Thich Nhat Hanh: An International Buddhist Zen Master from Hue

Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese spelling: Thích Nhất Hạnh) is an internationally acclaimed Zen Buddhist monk, peace activist, and author. He coined the term ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and preached ‘mindfulness’ practices. He also founded the Plum Village Tradition, the largest monastic order in the West.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote the New York Times bestseller ‘Eat Pray Love’— inspired by her spiritual quests said: “Thich Nhat Hanh has the ability to bring forth the state of peace that we each inherently possess merely by his presence in a room – this is divine power”.

The Names of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh
[ image from ]

Vietnamese Buddhist monks adopt the same surname ‘Thích’ (釋 – of the Shakya clan) implying that they belong to one Buddist family. Other East Asian countries also have different translations of this same word. ‘Nhất Hạnh’ (一行: one action of right conduct) is his dharma title and his most commonly used name.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage name for his refuge in the Three Jewels (Quy y Tam bảo) is ‘Trừng Quang’ (澄光 – clear light). Upon ordination, his dharma name is Phùng Xuân (逢春 – meeting Spring).

His followers often call him Thay (Thầy) meaning master or teacher following Vietnamese Mahayana tradition. Followers of the Plum Village tradition call him Zen Master Nhat Hanh (Thiền sư Nhất Hạnh).

Thich Nhat Hanh, Engaged Buddhism, and Mindfulness

Plum Village monastics
Plum Village monastics practicing mindfulness in walking
[ image from ]

Thich Nhat Hanh is credited for coining the term ‘Engaged Buddhism’ (Phật giáo dấn thân) in his book ‘Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire’. He created the Plum Village Tradition with the practice of mindfulness (chánh niệm) or ‘स्मृति’ in Sanskrit at its core.

Mindfulness, as taught in his tradition, is a meta conscious practice to incorporate into everyday actions. It’s a combination of Mahayana Buddhist teachings, especially Zen, and ideas from Western psychology.

The term ‘interbeing’ in his teachings exemplifies the Prajnaparamita Sutra (Bát-nhã-ba-la-mật-đa tâm kinh), or Heart Sutra, and Huayan, a school of thought said to be the foundation of Zen.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Biography

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Biography
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Many from the Western perspective regard Thich Nhat Hanh as the second most influential Buddhist figure after the 14th Dalai Lama (Đạt-lại Lạt-ma). He was born as Nguyễn Xuân Bảo on October 11th, 1926 in Hue.

He entered Tu Hieu Pagoda to be a Zen Buddhist (Phật giáo Thiền tông) novice monk at 16 years old. There, he received training in Mahayana Buddhism (Phật giáo Đại thừa), then full ordination as a renunciate or Bhikkhu (người khất thực) in 1951.

In 1966, he received a lamp transmission from the former head abbot to be a ‘dharmacharya’ or the one who teaches ’dharma’—  or the self-evident nature and natural duty of a living being. Afterward, he became the abbot of the present 8th generation of renunciates in Tu Hieu Pagoda.

In the process of studying Buddhism, he also gained fluency in French, Classical Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and English. He spent most of his later life overseas, particularly in the US, France, and Thailand. However, he has chosen to reside in Vietnam for his remaining days.

During the Vietnam War

Helping victims of a flood
Helping victims of a flood
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In the 1960s, he established the School of Youth for Social Services – SYSS (Trường Thanh niên Phụng sự Xã hội) in Saigon. It was an organization of peace workers who went into rural areas to establish schools, build healthcare clinics, and help rebuild villages during the Vietnam War.

He also established Van Hanh University (viện đại học Vạn Hạnh) and La Boi Book Publisher (Nhà xuất bản Lá Bối) for monastic education. He was the first bhikkhu to teach Buddhist studies as university secular subjects in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh was in charge of teaching Buddhist Psychology and the Prajnaparamita Sutra. He and the students of Van Hanh advocated peace by the reunification of North and South Vietnam.

In 1963, he returned to Vietnam from the US due to the Buddhist Crisis (Biến cố Phật giáo). This crisis and conflict resulted from repressive acts, by then President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, against Buddhism.

From 1976 to 1977, he led efforts to help rescue Vietnamese boat people in the Gulf of Siam aka Gulf of Thailand (vịnh Thái Lan). He eventually had to stop under pressure from the governments of Thailand and Singapore.

Leaving Vietnam

The early days of Plum Village
The early days of Plum Village
[ by Jim Forest from Flickr ]

After the Buddhist Crisis in 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh established the Order of Interbeing (Dòng tu Tiếp Hiện) in his Plum Village Tradition consisting of Zen practice centers around the world. Although he wished to remain neutral in the conflict, he opposed the radical Catholicization policies and this put him at odds with the South Vietnamese government.

While in the US later that year, he visited Gethsemani Abbey to speak with Thomas Merton— an American Trappist monk. When South Vietnam threatened to block Thich Nhat Hanh’s reentry to the country, Merton wrote an essay of solidarity entitled, “Nhat Hanh is my Brother”.

