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date: 28 June 2022

Thích Nhất Hạnh in the Context of the Modern Development of Vietnamese Buddhismlocked

Thích Nhất Hạnh in the Context of the Modern Development of Vietnamese Buddhismlocked

  • Alexander SoucyAlexander SoucyReligious Studies, St. Mary's University

Summary

Thích Nhất Hạnh is one of the most internationally recognized Buddhist leaders and has a large and devoted following. Despite this, there is a lack of critical scholarship on his life. The biographical sketches of Thích Nhất Hạnh are hagiographical in nature, portraying him as a peace activist, as an engaged Buddhist, and as a Zen master, and disassociating him from the continued development and transnationalization of Vietnamese Buddhism throughout the 20th century. Understanding the early influences in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s life, before he was exiled to the West in 1967, is critical to contextualizing his later framing as an engaged Buddhist leader and Zen master.

As a novice, Thích Nhất Hạnh attended a school in Hue that had been set up by Buddhist reformers. When he moved to Saigon as a young monk, he became involved in writing and publishing. During the 1950s his writing reflected the discourses that were central to the Buddhist reform movement in Vietnam, which had been heavily influenced by the reforms that had started earlier in China. The main foci in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s writings at this time included making Buddhism more relevant to contemporary society and unifying Buddhists in Vietnam. He also wrote essays on Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist literature in the history of Vietnamese Buddhism. Many of the central themes of his writings, and of the main journals that he edited, reflected the views of the Chinese Buddhist reformer Taixu on humanistic Buddhism, which had been translated and popularized in Vietnam in the 1930s.

Thích Nhất Hạnh was recognized by international peace activists after founding the School of Youth for Social Services, which provided relief to victims of the war and poverty in the 1960s. He became increasingly active as an opponent to the war, advocating for American withdrawal from Vietnam so that the North and South could find a way to bring peace without American involvement. This work cemented him in Buddhist literature as the main proponent of an “engaged Buddhist” movement. However, while he became internationally famous for his efforts, they should be seen in light of his embeddedness in discourses of Buddhist reform that were mobilizing many monks and lay Buddhists to make Buddhism more active in the contemporaneous issues of Vietnamese society.

Similarly, Thích Nhất Hạnh is also popularly described as a “Zen master,” and while there is good reason to give him this appellation, it should be understood within the context of modernist Buddhist discourses. Part of the construction of Thích Nhất Hạnh as a Zen master has been achieved by placing him in a Zen lineage. However, this idea of a Zen lineage in Vietnam is incongruous with the way Buddhism was practiced there. While Zen has had a presence in Vietnam for centuries, it was primarily as an elite aesthetic curiosity. There were no sizeable Zen communities or Zen monasteries in Vietnam as there were in Korea or Japan. Thích Nhất Hạnh’s interest in Zen is more reasonably attributable to an emerging fascination with Zen in southern Vietnam in the 1960s, when D. T. Suzuki’s works were translated to Vietnamese and young Buddhists became attracted by the legitimizing role that it could have for a reconstructed Vietnamese Buddhism. Thích Nhất Hạnh was taken up by this wave of popularization in Zen, but he did not start to be constructed as a Zen monk or master until after he was exiled from Vietnam and needed to establish himself in the West at a time when Zen had become interesting to young Westerners.

Subjects

  • Buddhism

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