An Introduction to Thich Nhat Hanh

The following introduction to Thich Nhat Hanh was delivered at Peace Walk 2002 in Memphis, Tennessee, by Paul Dekar. At the time Dr. Dekar was serving as Niswonger Professor of Evangelism and Missions at Memphis Theological Seminary.

Thich Nhat Hanh with followersOctober 2nd, 2002, mark[ed] the birth of Mahatma Gandhi in 1869. A century and a half ago, concepts such as mindfulness, non-violence, and soul force were scarcely known outside of Asia.

In North America they are now commonplace, in part because of the legacy, the work of Mahatma Gandhi and those who continue in the path of non-violence, of soul force, of mindfulness.

In 1967, I joined a movement called the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It has chapters around the world. It includes a Buddhist peace fellowship, a Jewish peace fellowship, a Muslim peace fellowship, Baptist, Methodist, and so forth.

As a gift and welcoming me into membership, I received postcards from two members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. These postcards read as follows:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense programs than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

The second postcard that I received in 1967, reads as follows:

The people in the movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write love letters. We need to learn to write to the Congress and to the President of the United States letters that they will not put into the trashcan. We need to write the kind of letter that they will like to receive -- love letters. The way you speak, the kind of language you use, the kind of understanding you express, should not turn people off, because the people you write to are also persons like you and me.
—Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnamese. By his engagement, he is a world citizen. In Saigon in the early 1960s, he founded the School of Youth for Social Service, a grass-roots relief organization that rebuilt bombed villages and set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families and organized agricultural co-ops. Rallying over ten thousand student volunteers, the school based its work on Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action.

Despite the government's denunciation of this activity, Thich Nhat Hanh also founded a Buddhist university, a publishing house, and a peace magazine.

Exiled from his native Vietnam, he traveled to the United States, where he made the case for peace at the highest levels of government and in grassroots activities such as the one you are a part of this morning.

He met Dr. King, and their conversations contributed in no small measure to Dr. King's speaking out against the war in Vietnam. Dr. King, in 1967, nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. King stated,

I do not personally know anybody more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam. I know Thich Nhat Hanh. I am privileged to call him my friend.

After the war, the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and his colleagues on the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris helped war victims, including the boat people, many of whom came to Memphis, the Mid-South, and to other cities in this country in the early '70s.

Uncertain how next to proceed, Thich Nhat Hanh entered a period of retreat, and for five years he remained at a hermitage in France, meditating, writing, gardening, and occasionally receiving visitors. For the last twenty years, his vocation has been more public.

He has lectured and led retreats around the world, encouraging people to live mindfully and compassionately. He has written over a hundred books, many of which are translated into English with titles such as Living Buddha, Living Christ and Being Peace.

In 1983, Thich Nhat Hanh helped form the Community of Mindful Living and the creation of Plum Village and other communities, both in this country and around the world. We are privileged this morning that Thich Nhat Hanh has been accompanied to Memphis by over forty-five members of his communities, from the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, Deer Park Monastery in San Diego, and Plum Village in France.

Today we walk peacefully, happily. We walk as a walk of compassion. We can go in many directions. There are voices calling for war in the world today. Today this gathering mindfully reflects on compassion and peace. Our path is a beautiful path. The miracle is that we are on Earth, walking.

The author of these words is the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. Will you please welcome him to Memphis.

Copyright ©2002 Dr. Paul R. Dekar