The war ended with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

In response to the escalating war, Nhat Hanh founded the Engaged Buddhism movement. Its mission was to apply Buddhist teachings and practice to the real-world suffering caused by war, social injustice, and political oppression. “We wanted to offer a new kind of Buddhism—a Buddhism that could act as a raft, to save the whole country from the desperate situation of conflict, division, and war,” he recalls.

Engaged Buddhism’s call for peace resonated deeply with young Vietnamese Buddhists. Nhat Hanh was named editor-in-chief of the magazine Vietnamese Buddhism, led meetings attended by hundreds of people, and started a magazine for young monastics called The New Lotus Season.

young thich nhat hanh
“We would study, and practiced together happily. We all loved Buddhism and we all loved our country.” Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

During this time, Nhat Hanh met Cao Ngoc Phuong, a young biology student who was concerned that Buddhists didn’t care enough about the poor. She would become Sister Chan Khong, his closest disciple and one of the “thirteen cedars,” a group of passionate young activists who studied with and supported him.

Not surprisingly, the growing popularity of the Engaged Buddhist movement attracted opposition from the conservative Buddhist establishment. Nhat Hanh was accused of sowing the seeds of dissent and his journal was discontinued.

“It was still too radical for the majority of the elders in the Buddhist establishment,” he remembers. “They dismissed many of our ideas, and steadily began to silence our voices.”

Nhat Hanh and his followers needed a place of spiritual refuge, and in 1957 they established Phuong Boi — the Fragrant Palm Leaves Hermitage — in the Vietnamese highlands. It was, he says, “a place to heal our wounds and look deeply at what happened to us.” To this day, he considers it his true spiritual home.

The School of Youth for Social Service: 1960–1965

In 1960, the tranquility of Phuong Boi was destroyed when agents of the South Vietnamese government entered the hermitage. They arrested one member and forced others into a strategic hamlet for “protection.” Thich Nhat Hanh fled to Saigon.

There, he decided to accept a fellowship to study comparative religion at Princeton University. The young Buddhist leader’s three-year stay in America would be transformative — politically and spiritually.

It’s ironic that one of the world’s great Asian teachers of Buddhism had his transformative spiritual experience in the West — in the library of Columbia University, to be exact.

SYSS headquarters in Saigon. More than a thousand young Buddhists applied for the three hundred places in the program. Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

After completing his studies at Princeton, he had been appointed a lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia. One day in the library, he came across a book that had been taken out only twice before — once in 1915 and again in 1932. Deciding to become the third borrower, he had a strong desire to meet the other two. But they had vanished — and so would he. He had a profound experience of emptiness, which he described in his journal: “Everything that is considered to be ‘me’ will disintegrate. Then what is actually there will reveal itself… . Like the grasshopper, I had no thoughts of the divine.”

Thich Nhat Hanh would write later that while he became a monk in Vietnam, he realized the path in the West.

Meanwhile, the war in his homeland had escalated dramatically, with ever-deeper U.S. involvement and the regime of Roman Catholic president Ngo Dinh Diem suppressing the country’s majority Buddhists. In 1963, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death in protest, and other self-immolations followed.

In the U.S., Thich Nhat Hanh became an early voice of the antiwar movement. Speaking from experience about the lives of the Vietnamese people, he undertook a well-publicized five-day fast and reported to the United Nations on human rights violations in South Vietnam.

By the mid-sixties, Thich Nhat Hanh was editor of the country’s most popular Buddhist weekly, founder of the renowned School of Youth for Social Service, and in important voice for peace who was denounced by both sides in the war. Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

When a U.S.-backed military coup overthrew the Diem regime in 1963, Nhat Hanh returned to Vietnam and submitted a peace proposal to the Unified Buddhist Church (UBC), which had been formed to bring together the different sects of Vietnamese Buddhism. He called for a cessation of hostilities, the establishment of a Buddhist institute for the country’s leaders, and the creation of a center to promote nonviolent social change.

The UBC supported the institute, which opened in 1964 as the Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies, but the other two proposals were rejected as the unrealistic dreams of a poet. Undaunted, Nhat Hanh responded by creating experimental pioneer villages that trained residents in self-sufficiency and social change.

