Then-exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh attends an event promoting the film Buddha during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival on May 22, 2006 in Cannes, France. (Photo: Peter Kramer/Getty Images)
"This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died… Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye."
Thich Nhat Hanh shared that lullaby for "the person who is nearing their last breath" in his 2002 book No Death, No Fear. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk died early Saturday at the age of 95.
The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism announced in a statement that their "beloved teacher" passed away peacefully at Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam.
The author, poet, peace activist, and spiritual leader was called "Thay" by his students. The Plum Village statement said in part:
Thay has been the most extraordinary teacher, whose peace, tender compassion, and bright wisdom has touched the lives of millions. Whether we have encountered him on retreats, at public talks, or through his books and online teachings—or simply through the story of his incredible life–we can see that Thay has been a true bodhisattva, an immense force for peace and healing in the world. Thay has been a revolutionary, a renewer of Buddhism, never diluting and always digging deep into the roots of Buddhism to bring out its authentic radiance…
We invite you to join our global community online, as we commemorate Thay's life and legacy with five days of practice and ceremonies broadcast LIVE from Huế, Vietnam and Plum Village, France, starting on Saturday.
Nguyễn Xuân Bảo was born in Huếon October 11, 1926. He joined the Từ Hiếu Temple at age 16 and took the name Thich Nhat Hanh when he was ordained in 1949. In the 1960s, he founded the Youth for Social Services in Vietnam and traveled to the United States, where he studied at Princeton Theological Seminary. He later lectured at the universities Columbia and Cornell.
A critic of the Vietnam War, Nhat Hanh was barred from returning home for decades and spent much of his life in France, where he established Plum Village, which became Europe's largest Buddhist monastery, according to its website.
The Vietnamese government finally allowed the exile to visit his homeland in 2005 and again in 2007. Nhat Hạnh moved back to Vietnam in 2018, four years after a stroke left the polyglot unable to speak.
Donald S. Lopez Jr., a University of Michigan scholar of Buddhism, described Nhat Hạnh to Religion News Service as "the second most famous Buddhist in the world, after the Dalai Lama."
The monk "was perhaps best known as a contemporary advocate of the now-widespread activist movement he named Engaged Buddhism," RNS explained, adding:
While credited with coining the term, Thich Nhat Hanh was quick to note that the concept promoting individual action to create positive social change was traceable to a 13th-century Vietnamese king who abdicated his throne to become a monk.
Historically, for many ethnic Buddhists the religion has traditionally been about gaining personal merit to ensure a favorable rebirth, or reincarnation. Engaged Buddhism, by contrast, seeks to apply meditative insights and other teachings about how to act toward others and the world in ways that reduce social, political, environmental, and economic suffering.
Calling Nhat Hanh "arguably the most significant catalyst for the Buddhist community's engagement" with such issues, New York-based Tricycle: The Buddhist Review's obituary for the monk says that "it is difficult to overstate the importance of Thich Nhat Hanh's role in the development of Buddhism in the West, particularly in the United States."
Lion's Roar reported that "Nhat Hanh authored more than 100 books, which have been translated into 35 languages, on a vast range of subjects—from simple teachings on mindfulness to children's books, poetry, and scholarly essays on Zen practice. His most recent book, Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, was published by HarperCollins in October 2021."
The Buddhist magazine added that "his community consists of more than 600 monastics worldwide, and there now exists more than 1,000 practice communities attended by his dedicated sangha across North America and Europe."
News of Nhat Hanh's death sparked an outpouring of remembrances from peace and spiritual leaders around the world.
"He inspired so many good people to dedicate themselves to working for a more just and compassionate world," said Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The New York Times pointed out that Nhất Hạnh "influenced the American peace movement, urging the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War."
The Martin Luther King Jr. Center tweeted a photo of their 1966 meeting in Chicago:
The U.S. civil rights leader nominated Nhất Hạnh for the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
"I do not personally know of anyone more worthy than this gentle monk from Vietnam," King wrote in 1967. "His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity."
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