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Lotus in a Sea of Fire: The Life of Thich Nhất Hanh
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Lotus in a Sea of Fire: The Life of Thich Nhất Hanh
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Lotus in a Sea of Fire: The Life of Thich Nhất Hanh
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Articles
8 November 2022

Lotus in a Sea of Fire: The Life of Thich Nhất Hanh

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhất Hanh’s wisdom was forged in the furnace of violence. He dedicated his life to teaching mindfulness and transforming suffering into happiness.

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

By Gillian Coote
Illustration by Vaughan Mossop

When Oprah Winfrey invited a frail, gently-spoken Vietnamese monk onto her highly-rated television program, describing him as a legendary author and peace activist, she asked about his teaching of deep listening. Thich Nhất Hanh – referred to as Thầy – teacher – by his students, was 85 years old and had given his life to teaching mindfulness and transforming suffering into happiness. His wisdom was forged in the furnace of violence. Here was a living Buddha, beloved all over the world.

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #71 of Dumbo Feather

Thầy said, deep listening can help relieve the suffering of the other person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help the other person to empty their heart. And if you remember you are helping them to suffer less, and if they are saying things full of wrong perceptions and bitterness, you know listening like that will give them a chance to suffer less. An hour like that can bring transformation and healing. It is our wrong perceptions concerning ourselves and others that are the foundation for conflict, war and violence. To listen deeply, you must be 100 per cent present. Listening with all your attention, you release the past and the future, and focus entirely on the other person. We have this ability, but we seldom use it. We are usually lost in the past or the future and listening with just half an ear.

Thich Nhất Hanh was born in l926 in the ancient capital of Huế, in central Vietnam. When he was nine, a peaceful image of the Buddha on a magazine cover left a lasting impression of peace and tranquility, in stark contrast to the injustice and suffering he saw all around him. Vietnam at the time was still under French colonial rule and so, in l942 when he was 16, he began training at the Tu Hieu Temple. Thầy witnessed at close hand the Japanese occupation and Great Famine of 1945. Stepping out of the temple, he saw bodies out in the streets of those who had died of hunger, and witnessed trucks carrying away dozens of corpses. When the French returned to reclaim Vietnam in 1945, the violence only increased. Although many young monks were tempted by the Marxist pamphlets’ call to arms, Thầy was convinced that Buddhism, if updated and restored to its core teachings and practices, could truly help relieve suffering in society and offer a nonviolent path to peace, prosperity, and independence from colonising powers.

In 1949 there was war between the French and the Vietnamese resistance movement. Then, in 1954, the Geneva Accords were signed and the country was divided into two parts: the communist North and the anti-communist South. Over one million people migrated from north to south, among them many Catholics.

Thầy was asked to write articles for the daily newspaper, Democracy, and show the strength of Vietnam’s own Buddhist heritage, proving that Buddhism was not irrelevant or obsolete. So, in the pressure and turmoil of the divided country, Thầy’s vision crystallised in a series of 10 articles with the title A Fresh Look at Buddhism. The articles proposed the idea of Engaged Buddhism — Buddhism in the realm of democracy, freedom, education, human rights and religion. During this time, he was studying French and Vietnamese Literature at the University of Saigon.

As his recognition and standing grew, Thầy was appointed editor-inchief of Vietnamese Buddhism, the official magazine of the new National Buddhist Association. But in 1958, after two years of publication, its funding was discontinued. Thầy felt that it wasn’t only about a lack of funds, but also resistance in the Buddhist hierarchy to his bold articles. He felt he had failed in his effort to renew and unify Vietnamese Buddhism. With this setback, while grieving his mother’s death and enduring the painful division of his country, Thầy struggled to keep his hope alive. He fell sick and was hospitalised for almost a month. His body was weak, he suffered from chronic insomnia, doctors were unable to help, and his spirits sunk lower than ever. Faced with sorrow and disappointment, it was by cultivating mindfulness and engaged action that Thầy found a way forward. He later described this period as a time of deep depression, but he had the intuition that if he could master his full awareness of breathing and walking, he would be able to truly heal.

I wish to use my body as a torch to dissipate the darkness, to waken love among men and to bring peace to Viet Nam.

The challenges of the 1950s forged the deepening of Thầy’s personal practice and gave him the spiritual strength he needed to find a way forward. He later wrote, “With mindfulness, the feelings that have been painful and difficult transform into something beautiful: the wondrous, healing balm of understanding and compassion. Where there is suffering, there is happiness.”

