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Lions Roar : March 2006
A Monk for All Seasons Thich Nhat Hanh's popular image doesn't do justice to his accomplishments as a Buddhist teacher, scholar, and activist. THICH NHAT HANH, known to his students as Thay, or "teacher;' belongs to a long line of accomplished Buddhist teachers. At sixteen he became a novice monk at a monastery in the city of Hue. His teacher was a forty-first generation Lam Te (Chinese: Lin Chi; Japanese: Rinzai) Zen master. Thich Nhat Hanh himself is an eighth-generation teacher in the Lieu Quan school, a "re- formed" Zen school popular in central Vietnam. Vietnamese Buddhism has a history of syncretism, and Thich Nhat Hanh has been an active agent in promoting unity among the various schools. His view is articulated in the charter of the Order of Interbeing, the organization of monks, nuns, and lay- people he founded in 1964: "The Order... rejects dogmatism in both looking and acting. It seeks all forms of action that can re- vive and sustain the true spirit of insight and compassion in life. It considers this spirit to be more important than any Buddhist institution or tradition." Members of the Order, today several thousand strong, practice the fourteen Mindfulness Trainings that Thich Nhat Hanh drafted in 1966. The Mindfulness Trainings were conceived in war, and the experience of war has been pivotal in the development of Thich Nhat Hanh's approach to Buddhist practice. For the first half of his life, Vietnam was engaged in uninterrupted armed conflict, first against Japanese occupation, then in the war of independence with colonial France, and finally in the Vietnam War. Thich Nhat Hanh went to the u.s. in 1961 to study and teach at Princeton and Columbia universities, but two years later he was en- treated by his colleagues to return home-the Vietnam War was in full swing, and there was escalating tension in South Vietnam be- tween the Catholic Diem government and Buddhist religious lead- ers. 1964 was a momentous year during which Thich Nhat Hanh helped to found Vanh Hanh University in Saigon and La Boi Press, which issued a series of publications calling for peace and recon- ciliation. He formed the School of Youth for Social Service, which trained monastic and lay peaceworkers to help rebuild villages, re- locate refugees, and set up schools and clinics in rural Vietnam. By the mid-seventies, the SYSS had more than 10,000 members. Thich Nhat Hanh was a leader in Vietnam's "engaged Bud- dhism" movement and later he brought the phrase to the West. But he credits the thirteenth-century Vietnamese king Tran Nhan Tong with its origination. Tran Nhan Tong abdicated his throne to become a monk, and founded the still-dominant Vietnamese Buddhist school, the Bamboo Forest tradition. In 1966 Thich Nhat Hanh left Vietnam again to make a direct petition for peace in Washington. Touring North American and 56 SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2006 European cities, he spoke about the wartime conditions in Viet- nam. It was at this time that he met the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who called him "my brother," and Martin Luther King, Jr., who nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize, saying, "I know of no one more worthy... than this gentle monk from Vietnam." But the Prize never went to Thich Nhat Hanh, and for his antiwar activities he was denied the right to return home, first by South Vietnam and later by the communist government. For nearly half of his eighty years, Thich Nhat Hanh has lived in exile in the West. He settled first in Paris, and then at a small hermit- age outside the city called Sweet Potato, where he remained for five years in semi -seclusion, gardening, meditating, and writing. Sister Chan Khong, the nun who has worked closely with Thich Nhat Hanh for more than thirty years, described it as "a difficult time for Thay. There were very few Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam at that time; everything he knew, his work, and his students, were in Vietnam." But Western students sought him out, and together they gave refuge to Vietnamese escaping the near-famine conditions in post-war Vietnam. By 1982 the size of the community required a larger property and Plum Village was established outside Dordo- gne, France, where Thich Nhat Hanh still lives today. The gentle monk is seldom idle. Over the last thirty years he has offered mindfulness retreats to Vietnam veterans, mental health and social workers, prison inmates, Palestinians and Israelis, businesspeople, police officers, members of Congress, and the everyday rank and file. A prolific author, he has written more than sixty books, including several classics on mindfulness. He is also the author of scholarly texts on Vietnamese Buddhist history, abhidharma (Buddhist philosophy and psychology), the vinaya (Buddhist monastic code), and Pure Land Buddhism. He has established major retreat centers in California and Vermont, and hundreds of meditation groups internationally count them- selves members of the Community of Mindful Living. In early 2005, Thich Nhat Hanh was permitted to return to Vietnam for the first time in almost forty years. True to form, he invited his Western students to join him on the three-month pilgrimage, saying "I want those who join me to be at their best in terms of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. . . This is the best thing I can offer to my ancestors, to my country, after thirty- nine years of absence." Equally true to form, many of his activities- his weeklong monastic retreat, for example, allowed Vietnamese monks and nuns to speak together for the first time-challenged the status quo and brought opposing sides together. . -ANDREA MCQUILLIN