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Influential Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, dies at age 95

Thich Nhat Hanh, remembered as the Vietnamese monk who pioneered and popularized mindfulness meditation practices in the West died on January 22, 2022 at a Buddhist temple of Từ Hiếu Pagoda located in Hue, Vietnam where he first entered the Buddhist monastic life at the young age of 16 and returned in 2019 to wait for his death. He was 95.

He was forced into exile in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. He spent the last half-century in France but traversed the world, offering retreats and mindfulness meditation workshops, and advocating for nonviolence as a way of life.

Thich Nhat Hanh, also known as “Thây” to his disciples, is regarded as the second most well-known Buddhist teacher in the modern world, behind the Dalai Lama. (Thích is an honorific for Sakya, the Buddha’s family name in Vietnamese.)

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote over 100 publications in English, ranging from meditation, mindfulness, and Engaged Buddhism guides to poetry, children’s stories, and commentaries on ancient Buddhist religious scriptures introducing the West to new Eastern meditation practices.

The Miracle of Mindfulness; Living Buddha, Living Christ; Being Peace; and Peace Is Every Breath are among his best-selling books. In a May 2013 interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, Winfrey admitted to keeping a copy of Living Buddha, Living Christ by her bedside.

Mindfulness according to Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness taught that bringing the attention back to the body and connecting with the present moment provides energy. It necessitates being mindful of your breathing and paying attention to what is going on around you. Awareness is heightened and healing occurs as a result of this focussing and slowing down of one’s state of mind.

Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, two most influential Buddhist teachers in the contemporary world.
Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, two most influential Buddhist teachers in the contemporary world.

He encouraged practitioners to practice mindfulness throughout the day, even when doing the most mundane duties such as brushing one’s teeth, cleaning dishes, walking, eating, speaking, or listening. Mindful eating may include chewing each bite of food for a minute or more while thinking on the source of the meal and the significance of the act.

Thich Nhat Hanh noted that holiness is present when one returns to one’s breath and breathes attentively, because mindfulness is the essence of holiness. Because the Holy Spirit is present at the same time, one can reach God at that instant.

Thich Nhat Hanh as a young monk

Thich Nhat Hanh, who was born in 1926, became interested in Buddhism at a young age. He once stated that he became interested in Buddhism when he was 7 or 8 years old after seeing a portrait of Buddha. He felt called to become a monk after that and entered the Từ Hiếu temple in Hue in 1942.

He got actively involved in a movement that aims to renew Vietnamese Buddhism as a young monk in the 1950s.  He attended a secular university in Saigon. He rode a bicycle, being one of the first monks to do so.

Thich Nhat Hanh came to the United States in 1961. He attended Princeton University where he studied comparative religions before becoming a lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University.

Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of Engaged Buddhism

A few years later, Thich Nhat Hanh’s reformed Buddhist practice was dubbed “engaged Buddhism,” a phrase he invented in his 1967 best-selling book, “Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire.”

Engaged Buddhism adheres to 14 principles, including speaking truthfully and constructively; not exploiting the Buddhist community for personal interest, profit or gain; living with a vocation that does not harm humans or nature; and living in accordance with the ideals of compassion, life protection, and war prevention.

When the South Vietnamese government of Ngô Đình Diệm began to suppress Buddhist uprisings in Central Vietnam in 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh became embroiled with the Saigon government. Thich Nhat Hanh and his pupils were among the demonstrators who signed a declaration calling for national unity in late 1966. “It is time for North and South Vietnam to find a way to stop the war and help all Vietnamese people live peacefully and with mutual respect,” said the statement.

The Saigon government condemned Thich Nhat Hanh and labelled him a communist sympathizer.

That stain would haunt him for the rest of his life, particularly among Vietnamese anti-communists in both Vietnam and the United States.

Activism and friendship: Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King Jr, and Thomas Merton

As anti-war activity in the United States expanded and word of Thich Nhat Hanh’s peace actions travelled outside Vietnam, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an umbrella organization of groups advocating for nonviolence founded in the mid-1930s, asked him to visit the United States in 1966.

That journey would be momentous since it was during that time that Thich Nhat Hanh first met fellow social activists Martin Luther King Jr and Trappist monk Fr Thomas Merton. In their aspirations of peace and nonviolence, the three men became friends. Those experiences, albeit brief, had a great impact on his life.

Martin Luther King Jr with Thich Nhat Hanh in May 1966
Martin Luther King Jr with Thich Nhat Hanh in May 1966

King, a 1964 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was impressed by Thich Nhat Hanh and sent a peace prize nomination letter to the Nobel committee for Thich Nhat Hanh on January 25, 1967.

“I do not know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam,” he wrote. “…[He] offers a way out of this nightmare, a solution acceptable to rational leaders. … His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a momentum to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”

In May 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh met King in Chicago and urged him to extend his appeal for nonviolence and racial justice to Vietnam’s villages. Following the encounter, King openly declared his opposition to the Vietnam War for the first time, with Thich Nhat Hanh by his side,

In an address the next year on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, King courageously declared his protest against the Vietnam War, stressing Buddhist resistance to American involvement.

In 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh visited Kentucky, where he met Merton in the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville. The two monks immediately formed a deep friendship. Merton informed his pupils after the visit, “Just the way he opens the door and enters a room demonstrates his understanding. He is a true monk.”

Interreligious dialogue was still a relatively new concept at the time, making Merton’s words all the more noteworthy.

Merton wrote, shocking some Catholics at the time, “I have far more in common with Nhất Hạnh than I have with many Americans, and I do not hesitate to say it. It is vitally important that such bonds be admitted. They are the bonds of a new solidarity … which is beginning to be evident on all five continents and which cuts across all political, religious and cultural lines to unite young men and women in every country in something that is more concrete than an ideal and more alive than a program.”

After leaving the United States, Thich Nhat Hanh travelled to Europe, where he met with Pope Paul VI, who advocated increased collaboration between Catholics and Buddhists to work together for world peace, beginning with the conclusion of the Vietnam War.

This was too much for Saigon which saw pacifism as complicity with the communists. It kept him from returning.

As Thich Nhat Hanh started a new life in exile in France, he concentrated on his writings, which began to circulate. In 1975, a long letter he wrote to a Vietnamese monk on mindfulness practice was published under the title The Miracle of Mindfulness.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam

Thich Nhat Hanh, whose impact spanned the globe, was eventually granted permission to return to his own nation for a visit by the Vietnamese communist government in Hanoi in 2005. He was permitted to lecture temporarily there as well as traverse the nation with monks and associates from his temple in Hue.

Thich Nhat Hanh returned to Vietnam a second time in 2007, and a third time in 2008. The Unified Buddhist Church labeled Thich Nhat Hanh’s trips as a betrayal, demonstrating his readiness to collaborate with the oppressors of his coreligionists. His supporters justified the travel, claiming that it was intended to promote Buddhism and heal scars from the Vietnam War.

Thich Nhat Hanh with his disciples
Thich Nhat Hanh with some of his disciples during his retirement in Vietnam

Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a serious stroke at a hospital in Bordeaux, France, a month after his 88th birthday, and after several months of rapidly worsening health. He lost his ability to talk and became mostly paralyzed on the right side. He was airlifted to the University of California San Francisco Hospital for treatment and recuperation before being taken back to France.

He left France for the last time in November 2019, landing in Thailand before travelling back to Hue to wait for his last days.

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