A pro-peace advocate during the Vietnam war(and today as well), Thich Nhat Hanh was a respected member of the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Church, an organization suppressed by the Communist government of Vietnam to this day. Toured the United States during the war to try and gain support for a peace plan. During the war, he sought to create a 'third option', a position that was neither nationalist nor Communist that would serve the needs of the Vietnamese people. As a result, he faced opposition from both the Communists and the U.S. Founded the Order of Interbeing, a concept as much as an organization, symbolizing the dedication to compassion and non-violent beneficial social change. In 1967, while studying comparative religion at Princeton University, he was barred from returning to his home in Vietnam by the government, beginning a period of 38 years of exile. Since 1982 he has lived in the community of Plum Village in Southern France, and continues to write and teach in the U.S. and abroad. In December of 2004, Thich Nhat Hanh at last received permission from the Vietnamese government to visit his homeland. In January 2005, he and more than 200 followers left for a three month tour of Vietnam, during which they will teach and establish meditation centers.
Thich Nhat Hanh is considered to be one of the primary thinkers behind the concept of Engaged Buddhism, the idea that enlightenment can be sought not only through study and formal meditation, but by mindfulness of daily life, extended to all actions. In particular, Engaged Buddhism advocates for a compassionate, Buddhist-based approach to social justice and social engagement- enviornmentalism, human rights, education, and poverty, among others. During the early days of the Vietnam conflict, Nhat Hanh sought to mobilize young members of the Vietnamese Sangha, getting them to look beyond temples and monasteries. Many young people became aide workers because of Thich Nhat Hanh's inspiration, offering medical and humanitaririan assisstance to both sides of the conflict. This again earned the ire of both the U.S backed forces and the Communists, and a number of these volunteers were killed during the war.
A prolific writer, he is the author of numerous books advocating a simple Buddhist practice centered around mindfulness and compassion, though he has also written more complex discussions of Buddhist topics, as well as at least one very good general introduction to Buddhism. His writing is usually pithy, and filled with personal anecdotes and his own poetry. As such, he is consistantly one of the best-read Buddhist writers in the West, as well as ranking near the Dalai Lama as the most well-known Buddhist monk among Westerners. His writing has consciously sought to adress the needs and concerns of Americans interested in Buddhism, and has included comparative studies of the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus (particularly in the books Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Christ and Jesus as Brothers).
Thich Nhat Hanh was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King in the 1960's for his work in Vietnam and the United States. His devotion to non-violence is sincere, and truly impressive in a man who has lost numerous friends and colleagues to war and violence, many of whom gave their lives in their own persuit of non-violent resolutions. He has championed the cause of refugee 'boat people' in the Pacific, who are often victims of piracy, rape, and poor living conditions. He continues to tour the US and Europe, speaking, giving meditation instruction, and on at least one occasion making a large audience of Harvard student and faculty sit quietly for more than an hour. He works through his Order of Interbeing to promote engaged Buddhism throughout the world.
Fun Fact: Thich Nhat Hanh is called Thay by his students- Vietnamese for teacher.
Partial List of Published Books (English-language)
- Being Peace (1987)
- The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (1988)
- Peace is Every Step (1992)
- The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Diamond Sutra
- Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism (1997)
- Living Buddha, Living Christ (1997)
- Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (1998)
- Miracle of Mindfulness (1999)
I believe some of this publication dates are inaccurate- they are based on reissues of paper back editions of works that were previously published. I'll hopefully be able to locate all the correct dates in the future.