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Lions Roar : January 2016
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 viola- tions in South Vietnam. 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 Bud- dhism. 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 propos- als were rejected as the unrealistic dreams of a poet. Undaunted, Nhat Hanh responded by creating experi- mental pioneer villa- ges that trained residents in self-sufficiency and social change. 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 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 Bud- dhism had his transformative spiritual experience in the West— in the library of Columbia University, to be exact. 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 disinte- grate. 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 Cath- olic 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. The School of Youth for Social Service: 1960–1965 As U.S. involvement in the war escalated, the Diem government suppressed South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority. Monastics and laypeople staged peace protests and the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc became one of the defining images of the war. PHOTO[LEFT]:THECANADIANPRESS/HORSTFAAS-AP[RIGHT]:PICTURESFROMHISTORY/BRIDGEMANIMAGES During a period of studying and teaching in the U.S., Thich Nhat Hanh had a deep experience of emptiness in the library of Columbia University. SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2016 44