One of the best known and most respected Zen masters in the world today, poet, peace and human rights activist, Thầy (teacher) has led an extraordinary life. Born in central Vietnam in 1926, He was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1942 at the age of sixteen. Just eight years later, He co-founded what was to become the foremost center of Buddhist studies in South Vietnam, the Ấn Quang Buddhist Institute.
In 1961, Thầy came to the United States to study and teach comparative religion at Columbia and Princeton Universities. But in 1963, his monastic-colleagues in Vietnam invited him to come home to join them in their work to stop the US-Vietnam war. After returning to Vietnam, He helped lead one of the great nonviolent resistance movements of the century, based entirely on Gandhian principles.
In 1964, along with a group of university professors and students in Vietnam, Thầy founded the School of Youth for Social Service, called by the American press the "little Peace Corps", in which teams of young people went into the countryside to establish schools and health clinics, and later to rebuild villages that had been bombed. By the time of the fall of Saigon, there were more than 10,000 monks, nuns, and young social workers involved in the work. In the same year, Thầy helped set up what was to become one of the most prestigious publishing houses in Vietnam, the Lá Bối Press. In his books and as editor-in-chief of the official publication of the Unified Buddhist Church, He called for reconciliation between the warring parties in Vietnam, and because of that his writings were censored by both opposing governments.
In 1966, at the urging of his fellow monastics, He accepted an invitation from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Cornell University to come to the U.S. "to describe to [us] the aspirations and the agony of the voiceless masses of the Vietnamese people" (New Yorker, June 25, 1966). He had a densely packed schedule of speaking engagements and private meetings, and spoke convincingly in favor of a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. The reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so moved by Thầy and his proposals for peace that he nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize, saying, "I know of no one more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle monk from Vietnam." Largely due to Thầy’s influence, Dr. King came out publicly against the war in Vietnam at a press conference, with Thầy, in Chicago.
When Thomas Merton, the well-known Catholic monk and mystic, met Thầy at his monastery, Gethsemani, near Louisville , Kentucky , he told his students, "Just the way he opens the door and enters a room demonstrates his understanding. He is a true monk." Merton went on to write an essay, "Nhat Hanh Is My Brother," an impassioned plea to listen to Thầy’s proposals for peace and lend full support for Thầy’s advocacy of peace.
After important meetings with Senators Fullbright and Kennedy, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and others in Washington, Thầy went to Europe, where He met with a number of heads of state and officials of the Catholic church, including two audiences with Pope Paul VI, urging cooperation between Catholics and Buddhists to help bring peace to Vietnam.
In 1969, at the request of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Thầy set up the Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks. After the Peace Accords were signed in 1973, He was refused permission to return to Vietnam, and hence, He established a small community of practice a hundred miles southwest of Paris , called Sweet Potato. In 1976-77, Thầy conducted an operation to rescue boat people in the Gulf of Siam, but hostility from the governments of Thailand and Singapore made it impossible to continue. So for the following five years, He stayed at Sweet Potato in retreat - meditating, reading, writing, binding books, gardening, and occasionally receiving visitors.
In 1982, Thầy established Plum Village, a larger, thriving retreat center near Bordeaux, France, where He has been living in exile from his native Vietnam. Since 1983, He has traveled to North America to lead retreats and give lectures on mindful living and social responsibility, "making peace right in the moment we are alive." He has offered retreats for Vietnam veterans, mental health and social workers, prison inmates, ecologists, businessmen, police officers, and members of Congress. In 1997, Thầy founded the Green Mountain Dharma Center and Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont. In 2000, He founded Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California. He has ordained over four hundred monks and nuns from different parts of the world. In addition, hundreds of lay practice communities practicing in the tradition of Thầy meet regularly throughout the United States and around the world.
Since his days in Vietnam, Thầy has been a leading proponent of "engaged Buddhism," a way of life and a spiritual practice that works actively in the world to relieve suffering. He continues his work to alleviate the suffering of refugees, boat people, political prisoners, and hungry families in Vietnam and other Third World countries. He has been instrumental in initiating the declaration, by the General Assembly of the United Nations, dedicating 2001-2010 as the "International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World" (ResolutionA/RES/53/2519/111998). He collaborated with the Nobel Peace Laureates in drafting the "Manifesto 2000," with six points on the Practice of Peace and Non-violence distributed by UNESCO. In December 2000, Thầy was invited to give a lecture at the White House World Summit Conference on HIV and AIDS. He has also been invited to speak at The Gorbachev World Forum and the World Economic Summit in Davos , Switzerland.
Thầy has received recognition for his prolific writings on meditation, mindfulness, and peace. He has published over 100 titles of accessible poems, prose, and prayers, with more than 40 of those works in English. His best-known books include Peace is Every Step , Being Peace , Touching Peace , Call Me by My True Names , Living Buddha - Living Christ , Teachings on Love , Anger, The Art of Power, and The Miracles of Mindfulness.
In 2005, after 39 years in exile, Thầy was finally invited to come back to Vietnam on a teaching tour with an international sangha of 200 people. In 2007, He and the sangha came back to Vietnam to organize and to lead three Grand Requiem Masses in the three main regions of the country offering compassionate and healing energy to millions of people who died in the war and to those who are still living. In the spring 2008, Thầy led an English speaking retreat for 400 people from many different countries in Hanoi and later on gave a keynote speech at the International Vesak (Buddha’s birthday) Celebration organized by UNESCO. Two centers with hundreds of monastics practicing in the Plum Village tradition sprung up since Thầy’s first visit to Vietnam: the root temple, Tu Hieu in Hue and Prajna Temple in Bao Loc. Thầy founded Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, NY in 2007 and The European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany in 2008.
Now eighty three years old, Thầy emerges as one of the great teachers of our time. In the midst of our society's emphasis on speed, efficiency, and material success, Thầy’s ability to walk calmly with peace and awareness and to teach us to do the same has led to his enthusiastic reception in the West. Although his mode of expression is simple, his message reveals the quintessence of the deep understanding of reality that comes from his meditations, his Buddhist training, and his work in the world.