UNIFIED BUDDHIST CHURCH (Thich Nhat Hanh)
UNIFIED BUDDHIST CHURCH TIMELINE
1926 Thich Nhat Hanh was born in central Vietnam.
1942 Nhat Hanh became an ordained monk, having taken his vows at Tu Hieu pagoda.
1949 Nhat Hanh received full ordination.
1947 The French- Indochina War began, an event that encouraged much of Nhat Hanh’s early political activism.
Early 1950s Nhat Hanh helped to found the An Quang Pagoda in Saigon, where he taught from 1954 to 1961.
Early 1950s Nhat Hanh was invited by a Buddhist institute in Saigon to aid in the construction of a curriculum that would blend traditional Buddhism with Western philosophies.
Early 1950s Nhat Hanh started The First Lotus Flowers of the Season, a magazine designed to aid Buddhist visionaries in materializing a renewal within the tradition.
1956 Nhat Hanh served as the editor of the All-Vietnam Buddhist Associations privately-published journal.
1957 (Fall) Nhat Hanh, along with a small group of friends, retreated to the mountains of Saigon and founded the Phuong Boi (Fragrant Palm Leaves) community.
1961 (Fall) Nhat Hanh accepted a fellowship position at Princeton University to study comparative religion.
1962 (Fall) Nhat Hanh began teaching at Columbia University.
1963 (Spring) Tensions between Vietnamese Buddhists and the Diem regime of South Vietnam began to intensify. In April, the Diem regime ruled that Buddhists could not display their religious flag on the Buddha’s birthday.
1963 (June-October) Nhat Hanh traveled to major U.S. cities generating support for the peace movement in Vietnam.
1963 The Association of Overseas Vietnamese organized a protest, led by Nhat Hanh, in front of the White House.
1963 (November 1) The Diem regime was overthrown.
1963 (December 16) Seeing an opportunity for the renewal of Buddhist influence, Nhat Hanh returned to Vietnam.
1964 (February) Nhat Hanh established the Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies (later Van Hanh University) in Saigon.
1965 (September) Nhat Hanh established the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), in Saigon. Often compared to the Peace Corps, the goal of the SYSS was to train youth in providing aid to the poverty-stricken as well as those affected by the war.
1966 (February 5) Ordaining six SYSSS leaders as a membership, Nhat Hanh began the Tiep Hien religious order, or Order of Interbeing, an inclusive society of Buddhist practitioners inexorably linked by their observance of fourteen precepts, a code of ethics constructed by Nhat Hanh.
1966 (May 2) Nhat Hanh traveled to the United States to speak at a seminar on Vietnamese Buddhism at Cornell University, which was followed by a speaking tour, during which he appealed for an end to the violence in his country.
1966 (June 1) Nhat Hanh presented a fivefold peace proposal at a press conference in Washington, D.C., which resulted in his being declared a traitor among by the South Vietnamese government, marking the beginning of a forty-year exile from his homeland.
1967 Nhat Hanh was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr.
1969 Nhat Hanh set up Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace talks with the endorsement of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
1969 Nhat Hanh established the Unified Buddhist Church (Eglise Bouddhique Unifieé) in France.
1975 Nhat Hanh established the Sweet Potato community near Paris where he and eleven others settled, retreating from the public eye and seeking a life of meditation, writing, and other private endeavors.
1982 Nhat Hanh established Plum Village near Bordeaux, France to accommodate Sweet Potato’s growth.
1982 Nhat Hanh traveled to New York to attend the Reverence for Life conference, where he became aware of the mounting interest in meditation in the United States.
1997 Nhat Hanh founded Green Mountain Dharma Center and Maple Forrest Monastery in Vermont.
2005 Nhat Hanh was formally invited to return to Vietnam after thirty-nine years in exile.
2007 (May) Green Mountain Monastery and Maple Forest Monaste ry merged with Blue Cliff Monastery.
