On June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk called Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in a Saigon street in protest against the repressive, U.S.-backed regime in South Vietnam. Pictures of the monk in serene meditation as flames devoured his body became the first of the images of the long Vietnam War to trouble the world's conscience. Over the next few years more than 30 other monks gave up their lives in similar protests against a senseless and brutal war.
So great and prolonged was the suffering in Indochina in those years that the Buddhist attempt to alleviate it may seem a distant memory. But Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and teacher whose philosophy of "engaged Buddhism" inspired these efforts, is still with us. One of the most important religious thinkers and activists of our time, Nhat Hanh understood, from his own experience, why popular secular ideologies and movements nationalism, fascism, communism and colonialism unleashed the unprecedented violence of the 20th century. His education began early. Few battlefields were as bloody as Vietnam, where France and then the U.S. fought nationalists and communists for more than three decades. Though part of a quietist tradition, Nhat Hanh couldn't help being drawn into the conflicts around him. He could see how urgent it was to assert the buddhistic importance of compassion in a culture growing increasingly violent. War, he believed, could be ended only by extinguishing the emotions fear, anger, contempt, vengefulness that fueled it.
In 1965, after yet another Buddhist self-immolation, Nhat Hanh wrote to the American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. that "the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors, but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination, which lie within the heart of man." Nhat Hanh led King, and, by extension, American public sentiment, to oppose the fighting in Vietnam. During the late 1960s, while living in the U.S. in exile, Nhat Hanh became one of the icons of the antiwar movement. His essays were published in such leading periodicals as the New York Review of Books, and his poems were sung, like songs of protest, to guitar accompaniment at college campuses. It's no exaggeration to say that Nhat Hanh helped force Washington's eventual withdrawal from Vietnam.
Nhat Hanh, now 80 years old and living in a monastery in France, has played an important role in the transmission of an Asian spiritual tradition to the modern, largely secular West. "Do not," he has written, "be bound to any doctrine, theory or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means, not absolute truth." As political leaders from the U.S. to Iran loudly ask their people to join new ideological battles, threatening to make this century even more violent than the last, we would all do well to heed the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh.