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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Thich Nhat Hanh, Influential Zen Buddhist Monk, Dies at Age 95

HANOI, Vietnam—Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Zen Buddhist monk who helped pioneer the concept of mindfulness in the West and socially engaged Buddhism in the East, has died. He was 95.

A post on the monk’s verified Twitter page attributed to the International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism said that Thich Nhat Hanh, known as Thay to his followers, died at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam.

“We invite our beloved global spiritual family to take a few moments to be still, to come back to our mindful breathing, as we together hold Thay in our hearts,” a follow-up post read.

Born as Nguyen Xuan Bao in 1926 and ordained at age 16, Thich Nhat Hanh distilled Buddhist teachings on compassion and suffering into easily grasped guidance over a lifetime dedicated to working for peace. In 1961 he went to the U.S. to study, teaching comparative religion for a time at Princeton and Columbia universities.

Thich Nhat Hanh during a trip to Australia in 1966.


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For most of the remainder of his life, he lived in exile at Plum Village, a retreat center he founded in southern France.

There and in talks and retreats around the world, he introduced Zen Buddhism, at its essence, as peace through compassionate listening. Still and steadfast in his brown robes, he exuded an air of watchful, amused calm, sometimes sharing a stage with the Tibetan Buddhist leader Dalai Lama.

“The peace we seek cannot be our personal possession. We need to find an inner peace which makes it possible for us to become one with those who suffer, and to do something to help our brothers and sisters, which is to say, ourselves,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in one of his dozens of books, “The Sun My Heart.”

Surviving a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to speak, he returned to Vietnam in October 2018, spending his final years at the Tu Hieu Pagoda, the monastery where he was ordained nearly 80 years earlier.

Thich Nhat Hanh, center, at a ceremony marking the first day of Lunar New Year in Hue, Vietnam, in 2020.


Linh Pham/Getty Images

Thich Nhat Hanh plunged into antiwar activism after his return to his homeland in 1964 as the Vietnam War was escalating. There, he founded the Order of Inter-being, which espouses “engaged Buddhism” dedicated to nonviolence, mindfulness and social service.

In 1966, he met the U.S. civil-rights leader

Martin Luther King Jr.

in what was a remarkable encounter for both. Thich Nhat Hanh told Dr. King he was a “Bodhisattva,” or enlightened being, for his efforts to promote social justice.

The monk’s efforts to promote reconciliation between the U.S.-backed South and communist North Vietnam so impressed Dr. King that a year later he nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai academic who embraced Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of socially engaged Buddhism, said the Zen master had “suffered more than most monks and had been involved more for social justice.”

Thich Nhat Hanh visiting the Thien Mu Pagoda in Vietnam in 2005.


Dang Ngo/Zuma Press

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, “Buddhism means to be awake—mindful of what is happening in one’s body, feelings, mind and in the world. If you are awake, you cannot do otherwise than act compassionately to help relieve suffering you see around you. So Buddhism must be engaged in the world. If it is not engaged, it is not Buddhism.”

Both North and South Vietnam barred him from returning home after he went abroad in 1966 to campaign against the war, leaving him, he said, “like a bee without a beehive.”

He was only allowed back into the country in 2005, when the communist-ruled government welcomed him back in the first of several visits. He remained based in southern France.

Over nearly eight decades, his teachings were refined into concepts accessible to all.

To weather the storms of life and realize happiness, he counseled always a mindful “return to the breath,” even while doing routine chores such as sweeping and washing dishes.

“I try to live every moment like that, relaxed, dwelling peacefully in the present moment and respond to events with compassion,” he told talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

Thich Nhat Hanh led thousands of supporters during peace walks in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles in 2007.


Ringo Chiu/Zuma Press

He moved to Thailand in late 2016 and then returned to Vietnam in late 2018, where he was receiving traditional medicine treatments for the aftereffects of his stroke and enjoyed “strolls” around the temple grounds in his wheelchair, according to the Buddhist online newsletter LionsRoar.com.

It was a quiet, simple end to an extraordinary life, one entirely in keeping with his love for taking joy from the humblest aspects of life. “No mud, no lotus,” says one of his many brief sayings.

Copyright 2022 the Associated Press

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