As I often do while I wait for programs to compile, I was browsing Wikipedia one day when I came across the page for Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh. I was surprised to see my query for “Thich Nhat Hanh” redirected to “Nhat Hanh,” and when I read further, I was disappointed by the explanation given:
Almost right, but not quite. The Wikipedia article unfaithfully refences the Order of Interbeing, which actually informs us that Thích is a name, not a title:
Thích (釋) is Vietnamese for Sakya, which is the Buddha’s family name. Every monastic member in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition has a name which begins with Thích.
Just in case you missed it: Thích is not a title. Specifically, it is the surname used by East Asian monks, starting with Shih Tao-An (釋道安) — at the very least this is still the case for Mahayana Vietnamese monks. (One might ask: Why not simply fix the Wikipedia page and save the lecture? Check out this excessively long discussion on the topic. I prefer my soap box.)
For the sake of thoroughness, I cite Buddhist Literature: A Proposed Scheme Of Classification And Cataloguing Of Works On Buddhism Modeled On The Buddhist Collection At Van Hanh University* Library, 1964–1999 written by the Venerable Dr. Thích Như Minh, its chief librarian, not to mention also Sanskrit scholar and current abbot of the oldest Vietnamese temple in the United States:
Regarding Buddhist names in Vietnamese tradition; because all monastics take the word “Thich”, a shorten form of “Thich Ca” which means “Sakya”, as their surname to indicate that they of “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.
I think this explanation is straightforward. I won’t deny that the inconsistent use of Thích in English literature (as either a title, first name, last name, omission, etc.) definitely makes Thích seem like much less of a surname than Nguyễn or Trần. But don’t let Western culture deceive you. Now you know the truth, and you can’t say no one ever told you.
But I’m not done! Now what about the name Thầy?**
Many people refer to the Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh as Thầy. Indeed, this is what most Vietnamese speakers use when we speak about him in Vietnamese. It is also the term we use when we talk about or to any monk or male teacher. After all, thầy is simply a title. Thầy means “teacher,” and in Vietnamese it’s also used like a pronoun with reference to teachers. When talking to a monk, thầy means “you,” and when a monk talks to you, then thầy means “me.”
Regardless, thầy has crossed linguistic barriers and has found a home of its own in the English language Buddhist community as Thay — a direct reference to Venerable Thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh. In this case, no matter how much it confuses me, Thay has become his English nickname, as used by hundreds (if not thousands) of English speakers worldwide.
There you have the basic story where a Vietnamese surname has become an English title and how a Vietnamese title has become an English nickname. The Angry Asian Buddhist in me wants to cry out against Western cultural imperialism — but I’d rather simply put the truth out there. You can decide what you want to do with it. (Okay, I see I went overboard with the Angry Asian Buddhist snarkiness!) You should feel fine using whatever term you’ve always been using, but you should also know the origin of these terms.
Nam-mô bổn-sư Thích-ca Mâu-ni Phật!
* Vạn Hạnh University is a Buddhist university founded (among others) by Ven. Thích Nhất Hạnh. It was his childhood friend, Ven. Thích Thiên Ân, who later founded the first Vietnamese temple in the United States.
** Sometimes thầy is written as thày. This alternate form reflects the fact that, in some dialects, the spellings thầy and thày are pronounced the same. I chose to write thày in the title only because the title font didn’t support the ầ character!