A Buddhist Poet in Vietnam


The essay and poems that follow are by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the Director of the School for Social Studies in Saigon and one of the most popular poets in Vietnam. The poems were translated by Nhat Hanh himself and the essay was written by him when he arrived in New York in the middle of May to lecture on the Vietnam crisis and on the work of the School of Youth for Social Service he describes below.

Nhat Hanh was born in 1926 in Dalat and became a novice at sixteen. He was a student of literature and philosophy at Saigon University and of the philosophy of religion at Princeton in 1961. He lectured on Buddhism at Columbia in 1963 and then returned to Saigon to play a leading role in the Buddhist political and social movement. He is Editor of the principal Buddhist weekly paper and the author of ten books, including Oriental Logic, Actualized Buddhism, and Engaged Buddhism. He also contributed a letter, “In Search of the Enemy of Man,” addressed to Martin Luther King, to the symposium Dialogue, which reflects the attempt of young Buddhists to formulate a synthesis of Buddhism and existentialism appropriate to the problems of Vietnam.

The few poems published here are not typical of my own poetry or of Vietnamese poetry generally. The tradition of poetry in Vietnam is very old and complex. It draws on early Chinese poetry, on the French Romantic and symbolist poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and, in my own case, on Zen Buddhist writers. Much of my poetry could be called “philosophical” and friends have found it in some ways similar to the work of Tagore: at least, it is extremely difficult to translate it into English.

But the poems published here are different. They are popular poems in free verse and when I write them I feel I am trying to speak very simply for the majority of Vietnamese who are peasants and cannot speak for themselves; they do not know or care much about words like communism or democracy but want above all for the war to end so they may survive and not be maimed or killed. I wrote the poems first for myself; when I read them over I can regain once more the state of intense feeling in which I composed them. But they have now been read and heard by many Vietnamese; and they have been denounced by both sides fighting in the war. A few days after they were published last year government police came to seize them from the bookstores, but by then they had all been sold. They were attacked by the Hanoi radio and by the radio of the National Liberation Front. They have since been read in public along with the peace poems of other Buddhists and they have been sung with guitar accompaniment at student meetings, much as songs of protest are sung in the United States.


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