Zen Master Preached Compassion, a 'Return to the Breath'

Revered Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has died at the age of 95
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 22, 2022 8:45 AM CST
Famous Zen Master 'Thay' Dies at 95
Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hanh is seen during an interview in Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 29, 2005.   (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

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 right as Friday turned to Saturday local time, per the AP. A post on Nhat Hanh's verified Twitter page attributed to the International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism also confirmed the news, noting, "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.

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 Interbeing, which espouses "engaged Buddhism" dedicated to nonviolence, mindfulness, and social service. In 1966, he met the US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in what was a remarkable encounter for both. Both North and South Vietnam barred Nhat Hanh 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. Nhat Hanh remained based in southern France.

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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. Over nearly eight decades, Nhat Hanh's 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 like sweeping and washing dishes. The Dalai Lama said he was saddened by the death of "his friend and spiritual brother," adding: "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."

(More Thich Nhat Hanh stories.)

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