The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who preached “engaged Buddhism”, passed away on 22 January at the age of 95. He lived out most of his life in homelessness, necessitated both by his monastic vows and political exile. Martin Luther King, Jr, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. A follower of the tradition he founded recounts her journey:
An old Buddhist monk – ailing, long exiled, unable to speak – returned home to live out his last days, remaining in readiness to “transition”. We always ‘inter-are’, he taught. There is no birth, no death. No single moment when we come about from nothingness, nor a moment when we cease to be. Sangha members in the tradition he founded wish each other a continuation day instead of birthdays.
Five years after suffering a stroke that rendered him mute, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh went back to his root monastery at the Từ Hiếu Pagoda in the former imperial capital of Hue, Vietnam, in November 2018. He had taken his vows there at the age of 16, becoming a monk against his parents’ wishes.
Exiled by South Vietnam in the 1960s for his peace efforts during the Vietnam War, he spent almost four decades away from home, establishing the monastic community called Plum Village near Bordeaux in southwest France in 1982.
'Going Forth Into Homelessness'
Homelessness itself was par for the course; it was part of his religious training and discipline. Embracing monastic life within Buddhism involves a vow to “go forth into homelessness” – a severing of ties with one’s natal home, material possessions, and relationships.
The novice leaves home as the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, himself had left his palace, and takes refuge in the ‘Three Jewels’ – the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. However, this is not merely an ascetic’s retreat, and neither is it a nihilistic rejection of the material world. A symbiotic reciprocity between householders and monastics is written into the warp and weft of a Buddhist community.
'Do Not Kill Man, Even in Man’s Name'
While teaching at Princeton and Columbia universities in the 1960s, Nhat Hanh made the acquaintance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Exhorting King to denounce the war that had already raged on for 20 years, Nhat Hanh spoke of the self-immolations of monks and nuns in Vietnam “calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese”.
In a letter dated 1 June 1965, he argued for moving beyond the oppressor-oppressed binary: “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 … Do not kill man, even in man's name.”
He appealed for peace to the United Nations, members of the U.S. Congress, and American President Lyndon Johnson. “The world's greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent,” Nhat Hanh urged MLK, who subsequently took a stand against the War in 1967.
Between Homelessness and Homecoming
The same year, MLK recommended Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. In a letter to the Nobel committee as a former awardee himself, King said, “Thich Nhat Hanh today is virtually homeless and stateless. If he were to return to Vietnam, which he passionately wishes to do, his life would be in great peril. He is the victim of a particularly brutal exile because he proposes to carry his advocacy of peace to his own people. What a tragic commentary this is on the existing situation in Vietnam and those who perpetuate it.”
A tragic commentary on our times indeed, that the two most famous Buddhist leaders in the contemporary world spent a large part of their lives in exile. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, 86, has been living in India since 1959. Unlike Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama has never returned to his homeland of Tibet.
Both have offered a vision of hope and a re-imagination of what it means to have a home and a community. The Dalai Lama often jokes that six decades of eating daal bhaat have made him a son of India, and in tracing a philosophical and spiritual lineage from the Nalanda masters, he has recast exile as a return to the birthplace of Buddhism. Nhat Hanh preached that happiness was available in the present moment, and said that his address was “here and now”.
'Be Fully Aware of Your Responsibility'
No one was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the year King recommended Nhat Hanh. But fifty years later, in November 2017, my colleague Dr Christie Kilby, Assistant Professor of Religion at James Madison University, nominated him again. From our contemporary perspective, Kilby pointed out that “his leadership has touched several of the most pressing humanitarian challenges of the twentieth century, challenges that continue to define our present: ideological warfare, refugee crisis, and religious conflict.”
She referred to “engaged Buddhism”, a term Nhat Hanh coined for the social application of the Buddhist principles of non-violence, compassion, and interconnectedness.
Its guidelines urge the Buddhist sangha to “take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts”. It extends the precept against taking life further: “Find whatever means possible to protect life and prevent war” and “do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live”.
It exhorts practitioners to act responsibly towards themselves, one another, other species, and future generations: “Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.”
In a chapter on “Transforming the Fear Around Us” (Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, 2012), Nhat Hanh advocated embracing the interconnectedness of the terrorist and the terrorised: “We don’t know how to handle our own suffering … We develop a wish for vengeance; we want to punish those who made us suffer, and we think doing so will make us suffer less … The terrorist’s wish to punish is born from his suffering. He doesn’t know how to handle his own suffering, and he looks to relieve it by punishing others.” As Kilby said in her letter to the Nobel committee:
“In every instance, his activism has served both the victims and the perpetrators of violence, a testament to the depth of his commitment to a truly global peace.”
Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, founded in 1966, applies Buddhist principles to social activism. He authored over a hundred titles and founded monastic practice centres and lay sanghas across the world. Over 1,00,000 retreatants have taken the “Five Mindfulness Trainings”, adapted from Buddhist precepts for lay practitioners, in Plum Village alone.
I Have Arrived. I am Home.
I visited Thay’s (Vietnamese for “teacher”) root monastery in Hue in December 2018, six weeks after he had moved there. At the time, I had been practising in the Plum Village tradition for about two years and knew that I had found my spiritual home in the practice.
The staff at my hotel had informed me of other pilgrims who had seen him during walking meditation, and morning and evening prayers. I was hopeful. When I phoned the monastery to ask a good time to visit, they declined to share any information.
Even for a Buddhist monastery, the Pagoda was exceptional in its simplicity. There was no security and no signboards announcing his presence or demanding his privacy. The modest shop selling his calligraphy was closed on the days that I visited. There was a small table outside the temple with donation receipt booklets, but no one to man it.
I met some lay followers from Vietnam, France and the United States, who had come likewise hoping to catch a glimpse of Thay. Amidst intermittent rain, we waited for about half an hour outside his residential compound. No guard or bell, just the modest sign – “Monastics Area. Please Do Not Enter.”
Finally, an elderly monk came out and simply said, “Thank you very much for coming. Thay is no longer receiving visitors.”
“Could we make an appointment?”
“But he is okay, right?”
I went again the following day. A young nun came out this time – same message. She agreed to pass along a thank-you note that I had written on behalf of my sangha in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the note, I had thanked Thay for enhancing fearlessness, compassion, and joy in my life. I thanked him for the family that my sangha had become. And I told him that we were all praying for him.
Thay said that the shortest dharma talk he ever gave was, “I have arrived. I am home”. At that time in Vietnam, I was glad he was home, even in my narrow understanding of it as a toponym.
Right there, in that temple, and right here, in my sangha, I arrived home, too.
(Swati Chawla is a historian and assistant professor at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. She became a lay practitioner in the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)