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Thich Nhat Hanh’s Engaged Buddhism Dissertation

Dialogue and Interreligious dialogue

Interreligious dialogue is a conversation and exchange of valuable ideas between religions and faiths for the purpose of discussing the subject of love, non-violence, and solutions to problems and ills of the present world. Renown personalities who have advocated this noble work, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, the Pope, and other religious personalities, renounced violence, injustice, and human rights.

However, most of these religious personalities like Nhat Hanh and Merton are apolitical or they don’t indulge or involve themselves in political issues. Nhat Hanh for example, when he was advocating for the end of the war in Vietnam, did not want to take sides, that’s why he was constantly misunderstood by the communist government, making his life in danger.

He was merely advocating for the end of the war by suggesting peaceful means, i.e. talk or dialogue between opposing parties with contrasting ideologies. He suggested that interreligious dialogues could do this, and people in different religions could lead an open communication so that political leaders don’t need to propose war and instead advocate peace.

Moreover, Buddhist monks in Vietnam during the war proposed another alternative to the result of the war, other than what North and South Vietnam wanted, and that was to submit to what the majority of the people really wished for (Queen and King, 1996, p. ix). As we later came to know, no side would give in, and so the war continued.

Interreligious dialogues have been conducted by Buddhist and Christian monks purposely to talk about religion, peace, and love. A historic event on the subject of interreligious dialogue occurred in 1978 when the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue was convened, which started a series of meetings and fruitful discussions between Buddhist and Christian monks.

Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh were both active participants to this kind of dialogue. The duo’s first meeting was in 1966 in the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. This was a memorable event for the two and for their supporters who saw in the meeting the start of further religious dialogues amongst the various religions which have fostered love and non-violence.

Further progress on the subject of interreligious dialogue was promoted by other well-known personalities on non-violence, for example the Dalai Lama, who suggested a convention for various religious orders to be conducted in Gethsemani.

This was participated in by monks and nuns from the Buddhist traditions and from the Benedictine orders of the Catholic religion. Thomas Merton was honored in this interreligious meeting as a memorial when he died in an accident years before.1

Interest in interreligious dialogue has been promoted in major religions throughout the world because of the positive results it has brought about for the cause of peace, considering that war is instigated by various groups or countries with different religious orientations.

In 1962, the Catholic religion through Pope John XXIII proposed more meetings with the different religions. This was enhanced with moves made by the World Council of Churches, a union of different Protestant denominations, in promoting dialogues and cooperation amongst different faiths.

Up to now, interreligious dialogues serve its purpose of promoting peace and non-violence in a world plagued with so many ideologies, different selfish interests, and competition to be master of the world.

The importance of interreligious dialogue to Thich Nhat Hanh

Interreligious dialogue means the sharing of religious beliefs, ideas, concepts and notions among religions. This is very important in Nhat Hanh’s life as a Buddhist because in doing so, it led to his personal transformation. It is through experience that religion becomes meaningful2.

Nhat Hanh learned to appreciate the teachings of Jesus that he now has an image of Jesus beside the images of Buddha in his personal altar. Nhat Hanh learned many lessons and teachings of Christianity but did not compromise his own faith in Buddhism with that of Christianity.

He learned to engage with other faiths and deepened his own faith. With his dialogues with other religions, Nhat Hanh experienced personal transformation instead of the widespread fear of losing one’s religious identity. (King, 2001, p. 7)

Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton deepened their own faiths by studying other religions. They reached out to other faiths, religious communities, and exchanged ideas and religious beliefs with them. Thomas Merton had a one-on-one dialogue with the Dalai Lama, and with this experience he enriched and deepened his spirituality.

The same with Nhat Hanh; he welcomes personalities of diverse faiths to his own seminars or workshops and retreats and share religious ideas with them. If he finds something very important in their religious beliefs and teachings, he advises them to return and review their teachings and learn to rediscover or restudy them in order to have more enlightening experience in their own faiths.

Robert King (2001, p. 23) suggests that interreligious dialogue can lead us to better understand other religions and allow us to cooperate with them in addressing the social problems of the world today. The many social ills and problems of the world like famine, war, human rights issues, and natural calamities can be addressed through sharing and collaboration amongst the different religions.

Through sharing and exchange of religious ideas, we can also confront the iniquities and injustice that our fellow human beings experience, especially those living in developing and impoverished countries. We can also answer and stop the continuous environmental degradation that is going on through a collaborative effort among religions.

Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh continued their journey of spiritual transformation by practicing the so-called engaged spirituality, and it is just noble that we have to emulate their example. Nhat Hanh for one exemplifies the notion that experience is more important than words3; thus experience with fellow religious people and other human beings is of paramount importance.

From the time Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton met at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky up to the latter’s death, they continued their dialogue or exchange of correspondence, friendly notes, made comments in each others’ published books, and became close as brothers, understanding each others’ culture and religion. Promoting dialogue among religions of the world then became one of their objectives in life.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in France is open to all religions and faith. Here he conducts retreats and workshops, teaching and learning people from other faiths, and inspiring them in the life of contemplation and Buddhism. He asks his listeners to return to their faiths and examine first their own teachings and lessons before having an involved interest in Buddhism. (King, 2001, p. 23)

We can also see how Nhat Hanh values dialogue between different faiths. He welcomes everyone’s ideas and does not seem to oppose them, although he makes suggestions. His ideas and philosophies are all about openness to other’s religion and philosophies. His friendship with Thomas Merton became extraordinary in the sense that they agreed in the objective of Christianity and Buddhism which seem to point to one direction.

Nhat Hanh was a war activist and was leading the opposition to the Vietnam War. He and Merton had a dialogue, and along with the other monks, discussed the causes and reality of the war. They agreed that the war was a spiritual crisis and the religious and contemplative sectors should be concerned about it. Nhat Hanh became actively involved in protesting and ending the war; he wanted to prepare his country for peace.

Together with other religions, especially the Catholic, he organized the youth of Vietnam in bringing about peace. He was also instrumental in setting up the Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris. (Kiblinger, 2005, p. 92)

Through the meeting and dialogue, Nhat Hanh and Merton developed a spiritual bond between them. They both defended their stand against the war and their love for peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s use of Christian topics such as ‘love’ and ‘non-violence’

Thich Nhat Hanh preaches happiness and true love: that both should exist and that happiness can only be attained with true love. This is to follow the teachings of Buddhism which has offered meditations on love. True love can heal and change adverse situations into something worthwhile and meaningful.

Thich Nhat Hanh quotes the teachings of Nagarjuana, a Buddhist philosopher, that if we practice the “Immeasurable Mind of Love”, we can erase anger in our hearts. If we practice the “Immeasurable Mind of Compassion”, we can blot out anxieties and sorrows in our hearts.

If we practice the “Immeasurable Mind of Joy”, we can get away from sadness and joylessness in our hearts. Finally, if we practice the “Immeasurable Mind of Equanimity” we can erase hatred, aversion, and attachment in our hearts.4

Engaged Buddhism promotes love for others by helping and by being aware of the ills of the world.5 During the Vietnam War, Nhat Hanh was active in ending it through the principle of non-violence. He, along with Thomas Merton, advocated non-violence and agreed that the Vietnam War was caused by a conflict in spirituality.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who is the originator and the first to coin the term ‘Engaged Buddhism’, preaches the teachings of Buddha, that these should be studied and followed in order to know the real meaning of love.

The Brahmaviharas refers to the four elements of true love, which are love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, and should be constantly practiced if we are to live with the Brahma, the Universal God, in heaven. (Nhat Hanh, 1998, p. 1)

The teachings of Buddha about love are explained wonderfully in the Metta Sutta which is the Discourse on Love. Thich Nanh Hanh explains that we can attain peace in our hearts through the things we do, like being upright or humble, and use words in our speech that express love. We have to live simple lives and learn to be happy by calming our senses, and not to be carried away by the emotions of others.

We should learn how to be peaceful and calm within because by doing so we can influence others how to be peaceful and calm too, instead of them to influence us6. The Buddha not only taught love and lived with love, he also wished others (us) to be happy and safe, and our hearts to be filled with joy.

