Thich Nhat Hanh, the noted Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen teacher, philosopher, and peace activist, has written more than a hundred books in his ninety years. His latest, At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life (Parallax Press, 192 pp., $24.95, paper; $16.99, e book), is a memoir that offers an eyewitness account of both the French and American wars in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about events that took place in Saigon, Paris, Washington, D.C , and the North Vietnamese province where he was raised.
In one typical section of the book, he writes about working at the School of Youth for Social Service near Tra Loc in Quang Tri Province, which was built by monks in 1964. Tra Loc, which was just below the DMZ, was bombed out three times and yet the school decided to rebuilt the village a fourth time because, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “if we gave up hope, we would be overcome by despair.”
Time passed slowly during his boyhood years. “When I was four years old, my mother used to bring me a cookie every time she returned from the market,” he writes. “I would go to the front yard and take my time eating it, sometimes taking half an hour or forty-five minutes. A birthday party, a poetry reading, or the anniversary of a family member’s death would last all day.”
Creature comforts were primitive. Hanh was occasionally asked about his simple life as a monk, which included scrubbing bathrooms. He answered: “But in fact we’re lucky to have a toilet to clean. When I was a novice monk in Vietnam, we didn’t have any toilets at all.”
Hanh’s recollections of Vietnamese folklore, such as celebrating the blooming of the cherry tree, may seem unimportant to foreigners, yet Hanh writes, “taking time to create a special moment to drink tea or eat a meal together with joy, beauty, and simplicity can initiate your children into a spiritual life.”
Perhaps sharing these customs during the war years could have brought peace sooner had more troops had an opportunity along the lines of what happened to one twenty-year-old French soldier in 1946. Daniel Marty happened on the temple where Hanh lived. Sharing their family stories led to a strong friendship.
“I gave him the spiritual name Thanh Luong, meaning ‘pure and refreshing peaceful life,’” Hanh writes.
The monk and the soldier spent many days in the temple until Daniel Marty was sent to Algeria. Although they lost contact, Hanh writes “when I last saw him, he was at peace.”