In Memoriam: Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Monk and Father of Engaged Buddhism

Thich Nhat Hanh, internationally renowned Zen Buddhist monk and spiritual leader, died January 22 in his room in Tu Hiêu, a temple in Hué, Vietnam, where he had been living for the past three years. He was 95.

Thich Nhat Hanh (Creative Commons license)
Thich Nhat Hanh (Creative Commons license)

Popularly known by his nickname Thây, Nhat Hanh conceived a form of Buddhism based on “mindfulness” practices designed to overcome personal suffering and find answers to society’s needs through social action.

Nhat Hanh’s health had been failing since he suffered a stroke in 2014. He expressed a wish to spend his remaining days at the temple here he had become a novice monk after being ordained in Zen Buddhism at 16. He called his return to the temple in 2018 his “final homecoming.”

A poet and peace activist whose teachings influenced millions, from politicians, business leaders and teachers to activists, prisoners and ordinary people, Nhat Hanh was known as the father of “engaged Buddhism.” He was the author of more than 70 books, which have been translated into over 30 languages.

“I would describe him as the second most famous Buddhist in the world, after the Dalai Lama,” Donald S. Lopez, Jr., a Buddhism scholar at the University of Michigan, said in a Religion News Service obituary.

“He was thoughtful and wise, yet in person came across as an ordinary person,” said Malcolm MacLeod, editor of Lion’s Roar, a Buddhist magazine. “That in itself is extraordinary when talking about an extraordinary spiritual being and leader.”

Nhat Hanh was born October 11, 1926, in Hué. Early in his monastic life, he left a Buddhist academy because it did not teach modern subjects such as Western philosophy and literature. He studied science at Saigon University and edited a humanist magazine.

In 1962, a year after he went to the U.S. to teach comparative religion at Princeton University, Nhat Hanh was invited to research and lecture on Buddhism at Columbia University. He spoke at a number of universities against the devastation caused by the Vietnam War and about the Vietnamese people’s desire for peace.

The First Indochina War in Vietnam (1946–54) was transformative for Nhat Hanh. A seminal memory for the young monk was that of a French soldier who stormed into his temple and demanded all the rice at gunpoint.

“The soldier was young and thin and pale,” Nhat Hanh recalled. “I had to obey his order to carry the heavy bag of rice to the jeep. Anger and unhappiness rose up in me. Many times over the years I have meditated on this soldier. I have focused on the fact that he had to leave his family and friends to travel across the world to Vietnam, where he faced the horrors of killing my countrymen or being killed. I came to realize that the Vietnamese were not the only victims of the war—the French soldiers were victims as well.”

In 1969, Nhat Hanh led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace talks. But he refused to favor either of the combating sides in the Vietnam War, which prompted both the south and the north of the country to ban him from entering his homeland.

Nhat Hanh took refuge in France and spent much of his 39-year exile from Vietnam there. He continued to teach, lecture and write about Buddhist dharma (doctrine) and mindfulness as antidotes to violence, war and climate change. He also opened numerous mindfulness practice centers overseas.

Even after his stroke, partially paralyzed and unable to speak, Nhat Hanh continued to offer Buddhist teachings and inspiration to millions through gestures and the sheer power of his peaceful presence. 


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Buddhism Vietnam Thich Nhat Hanh Engaged Buddhism mindfulness