This year, Burke librarians and Union Theological Seminary students have begun tracing the trajectory of renowned Buddhist activist and author Thích Nhất Hạnh (born Nguyễn Xuân Bảo) in his years studying at U.S. universities. Our new exhibit, “Thích Nhất Hạnh: Student and Seminarian,” showcases reproductions of original archival documents and invites visitors to consider what it may have been like for a young man traveling from a village in Vietnam to the cityscape of Morningside Heights to study philosophy and the history of religions in the 60s. The journey toward creating this exhibit has been a winding one, and it isn’t over yet…
Our research stemmed from a conversation with several students interested in tracking down Thích Nhất Hạnh’s thesis from his Master of Arts studies at Columbia and Union in 1962-63. (Several students were taking a course on the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar at Columbia with Prof. Anupama Rao — their work included archival training with Thai Jones, at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, whose enthusiasm for archival research is notoriously and delightfully contagious for students.) When our colleague Brandon Harrington pointed out that the thesis would be filed under his given name, Nguyễn Xuân Bảo, staff at the Burke Library were able to locate the thesis and make it available via Academic Commons.
This — as such research tends to do — led to further questions: what was the program like when Thích Nhất Hạnh did a Master of Arts at Columbia and Union? What classes did he take, who were his most influential professors? Where did he live, how did he arrange his international travel? We looked in the UTS Records and found things like his class directory photo from 1962 (shown here). I booked appointments at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library to look at the archival papers of some of his professors, such as Horace L. Friess, who taught philosophy and later wrote a letter recommending Thích Nhất Hạnh for the Nobel Peace Prize (as did Martin Luther King, Jr.) Memoirs like Fragrant Palm Leaves offered glimpses into his life with roommates on 114th Street and some fateful thought-provoking encounters in the Libraries.
We also reached out to archivists at Princeton, where Thích Nhất Hạnh took classes from 1961-62, and located a large file detailing his [long and at times convoluted] efforts to organize his travel and scholarship funding through the Institute of International Education and the World Council of Churches. Our colleague Brian Shetler wrote about this in a helpful post for the Wright Library Blog. (We librarians and archivists love our blogs; truly, they’re a great way to document our research activities over time, and make our findings more widely known…)
As we continued putting together the “puzzle pieces” of his student days, we realized these documents (or, enlarged copies of documents) could constitute a small exhibit at the Burke Library — and that such an exhibit could spark the interest of students and faculty and engage our visitors using library collections.
Indeed, students at Union Theological Seminary remain ever curious. A small group from the Thích Nhất Hạnh Program for Engaged Buddhism (named after him in 2022) expressed a desire to pursue the research further. And so, in Fall 2023, I am delighted to be facilitating a Guided Reading for 3 credits offering UTS students the chance to explore related archival collections and continue fitting these puzzle pieces together. Better yet, the students in the course will have the opportunity to curate an expanded exhibit in the hope of engaging the wider community in reflection and sharing in this memory. We eagerly look forward to seeing what their research will bring – CB