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Reflections: Thich Nhat Hanh at Princeton Seminary

Jan 27, 2022

Biographical Sketch of Thich Nhat Hanh at Princeton Theological Seminary

Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the world’s most influential Zen masters, passed away on January 21, 2022, at the age of 95. Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, was born in Dalat, Vietnam on October 11, 1926. His life’s work as a peace advocate, teacher, poet, and activist took him all over the globe, including a brief but influential stay at Princeton Theological Seminary. Beginning in 1961, Nhat Hanh was a visiting student at Princeton Seminary. He applied for acceptance into the Seminary in 1961 and was accepted as a non-degree-seeking student (also referred to as a “Special Student”) for the 1961-1962 academic year. During that time, he was sponsored and supported by the Institute of International Education (IIE), which provided him with a scholarship that covered tuition, fees, and room & board. This funding was rather modest, as noted in a June 1962 letter from Princeton Seminary Dean Elmer G. Homrighausen, but was supplemented by generous donations and gifts from within the Princeton Seminary community. While at Princeton Seminary, Thich Nhat Hanh (known then as Nguyen Xuan Bao) resided in the dormitories in Brown Hall, attending classes with his fellow seminarians. During his year at the Seminary, Nhat Hanh took five courses—two in the Fall semester and three in the Spring semester. According to the official transcript, his main areas of study were world religions and religious history. A copy of this transcript is located in his alumni file in the Seminary Archives.

According to the official appointment for study that Nhat Hanh received from the IIE in 1961, he was granted permission to be in the United States for one academic year. This limitation was part of the reason that he was not accepted as a degree-seeking student: one year was not enough to earn a degree from the Seminary at the time. All programs at Princeton Seminary were a minimum of two years of schooling (the exception to this being in an area of study requiring prerequisites that Nhat Hanh did not have). This being the case, Nhat Hanh was accepted as a “Special Student” at the graduate level, with funding as noted above but with no expectation of a degree upon completion of his one year of study. During the 1961-1962 academic year, numerous attempts were made by Princeton Seminary faculty and administrators (including President John McCord) to help place Nhat Hanh into a long-term academic program at another institution. These included Princeton University, Yale Divinity, and Harvard Divinity, among others. Eventually, Nhat Hanh was accepted at Union Theological Seminary for the 1962-1963 academic year, where he would be able to pursue coursework both at Union and at Columbia University.

While Thich Nhat Hanh’s stay at Princeton Seminary was relatively short, he is still considered an alumnus of the Seminary and a record of his work here was added to the alumni file collection in the Seminary Archives. This file also records some of the great work of Nhat Hanh’s life, highlighting his role as an international peace activist. According to later publications, Nhat Hanh looked back fondly at his time at the Seminary and, in particular, his relationship with his advisor, Prof. Edward Jurji, Professor of Islamics and Comparative Religion. Throughout the years, Thich Nhat Hanh stayed on the radar of faculty and staff of the Seminary and clippings, letters, and other documents related to his work and life were kept as part of his alumni file in the Princeton Theological Seminary Archives.

For more information about the life and work of Thich Nhat Hanh, take note of recently published obituaries in the New York Times and Associated Press.

To learn more about the Princeton Seminary archives, including materials related to Thich Nhat Hanh, please contact the Special Collections and Archives department.

Brian Shetler

Head of Special Collections and Archives

At right: Photo from Nguyen Xuan Bao (Thich Nhat Hanh)’s Princeton Theological Seminary application, March 1961

Below: Read "Reflections on Princeton By a Vietnamese Buddhist" by Nguyen Xuan Bao (Thich Nhat Hanh) published in The Seminarian.

photo from Nguyen Xuan Bao (Thich Nhat Hanh)’s Princeton Theological Seminary application, March 1961