“I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam,” said Martin Luther King, Jr speaking of Thich Nhat Hanh, the most influential Zen Buddhist of our time, alongside the Dalai Lama.
“His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity,” King added. (Read the full letter at the bottom of this post.)
It’s not often that we get to rejoice in the company of a widely respected 85-year old true Zen Master, who has dedicated his life working tirelessly to help those affected in the Vietnam War and spread peace throughout a troublesome world.
In fact, everything he does in life, he does with peace at the forefront of his mind. He is a living and breathing manifestation of the core principles of Zen Buddhism, to live with complete awareness of the present moment and the abandon of meddlesome thoughts.
Thay, as he is affectionately known, was born as Nguyễn Xuân Bảo in 1926 in central Vietnam. He was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1942 at the tender age of sixteen and assumed the name of Thich Nhat Hanh. After just eight years, he co-founded the AnQuang Buddhist Institute, which became the main centre of Buddhist studies in South Vietnam.
He went onto study at Princeton University in the U.S. and became a lecturer of comparative religion at Cornell University and Columbia University in 1961. However, this was brought to an end when his fellow monks in Vietnam sent him a telegram urging him to return home and help stop the war waging after the fall of the oppressive Diem regime.
Thay left immediately and helped to lead one of the greatest nonviolent resistance movements to go down in history, based on the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s political leader who brought the country to independence in 1947.
In 1964, Thay grouped with university professors and students in Vietnam and formed the School of Youth for Social Services (SYSS), where young people visited the countryside and created schools, health clinics and rebuilt bombed villages.
In 1966, he created the Order of Interbeing, establishing monastic and practice centres across the world.
By the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, more than 10,000 monks, nuns and young social workers fulfilled the work of the SYSS. During this time, he also helped to set up La Boi Press in Vietnam, which became one of the leading publishing houses in the country.
Following the publication of numerous books and as an editor-in-chief of the official publication of the Unified Buddhist Church, Thay requested the reconciliation between the opposing parties in Vietnam, which led to the censorship of his writings by both governments.
Thay has since published around 85 books of poems, prose and prayers, with more than 40 in English, including the best-selling Call Me by My True Names, Peace Is Every Step, Being Peace, Touching Peace, Living Buddha Living Christ, Teachings on Love, The Path of Emancipation, and Anger.
In 1966, Thay accepted an invitation from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Cornell University to visit the U.S. and “describe to [us] the aspirations and the agony of the voiceless masses of the Vietnamese people” (New Yorker,June 25, 1966).
During multiple speeches, he spoke with such conviction about his wishes for a ceasefire and peacefully negotiated settlement that he inspired Martin Luther King, Jr to nominate him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize. Guided by Thay’s words, King also attended a press conference in Chicago with Thay and spoke out publicly against the war.
Thay visited Europe and encouraged the collaboration between Catholics and Buddhists to help bring peace to Vietnam. In 1969, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam requested that he set up the Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks.
The Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, in order to establish peace in Vietnam and put an end to the Vietnam War. However, Thay was refused permission to return to Vietnam, so he formed a small community a hundred miles southwest of Paris, called ‘Sweet Potato’. His subsequent attempts to rescue boat people in the Gulf of Siam was condemned by the Thai and Singapore governments.
With a heart free from bitterness or feelings of defeat, the docile monk spent the following five years meditating, reading, writing, binding books, gardening and receiving the occasional visitor, all in the sanctuary of the Sweet Potato.
Plum Village Sangha
After a visit to New York in 1982, Thay established a Buddhist community in exile centre in Bordeaux, France, called Plum Village or Plum Village Sangha (community of practice).
The haven of peace is nestled within vineyards, field of wheat, corn and sunflowers. He continues to work here to relieve the suffering of the poor in developing countries and also teaches, writes and looks after the gardens.
Since 1983, Thay has visited North America every year to lead retreats and conduct inspiring speeches on mindful living and social responsibility.
In 2005, after a series of negotiations with the Vietnamese government, Thay was permitted to visit Vietnam and has returned regularly since.
At the heart of Thay’s teachings is to be fully aware of the present moment, from the rise and fall of our breath to taking in the beauty of our surroundings and giving our full attention to every step we take. His principles cross religious and cultural borders, understood and accepted by people from all walks of life and faiths.
“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see,” he says. “The question is whether or not we are in touch with it.”
Thay also teaches the benefits of smiling, or “mouth yoga”. He says that forming a smile can help to relax hundreds of muscles in our body.
He doesn’t educate through mere words and speculation. He brings his whole life’s experiences and understandings into his expressions and even his movements.
Thomas Merton, the renowned American Catholic monk and mystic, described his meeting with Thay to his students:
“Just the way he opens the door and enters a room demonstrates his understanding. He is a true monk”.
– Monica Sarkar
Read the letter written by Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. nominating Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize (via Wake Up London on Facebook):
January 25, 1967
The Nobel Institute
As the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate of 1964, I now have the pleasure of proposing to you the name of Thich Nhat Hanh for that award in 1967.
I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam.
This would be a notably auspicious year for you to bestow your Prize on the Venerable Nhat Hanh. Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.
Because no honor is more respected than the Nobel Peace Prize, conferring the Prize on Nhat Hanh would itself be a most generous act of peace. It would remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction. It would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace. It would help to revive hopes for a new order of justice and harmony.
I know Thich Nhat Hanh, and am privileged to call him my friend. Let me share with you some things I know about him. You will find in this single human being an awesome range of abilities and interests.
He is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity. The author of ten published volumes, he is also a poet of superb clarity and human compassion. His academic discipline is the Philosophy of Religion, of which he is Professor at Van Hanh, the Buddhist University he helped found in Saigon. He directs the Institute for Social Studies at this University. This amazing man also is editor of Thien My, an influential Buddhist weekly publication. And he is Director of Youth for Social Service, a Vietnamese institution which trains young people for the peaceable rehabilitation of their country.
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.
The history of Vietnam is filled with chapters of exploitation by outside powers and corrupted men of wealth, until even now the Vietnamese are harshly ruled, ill-fed, poorly housed, and burdened by all the hardships and terrors of modern warfare.
Thich Nhat Hanh offers a way out of this nightmare, a solution acceptable to rational leaders. He has traveled the world, counseling statesmen, religious leaders, scholars and writers, and enlisting their support. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.
I respectfully recommend to you that you invest his cause with the acknowledged grandeur of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1967. Thich Nhat Hanh would bear this honor with grace and humility.
Martin Luther King, Jr.