Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Central Vietnam in 1926. He became a Buddhist monk in 1942 at the age of sixteen years. In 1950, he co-founded the Quang Buddhist Institute. In 1961, he studied comparative religions at Columbia University and returned to Vietnam in 1963. At that time the Vietnam War was in its beginning prior to the major escalation of the United States involvement following the Gulf of Tonkin incident as discussed earlier. After returning to Vietnam, Hanh joined in an effort to stop the war campaign following the fall of the Diem Regime. He helped encourage and inspire non-violent resistance based upon Gandhian principles.
In 1964, he founded the School of Youth for Social Service and created the La Boi Press that continues to publish books about Buddhism and mindful living. Hanh used his influential position to call for reconciliation between the warring parties. In 1966, he accepted an invitation to return to the United States; he was asked to participate in the Fellowship of Reconciliation and to come to Cornell University. His advocacy of peace through non-violent means was so moving that Martin Luther King Jr. nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. It was, in large part, due to Hahn's eloquence and commitment to peace that King came out publicly against the war at a press conference where Hanh was present. Thomas Merton, the well known monk and Catholic theologian, was also one of Hanh's admirers.
Hanh went on to meet with influential US senators including J. William Fulbright and Ted Kennedy and the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara in order to argue his case. He also met with Pope Paul IV in an effort to bring Catholics and Buddhists together to work towards peace in Vietnam. In 1969, Hanh agreed to set up a Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace Talks. After the Peace Accords were finally signed in 1973, Hanh was denied re-entry into Vietnam. Undaunted, he established a peace community in Paris called, "Sweet Potato." There he remained for five years involved in meditation, writing, reading, etc. He lived a quiet and solitary life there accepting visitors only occasionally.
He went on to establish Plum Village a retreat center near the town of Bordeaux, France. He has made repeated pilgrimages to North America to give lectures on behalf of peace. In the words of the Dalai Lama written in the forward of Hanh's book entitled, Peace is Every Step – The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, "Although attempting to bring about peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way. Wherever I go, I express this, and I am encouraged that people from many different walks of life receive it well. Peace must first be developed with the individual. And I believe that love, compassion, and altruism are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within the individual, he or she is then able to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual to his family, from the family to the community and eventually to the whole world." The Dalai Lama stated that Hanh offers guidance for such a journey. This journey towards peaceful inner transformation represents, in my judgment, the core of Hanh's beliefs.
According to Hanh, peace is always present, is always possible to the individual. It is achievable through self awareness attained by a thoughtful practice of mindfulness in our daily lives. He advises being aware of every moment; of understanding our own personal emotions and feelings. For example, according to Hanh, "Anger is rooted in our lack of understanding of ourselves and of the causes, deep-seated as well as immediate, that brought about the unpleasant state of affairs. Anger is also rooted in desire, pride agitation and suspicion." In essence the source of anger lies within the self rather than in the external object, person or event that is the focus of such an extreme emotion.
Hanh comes from a strong Buddhist tradition. Much of Buddhist practice is centered on being aware of the present moment. His way of teaching, therefore, focuses upon techniques to enhance that awareness. He strongly advocates conscious breathing and mindfulness of every aspect of human activity. An integral part of his psychology is the concept of what he refers to as, "internal formation." According to his thinking, sensory input may leave "fetters," or "knots" depending upon the individual's particular receptivity. These knots can be impediments to successful living, if they are not understood. Hanh believes that self awareness would make one immediately aware of knots as they are being formed.
Hanh sees the reality of the state of human affairs in the following way: "If the Earth were your body, you would be able to feel the many areas where it is suffering. War, political and economic oppression, famine and pollution wreak havoc in so many places. Every day, children are becoming blind from malnutrition, their hands search hopelessly through mounds of trash for a few ounces of food. Adults are dying slowly in prisons for trying to oppose violence. Rivers are dying, and the air is becoming and more difficult to breath.
"Many people are aware of the world's suffering; their hearts are filled with compassion. They know what needs to be done, and they engage in political, social, and environmental work to try to change things. But after a period of intense involvement, they may become discouraged if they lack the strength needed to sustain a life of action. Real strength is not in power, money, or weapons, but in deep, inner peace."
This is a central concept in Hanh's world view. Practicing mindfulness is, to him, the way to cultivate inner peace. Hanh proposes that mindfulness is, "the energy of attention." It is, "the miracle that allows us to be fully alive in each moment." In terms of his philosophy, mindfulness represents the foundation for living in the world. In a broader context, mindfulness is defined as one of the five spiritual powers; the others being faith, diligence, concentration and insight.
Experiencing the Vietnam War helped awaken him to the reality that the very roots of war emanate from within – from the way we live our daily lives. Accordingly, the way a society is organized socially, culturally and economically predisposes it to the use of violence to resolve conflict. Resolving conflict nonviolently requires insights into the suffering endured by both sides. To practice nonviolence is to become nonviolent. It is only then that when confronted by a difficult situation, individuals, communities or nations will react nonviolently.
Thich Nhat Hanh has become a very influential voice in regards to peace. He is not an activist, per se, but functions more like a wise and compassionate mentor, helping individuals understand their own internal motivations and providing them with the tools to achieve greater self awareness. Hanh is convinced that this awareness, once achieved, will necessarily lead to peace from within and ultimately a more peaceful world. He has made significant contributions to human affairs especially in regard to forging a better and more peaceful world.