Thich Nhat Hanh was born in a village in Nguyen Xuan Bao, central Vietnam, in 1926. While little is known of his childhood, it hasbeen documented that he showed signs of being drawn to a religious life as a child. According to the hagiographic account, his religious experiences included a field trip he made with his school to a “nearby mountain where he was a told a hermit lived” (King 2001:72). Upon arriving at the mountain and discovering the hermit’s absence, Nhat Hanh set out alone to find him. Although he did not find the hermit, he discovered and drank from a well which contained perfectly clear water. He would later remark that in that moment “a seed had been planted,” which he would refer to as the seed of contemplation (King 2001:72). Four years later, at the age of sixteen, Nhat Hanh was ordained as a Buddhist monk at the Tu Hieu pagoda near the city of Hue in Vietnam. It is here that he received the title “Thich,” which monks and nuns assume upon ordination” (“Thich Nhat Hanh”, n.d.).
Nhat Hanh was trained in the traditional Zen Buddhist tradition, including “studying the classical texts of Buddhism in Chinese, mediating with the aid of a koan (kung-an) and devoting many hours to formal sitting practice” (zazen), a fundamental practice of the Zen tradition. However, having received some Western education prior to entering the monastery, Nhat Hanh found himself in opposition to many of the traditional practices at the outset of his training, including the rote memorization of verses (gathas) which he considered to be outdated and to lack justification. While he would eventually accept the traditional Buddhist instruction and was fully ordained in 1949, his opposition and vision for reform remained with him and would prove a driving force in his work.
As the French-Indochina War raged in Vietnam in the early 1950s, Nhat Hanh saw an opportunity for and began working toward the renewal of the Buddhist faith in the country. Citing the fundamental Buddhist principle of impermanence, he reasoned that for any religion to retain its relevance, it must change and modernize given an ever-changing world. He sought to reform the tradition and to make it accessible to individuals who no longer had the time for formal monastery training with a Zen master. Rather, he saw a need for a mechanism whereby adherents could integrate Buddhism into their everyday lives, which led to his creating the concept of Engaged Buddhism. Throughout the 1950s, Nhat Hanh worked toward realizing this vision by starting a magazine entitled The First Lotus Flowers of the Season; serving as the editor of a second periodical, Vietnamese Buddhism, published by the All-Vietnam Buddhist Associations; and co-founding the An Quang Pagoda in Saigon, where he taught from 1954 to 1961. Nhat Hanh’s vision was met with immediate opposition both from within and beyond his own religious tradition. In response to this resistance, he and several others “withdrew to the mountains near Saigon” in the fall of 1957, where they established an “experimental community” that they called Phuong Boi (King 2001:76).
In 1959, in the face of ever-growing resistance to his movement, Nhat Hanh accepted an offer to “study and teach comparative religion at Columbia and Princeton Universities” and left Vietnam for the United States (“Our Teacher” n.d.) While Nhat Hanh has written little of this period, he has stated that this marked “the beginning of a very introspective time” for him during which he feared for the future of his warring homeland and the fate of a humanity which was becoming increasingly influenced by society, obfuscating what he referred to as the “‘true self’” (King 2001:77). His period of fear and discouragement appears to have ended in 1963 when “his monastic-colleagues in Vietnam invited him to come home to join their work to stop the US-Vietnam war” (“Our Teacher” n.d.).
Upon his return to Vietnam, Nhat Hanh established Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies, later renamed the Van Hanh University, as well as an experimental village that would later become the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS). The SYSS, referred to as the "little Peace Corps” in the American media, was dedicated to providing aid to those affected by the war, rebuilding bombed cities and building schools and healthcare clinics, as well as the generally poverty-stricken. By the time the war ended, 10,000 monastics and laypeople were involved in the group.
