Thich Nhat Hanh: Biography of the Father of Mindfulness

Founder of the Plum Village Tradition, key player behind engaged Buddhism and receiver of the title ‘father of mindfulness’, Thich Nhat Hanh. Let’s get an insight into his life and work through this biography.

Life Story of Thich Nhat Hahn

He was born Nguyen Xuan Bao, on October 11, 1926, and grew up to be a monk, peace activist, poet, author and teacher. This Vietnamese Thien Buddhist monk left a deep impact on Buddhist practices in the West.

At a tender age of 7 or 8, he is said to have experienced happiness on seeing an image of a peaceful Buddha. Once, when on a school trip, he happened to visit a mountain, where he discovered a natural well, drank water from it and felt satisfied. It was this incident that sparked his interest in being a Buddhist monk. Before entering teenage, he said he would like to get trained to be a monk, and after his parents allowed him, which was almost 4 years later, he embarked on his spiritual journey.

He started learning at a monastery at the Tu Hieu Temple from the Zen master Thanh Quy Chan That. He studied for 3 years and was trained in Vietnamese traditions of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, and also learned English, French and Chinese. He entered the Bao Quoc Academy, but not liking it much, he left it in 1950. He then started staying at An Quang Pagoda in Saigon, and there he was ordained as a monk in 1951. During that time, he also pursued science studies at the Saigaon University.

Thich Nhat Hahn Biography (2)

From 1955, he started working as the editor of Vietnamese Buddhism (Phật Giáo Việt Nam), the official publication of the General Association of Vietnamese Buddhists. He served for 2 years after which the monks of higher order expressed disapproval for his writing. According to him, the reason for the disapproval was that he propounded the idea of uniting various Buddhist organizations of South Vietnam. He took up teaching at Da Lat. During that time, he was disowned from the temple. In 1957, he founded a monastic community of resistance and also continued writing, teaching and promoting the idea of uniting Buddhist organizations. In the time between 1959 and 1961, he conducted short courses on Buddhism at different Saigaon temples, but faced major criticism from religious authorities, who did not approve of his teachings.

In 1960, Nhat Hahn started studying comparative religion at the Princeton University. He served as a lecturer at Cornell University and Columbia University. By that time, he knew multiple languages which included Pali, Sanskrit, English, and French apart from Vietnamese.

In 1963, he returned to South Vietnam, and helped in restructuring the administration of Vietnamese Buddhism. The General Association of Buddhists and other groups came together to form the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. Nhat Hahn said that the executive should appeal to stop the Vietnam War, help form an institute for the study of Buddhism, and establish a centre to train social workers based on Buddhist teachings.

In March 1964, Nhat Hanh and monks at An Quang Pagoda established the Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies with the help of UBCV. It was called Van Hanh University and it trained students in Buddhist studies, Vietnamese culture and languages. Nhat Hahn was the teacher of prajnaparamita literature and Buddhist psychology. In the same year, he co-founded the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), which worked towards establishing schools and clinics in rural areas. It grew to have 10,000 volunteers and social workers. In a short while, Nhat Hanh entrusted Sister Chan Khong with the responsibilities of SYSS and left for the USA.

In the span between 1964 and 1966, Nhat Hanh created the Order of Interbeing, a monastic and lay group. It grew into an international community of common people and monastics who worked towards mindfulness practice, ethical behavior and compassion. By 2017, this group had thousands of members.

In 1964, a poem he wrote changed American Press’ point of view about him. Thereon, he was not called pro-communist propagandist but rather named an anti-war poet.  On May 1, 1966, Zen Master Chan That gave Nhat Hanh a lamp transmission declaring him as a dharmacharya and the spiritual head of Tu Hieu and related monasteries. He came to the US and led a symposium on Vietnamese Buddhism at Cornell University. He appealed to the US government to help Vietnamese people form a government, to stop the strikes, to be defensive in anti-communist operations, to be ready to withdraw, and to pay for reconstruction. He wrote Vietnam – The Lotus in the Sea of Fire about this appeal, for which he received heavy criticism and was accused of treason and communism.

Thich Nhat Hahn Biography

In 1966, he was the chairperson of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation. In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, and called him an apostle of peace and non-violence. In 1969, Nhat Hanh founded the Unified Buddhist Church in France. He continued writing about and teaching mindfulness. In 1975, he established the Sweet Potatoes Meditation Centre in Paris and in the next few years, authored some books. Here is the popular list:

The Miracle Of Mindfulness
The Stone Boy
The Buddha: The Story of an Awakened Life
Thundering Silence: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake
Friends on the Path: Building and Sustaining Spiritual Communities

In 1982, Nhat Hanh and Chan Khong founded the Plum Village Monastery in Southern France. Today, it is the largest Buddhist monastery in Europe with more than 200 monastics and over 10,000 visitors each year. In the next 20 years, he built several monasteries and retreat centers across the globe. He has authored over 130 books encompassing spirituality, Buddhism, mindfulness, Zen practice, as well as collections of poetry and essays. They have amassed huge popularity and have been translated into multiple languages.

Nhat Hanh taught mindfulness of breathing and the four foundations of mindfulness, and combined teachings of Buddhist schools, Mahayana, Zen and Western philosophy, thus giving a new perspective to meditation. He led the Engaged Buddhism Movement which focused on the idea of every individual having the power to create change. He developed the English term Interbeing. It is widely said that he used simple phrases and easy-to-understand analogies to teach deep or difficult concepts. He composed 50 verses on the nature of consciousness. He is credited with introducing mindfulness and Buddhism to the West.

In November 2014, Nhat Hanh had a severe brain hemorrhage and was admitted to a hospital. Despite the effort to speed his recovery and restore his health, he was never able to communicate verbally after the hemorrhage. He wished to spend his final days at the Tu Hieu Temple and started staying there from November 2018. He died on January 22, 2022, aged 95, at his residence in Tu Hieu Temple. He was cremated on January 29 and his ashes were scattered in Tu Hieu Temple and other temples related to the Plum village.

Nhat Hanh is the proud receiver of the 1991 Courage of Conscience Award, the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award of 2015, and nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize of 1967. He has received an honorary doctorate from the Education University of Hong Kong. He has appeared in films and documentaries and despite some controversies he faced, he remained immensely popular and highly influential as a spiritual master, writer and monk.

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