Thich Nhat Hanh, a global figure who represented Asian philosophy | Sunday Observer

Thich Nhat Hanh, a global figure who represented Asian philosophy

30 January, 2022
Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh Thera
Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh Thera

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh Thera, one of the world’s most influential Bhikkhus, passed away in Vietnam at the age of 95. The Vietnamese bhikkhu had been a pioneer bringing Buddhism and mindfulness to the West, and establishing an engaged Buddhist community for the 21st Century. In a statement on Twitter, the International Plum Village community of engaged Buddhism founded by Thich Nhat Hanh said “Our beloved teacher passed away peacefully” on Saturday (January 22), at Tu Hieu temple in Hue, Vietnam.

It also said: “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.”

According to the foreign media, his week-long funeral was scheduled to be held at the temple in a quiet and peaceful manner. Chargé d’Affaires Marie C. Damour of the U.S. Mission to Vietnam said in a statement, “Thich Nhat Hanh will be remembered as arguably one of the most influential and prominent religious leaders in the world.”

“Through his teachings and literary work, his legacy will remain for generations to come,” she said, adding that his teachings, in particular on bringing mindfulness into daily life, have enriched the lives of innumerable Americans.

Nhat Hanh suffered a severe brain haemorrhage in 2014 that left him unable to speak. But he could communicate through gestures and even participated in some Dhamma sermons though didn’t speak.


Thich Nhat Hanh is pronounced as Tik N’yat Hawn. By his students he is affectionately known as Thay (pronounced “Tay” or “Tie”), which is Vietnamese for “teacher.” Nhat Hanh was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in Hue on Oct. 11, 1926. At 16, he joined a Zen monastery in Tu Hieu temple in Hue and studied Buddhism there as a novice. Upon his ordination in 1949, he assumed the Dharma name Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich is an honorary family name used by Vietnamese bhikkhus and nuns.

According to the Plum Village, the official website of Thich Nhat Hanh, he was engaged in the movement to renew Vietnamese Buddhism in 1950s when he was a young bhikkhu. He was one of the first bhikkhus to study a secular subject at university in Saigon, and one of the first six monks to ride a bicycle.

As an activist

The Plum Village web site describes his social activism during the war in Vietnam like this:

“When war came to Vietnam, bhikkhus and nuns were confronted with the question of whether to adhere to the contemplative life and stay meditating in the monasteries, or to help those around them suffering under the bombings and turmoil of war. Thich Nhat Hanh was one of those who chose to do both, and in doing so founded the Engaged Buddhism movement, coining the term in his book ‘Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire’. His life has since been dedicated to the work of inner transformation for the benefit of individuals and society.”

In 1961, Thich Nhat Hanh travelled to the United States on a scholarship to study Comparative Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary and the following year went on to teach and research Buddhism at Columbia University. After that, he returned to Vietnam in 1963 and joined a growing Buddhist opposition to the US-Vietnam War, demonstrated by self-immolation protests by several monks. In the early 1960s, he founded the School of Youth and Social Service in Vietnam, a grassroots relief organisation of 10,000 volunteers based on the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action.

However, Thich Nhat Hanh didn’t believe in monastery life. He said, “Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness we know what to do and what not to do to help.”

As a scholar, teacher, and engaged activist in the 1960s, Thich Nhat Hanh also founded the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon, La Boi publishing House, and an influential peace activist magazine. According to the facts on the Plum Village, in 1966 he established the Order of Interbeing, a new order based on the traditional Buddhist Bodhisattva precepts.

Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King

In mid 1966s, there emerged the Vietnam War, and he foresaw the aftermath of it. So he travelled once more to the U.S. and Europe to make the case for peace and to call for an end to hostilities in Vietnam – when he was studying at US he could make friends with some influential figures. It was during this 1966 trip that he first met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There, he explained the situation in Vietnam at length. With Oprah Winfrey interview in 2010, Nhat Hanh spoke about some of the issues, especially about the self-immolation by some of the Vietnam bhikkhus, which he talked with Dr. King:

“I said this was not suicide, because in a difficult situation like Vietnam, to make your voice heard is difficult. So sometimes we have to burn ourselves alive in order for our voice to be heard so that is an act of compassion that you do that, the act of love and not of despair.”

He also said in that interview, “Jesus Christ died in the same spirit.”

Dr. King was so much attracted to the vision of Thich Nhat Hanh that he called him, “He is an Apostle of Peace and Nonviolence.” He even nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967: “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy than this gentle monk from Vietnam.” Writing to the Nobel Institute in Norway, he said, “His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” But the prize was not awarded to anyone that year.

While influencing US peacemaker via Dr. Martin Luther King, Thich Nhat Hanh signed the Paris Peace agreement. The result was both North and South Vietnam denied him the right to return to Vietnam. Eventually, Nhat Hanh had to wait for 39 years to return his motherland once again, which was happened when Vietnam communist government allowed him to teach, practice and travel throughout the country in 2018. So he came again back to the Tu Hieu temple where he had become a novice as a teenager, and lived there until his death, but he was closely monitored by plainclothes police.


After barring his return home, he continued to travel widely. He could spread the message of peace and brotherhood, and lobby Western leaders to end the Vietnam War, while leading the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks in 1969. In the early 1960s, he founded Youth for Social Services, a grass-roots relief organisation in what was then South Vietnam. It rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools, established medical centers and reunited families left homeless by the war.

Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai academic who embraced Nhat Hanh’s idea of socially engaged Buddhism, said the Zen teacher had “suffered more than most monks and had been involved more for social justice.”

“In Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, he was very exposed to young people, and his society was in turmoil, in crisis. He was really in a difficult position, between the devil and the deep blue sea — the Communists on the one hand, the CIA on the other hand. In such a situation, he has been very honest — as an activist, as a contemplative bhikkhus, as a poet, and as a clear writer,” Sivaraksa was quoted as saying on NPR web magazine.

In this way, we can see that Thich Nhat Hanh is not just a monk, but a global figure who gave away Buddhism and humanism throughout the world. It is also noteworthy to mention that though Thich Nhat Hanh wrote more than 100 books, virtually no book came to Sri Lankan readers if not someone ordered from abroad and bring. However, Ven. Mandawala Pangnawansa Thera could translate two - three Thich Nhat Hanh books into Sinhala which is admirable.