Once again the world is at war. Just as the images of the ravages in Afghanistan were beginning to fade, our senses are once again overwhelmed with the heart wrenching narratives of the unfolding tragedy of war in Ukraine. As the powers that be are flexing their muscles and showcasing their might, and statesman are spouting rhetoric, people like you and me have had their entire life turned upside down overnight. Behind the smoke and the rubble are thousands of human faces, each with their personal stories of loss and trauma, looking into an abyss of uncertainty.
In all the din and despair, we all need some words of sanity and hope, but there are so few voices now that can bring some reason and solace. Sadly in the last few months the world lost two such voices who saw the senselessness of war and dedicated their life to peace. One was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who passed away in December 2021 and to whom we paid tribute in our piece Looking Ahead With Hope posted on 30 December 2021. The other was Thich Nhat Hanh who passed away in January this year at the age of 95.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was a prolific author, poet, teacher and peace activist. He was born as Nguyen Dinh Lang in Hue in Central Vietnam on October 11, 1926. He joined a Zen monastery as a novice monk at the age of 16. Upon his ordination in 1949, he assumed the Dharma name Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich is an honorary family name used by Vietnamese monks and nuns. Later he was universally best known as Thay which means teacher.
Even as a young bhikshu (monk) in the early 1950s, Thich Nhat Hanh was actively engaged in the movement to renew Vietnamese Buddhism. He was one of the first bhikshus to study a secular subject at university in Saigon, and one of the first six monks to ride a bicycle.
When war came to Vietnam in the mid-1950s, monks and nuns were confronted with the question of whether to adhere to the contemplative life and stay meditating in the monasteries, or to help those around them suffering under the bombings and turmoil of war. Thich Nhat Hanh was one of those who chose to do both. Even as he was getting deeper into the spiritual realm of Buddhist beliefs, he was also actively engaged in the efforts at mitigating the devastating effects of the war on his people and country. In the early 1960s, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth and Social Service, a grassroots relief organization of 10,000 volunteers including young monks. They went into the war affected areas to care for the wounded, to resettle the refugees by setting up new places for these people to live, to build schools and health centres. The youth did not see themselves as just social workers, but as practitioners of the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action.
In 1961 Thich Nhat Hanh travelled to the United States to teach Comparative Religion at Princeton University, and the following year went on to teach and research Buddhism at Columbia University. He returned to Vietnam in 1963 to join the growing Buddhist opposition to the U.S.-Vietnam War, which attracted global attention because of self-immolation by several monks as a gesture of protest. He travelled once more to the U.S. and Europe to make the case for peace and to call for an end to hostilities in Vietnam. Towards the height of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s he met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, whom he persuaded to speak out against the conflict.
In 1964 Thich Nhat Hanh published a poem called Condemnation in a Buddhist weekly. It reads in part:
Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I cannot accept this war.
I never could I never will.
I must say this a thousand times before I am killed.
I am like the bird who dies for the sake of its mate,
dripping blood from its broken beak and crying out:
“Beware! Turn around and face your real enemies
— ambition, violence hatred and greed.”
The poem earned him the label “antiwar poet,” and he was denounced as a pro-Communist propagandist. As his voice began to be heard in America and Europe, and because he refused to support either North or South Vietnam in the conflict, both the communist and non-communist governments banned him from entering the countries, forcing Thich Nhat Hanh to live in exile for over 39 years. As he explained “I did not intend to come and to stay for a long time in the West. In fact, I was invited to deliver a series of talks and took the opportunity to speak about the war, the version that was not heard by people outside of Vietnam because the Buddhists in Vietnam, we represent the majority who do not side themselves with any warring parties. And what we wanted really is not a victory, but the end of the war. So what I told people over here at that time did not please any warring parties in Vietnam. That is why I was not allowed to go home.”
During this period of exile, Thich Nhat Hanh, who spoke seven languages, became a global advocate for peace and spoke and wrote widely against the cycle of war and violence. He also continued to teach, lecture and write on the art of mindfulness and ‘living peace,’ and in the early 1970s was a lecturer and researcher in Buddhism at the University of Sorbonne, Paris. In 1975 he established the Sweet Potato community near Paris, and in 1982, moved to a much larger site in the south west of France, known as Plum Village which grew into the West’s largest and most active Buddhist monastery, with over 200 resident monastics and up to 8,000 visitors every year, who come from around the world to learn “the art of mindful living.”
Thich Nhat Hanh was able return to Vietnam only in 2005, when the Communist government allowed him to teach, practice and travel throughout the country. His anti-war activism continued. In 2014, a month after his 88th birthday he suffered a severe stroke which left him largely paralyzed and unable to speak but he continued to spread his message through his serene presence. Thich Nhat Hanh passed away peacefully at his root temple, Tu Hieu, in Hue, Vietnam, on January 22, 2022 at the age of 95.
If his physical presence was here today, the gentle monk would have been anguished by yet another meaningless war and reminded the world that there is an alternative path of trust, compassion and fellowship. Let us remember his words:
“We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they rely only on the armed forces to remove terrorism.”
And most of all: “Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
With hope for a better tomorrow.