On January 22, 2022, the great Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh passed away in his native Vietnam. Thay, as his students call him, had chosen to live out his final years at his home temple of Tu Hieu, a quiet pagoda surrounded by trees just outside the beautiful ancient capital of Hue, north of Da Nang. By the time he moved back there in 2018 at the age of 92, he had spent well over 50 years living outside his native country, primarily in France, and had earned worldwide fame teaching his gentle doctrine of mindfulness and peace.

Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh

By Jim Forest
Orbis Books, May 2021 156 pp., $20, paper

Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire

By Thich Nhat Hanh, Foreward by Thomas Merton
Parallax Press, August 2022, 192 pp., $17.95, paper

But why did he leave Vietnam in the first place? And how did a young and little-known Zen master from a war-torn corner of Southeast Asia go on to become such a global phenomenon? The book Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh, published last year by the Christian peace activist Jim Forest, and an upcoming reprint of Thay’s own Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire both shed light on how it all happened.

In 1966, America had 384,300 troops deployed in the Vietnam War. Thay had long been active in the Buddhist peace movement in his country, a risky proposition when even “neutrality” could bring dire consequences. He was invited that year to visit the United States to explain his philosophy of “engaged Buddhism” by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, then America’s oldest and largest peace organization. Forest, who worked at the Fellowship, accompanied Thay on much of his US tour, and the two became fast friends. Eyes of Compassion is based on the journals Forest kept on these travels and during his visits with Thay in France over the next several years. Sprinkled with drawings and including several wonderful snapshots of Thay as a young monk, the book is a beautiful time capsule of these critical years in Thay’s life.

Much of the Zen Buddhist tradition taking root in America at that time presented itself as apolitical. The generation of Japanese Zen roshis like Shunryu Suzuki and Taizan Maezumi arriving around this time largely steered clear of US politics, focusing their teaching almost entirely on meditation. Suzuki’s renowned Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, for example, collects some of his talks from the tumultuous 1960s, yet war, peace, and politics are hardly mentioned. Thay didn’t have that luxury. War was an inescapable fact of life in Vietnam. Although he might deny that the two could be separated at all, Thay came to America as an evangelist for peace first, Zen second. That unique combination resonated in the West, particularly within the growing anti-war movement. For millions of young Americans facing the military draft, as well as for their families and friends, the Vietnam War felt inescapable, too. A peace-promoting Zen master was exactly what they needed.

“At the time, I saw him not as a religious teacher but as a peace advocate,” Forest explains in Eyes of Compassion. “It certainly didn’t cross my mind that he would become a widely read author whose books would sell in the millions of copies.” And yet that, of course, is exactly what happened next.

In the early 1970s Thay moved to Paris to chair the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation, a group involved with the Paris Peace Accords, which ultimately ended the Vietnam War. Forest became a regular visitor during those first years in France when Thay lived in “a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris . . . surrounded by Vietnamese refugees plus one or two English-speaking guests.”

Much of Zen Buddhist tradition taking root in America at that time presented itself as apolitical. Thay didn’t have that luxury.

Forest recalled how, after Thay decamped from Paris to rural France, his words were painstakingly printed on a manual press in a farmhouse where “old yogurt jars served as glue pots, with battered toothbrushes sticking out of them that were used for applying glue.” Thay’s groundbreaking work The Miracle of Mindfulness, originally called “The Miracle of Being Awake,” was one of the first books to emerge from that French farmhouse. “Mindfulness” was barely an English word in 1975—which is perhaps why it wasn’t used in the original title—and Thay’s emphasis on everyday practices, on meditation infused into our daily lives and not relegated to a cushion, felt revolutionary. Echoing the 1960s rallying cry that “the personal is political,” Thay insisted that the simple act of living mindfully could bring us closer not only to personal fulfillment—and perhaps even enlightenment—but also to global peace.

Although Forest remained true to his Christian faith, he was nevertheless touched deeply by Thay’s teachings:

If I eat something mindfully, or walk mindfully, or spend a little time breathing mindfully, it is partly because my life has passed through his life. If I find my way into the present moment rather than wander into the ghost world of the past or the dream world of the future, I am partly being helped by Thay’s example. If I breathe away anger and breathe in compassion or find a point of connection with someone I didn’t want to be connected to, it is partly thanks to Thay’s influence.

Shortly after that fateful tour with Forest, but before his now famed The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thay published another slim volume, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. It is not a manual of mindfulness or meditation but a brief history of Vietnam and a proposal for how the conflict there might be brought to an end. In it, Thay also gives an approachable account of the history of Buddhism in Vietnam, perhaps the only tradition in which Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists united—and Zen and Pure Land doctrines were synthesized—under a pan-Buddhist umbrella. Nearly impossible to find today (used copies can go for hundreds of dollars online), Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire will be reissued by Parallax Press in August 2022 for a new generation of readers.

Both Eyes of Compassion and Lotus in a Sea of Fire serve as powerful reminders that Thay was a practitioner and scholar rooted in  Vietnam’s unique Buddhist mélange long before he became a preacher and popularizer in the West. His socially engaged Buddhism, which profoundly shaped the practice of so many Buddhists of all persuasions, flowed naturally from these beginnings. “Actualized Buddhism is not something new,” Thay wrote toward the end of Lotus, “but has its roots deep in the past.” It is “the spirit of openness and tolerance that characterizes Buddhism,” Thay continued, and forms the “guarantee of its ability to adapt.”

thich nhat hanh west
Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh photographed in 1996. | Photo courtesy Jim Forest

Sadly, Thay’s political proposals went unheeded, dashing his hopes for a peaceful conclusion to Vietnam’s long and painful period of conflict. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 brought some semblance of peace to his country but not the freedom and self-determination Thay had hoped his people could achieve. The resulting Communist regime denied his initial requests to return, thus beginning his decades of unintended exile.

Jim Forest’s book ends as the larger story of Thay’s long exile is just beginning. The thriving Buddhist community of Plum Village emerged from the ragtag group of refugees and Western students who had joined Thay in France and is still going strong today. The global sangha that began there is among Thay’s lasting legacies, with monastic practice centers now on several continents and practitioners in countless countries.

By tragic coincidence, Forest passed away this year at the age of 80, just a week before the death of his old friend. In Eyes of Compassion, Forest describes his last visit with Thay in 1984, explaining that “more and more people were coming to learn from Thay and, they hoped, to obtain face-to-face access to him.” Forest decided that it was time to step aside. He writes:

By a fortunate providence, it had been my privilege to travel and live with Thay off and on for sixteen years when he was hardly known. . . . We realized we had had our turn. It was a perfect time to let go and create space for others.

Many readers will count themselves among those “others” who have since been touched by Thay, either directly or through his writings. Thankfully, through Forest’s timely and touching memoir, we can experience a bit of what Thay must have been like before we knew him. We can see that he left this world much as he first left his homeland: as a humble Vietnamese monk, practicing mindfulness and praying for peace.