The SYSS staff of young activists, including Sister Chan Khong (second from right). Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

In 1964, Nhat Hanh became editor-in-chief of The Sound of the Rising Tide, which became Vietnam’s most popular Buddhist weekly. His poems were used as songs of protest by Vietnamese who wanted peace — and were denounced by both sides in the war.

Realizing that education needed to become action, Nhat Hanh founded the renowned School of Youth for Social Service. SYSS peace workers risked their lives going into rural areas to establish schools, build health care clinics, and rebuild villages destroyed by the war.

In 1964, huge floods struck South Vietnam, killing 4,000 people and destroying thousands of homes. Nhat Hanh led SYSS members to bring relief to remote areas. Risking bullets, sleeping on boats in icy winds, helping civilians and wounded soldiers from both sides, they saw their suffering as an expression of solidarity with those they were trying to help. In a symbolic gesture, Nhat Hanh cut his finger and let the blood fall into the river.

“This,” he said, “is to pray for all who have perished in the war and in the flood.”

The Order of Interbeing: 1966

In 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh ordained six SYSS leaders into the new Order of Interbeing, a monastic community dedicated to bringing Buddhism directly into the political and social arena. Members of the order committed themselves to service and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

Sister Chan Khong was one of the six original members, and so was her closest dharma friend, a young woman named Nhat Chi Mai. Sister Chan Khong writes in her memoir, Learning True Love, that one day Sister Mai’s voice grew strangely soft as she was reading the twelfth mindfulness training, Reverence for Life: “Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and build peace.”

The six original members of the Order of Interbeing. Sister Chan Khong is on the far left, Sister Mai is third from the left. Today there are more than a thousand members of the order. Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

A few weeks later, Sister Mai placed statues of the Virgin Mary and Avalokitshvara in front of her and set herself on fire. In her poems and letters she had asked Buddhists and Catholics to work together for peace, and for peace she had sacrificed herself.

Believing that the best way to help stop the war was speaking directly to Americans about the Vietnamese people’s wish for peace, Thich Nhat Hanh accepted an invitation from Cornell University to embark on a U.S. speaking tour. He left Vietnam for what he thought would be only a few weeks, leaving Sister Chan Khong in charge of his movement.

His departure gave the South Vietnamese establishment the chance it had been waiting for. Van Hanh University dissolved its connection with the SYSS and accused Sister Chan Khong of being a communist. Though SYSS members were attacked and they struggled to raise funds, they persisted courageously in their work to relieve suffering without taking sides.

thich nhat hanh and martin luther king jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said of Thich Nhat Hanh: “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle monk from Vietnam.” Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

In the U.S., Nhat Hanh met with important figures on both sides of the war debate, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, antiwar senator William Fulbright, and famed Christian contemplative Thomas Merton.

Thich Nhat Hanh made a deep connection with another great peacemaker of his time — civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. In a letter to King, Nhat Hanh urged him to publicly oppose the Vietnam War, writing, “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. … 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 real enemies of man — not man himself.”

When Nhat Hanh met King in person, he told him that Vietnamese Buddhists considered King a bodhisattva. When King later nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, he said that the honor would “remind all nations that [people] of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction. It would reawaken [people] to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace.”

a young thich nhat hanh presents a peace proposal
The day Thich Nhat Hanh presented a peace proposal in Washington, the South Vietnamese government declared him a traitor and banned him from returning home. Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

In June, 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh presented a peace proposal in Washington urging Americans to stop bombing and offer reconstruction aid free of political or ideological strings. He emphasized that he and his followers favored neither side in the war and wanted only peace.

In response, the South Vietnamese government immediately banned him from returning home. A trip for peace that was supposed to last a few weeks became forty years in exile.

Exile: 1966–2004

Thich Nhat Hanh said that exile from Vietnam felt like being a cell separated from its body. Despite his personal pain, exile allowed him to work for peace freely, and, as it did for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, laid the ground for him to became the world-renowned spiritual teacher he is today.

young thich nhat hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris, 1974. Photo by Jim Forest.

Granted asylum in France, Nhat Hanh became chair of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation. For the next few years, his activities included establishing the Unified Buddhist Church in France, lecturing at the Sorbonne, and serving as a delegate to the Paris peace talks. When Sister Chan Khong joined him in France, the South Vietnamese government exiled her as well.