On February 5, 1966, Nhat Hanh founded a new religious order, which he called the Tiep Hien, or the Order of Interbeing, when he ordained six leaders of the SYSS. The Order of Interbeing, “composed of monk and nuns, laymen and laywomen… never comprised great numbers, yet its influence and effects were deeply felt within their country” as it gave substance to the concept of Engaged Buddhism (Brown 2004). Members of the Order were inextricably linked “by their adherence to fourteen precepts, which Nhat Hanh composed to take the place of several hundred precepts that had regulated the lives of Buddhist monks and nuns for more than 2,500 years” (King 2001:83). The precepts served as modernized versions of traditional Buddhist philosophies that Nhat Hanh believed were better aligned with the modern world. Shortly after the establishment of the Order of Interbeing, Nhat Hanh again traveled to the United States to engage in a speaking tour of the country, which began at Cornell University, advocating a ceasefire in Vietnam. A month into his tour, Nhat Hanh presented his five-point peace proposal at a press conference in the nation's capitol. He appealed to the U.S. government to undertake a series of actions that included stopping bombing of targets in Vietnam, adopting a solely defensive military posture, and offering to fund national reconstruction. Having heard and been moved by Nhat Hanh’s powerful appeals for peace, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. However, his message was not so positively received in all quarters, and he was immediately denounced by the South Vietnamese government as a traitor, which effectively exiled him from his homeland.
In his early years of exile, Nhat Hanh helped to found the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation at the suggestion of the Overseas Vietnamese Buddhist Association. The Peace Delegation served as “a conduit for information from Vietnam to the rest of the world and a source for humanitarian aid to the Vietnamese orphans and others in distress” (King 2001:89). Perhaps the Delegation's most prominent project involved the sponsoring of children orphaned as a result of the war; sponsors were asked to make an ongoing donation to fund their sponsored child. This program proved a tremendous success. Despite his success in the Vietnam War relief effort, Nhat Hanh became discouraged at his inability to influence the movement from within his home country, and he again entered a period of retreat.
Nhat Hanh had purchased a house and a parcel of farmland South of Paris which he and several colleagues of the peace movement began renovating in 1973 with the intention of establishing a community geared toward private mediation and self-reflection. Along with eleven others, he relocated to the community in 1975 in search of a simpler life. Naming the community Sweet Potatoes (Les Patates Douces), they established what Nhat Hanh would describe as a community of resistance, focused upon rediscovering the self within the system. Like his previous spiritual communities, Sweet Potatoes was open to laypeople as well as monastics, and it quickly attracted a large number of people, more than the small piece of land could support. To accommodate Sweet Potato’s growth, Nhat Hanh and Chan Khong established Plum Village in 1982 in Bordeaux, France. The initialland purchase consisted of twenty acres and included three stone buildings present within the area. A second property was subsequently purchased, the Upper Hamlet and Lower Hamlet. The community was aptly named given the large numbers of plums grown and harvested there. The 1,200 plum trees were producing six tons of fruit annually by 1992. The community used to proceeds to support its international relief work. Plum Village, in addition to serving as a “resistance community” comparable to that of Sweet Potato, which facilitated mediation and self-awareness, became a retreat center. Nhat Hanh would later organize a four-year program to train monks, nuns, and laypeople of various countries to become individuals of influence in their homelands. The community admitted one hundred people during its first summer in operation and expanded to accommodate more than a thousand individuals by 1991. The community in the south of France, where Thich Nhat Hahn resided until 2007, came to comprise five hamlets and included a larger proportion of residential monks and nuns than in its early years of operation.
