Buddhism Thích Nhất Hạnh
Elise Anne DeVido
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0138


Thích Nhất Hạnh, born Nguyễn Xuàn Báo in 1926 in central Vietnam, is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk in the Lâm Tế (Linji) tradition, a teacher, poet, calligrapher, and prolific author and one of the most important leaders in global Buddhism. He has touched deep chords among people of many different backgrounds, faiths, and experiences because he is able to convey insights into fundamental Buddhist teachings on how to end suffering and find peace. At the same time he transmits concrete practices to help realize these teachings, such as exercises for breathing and mindfulness and walking meditation. He is perhaps best known for his Engaged Buddhist praxis, forged during the “Buddhist Struggle Movement” and the Vietnam War of the 1960s to the 1970s. “Engaged Buddhism” comprises a broad spectrum of nonviolent and compassionate action, from dealing with one’s inner life, to family and other relationships, to volunteer service and social activism. His teachings on “Interbeing” and “Mindfulness” have inspired people of different ages and backgrounds such as educators, therapists, politicians, environmentalists, and social activists. He is one of the architects of socially engaged Buddhism in “the West,” and his meditation practices have begun to influence Buddhists in Asia. In the last thirty years Thích Nhất Hạnh and his followers have founded new sanghas, monasteries, and retreat centers worldwide. His teachings have a global reach, ranging from youth programs at the “Gross National Happiness Center” in Bhutan to conversations with Oprah Winfrey. To construct an annotated bibliography regarding Thích Nhất Hạnh poses special difficulties. First, the corpus numbers over one hundred books, many of these translated into over thirty languages. Second, some of his books are reissued under different titles, and the better-known poems and chapters are “remixed” and reprinted in separate works authored by him or in collections edited by other authors. Third, at present there is a plethora of studies written by students and other sympathetic authors, and a paucity of academic studies regarding the life and work of Thích Nhất Hạnh. This article focuses on works representative of his many contributions in the following areas: the background and global reach of “Engaged Buddhism;” the development of his Buddhist “Order of Interbeing” and his teachings on “Mindfulness;” his achievements in peacemaking and reconciliation; his efforts to promote interfaith dialogue; his poetry and literary works; and his return visits to Vietnam in 2005 and 2007. Future studies of the man and his legacy will require a critical-analytic approach including the use of Vietnamese-language sources and a wide variety of interviews.

Biographies and Autobiographies

Biographical accounts of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s life repeat a formulaic narrative constructed by Thích Nhật Hạnh and his students that comprises selected aspects of his education in Vietnam and the United States; his peacemaking activities during the Vietnam War; his postwar aid to Vietnamese refugees; the evolution of the theory and praxis of “Engaged Buddhism” and of mindfulness training; and the building of “Communities of Mindful Living” around the world. As yet no comprehensive autobiography or critical biography has been published. Besides the need for critical analysis, clarification about basic details is necessary, starting with his place of birth and family background, for example. Until then, readers can consult the following: Thích Nhất Hạnh 2002 presents ten impressionist sketches from his life as a young monk, showing glimpses of wartime Vietnam under French colonial rule. Thích Nhất Hạnh 1999 contains selections from his journals about his study and peace work in the United States from 1962 to 1964, as well as his many activities in Vietnam from 1964 to 1966. A major theme of the book is his spiritual transformation and maturation of his Engaged Buddhism program. In Chân Không 2007 readers will find an autobiography of an outstanding Vietnamese nun who has helped develop the theory and practice of Engaged Buddhism and details about the life and work of Thích Nhất Hạnh. Đõ̂ 1995 discusses this book in its historical and political context. In his 2001 work comparing the “engaged spiritualities” of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and Thích Nhất Hạnh (King 2001b, cited under Interfaith Dialogue and Comparative Religion), Robert Harlan King includes a clear and well-organized (though standard) biography of Thích Nhất Hạnh. The biographical account of Thích Nhất Hạnh in Cartier, et al. 2002 is familiar, yet readers may find valuable the account of daily life at Plum Village and the discussion of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s teachings.

  • Cartier, Jean-Pierre, Rachel Cartier, and Joseph Rowe. Thich Nhat Hanh: The Joy of Full Consciousness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2002.

    NNNA sympathetic portrait of Thích Nhất Hạnh by two French journalists who spent time at Plum Village in 1999. The book describes aspects of daily life at Plum Village as well as the spirit and dharma teachings of Thích Nhất Hạnh. Originally published by Jean-Pierre Cartier and Rachel Cartier as Thich Nhat Hanh; ou, Le bonheur de la pleine conscience (Paris: La Table Ronde, 2001).

  • Chân Không (Cao Ngọc Phượng). Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam. Rev. ed. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 2007.

    NNNFor over half a century Sister Chân Không (Cao Ngọc Phượng) and Thích Nhất Hạnh have worked together as team in Vietnam and abroad, and her ideas and life work have influenced “Engaged Buddhism” and her central role in developing “The Order of Interbeing” worldwide. Readers will gain insights into the many facets of Chân Không’s life as a pioneering Vietnamese woman and activist.

  • Đõ̂, Thiện. Review of “Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practised Social Change in Vietnam by Chân Không Cao Ngọc Phượng; Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thích Nhất Hạnh by Thích Nhất Hạnh.” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 10.2 (October 1995): 329–334.

    NNNA rich essay about the 1993 edition of Chân Không’s Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practised Social Change in Vietnam that examines the book in the complex war and political context of Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s.

  • Thích Nhất Hạnh. Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals, 1962–1966. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 1999.

    NNNTranslation of Nẻo về cửa ý. This book is divided into two sections: his studies and antiwar activities in the United States from 1962 to 1964 and his efforts for Buddhist reform, war relief, and peace in Vietnam from 1964 to 1966. Palm leaves were a traditional writing medium and inspired the name of an experimental Buddhist community that Thích Nhất Hạnh founded near Saigon where he developed early thoughts on Engaged Buddhism.

  • Thích Nhất Hạnh. My Master’s Robe: Memories of a Novice Monk. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 2002.

    NNNNot an autobiography in the strict sense, but a collection of ten stories based on memories of Thích Nhất Hạnh as a young monk from 1942 to 1947, when he was trained at Từ Hiếu Pagoda and engaged in studies at Baó Quốc Buddhist Institute. He relates the influence of his master Thanh Qúy Chân Thật and his dharma brothers on his personal formation.

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