When the war in Vietnam ended in 1975 with North Vietnamese victory, non-communist Vietnamese — ultimately as many as two million — began to flee the country. Hundreds of thousands risked the dangerous journey by sea. They became known as the boat people.

By 1978–79, the plight of the boat people had become a major humanitarian crisis. They were prey to overcrowded boats, stormy seas, and murder and rape by pirates. If they did make it to another country, they were kept in refugee camps. Sometimes their boats were simply pushed back out to sea.

Nhat Hanh and his small group of followers in France knew they had to help. Sister Chan Khong rented a fishing boat in Thailand, dressed like a fisherman, and went out to sea to help the boat people. Every time she and her team came across a refugee boat, they gave them food, fuel, and directions to the nearest refugee camp.

In a more ambitious plan, Nhat Hanh raised the money to rent two large ships, the Roland and the Leapdal. Within a few weeks at sea they’d rescued more than eight hundred boat people, planning to take them to Guam and Australia. Although that plan was stymied by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, Nhat Hanh and his followers continued to bring the plight of the boat people to the world’s attention, convincing several countries to admit more Vietnamese refugees.

refugees on board the "Roland" freighter
Hundreds of refugees aboard the “Roland,” a freighter rented by Thich Nhat Hanh’s community to rescue boat people fleeing Vietnam after the communist victory. Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

In 1971, craving the tranquility they had found at Phuong Boi, Nhat Hanh and his followers bought a country property with a tiny, ramshackle house southeast of Paris. They called it Sweet Potatoes, and it became Thich Nhat Hanh’s first practice center in the West.

Sweet Potatoes started as a year-round residence for eleven people healing from the war, but by 1982 it was too small to accommodate all who wanted to practice there. The community bought the land in southern France that would become Plum Village, named for the sweet fruit that grows in the region despite the rocky soil. One of the first things they did was plant a plum orchard and use the profits to help children in developing countries.

young sister chan khong working ina garden
Sister Chan Khong working in the garden at Sweet Potatoes. Photo courtesy of Parallax Press.

For Thich Nhat Hanh, Plum Village was the rebirth of the spirit of Phuong Bio. Mindfulness was woven into all daily activities — eating, walking, working, or enjoying a cup of tea with others — and by 1983 there were 117 practitioners at Plum Village. It would become Nhat Hanh’s primary residence, the center of his worldwide community, and the largest and most active Buddhist monastery in the West.

In 1987, Thich Nhat Hanh established Parallax Press in California to publish his writings in English, plus other books on Buddhist teachings and peace. In 2000, he established his first monastery in America—Deer Park Monastery in Southern California—and his community of American students grew rapidly.

By the mid-2000s, Thich Nhat Hanh was firmly established as a major Buddhist teacher, bestselling author, and leading advocate of mindful living. As he had from the beginning, he worked to make Buddhism relevant and engaged. As he wrote in Being Peace, “You are not an observer, you are a participant.”

Return to Vietnam: 2005–2008

Thich Nhat Hanh finally saw his homeland again on January 11, 2005. Now a world-renowned Buddhist teacher, he was allowed to return after lengthy negotiations with the communist government of Vietnam. He was accompanied on the trip by members of the Order of Interbeing—founded forty-one years earlier in wartime Saigon—and other students.

He focused on making Buddhism relevant to younger generations. He called for gender equality in Vietnamese Buddhism. He published four of his books in Vietnamese. Two temples were reestablished with Nhat Hanh as their spiritual head, and hundreds of young people asked to become his monastic students. Prajna Monastery, not far from Phuong Boi, became their training monastery.

But it was the same story as decades earlier in South Vietnam — the communist government was worried that so many people, particularly young, educated people, were drawn to Nhat Hanh’s teachings. In turn, some Buddhists feared the government would use the trip to give the appearance of religious freedom while abuses continued. The Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, which was technically illegal, called on Nhat Hanh to criticise the lack of religious freedom.

A group of students
In Saigon, Thich Nhat Hanh conducts one of three Grand Requiem Masses to heal the wounds of both sides in the Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese attended the ceremonies. Photo by Kate Cummings.

When Thich Nhat Hanh made his second trip to Vietnam for three months of teachings, retreats, and ceremonies in 2007, his focus was on healing the wounds of the war suffered on both sides.

“If we don’t transform the suffering and wounds now, they will be transmitted to the next generation,” he told the Vietnamese people. “They will suffer and they will not understand why. It’s better to do something right away to transform the suffering.”

