World-Renowned Zen Buddhist Activist Thich Nhat Hanh Dies At 95

The Buddhist teacher had returned to his native Vietnam to live out the rest of his days.
Thich Nhat Hanh founded the Engaged Buddhism movement.
Thich Nhat Hanh founded the Engaged Buddhism movement.
STR via Getty Images

Internationally acclaimed Zen Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh has died at age 95.

Hanh’s religious community, Plum Village, announced the teacher’s death on Twitter, saying that he died at midnight on Saturday morning. Messages of condolence quickly poured in as people from around the world honored his decades of service to social justice activism.

Hanh, referred to as “Thay” by close friends and disciples, returned to Vietnam in November 2018, after being exiled from the country since 1967. He had expressed a wish to live out the rest of his days in his native country.

The spiritual leader had largely stopped teaching after having a brain hemorrhage in 2014. After his rehabilitation, Plum Village reported that the first words Hanh spoke were: “in, out,” “happy,” “thank you” and “vui quá” (meaning “so happy” in Vietnamese).

“It was like a guided meditation. Everyone was crying and laughing at the same time, including Thay,” the announcement read.

In 2015, Hanh received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, which is presented by an interfaith coalition mainly based in the Midwest. It was the 50th anniversary of his friend Martin Luther King Jr.’s reception of the same award. Later that year, producer and director Larry Kasanoff released a documentary on mindfulness that heavily featured the Buddhist leader.

“Mindfulness is the capacity to be truly there in the here and the now in order for you to get in touch with the wonders of life, so that you can truly live your life,” Hanh said in the documentary.

The author of more than 100 books, Hanh entered monastic life at the age of 16. He founded the “Engaged Buddhism” movement with his book “Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire,” published in 1967 during the Vietnam War.

In 1961, Hanh traveled to the United States to study and teach comparative religion at Columbia and Princeton universities. Two years later, Hanh returned to Vietnam to participate in the peace movement at a time when the Vietnam War was escalating.

It was Hanh’s nonviolent activism that lead Dr. King to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967, and which also caused Vietnam to exile him that same year. Decades later, the Buddhist leader spoke of his desire to return to his home country, having by then spent nearly 40 years in exile, primarily in France.

Hanh founded Plum Village as a small farmstead in southern France, which grew to become a large and active Buddhist monastery with over 200 resident monks.

In 2005, the Vietnamese government granted Hanh permission to reenter the country. Two years later, the Buddhist teacher made the trip again, drawing criticism from some over the fact that two members of the Unified Buddhist Church, which Hanh founded, remained under house arrest there.

Hanh’s commitment to peace and reconciliation, however, earned him the love and veneration of many around the world. Plum Village states on its website that “over 100,000 retreatants have made a commitment to follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s modernized code of universal global ethics in their daily life, known as ‘The Five Mindfulness Trainings.’”

In addition to his work as an author, activist and teacher, Hanh was an accomplished calligraphy artist and used the art as a meditation practice that helped him stay present in the moment.

“In my calligraphy, there is ink, tea, breathing, mindfulness, and concentration,” Hanh wrote, according to a site dedicated to his calligraphy.

Hanh also wrote about the spirituality of dying in his 2002 book, “No Death, No Fear.” One excerpt from that work may offer comfort for those mourning his death:

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. Over there the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies, All manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free. 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. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source, Always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.

Before You Go

Mike Hodges

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