Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton and the modern antiwar movement
After Thich Nhat Hanh died at the age of 95 a year ago last week (Jan. 22, 2022), many obituary writers turned to his 1965 book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, for quotes and for an assessment of the “engaged Buddhism” which the Zen Buddhist monk had taught and promoted for many years. But that book was only one of many written by the prolific author, peace activist, poet and teacher. A passage from his 1975 book The Miracle of Mindfulness perhaps better captures the sense of wonder behind his teaching and ministry:
Every day, we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child, our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
Nhat Hanh’s promotion of “engaged Buddhism,” the application of Buddhist principles to political and social issues, was just one of many causes he championed over eight decades, including nonviolence, mindfulness and compassion. Well into his 80s, he continued to find eager audiences for his teachings; his 2012 book The Art of Mindfulness sold over 200,000 copies in the United States alone. He also inspired and collaborated with many leading figures in the U.S. antiwar movement, including Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and Thomas Merton.
“Whoever is listening, be my witness,” Thich Nhat Hanh's 1964 poem read in part. “I cannot accept this war./ I never could I never will.”
Born on Oct. 11, 1926, in Hue, Vietnam, Nhat Hanh expressed a desire to become a Buddhist monk from an early age, officially beginning his training at a Zen monastery at the age of 16. Already known by the 1950s as a spiritual teacher, Nhat Hanh came to greater prominence in Vietnam in 1964 when he founded and organized the School of Youth Social Service, which recruited young volunteers to restore villages destroyed by bombings and to build schools and hospitals.
That same year, he published a poem, “Condemnation,” that led to accusations of the wrong political sympathies from all sides in Vietnam and the United States, where he was labeled a Communist sympathizer. “Whoever is listening, be my witness,” the poem read in part. “I cannot accept this war./ I never could I never will.”
In “Mindful Monks,” a 2002 review of Dialogues with Silence and Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Spirituality in an Age of Globalization, Richard J. Hauser, S.J., noted that both Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton “began as monks committed to a cloistered contemplative life, and both gradually found their vocations—leading them to prophetic social involvement.”
In 1966 Nhat Hanh visited the United States on a lecture tour, in part to speak to the American people about the war (Nhat Hanh had studied at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early 1960s and was fluent in English). He met with a number of politicians and religious leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton (who was born 108 years ago today! Did you know he wrote for America in 1963?). In May of that year, Nhat Hanh visited Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. In a 2022 tribute to Nhat Hanh for America, Gregory Hillis described the encounter:
According to a mutual friend, the recently deceased Jim Forest, the two conversed late into the night. They talked about monastic chant, about meditation in each other’s traditions, about monastic formation. And they talked about the Vietnam War. A number of years later, Nhat Hanh recalled their meeting fondly: ‘Conversation with him was so easy,’ he said. ‘He was open to everything…. He wanted to know more and more. He did not talk so much about himself. He was constantly asking questions. And then he would listen.” He continued: “I was impressed by his capacity for dialogue.’
Nhat Hanh had planned to speak to the monks at Gethsemani, but Merton had to stand in on his behalf after Nhat Hanh lost his voice. “The talk was recorded, and it is clear from the tape that Merton was impressed by the Vietnamese monk,” Hillis wrote. “Describing Nhat Hanh as ‘an extremely simple, humble person,’ Merton told his brothers that Nhat Hanh was ‘a completely formed monk’ with whom he felt in ‘complete contact.’” Writing in Jubilee magazine later that year, Merton wrote of Nhat Hanh that “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me by race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way” regarding the war in Vietnam. “Nhat Hanh may be returning to imprisonment, torture, even death. We cannot let him go back to Saigon to be destroyed while we sit here, cherishing the warm humanitarian glow of good intentions and worthy sentiments about the ongoing war,” Merton wrote. “We who have met and heard Nhat Hanh, or who have read about him, must also raise our voices to demand that his life and freedom be respected when he returns to this country.”
Nhat Hanh eventually found himself banned from both North and South Vietnam and moved to a community in southern France that would later become Plum Village, Europe’s largest Buddhist monastery. Though he would be much sought after as a speaker and teacher around the world in the decades since, he would not return to his home country until 2005 (most of his books were smuggled in during the intervening years). He became well-known around the globe for his teachings on mindfulness and is considered a major influence in bringing the tenets of Buddhism to the West. Among his published works are over 100 books in English. Over the years he also led Buddhist spiritual retreats for politicians, economists and even Silicon Valley techies, including a daylong retreat at Google in 2013. Yes, Google.
Nhat Hanh suffered a stroke in 2014 that affected his speech and movement. He finally moved permanently back to Vietnam in 2018, spending the last years of his life at the Tu Hieu Temple where he had been a novice many years before.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize (it was ultimately awarded to no one that year). “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy than this gentle monk from Vietnam,” he wrote to the Nobel Institute. “His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
Both Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton “began as monks committed to a cloistered contemplative life, and both gradually found their vocations—leading them to prophetic social involvement.”
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James T. Keane