Buddha wished peace and tranquility for everyone and everything. Peace for all human beings and all living things is Buddha’s blessing and prayer.7

Promotion of non-violence is one of the tenets of Buddhism, wrote Nhat Hanh. This is also taught in the Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism8. We should not do harm to our fellow human beings, even to animals, nor should we think ill towards them. Anger and ill will should not be felt, if possible, so that harm will not be done on others.

Our love of others should be expressed like a mother’s love and protection to her only child, even risking her life for her child. We should have no limit for our love to the world, and this includes the environment and all the living things in the world. Love should be boundless, that means with no boundaries, it should extend up to the remotest corners of the universe.

Love knows no barriers or obstacles, and our hearts can learn no hatred and enmity. Whatever we do, whatever is our activity, whether working, or just sitting down, we should express love in our hearts.9 In other words, if we have to express love, we should do and feel it with the noblest intention. It is pure love, and this can only be felt by someone who has attained the Buddhahood.

The Buddha also taught his disciples the ways and methods in practicing love. If we are filled with love, we have to send it to only one direction, this should be done several times, up to four times, and after one direction it can be sent in other directions, either above or below.

The mind of love has a wide scope, and can grow far and wide until it can embrace the entire universe. This can also be done with other positive traits such compassion, joy and equanimity.10

We can also do this by being alone, meditating, and looking deeply into our own inner beings. This should be practiced over and over so that our love increases and can spread out to other places and people. We should learn to practice seeing with love because by doing so we forget and blot out anger and hatred in our hearts. While there are these negative emotions in us, we cannot feel real love.

The Path of Purification11 tells us that we know our practice of meditation has achieved some form of success in our mind if we feel:

  • we are relaxed in our sleep,
  • we do not experience nightmares anymore,
  • we are at peace and at ease with the world when we are awake,
  • we don’t experience depression anymore, and
  • we feel we can love and be loved by everybody. (Nhat Hanh, 1998, p. 17)

Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas and reflections on non-violence is widely accepted and admired throughout the world, and he has been acclaimed as one of the best sources on the topic of peace and reconciliation. We should be concerned and engaged to the suffering of the people, especially those who are caught in the middle of war.

We have to attend to the victims of war and violence because by doing so we follow and practice the teachings of Buddha. Suffering is a part of being a Buddhist. Suffering can be felt in heaven and on earth. We suffer when we know and feel compassion to the victims of suffering.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that we should not avoid suffering, instead we have to know and understand it. He describes suffering as being the Noble Truth. Nhat Hanh explains how violence should be met and solved by way of non-violence. Terrorism cannot be met and solved with anger.

You have to understand the causes of terrorism. You cannot solve violence with violence. Terrorists are angry at something, at some causes, and in order to calm them down, you have to understand what causes them to be angry.12

The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is caused by anger met with anger. Nhat Hanh explains that the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, were angry at the American people. But then, the United States met anger with anger. They retaliated by attacking Iraq and Afghanistan. You cannot solve terrorism with violence. This is just like solving terrorism with terrorism.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘mindfulness’ and ‘interbeing’, and the Tzu Chi Foundation

‘Mindfulness’ and ‘interbeing’ seem to be obscure words in the vocabulary of a non-Buddhist but to a real Engaged Buddhist, these are words he/she has to encounter, understand and live with in order to reach the state of a fulfilled Buddhist.

That may not be far from what a Buddhist aspires for. An Engaged Buddhist can always aspire to being alone in meditation, but he has to care for the world, to be aware of the suffering and the injustice people are experiencing.

The Order of Interbeing is a religious order in Buddhist tradition composed of religious persons like priests and nuns, and also laymen and laywomen, whose vow or mission as religious people include studying, practicing, and observing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing. This discipline or way of life promotes the tenets of Buddhist morality and the religion’s social awareness principles.

The Vietnam War, which according to Thich Nhat Hanh is a war of ideologies13, was only starting and the Vietnamese people were concerned of their safety and future in the midst of chaos. During the war, no one seemed to think about religion but the members of the Order of Interbeing experienced calm and serenity in the midst of war and violence. However, they were not lost from the happenings of the world.

They continued to help the victims of violence, organized rallies, wrote and published articles and books against the realities of war. They still observed their Day of Mindfulness at each weekend.14 We should care for the victims of war and violence by easing their pain and suffering. A Buddhist who does this becomes one with suffering.