Nhat Hanh reentered the public eye with his establishment of Plum Village. He travelled to the United States in 1982 to attend the Reverence for Life Conference in New York. While on this trip, he became aware of the swelling interest in Eastern traditions and meditation in the U.S. After a period of preparation, he re-entered the United States to lead a series of talks and retreats on Engaged Buddhism. The positive response to his presentations resulted in his leading retreats and workshops around the world. During this time, he published several works, including Cultivating the Mind of Love, a collection of talks initially given at Plum Village, and Living Buddha, Living Christ in 1995, which was intended to contribute to Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
Thich Nhat Hahn founded several communities and meditation centers in the United States throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the Green Mountain Dharma Center and Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont, the Deer Park Monastery in California, and the Blue Cliff Monastery in New York. He was officially invited back into Vietnam in 2005, and he relocated to his homeland, where he currently resides, in 2007. Upon his return, he “organize[d]…three Grand Requiem Masses in the main region of the country offering compassionate and healing energy to millions of people who died in the war and to those who are still living (“Our Teacher,” n.d.).
Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “Engaged Buddhism” to describe the application of Buddhist principles to the modern world and the everyday lives of its adherents. Engaged Buddhism is a reform movement within the Zen tradition in which Nhat Hanh was trained, and it therefore possesses many parallels to both Zen and Mahayana Buddhism.
Three concepts are central to engaged Buddhism: mindfulness, interbeing, and engagement (King 2000). A central concept in Engaged Buddhism, which is also significant in Buddhism generally, is that of mindfulness. According to Nhat Hanh, mindfulness, or becoming fully aware of the present is “the only way to truly develop peace, both in one’s self and in the world” (“Thich Nhat Hanh” 2009:3). The concept of mindfulness, while crucial to the understanding of the movement, lacks a corresponding concept in English. Nhat Hanh therefore has used examples to convey its meaning. He states that people, for example, when drinking tea with another individual, “are so engrossed in conversation that we are not aware of what we are doing;” however, if we were to be mindful of our action, we will directly experience the tea. Further, he asserts that “later, in reflecting on the experience, you may have occasion to evaluate it and compare it with other such experiences, but by then the experience is gone. What remains only is the idea of the experience,” whereas in the moment, if treated mindfully, only the experience exists, without any idea of the experience (King 2001:100).
Nhat Hanh posits that from mindfulness inevitably results in the realization and acknowledgment of the interconnectedness, or interbeing, of all things beyond the ego. As Mc states it, " all beings are constituted by their interactions with other beings and have no independent, enduring nature in and of themselves" (McMahan 2008:132. He continues: "Interbeing in this sense means that everything—humans, rocks, water—is dependent on non-human, non-rock, non-water elements. All of these elements combine into protean forms that then dissipate and become something else, and every being is just one of an infinite number of forms the universe takes in its endless manifestations, like waves on the water (McMahan 2008:131). Even death is just a transformation from one life form to another.This awareness of interbeing can be applied to everyday life as well as political activism in that when an individual is aware of the events occurring outside of one’s own sphere of ego, he becomes conscious of and experiences a co-feeling of the vast amounts of suffering in the world. This awareness must then lead to action; there is an imperative for individuals to engage. As McMahan observes (2008:161), " Clearly his intention is to employ the doctrine of interbeing to encourage society to take responsibility for the plight of the disadvantaged,"
Nhat Hanh has identified Fourteen Precepts for Engaged Buddhism, which include “respect for life, generosity, responsible sexual behavior, loving communication, and cultivation of a healthful lifestyle,” all of which result naturally from living a mindful existence (“Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh Organisation: The Community of Mindful Living n.d.:2). The Fourteen Precepts are the epicenter of his Order of Interbeing. Re-envisioned from the original precepts that have shaped Buddhist monastic life for 2,500 years, Hanh’s guidelines, a strict adherence to which is required by all Interbeing members, read (“Thich Nhat Hahn's 14 precepts” n.d.):
Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.
Do not think that the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice non-attachment from views in order to be open to receive others' viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout our entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.
Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness.
Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sound. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of you life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.
Do not maintain anger or hatred. As soon as anger and hatred arise, practice the meditation on compassion in order to deeply understand the persons who have caused anger and hatred. Learn to look at other beings with the eyes of compassion.
Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Learn to practice breathing in order to regain composure of body and mind, to practice mindfulness, and to develop concentration and understanding.
Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest of to impress people. Do not utter words that cause diversion and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things you are not sure of. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.
Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice, and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.
Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to life. Select a vocation which helps realize your ideal compassion.
Do not kill. Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and to prevent war.
Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others but prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.
Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only and instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of the Way. Sexual expression should not happen without love and commitment. In sexual relationships be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.
Nhat Hahn also cautioned his followers not to hold themselves to a standard of perfection, stating "Do not believe that I feel that I follow each and every of these precepts perfectly. I know I fail in many ways. None of us can fully fulfill any of these. However, I must work toward a goal. These are my goal. No words can replace practice, only practice can make the words” (“Thich Nhat Hahn's 14 precepts” n.d.).
The goal of Nhat Hanh’s Engaged Buddhism is to make Buddhism available to diverse populations with varying lifestyles. All Engaged Buddhist rituals are organized around living mindfully; however, the manner in which they are conducted differs by culture and status within the tradition. For example, laypersons may be expected to carry out a number of human rights acts, including acts of civil disobedience. They may also practice mindfulness by being aware of “what we are doing,” which according toNhat Hanh, can be done “‘while walking, eating, talking, working and in all positions and activities’” (King 2001:73). While the rituals undertaken by a monastic or a resident at one of Nhat Hanh’s communities may ostensibly differ, they will still reflect the same basic philosophy. The basic elements include ritualized breathing; recitation of gathas; eating, in which meals are always shared by members of the sangha; weekly dharma discussions; a nightly observance of silence; as well as several different forms of meditation, including sitting mediation, walking meditation, and hugging meditation.
Consistent with traditional Zen Buddhist ritual, both monastics and laypeople residing at Plum Village meditate daily. A bell is sounded signifying the beginning of a session. Practitioners participate in a period of mindful sitting meditation, followed by walking meditation (Kinh Hanh), before engaging in another period of sitting meditation. Hugging meditation, stemming from the belief that “when we hug, our hearts connect and we know that we are not separate beings.” It begins with two individuals bowing to one another before taking three breaths and then embracing for the length of another three deep breaths (“Art of Mindful Living” 2009). The three breaths taken within the hug signify three states of awareness. The first is that the person him or herself is “present in this very moment and we are happy;” the second is that the other individual is also present and happy; and the last is that the two “are here together, right now on this earth, and we feel deep gratitude and happiness for our togetherness” (“Art of Mindful Living” 2009).
This emphasis on togetherness and oneness between individuals exemplified in the practice of hugging meditation at Plum Village sangha is again seen in the idea of the “second body.” In this practice, a person regards his or her own body as the “first body,”but chooses another individual within the community to represent his or her “second body,” and regards that person as “a part of ourselves that we want to pay attention to and care for” (“Art of Mindful Living” 2009). The chosen individual, in turn, picks another person to represent his or her second body, until the entire community forms a circle of caring regard for one another.
Members of the Plum Village community also practice a ritualized touching of the earth in which the participant joins his or her hands together, representing the lotus flower, before lowering the body and touching the forehead to the ground. The individual then separates the hands, placing the palms face up, symbolizing the “openness to the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha” (“Art of Mindful Living” 2009).
This practice not only ritualizes the Buddhist ideal of the interconnectedness of all things,
but is also performed to relieve suffering and feelings of estrangement from others, including ancestors, parents, and friends.
Over the course of his life, Thich Nhat Hanh has established and co-founded a number of communities, monasteries, and religiousand political groups that have reflected and given substance to his ideas for a modernized, accessible form of Buddhism. The first of these groups, the An Quang Pagoda in Saigon, was founded in 1950 as an instructional institute for Vietnamese Buddhist monks. In 1965, Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), “based…on the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action,” has been described as “Nhat Hanh’s greatest contribution” to the Engaged Buddhist tradition during its period, despite a great number of efforts (“Thich Nhat Hanh 2009:2). Centered in Saigon, members of SYSS were responsible for “developing their own local economy and providing for their own education and health care” (King 2001:81). Further, villagers underwent training during which they “rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives” in addition to guiding them in self-reliance, a defining feature of Nhat Hanh’s communities (“Thich Nhat Hanh” 2009).