In 1961 Thầy travelled to the US on a Fulbright Scholarship to study Comparative Religion at Princeton University, then at Colombia in 1963– 64. Meanwhile, the Catholic Diem regime’s suppression of Buddhists was escalating dramatically. Venerable Thich Quang Duc self-immolated in 1963, drawing the world’s attention to the violation of human rights in Vietnam. Thousands of Buddhist monks were arrested and hundreds more “disappeared.” Thầy submitted documents concerning their persecution to the UN and began to fast. In l964, he returned to Vietnam and founded the Van Hanh Buddhist University, La Boi publishing house, and an influential peace activist magazine, as well as establishing the Order of Interbeing, based on the Bodhisattva Precepts. He founded the Engaged Buddhism movement, the term first appearing in his book Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, which has been long out of print but is soon to be republished.

By l966, when America had 384,300 troops deployed in the Vietnam War, Thầy and his student Chan Khong established the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), a grassroots relief organisation of 10,000 volunteers who reached out to shattered communities no matter which side they were on. That year, he began to travel throughout the world, calling for peace. While in the United States, Thầy received word of tragedies in Vietnam. The SYSS campus was attacked with grenades; a student social worker and visiting professor were killed, and 16 others were injured. Thầy was in Paris in May that same year when he received the devastating news that his student Nhat Chi Mai, one of the first six disciples to ordain in the newly-established Order of Interbeing, had self-immolated, leaving this poem near her body:

These tragedies marked Thầy and led him to dig ever deeper to discover the roots of hatred and violence, which he found lay in wrong perceptions. He said, “We must use the sword of understanding to put an end to all views we have about each other, all these notions and labels. Views can lead us to fanaticism. They can destroy human beings. They can destroy love. Man is not the enemy. Our enemy is hatred, anger, ignorance and fear.”

It was during this visit that he first met Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in l967. The next day, in Washington D.C., Thầy presented a five-point peace plan for ending the war and, on that same day, was denounced as a traitor and denied the right to return to Vietnam by both North and South Vietnam. His exile was to last nearly 40 years.

“We must use the sword of understanding to put an end to all views we have about each other, all these notions and labels. Views can lead us to fanaticism. They can destroy human beings. They can destroy love.”

Thầy continued his peace work at the Paris Peace Talks (l968–73), where he officially represented Vietnam’s Buddhist Peace Delegation. Together with volunteers and friends, they rented a small apartment in a poor Arab neighbourhood in Paris and began to sponsor thousands of children orphaned by the violence. He taught Buddhism at the Sorbonne École Pratique des Hautes Études and also helped convene Europe’s first conference on the environment in Menton, France, with other leading intellectuals and scientists. Their actions began with the Menton Statement: “A Message to our 3.5 billion neighbours on Planet Earth.” Deep ecology, interbeing and the importance of protecting Earth continued to evolve as powerful themes in Thầy’s teaching, ethics and writing.

In l982, Thầy and Chan Khong founded The Plum Village Monastery in the Dordogne, in southern France. There are now 10 Plum Village Practice Centres around the world, two of them in Australia.

In the mid-1980s, I met Thầy and Chan Khong at Robert Aitken’s sangha in Honolulu, where they led a five-day mindfulness retreat. The following year, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in NSW extended an invitation for Thầy and Chan Khong to visit Australia, and I documented this in The Awakening Bell. In l988, my partner and I filmed Thầy’s pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in India, based on his book Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footprints of the Buddha. Thầy gave Dharma talks at many places that the Buddha had visited.

Throughout our pilgrimage, whenever a small bell of mindfulness was ‘invited’ randomly, we each stopped whatever we were doing, breathed, and said, silently, “Listen, listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.” To honour Thầy’s teaching – profoundly simple, gentle and compassionate – we vowed to rest more, to pause, to breathe and to smile. To recognise when we were overdosing on social media. In Kushinagar, when some people were desperate to go shopping in the local market, Thầy asked, “Why be in such a hurry? We’re all heading for the same destination!”

In 2005, aged 80, he was asked, “Do you plan to retire as a spiritual teacher at any point?” He replied, “In Buddhism we see that teaching is done not only by talking, but also by living your own life. Your life is the teaching, is the message. I see myself in my continuation, and I will not retire. I’ll continue to teach, if not by Dharma talks, then in my way of sitting, eating, smiling, and interacting with the sangha. You don’t need to talk in order to teach. You need to live your life mindfully and deeply.”

On 11 November 2014, a month after his 89th birthday, Thay suffered a severe brain haemorrhage, which left him unable to speak or walk. In late 2018, he returned to live his remaining days at Tu Hieu Temple in Huế, bringing his life full circle. He died aged 94 in January this year.

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