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, the discipline for the Order of Interbeing is the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings which is itself the precepts in the Brahmajala Sutra. These are concerns of our lives and not mere ideas, i.e. we have to act and not just be concerned with words15. The trainings are interrelated or interconnected.

The mindfulness training leads us to the understanding of the interbeing, which means we cannot be selfish and look only for our own selves but we have to connect ourselves with others. We have to be aware of ourselves, of our minds, and of the world around us. Through this discipline and training, we can lead happy lives, aware of the world, seeking and providing solutions to the problems of everybody or of the world.

We are also able to work for peace in our own simple ways without engaging in war. Practicing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings is a way of becoming a community leader and an organizer in the community. This is a way of involving one’s self, one’s energy and time, for the concerns of the community. This is real Engaged Buddhism (Nhat Hanh, 2008, p. 161).

The Tzu Chi Foundation is a great example of Engaged Buddhism, and the people who founded and served in the Tzu Chi Foundation must be observing and practicing the Order of Interbeing. The name that is synonymous with Tzu Chi is its founder Chen Yen.

Tzu Chi Foundation founder Cheng Yen is a venerable nun who was asked by about thirty women not to leave Taiwan. She consented to the request of the women only if they commit themselves to the cause of the mission she and her followers were advocating and have dedicated their lives. It was a mission of charity for the distress people of the community – Cheng Yen asked them to be involved in Engaged Buddhism.

The thirty women consented and committed themselves, and thus started the Tzu Chi Foundation which has now grown so large. It has now over five million members worldwide, owning hospitals, television station, a university with a medical school, with millions of followers all ready to help anyone in need. (Huang, 2009, p. 1)

Cheng Yen came from a poor family. She left home at a young age of 24 to become a nun. She personally shaved her head, started serious meditation and studied the Lotus Sutra. Solitary meditation without the formalities of ordination was her way of following the tenets of the Taiwanese Buddhism. (O’Neill, 2010, p. 9)

A certain monk, named the Venerable Yinshun, decided to be Cheng Yen’s tonsure master for her to be formally ordained in 1963. It was Yinshun who first advocated the Humanistic Buddhism, or what was formally named ‘Buddhism of the Human Realm’. Cheng Yen thought of an organization to help alleviate the plight of the poor by helping them in their medical needs, education, and guide them to rise from poverty.

Cheng Yen was challenged by some Catholic nuns, in one of their interreligious dialogues, that Buddhism was not concerned of the world around us and was only concerned of their own selves. Cheng Yen was not only challenged, she did far beyond the call of a Buddhist nun.

Cheng Yen thought of organizing the Buddhists who had remained in their homes or monasteries and were not in touch to the world. Tzu Chi therefore is a form of engaged Buddhism because it involves the Buddhists in social and charitable work, disaster relief, and environmental concerns. (Balfore et al. 2000)

From this experience, Cheng Yen felt a self-transformation, suggesting that Tzu Chi is a religious transformation by itself. Moreover, Tzu Chi is a part of Taiwan’s history, and has become a new religion combining many religious traditions of Taiwan that include Japanese and Chinese Buddhism and even Catholicism. (Huang, 2009, p. 215)

Tzu Chi Foundation has become a global organization helping humanity lift up from sickness, suffering, and poverty. It does not only help Taiwanese or Chinese but anyone who is in dire need of medical attention, and other needs such as food. It also helps people during natural calamities, like earthquakes such as the magnitude 9.0 in Indonesia, resulting in deaths of 80,000 men, women and children.16

Without the philosophy behind Humanistic Buddhism, which is related to Engaged Buddhism or Applied Buddhism, Tzu Chi Foundation would not have been formed.


Balfore F. et al. (2000). Cheng Yen. Businessweek, 07/24/2000, Issue 3691, p72-72, 1p, 1. ISSN: 0007-7135.

Huang, C. J. (2009). Charisma and compassion: Cheng Yen and the Buddhist Tzu Chi movement. United States of America: President and Fellows of Harvard College. pp.1-2, 215.

Kiblinger, K. B. (2005). Buddhist inclusivism: attitudes towards religious others. United States of America: Ashgate Publishing Company, p. 91.

