HANOI (NYTIMES) – Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was one of the world’s most influential Zen masters, spreading messages of mindfulness, compassion and nonviolence, died on Saturday (Jan 22) at his home in the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam. He was 95.
The death was announced by Plum Village, his organisation of monasteries. He suffered a severe brain haemorrhage in 2014 that left him unable to speak, though he could communicate through gestures.
A prolific author, poet, teacher and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam after opposing the war in the 1960s and became a leading voice in a movement he called “engaged Buddhism”, the application of Buddhist principles to political and social reform.
Travelling widely on speaking tours in the United States and Europe (he was fluent in English and French), Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced tik nyaht hahn) was a major influence on Western practices of Buddhism, urging the embrace of mindfulness, which his website describes as “the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment”.
In his book “Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life”, he wrote, “If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything.”
His following grew as he established dozens of monasteries and practice centres around the world. The original Plum Village, near Bordeaux in southwest France, is the largest of his monasteries and receives visits from thousands of people a year.
In 2018, he returned home to Hue, in central Vietnam, to live out his last days at the Tu Hieu Temple, where he had become a novice as a teenager.
Thich Nhat Hanh dismissed the idea of death. “Birth and death are only notions,” he wrote in his book “No Death, No Fear.” “They are not real.”
He added, “The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is.”
That understanding, he wrote, can liberate people from fear and allow them to “enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way”.
His connection with the United States began in the early 1960s, when he studied at Princeton University and later lectured at Cornell and Columbia. He influenced the American peace movement, urging Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War.
King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, but the prize was not awarded to anyone that year.
“I do not personally know of anyone more worthy than this gentle monk from Vietnam,” King wrote to the Nobel Institute in Norway. “His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
Thich Nhat Hanh was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in Hue on Oct 11, 1926. He joined a Zen monastery at 16 and studied Buddhism there as a novice. Upon his ordination in 1949, he assumed the Dharma name Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich is an honorary family name used by Vietnamese monks and nuns. To his followers, he was known as Thay, or teacher.
In the early 1960s, he founded Youth for Social Services, a grassroots relief organisation in what was then South Vietnam. It rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools, established medical centers and reunited families left homeless by the war.
Thich Nhat Hanh began writing and speaking out against the war and in 1964 published a poem called “Condemnation” in a Buddhist weekly.