I received a notification on Sunday 23 January 2022 of the death in Vietnam the previous day of the beloved Thich Nhat Hahn, one of the most revered monks in the Buddhist tradition. The world media widely reported his death.
I remember receiving a copy of his first book, THE MIRACLE OF MINDFULNESS, during my time as a monk in the 1970s in Thailand. He wrote a clear, readable guide and with a down-to-earth daily life wisdom which delighted the monks and nuns.
Referred to as Thay (Teacher), Thich Nhat Hahn developed a legion of devoted practitioners, who loved his exceptional kindness, calm, softly spoken presence and gentle manner of walking. I knew no one else in the West with such an unusual demeanour. We listened to him with utmost attention with his talks on mindfulness, meditation, inter-connectedness and wisdom. I would hear from time-to-time Thay sometimes would speak to the ordained sangha in a very straightforward manner different from his public persona. Rightly so.
I asked Thay why he introduced smiling into his meditation teaching on breathing. He told me the teachers at IMS (Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts, USA) invited him to give a Dharma talk during a three-month retreat in the latter part of the 1970s. He said the meditators were ‘very serious’ while engaged in sitting and slow walking meditation. He could not see any natural happiness. After his departure, he added smiling to his instructions for Western meditators.
Thich Nhat Hahn entered this world in July 1926 when Vietnam lived under occupation of France, who referred to Vietnam as Indo-China. In 1963, South Vietnam came under American occupation as US forces attempted to take control over the country.
In the mid-1960s, the South Vietnamese government, sanctioned by the US, expelled Thay from his homeland because of his opposition to the war on the people of Vietnam as well as the conflict between north and south Vietnam. His experiences of the war shaped his views and his unwavering opposition to violence at any level.
With his legendary status, many will have precious recollections/stories with Thich Nhat Hahh. In 1982, Thay, aged 57, founded Plum Village in France to start a monastic order for Asians and Westerners, men and women. He seemed to step back from his role as a peace activist to devote himself to being the Abbot of his new monasteries in France and elsewhere.
His decision sent shock waves among activists, Buddhists and others. He seemed to have reverted to a classic role of a senior Buddhist monk intent on preserving the Buddhist tradition rather than addressing global issues. I recalled being involved in the discussions and letters on the issue. A few years later, his feet were doing the talking once again.
The media often referred to him as a Zen monk. His way of being reflected the deeply valued gentle tradition of Theravada/Mahayana of south Asia rather than the style of many Zen masters in Japan and Korea of north Asia.
I remember hearing accounts of his joining a New York peace march of 2.5 million people to protest the bombing of Muslim countries (More than 1000 rockets and bombs from the air were launched on the citizens of Baghdad alone).
In the peace march, Thay, monks and nuns, walked slowly, silently. Thousands passed them by. Then protestors walked at the same slow pace behind Thay and the Sangha. He found himself leading the peace march with some two million walking behind him. A lovely example of soft power. The Saint of Mindfulness quietly continued his walk against the US government and NATO.
On a visit to Plum Village in 1990, I introduced Thay to Nshorna, my daughter, aged nine at the time.
He and co-teacher Sister Chan Khon (Sr True Emptiness) spoke gently to Nshorna about the miracle of stepping one foot mindfully on the Earth to show our love and respect for the Earth. We then joined them in slow walking along the pathways of the monastery. Nshorna looked enthralled with their presence.
On the ledge outside his hut, I interviewed Thay for an hour or two on refugees, cultural heritage, therapy, ordination and Dharma. I published the interview in one of my early books. I read it again this week. His words still ring true more than 30 years later.
Thay continued a prolific output throughout his life – a member of the Vietnamese Peace Delegation, based in Paris in the mid 1960s, a poet and prominent public speaker. He became the founder of the Order of Inter-Being, creator of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, pioneer of Engaged Buddhism, established a dozen monasteries and hundreds of communities/networks of Dharma practitioners.
Who can forget the powerful lines from his most loved poem?
PLEASE CALL ME BY MY TRUE NAMES
I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
After being raped by a pirate.
And I am the pirate not yet capable of seeing and loving.
In 1967, Martin Luther King, a Christian pastor and leading civil rights activist, nominated Thay to the Nobel Prize committee for the Noble Peace Prize.
The loss of Thay’s presence in Vietnam meant the benefit of his presence in the West. He travelled extensively worldwide in a dual role as a teacher of meditation/wisdom and speaker/peace activist.
His talks were transcribed and beautifully edited into books on a wide range of Buddhist themes. There are more than 50 of his books available.
In 2014, Thay suffered a severe stroke at the age of 88 leaving him speechless. He received the best possible treatment in the USA and France but the voice had gone and never returned. Four years later, he indicated his wish to return to his homeland to spend his remaining days in a monastery in Hue, Vietnam.
It is a testimony to his remarkable endurance that he lived for seven years after experiencing such a massive stroke.
Many have followed literally in his footsteps. From 22 January, the many continue taking the mindful steps to explore an engaged wisdom and a liberated life.
THANK YOU, THAY.
You were sent from Heaven.