King, R. H. (2001). Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh: engaged spirituality in an age of globalization. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

King, S. B. (n.d.). Socially engaged Buddhism: dimensions of Asian spirituality. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kotler, A. ed. (1991). Peace is every step: the path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York: Bantam Books, p. 42.

Li, J. (2005). In the wake of tragedy: Tzu Chi Foundation brings the circle of giving to international relief efforts. Harvard Asia Pacific Review. Cambridge: Summer 2005. Vol. 8, Iss. 1; pg. 23, 1 pg.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1975). The miracle of mindfulness: a manual on meditation. Revised edition. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 42.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1995). Living Buddha, living Christ. New York: Riverhead Books. p. 140.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1997). Editor’s introduction. In F. Eppsteiner (Ed.), Interbeing: fourteen guidelines for engaged Buddhism (p. VIII). California: Parallax Press.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1998). Teachings on love. United States of America: Unified Buddhist Church Inc., pp. 11-12.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). Going home: Jesus and Buddha as brothers. New York: Riverhead Books. p. 64.

Nhat Hanh, T. and D. Berrigan (2000). The Raft is not the shore: conversations toward a Buddhist/Christian Awareness. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 112.

Nhat Hanh, T. (2002). The Fourteen precepts of Engaged Buddhism. California: Parallax Press. Social Policy, 2002.

Nhat Hanh, Thich (2003). Spiritual reflections on war and peace: A talk by Thich Nhat Hanh – Peace Forum, March 19, 2003, p. 8.

Nhat Hanh, T. (2008). Happiness: essential mindfulness practices. London: Accessible Publishing Systems PTY, Ltd. p. 161.

Nhat Hanh, T. (2008). A History of Engaged Buddhism, A Dharma talk. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociologyof Self Knowledge, VI, 3, Summer 2008, 29-36.

O’Neill, M. (2010). Tzu Chi: serving with compassion. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons Pte. Ltd. p. 9.

Polinska, W. (2007). Christian-Buddhist dialogue on loving the enemy. Buddhist-Christian Studies 27. University of Hawaii Press.

Queen, C. S. and S. B. King (1996). Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist liberation movements in Asia. United States of America: State University of New York Press. p. ix.


1 See also Arnold Kotler, ed. (1991). Peace is every step: the path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York: Bantam Books, p. 42.

2 Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, living Christ. New York: Riverhead Books, p. 34.

3 See The Raft is not the shore: Conversations toward a Buddhist/Christian Awareness, by Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan, 2000, p. 112.

4 These teachings were taken from Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra, which is a commentary on the Buddha’s teachings, written by a great master. Hanh, Thich Nhat (1998). Teachings on Love. United States of America: Unified Buddhist Church, Inc. 1998. p. 1.

5 See also Christian-Buddhist dialogue on Loving the enemy, by W. Polinska, 2007, p. 89.

6 Thich Nhat Hanh, (1975), The miracle of mindfulness: a manual on meditation. Revised edition. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 42.

7 Thich Nhat Hanh (1998). Teachings on love. United States of America: Unified Buddhist Church Inc. 11-12.

8 See also The Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism, by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, 2002, p. 39.

9 Discourse on love (Metta Sutta). Thich Nhat Hanh, p. 11.

10 Thich Nhat Hanh quoting Madyana Agama, Sutra86.

11 Bhikkhu Nanamoli, trans., The Path of Purification: Visuddhi Magga, The Classic Manual of Buddhist Doctrine & Meditation, as cited in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Teachings on love, p. 16.

12 Thich Nhat Hanh, Spiritual reflections on war and peace: A talk by Thich Nhat Hanh – Peace Forum, March 19, 2003, 8.

13 See History of Engaged Buddhism, A Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hahn, Hanoi, Vietnam, May 6-7, 2008. p. 30.

14 Editor’s Introduction, F. Eppsteiner, in Thich Nhat, Hahn, Interbeing: fourteen guidelines for engaged Buddhism (p. VIII). California: Parallax Press.

15 See also Thich Nhat Hanh, Going home: Jesus and Buddha as brothers. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999, p. 64.

16 See the article, In the wake of tragedy: Tzu Chi Foundation brings the circle of giving to international relief efforts, by Judith Li, Harvard Asia Pacific Review.

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