The Tiep Hien religious order, or Order of Interbeing, was founded in 1966 when Nhat Hanh ordained eleven members of the School of Youth for Social Service. The Order of Interbeing resembled a traditional monastery in its ritual practices by requiring members to memorize and recite the Fourteen Precepts, meditate, and attend Dharma talks. However, it “was conceived as neither a clerical nor a lay order,” but rather “an inclusive community of Buddhist practitioners…committed to a common life of service” (King 2001:82). The organization of the Tiep Hien order reflects perhaps the most notable feature of Nhat Hanh’s various communities, their seeming lack of structure. Whereas a traditional Buddhist monastery is organized communally and hierarchically, communities such as Phuong Boi, the Order of Interbeing, and Sweet Potato lacked tight-knit organization and centralized authority.
Plum Village, established in 1982 in Bordeaux, France, is a good example of Nhat Hahn's more loosely organized religious communities. It was created to accommodate Sweet Potato’s growth. It is comprised of a residential “sangha of about 150 monks, nuns and resident lay-practitioners” as well as a constant flow of international, non-Buddhist visitors (“The Community of Mindful Living”). This latter population is representative of the village’s initial purpose as a retreat center. Plum Village was supporting one thousand such individuals by 1991 and became Thich Nhat Hanh's residence until his return to Vietnam in 2007. The community has continued to grow steadily in size and visibility since its establishment, which has led Nhat Hanh to found sister communities in the United States.
Two important communities in the U.S. are Deer Park Monastery and Blue Cliff Monastery. Deer Park Monastery was established in July of 2000 on 400 acres of land in Escondido, California as an international extension of Plum Village. Deer Park is comprised of two separate hamlets: the Solidity Hamlet, home to monks and laymen, and the Clarity Hamlet, which houses nuns and laywomen. Thich Nhat Hanh founded a similar, smaller village on eighty acres of the Hudson Valley in New York, which he named the Blue Cliff Monastery. Like the Deer Park Monastery and Plum Village, Blue Cliff is home to a residential community of monastics and laypersons while also welcoming “anyone who wishes to learn and cultivate the art and practices of engaged Buddhism through mindful living” (“The Community of Mindful Living” n.d.). While these two communities are still being developed, they have gained a great deal of visibility, attracting both Engaged Buddhist practitioners and curious visitors alike during their first few years of operation (“The Community of Mindful Living” n.d.).
The Unified Buddhist Church, Inc. (UBC) in the United States and the Unified Buddhist Church in France (Eglise Bouddhique Unifieé) are sister organizations. The UBC in the U.S. is an IRS designated IRS as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization. Together the two sister organizations serve as the governance body for Plum Village, Blue Cliff Monastery, Deer Park Monastery, the Community for Mindful Living, and Parallax Press. Other UBC affiliated organizations include the Dharma Cloud Temple and the Dharma Nectar Temple in 1988, and the Adornment of Loving Kindness Temple in 1995. There are mindful practice centers in the U.S. Germany, Hong Kong, and Thailand.
Thich Nhat Hanh has faced two primary challenges through his career: criticism from within the Buddhist community for his reformist ideas and external challenges from political opponents both in Vietnam and the United States.
Nhat Hahn was conflicted about his future role as a monk even while training as a monk at Tu Hieu Monastery. Upon entering the monastery, Nhat Hanh immediately sensed the need for change in the tradition, a re-envisioning that would carry Buddhism into the modern world, and so he questioned what he came to see as outdated methods of traditional Zen Buddhist study. However, his vision was met with immediate opposition within the monastery. Although he continued his training and participated in traditional Zen practices, throughout his training, he never abandoned his ideas for reform.
