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A denounced ‘red’ Zen Master dies a quiet hero for the world

GREAT ZEN MASTER Thich Nhat Hanh has just passed away at the age of 95. The news media is summing him up as “the father of mindfulness”, a spiritual exercise widely adopted in the secular world. But in Asia, and to those of us with long memories, he was much more than that.

Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick Nyat Han) was a writer and poet who was denounced as a communist agent for daring to speak forbidden truths from the 1960s onwards. Over the decades, the poet-peace activist became a hero to many people of different beliefs around the world, including the present writer. He was much loved in Hong Kong, where educators gave him not one but two honorary degrees.

Here’s his story.

In the 1960s, a monk became frustrated that the war in his homeland was presented as a battle between Western Heroes, seen as noble good guys, and “the Communists”, portrayed as cartoonishly evil villains. (Yes, nothing has changed.)

He knew that the real story in Vietnam was very different. He summed it up in a poem in 1964. Here’s an extract:

He was immediately denounced as a pro-communist agent receiving money to push his views, but he bore the abuse patiently, gently trying to get people to see things in a more nuanced way. He was also denounced by the communists, for not taking their side in a direct way.


In 1966, he wrote an essay trying to persuade the world not to beatify one side and demonize the other, arguing that the reality was far more complicated than people thought. “American military operations have killed and wounded more innocent peasants than Vietcong,” he wrote.

The issue was that the majority population were agricultural workers, peasants, who were not hostile to left-leaning groups nor over-political. In contrast, the people who actively opposed the communists were the rich, who wanted Westerners to help them hold on to their possessions.

“The peasants are not violently antagonistic to the Vietcong: The strong anti-Communists are mostly people in the cities who fear loss of their property, cars, businesses, and homes, and rely on the foreign army to protect them,” the monk wrote.


The other issue was that the self-proclaimed foreign “rescuers” of Vietnam made no effort to understand the locals, and their addiction to militaristic solutions to every problem made the people recoil.  

“The American soldiers, moreover, are not well educated and do not understand the Vietnamese: Every G.I. will make a small mistake that offends a Vietnamese every day, even when he is not drunk or in search of women—at least 300,000 mistakes a day. And the continual roaring overhead of planes on their way to drop bombs makes people sick and mad.”

Considering that he wrote that in 1966, 45 years ago, it’s astonishing how little has changed. Even today, tensions in many places are reduced to a narrative of Westernized Good Guys versus the Communist menace, and few people scratch below the surface to find nuance and complexity.

Nhat Hanh would have been horrified at the front page of yesterday’s The Australian newspaper, in which a writer sponsored by the world’s biggest arms manufacturers announced that it was time to prepare for war against the communists, although no serious geopolitical analyst sees any likelihood of Australia being immediately invaded by anyone.

Even when he lived for a period in the US, the monk was frustrated by the constant build up of fighting forces. Nhat Hanh once wrote: “To prepare for war… is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear.”


Although he was a Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh was close to Christian mystic Thomas Merton, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.

Realizing that the world’s problems stemmed from human insecurity and fear, he set out to remind humanity that we access the world only in the now, the present moment, and that meant that we should appreciate every moment of life–and use those moment to do good, not violence, starting at a personal level.

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world Earth revolves.”

From this came the notion of mindfulness, which has since become popular worldwide. He became a best-selling author, selling millions of copies of books of spiritual thoughts.

But he never lost his earlier message that militaristic shows of strength were the wrong answer to the world’s problems. “We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions,” he said in a speech in Hanoi in 2008. “Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they rely only on the armed forces to remove terrorism.”


He told his readers that we should use our time on Earth to increase the amount of goodness in the world.

“My actions are my only true belongings,” he wrote. “Compassion is a verb.”

Image of Thich Nhat Hanh at the top from Education University of Hong Kong; image of soldier destroying village is a public domain image from a report about the destruction of My Lai village in Vietnam

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