Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Zen Buddhist monk who helped spread the practice of mindfulness in the West and socially engaged Buddhism in the East, has died. He was 95.
The death was confirmed by a monk at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam who said that Nhat Hanh, known as Thay to his followers, died at midnight on Saturday. The monk declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to media.
A post on Nhat Hanh’s verified Twitter page attributed to The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism also confirmed the news, saying, “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.”
Born as Nguyen Xuan Bao in 1926 in Hue and ordained at age 16, 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 United States to study, teaching comparative religion for a time at Princeton and Columbia universities.
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 somewhat livelier 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,” Nhat Hanh wrote in one of his dozens of books, “The Sun My Heart.”
The Dalai Lama said he was saddened by the death of “his friend and spiritual brother.”
“In his peaceful opposition to the Vietnam War, his support for Martin Luther King and most of all his dedication to sharing with others not only how mindfulness and compassion contribute to inner peace, but also how individuals cultivating peace of mind contribute to genuine world peace, the Venerable lived a truly meaningful life,” he said.
Surviving a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to speak, Nhat Hanh returned from France to Vietnam in October 2018, spending his final years at the Tu Hieu Pagoda, the monastery where he was ordained nearly 80 years earlier.
Nhat Hanh plunged into anti-war 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. Nhat Hanh told 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 King that a year later he nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In his exchanges with King, Nhat Hanh explained one of the rare controversies in his long life of advocating for peace — over the immolations of some Vietnamese monks and nuns to protest the war.
“I said this was not suicide, because in a difficult situation like Vietnam, to make your voice heard is difficult. So sometimes we have to burn ourselves alive in order for our voice to be heard so that is an act of compassion that you do that, the act of love and not of despair,” he said in an interview with U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey. “Jesus Christ died in the same spirit.”
Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai academic who embraced 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.”
“In Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, he was very exposed to young people, and his society was in turmoil, in crisis. He was really in a difficult position, between the devil and the deep blue sea — the Communists on the one hand, the CIA on the other hand. In such a situation, he has been very honest — as an activist, as a contemplative monk, as a poet, and as a clear writer,” Sivaraksa was quoted as saying.