After leaving the monastery and beginning to apply his reform-oriented ideas, he encountered the longstanding commitment of Buddhism to the pursuit for individual enlightenment. By contrast, his Engaged Buddhism movement emphasized the “active involvement by [Engaged] Buddhists in society and its problems” (Brown 2004:1). That is, he emphasized relationships and community. From an Engaged Buddhist perspective, in order to reach nirvana, one must help lead others into enlightenment.
While Vietnam has historically been home to a variety of religious traditions, during Nhat Hanh's lifetime the Vietnamese government systematically suppressed religious expression, banning all religious activity and ritual that interfered with government authority and policy. Thich Nhat Hanh's Engaged Buddhism movement, merging religious belief with political activism, placed him clearly at odds with the government.
He also drew opposition from elements of the Buddhist community in Vietnam. Nhat Hanh had been a prominent figure in the formation of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) since its inception in 1964. The church aided in a variety of relief efforts and promoted the nationwide practice of Buddhism. However, the UBCV distanced itself from Nhat Hanh, denying him monetary support for his various widespread communities and removing him from the membership of the Van Hanh University, which he had helped to found, but at which he had also taught since its establishment. The UBCV cited mounting controversy surrounding Nhat Hanh and his religious-political movement as the reason behind its dissociation from him and his work.
Along with numerous other Buddhist leaders, therefore, Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam, barred from his homeland by the both the South Vietnamese and Communist governments. Nhat Hanh was banned from returning to Vietnam after he embarked on a peace tour of the United States in 1966, pleading for an end to American involvement in the Vietnam War. During that tour he met with a variety of political and religious luminaries, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert McNamara, and Pope Paul VI. The majority of his subsequent forty-year exile was spent at Plum Village in France, where he established the Unified Buddhist Church, which is entirely independent of the UBVC.
Nhat Hanh was ultimately invited back into his home country in 2005, which revived his rift with Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Upon his return to his homeland, Nhat Hanh expressed a hope for reconciliation between Buddhists and the Vietnamese government and sought to subsequently promote the religion to the nation’s youth (Roscoe n.d.). However, UBCV leaders viewed his return as “naïve and even ‘un-Buddhist’,” stating that “the Vietnamese government would sell Thich Nhat Hanh’s visit to the international community as a tacit endorsement of the pricemeal reforms undertaken to show improvement in religious freedoms and human rights” (Roscoe n.d.). The government-controlled Vietnamese press played up Nhat Hanh’s return, portraying an image of openness to political-religious dialogue. However, the government actually did little to amend its restrictive religious policy.
Thich Nhat Hanh is widely regarded as one of the most influential religious leaders of this era. He has often been referred to as the “world’s second most famous” Buddhist after the Dalai Lama (Roscoe, n.d.). Despite facing a great deal of opposition throughout his career as a religious activist, his widespread and profound influence cannot be disputed. While he currently lives at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh travels frequently, giving peace talks, sponsoring retreats, and granting interviews with spiritual and media leaders, from Ram Dass and Oprah Winfrey.
He has continued to promote a number of peace movements worldwide, and has participated in the debate over American military policy and actions in the Middle East just as he did during the debate over the Vietnam War. In an interview with Bob Abernethy, Nhat Hanh compared the United States’ involvement in Iraq to that of Vietnam, stating, “You believed that search and destroy is the right path. But the more you continued that kind of operation, the more Communists you created, and finally you had to withdraw. I am afraid that you are doing exactly the same thing in Iraq” (2003).
“ Art of Mindful Living ” 2009, August 15. Plum Village. Accessed from http://www.plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice.html on 21 March 2013.
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“Our Teacher.” n.d. Blue Cliff Monastery. Accessed from http://bluecliffmonastery.org/sidebar/about-us/zen-master-thich-nhat-hanh on 19 March 2013.
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David G. Bromley
10 April 2013