Returning to Thich Nhat Hanh

Over on Wikipedia, user YellowMonkey has changed the page Nhat Hanhback to Thich Nhat Hanh. Thank you! Thank you! Cam on!* The whole discussion around “Thich” is one of my major pet peeves. As written by Thich Nhu Minh (former librarian at the university cofounded by TNH):

Regarding Buddhist names in Vietnamese tradition; because all monastics take the word “Thich”, a shortened form of “Thich Ca” which means “Sakya”, as their surname to indicate that they are “sons of Sakyamuni the Buddha”, and belong to the same family clan named “Thich”, we have to honor this practice. That is to accept “Thich” as a surname and record as such in the cataloguing process.

The confusion over Thich Nhat Hanh’s appellations are rooted in his ambiguous identity as a Western/Asian teacher. He uses his name in the West as he would in Vietnam, whereupon unworldly Western Buddhists impose their Eurolinguistic assumptions on a 1600 year old Asian convention… and voilà! Thich is recast from an ancient Buddhist name to a modern Buddhist title. The West has already colonized Vietnam and bombed it halfway to being a tropical parking lot. Please, at least let us have our language. (*Xin loi la van ban nay khong co dau!)

One thought on “Returning to Thich Nhat Hanh

  1. Archivist’s Note: Comments have been preserved from the original website for archival purposes; however, comments are now closed.

    AnonymousOctober 28, 2009 at 6:36 AM

    Steady on!

    (1) You say that “He [TNH] uses his name in the West as he would in Vietnam, whereupon unworldly Western Buddhists impose their Eurolinguistic assumptions on a 1600 year old Asian convention… and voilà!”

    Is that really imposing? I mean, when you go to another country people often make mistakes with your name. It’s hardly an imposition.

    I’ve been living in Thailand for about 5 out of the last 10 years and you should hear how the Thais mangle my name! LOL! But never once would I suggest they are “imposing their Asian-centric assumptions”!

    I simply laugh and ignore it or, if it needs to be right (visa issues etc), calmly and patiently go over it and the way it is spelt and used etc.

    (2) You say “The West has already colonized Vietnam and bombed it halfway to being a tropical parking lot.”

    It’s not a colony now so I’d dispute this use of the present perfect tense. But more than that, I hardly think it fair to somehow conflate a few good people in the west making a mistake with an unfamilar name with the actions of those governments in the past that waged wars in that country!

    Really, I think it’s great that you can patiently explain how the name ought to be used – but to suggest that those who make errors in the usage of the name are somehow the same as a general ordering the dropping of bombs is a bit harsh and counterproductive!

    Wishing you well,


    ArunOctober 28, 2009 at 8:14 AM
    @Marcus: Let me help educate you.

    My point regarding “Thich” is one which is rooted in an understanding of what is a name versus what is a title—a semantic and cultural distinction. The example in (1) of your name being pronounced by Thais is irrelevant to the point of this post, as it regards how individuals approach a language’s sounds—the phonetics and phonology—that have more to do with motor function and articulation than a situation where others insist that your name is not actually a name.

    To your second point (2), the present perfect relates that a past action is relevant to the present, not necessarily entailing that its consequence endures. (I have already been hospitalized several times now, but I’m not typing this comment from my hospital bed.) But perhaps your divergent understanding is rooted in the dialect of your upbringing—in which case, now you know how it’s intended in my Western dialect. The effects of Western colonialism still very much shape and even define modern Vietnamese—both in Vietnam and abroad—thus I very deliberately employed the past perfect to indicate the scars that Vietnamese continue to feel, but which former colonialists, occupiers and their countrymen often seem they would rather ignore.

    So I’m glad you were able to connect the dots as I intended in order that you might understand that for many Southeast Asians, especially those whose families were ripped apart, bombed out of their homelands, interned in squalid refugee camps, then repatriated in foreign locals like the United States, where they were so often taunted and humiliated (and sometimes killed) for just being foreign, then linguistic slights based in a coupling of ignorance and cultural privilege often do feel like salt being rubbed in a wound not yet healed. It’s not how we always feel, certainly not I, but the point of this blog has been precisely to air that perspective which is so often silent in the Western Buddhist community.

    After all, it is a mark of excessive hegemonic privilege for an individual to claim that they should only take responsibility for the intentions behind their actions—or lack thereof—and none of the consequences.

    AnonymousOctober 28, 2009 at 7:14 PM

    I disagree entirely that a western Buddhist making a simple error with an unfamilar name has anything at all to do with “excessive hegemonic privilege”.

    However, I see no point in debating this further, believing it will bring no benefit to anyone if I did, and so would like to simply thank you for your explanation and leave it at that.

    All the best,


    ArunOctober 30, 2009 at 12:46 PM
    @Marcus: I’m really glad when you summarize your opinions like this because it helps me identify the exact failures in communication. (Not for the first time!) This post is about a Wikipedia page named “Thich Nhat Hanh” that was changed to “Nhat Hanh” and then back to “Thich Nhat Hanh.” (Hence the title.) The accompanying discussion supporting the switch to “Nhat Hanh” is longer than the United States Constitution (there’s a link in the post). You may consider this situation to be “a simple error with an unfamilar name.” Considering the years of poorly-informed rhetoric devoted to this single word on a Wikipedia page, it certainly appears to be a deliberate and thoroughly argued imposition of Western cultural norms on a Vietnamese tradition.

    AnonymousNovember 13, 2009 at 4:37 AM
    Hi Arun,

    Yes, I see that you are right. If you’ve pointed out to people how the name is properly used and those same people have ignored that, then you are totally correct in seeing in their stubborn refusal to accept it something more than just an error.

    In that sense I owe you an apology. It it’s not a mere mistake with unfamiliar words but a refusal to call someone by their correct name, then of course your objection is entirely justified and I’m wrong if I’ve suggested otherwise.

    All the very best,


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