Nhat Hanh led groups of up to 10,000 on meditation retreats and gave talks in temples packed with people who braved the government’s disapproval of religious display. The centerpiece of the trip were the “Great Ceremonies of Healing,” also called “Grand Requiem Masses.” Nhat Hanh led three-day healing ceremonies in three cities — one in the north, one in the central region, and one in the south — and thousands of Vietnamese participated. People around the world were invited to recognize the millions who had died in the war, and even communists were welcome to read from texts that celebrated humanity.

thich nhat hanh waves at tu hieu pagoda
Thich Nhat Hanh returns to Tu Hieu Pagoda, his root temple in Huế. Photo by Paul Davis.

During this visit, Nhat Hanh met with the president of Vietnam and made specific proposals for more religious freedom, including dissolving the corrupt and unpopular religious police. He published these proposals and returned to Vietnam a third time as a keynote speaker at the 2008 United Nations Vesak Celebrations held in Hanoi.

This time there was a backlash. Within weeks, the government began taking steps against Prajna Monastery, which had grown to more than five hundred young monks and nuns in the four years since Nhat Hanh’s first visit.

Over the following months, the government cut off water, electricity, and phone lines to the monastery, subjected monastics to physical and sexual abuse, and sent in paid mobs who threw feces at the monks. In December, 2009, all the monks and nuns were forcibly dispersed from Prajna Monastery. Today, there is no practice centre in Vietnam in the Plum Village tradition.

thich nhat hanh walking with students
Thich Nhat Hanh has been called the father of mindfulness, the founder of socially-engaged Buddhism, and “the Zen master who fills stadiums.” He has changed the way we understand Buddhism and its role in the world. Photo by Don Farber.

World Teacher

In his ninety-second year, Thich Nhat Hanh is recognized as one of the world’s most influential spiritual teachers. His bestselling books have taught dharma and mindfulness to millions. He has inspired generations of peace and environmental activists. He has gathered a devoted community that will carry his teachings into the future. He has helped take Buddhism out of the monasteries and temples into every aspect of our lives today. He has created immense benefit.

Our own life has to be our message.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

With His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh is the leading voice of Buddhism in the West. He has sold more than three million books in America alone, including classics such as Being Peace, The World We Have, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings. Translated into thirty-five languages, his more than one hundred titles range from accessible teachings on mindfulness in daily life to scholarly works on Zen, sutras, and Buddhist psychology, plus children’s books and poetry.

thich nhat hanh shakes hands with the dalai lama
Thich Nhat Hanh with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

In his books and teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh has applied Buddhist philosophy and practice to relationships, politics, community, environmentalism, policing, and international affairs. He launched Wake Up, a worldwide movement for young people to train in mindful living, and created an international Applied Ethics program to train teachers to teach mindfulness in schools.

Thich Nhat Hanh has created a worldwide community of more than six hundred monastics and tens of thousands of lay students. Plum Village in France remains the community’s most important monastery and program center, and in the U.S. he has established Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California; Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York; and Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi. Lay students can join more than a thousand practice communities in cities and towns throughout North America and Europe.

thich nhat hanh holds a lotus flower
Thich Nhat Hanh after the stroke he suffered in November of 2014. Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

Thich Nhat Hanh after the stroke he suffered in November of 2014. Photo courtesy of Plum Village.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision of a socially and politically engaged Buddhism has developed into a worldwide movement that inspires Buddhists of all schools who are committed to peace, social justice, and protecting the environment. Nhat Hanh himself has led peace marches, addressed the U.S. Congress, and brought Israelis and Palestinians together to meditate. The year he turned eighty, he delivered an address to UNESCO calling for a reversal of the cycle of violence, war, and global warming.

In November of 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a serious stroke. It would be ten months before he would speak again, and then only a few words. While he is not expected to resume his public role, his teachings will continue. A treasury of profound writings, a vibrant sangha, and tens of thousands of inspired practitioners will bring his message to future generations. Above all, as he wrote in The World We Have, “Our own life has to be our message.” His life of courage, compassion, and enlightenment is his greatest teaching.

Thich Nhat Hanh passed away on January 22, 2022 in his home country of Vietnam at the age of 95. Read more here.

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte works as a freelance journalist, playwright, and performer.