After the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, he was prohibited from returning to Vietnam and resided in the Plum Village in France. During the process of the Reunification of Vietnam, religious freedom under the Communist government was complicated.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh in Chicago in 1966
[ by Edward Kitch from Associated Press ]

In 1961, Thich Nhat Hanh went to the US to study at the Princeton Theological Seminary, then appointed lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University. While he was back in Vietnam in 1965, he wrote a letter ‘In Search of the Enemy of Man’ to Martin Luther King Jr.

After the Buddhist Crisis, he returned to the US in 1966 to lead a symposium in Vietnamese Buddhism at Cornell University. Later the same year, he met Luther King and urged him to publicly denounce the Vietnam War.

In 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City, King gave the speech ‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’— his first public questioning of the US involvement in Vietnam. He also nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize but the committee did not make an award that year.

Thich Nhat Hanh as an International Peace Activist

Thich Nhat Hanh as an International Peace Activist
[ by Thich Nhat Hanh from Facebook ]

While living in France, Thich Nhat Hanh led the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks in 1969. In 2014, Sister Chan Khong represented him in signing the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery in Casina Pio IV, Vatican.

In 2017, the Education University of Hong Kong conferred an honorary doctorate upon him for his “life-long contributions to the promotion of mindfulness, peace, and happiness across the world”. He received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 2015 and the Outstanding Inner Peace Award by the Luxembourg Peace Prize in 2019.

Thich Nhat Hanh as an Author

Thich Nhat Hanh as an Author
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Thich Nhat Hanh has published over 130 books, around half of which are in English with millions of copies sold worldwide. Shortly before his stroke in 2018, he completed the new English and Vietnamese translations of the Prajnaparamita Sutra. He usually goes by the author name Nguyễn Lang for his Vietnamese books.

Thich Nhat Hanh Returning to Vietnam

Thich Nhat Hanh Returning to Vietnam
[ by Thich Nhat Hanh from Facebook ]

Thich Nhat Hanh was first allowed back in Vietnam in 2005 after lengthy negotiations. He went with members of his order around the country to preach his doctrines, publish books, and visit his roots Tu Hieu Pagoda.

He returned once again in 2007 to support new monastics in his order by holding classes and teaching Zen practices. The main reason was, however, to organize and conduct chanting ceremonies for victims of war regardless of their side in the conflict.

Current Health Situation

Thich Nhat Hanh in Tu Hieu Pagoda in 2018
Thich Nhat Hanh in Tu Hieu Pagoda in 2018
[ by Manan Vatsyayana from Getty Images ]

Unfortunately, some internal conflicts, specifically at Bat Nha Monastery (tu viện Bát Nhã) near Dalat in 2009, led to Thich Nhat Hanh not desiring to return to Vietnam for a long time. In 2014, he experienced a severe brain hemorrhage and was hospitalized in France.

After lengthy treatment, he was still unable to speak. In 2016, he traveled to the Plum Village in Thailand for long-term recuperation. In 2017 he returned once again to Vietnam, and as of 2021, he spends his days at Tu Hieu Pagoda where he’s surrounded by beloved students.

Plum Village Tradition and Its Monasteries

Plum Village in France
Plum Village in France
[ image by ]

As mentioned before, Thich Nhat Hanh first created the Order of the Interbeing in the Plum Village Tradition (Làng Mai) to teach practical mindfulness. Also in France, he legally registered the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam for peace activism in 1969.

He established the Sweet Potato Meditation Centre in 1975 which became the Plum Village Monastery in 1982. The Unified Buddhist Church also changed its name to the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism. The Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation is its charitable organization.

As of 2018, the Plum Village Tradition has nine established monasteries. They are scattered across the US, Europe, and Asia including one in Tu Hieu Pagoda. The Plum Village Tradition provides refuge for monastics not only at its monasteries but also online via the official website.

Tu Hieu Pagoda

Tu Hieu Pagoda and Thich Nhat Hanh
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

As the leading abbot of the current generation, Thich Nhat Hanh has elevated Tu Hieu Pagoda’s (chùa Từ Hiếu) reputation as a Dharma Center or non-monastic Buddhist center. Visitors can join daily meditation sessions and observe the monks’ daily practices of mindfulness according to the Plum Village tradition.

Around the pagoda complex, especially near the half-moon pond and lotus lake, there are quiet places for contemplation. You can also visit the ancient graves of eunuchs from imperial times. The bookshop sells monastic literature in various languages, souvenirs, and paraphernalia.

Construction for Tu Hieu Pagoda started in 1843 by the monk Nhất Định to take care of his ill mother while focusing his disciplined training. Upon hearing the story of the monk, Emperor Tu Duc of the Nguyen Dynasty conferred the pagoda its name meaning ‘Dutiful Child’.

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