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Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and peace activist, dies at 95

Updated January 21, 2022 at 8:42 PM ET

HANOI, Vietnam — Thich Nhat Hanh, the revered Zen Buddhist monk who helped pioneer the concept of mindfulness in the West and socially engaged Buddhism in the East, has died. He was 95.

A post on the monk's verified Twitter page attributed to The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism said that Nhat Hanh, known as Thay to his followers, died at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam.

"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," a follow-up post read.

Born as Nguyen Xuan Bao in 1926 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.

"The peace we seek cannot be our personal possession. We need to find an inner peace which makes it possible for us to become one with those who suffer, and to do something to help our brothers and sisters, which is to say, ourselves," Nhat Hanh wrote in one of his dozens of books, "The Sun My Heart."

Surviving a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to speak, he returned to Vietnam in October 2018, spending his final years at the Tu Hieu Pagoda, the monastery where he was ordained nearly 80 years earlier.

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 Inter-being, which espouses "engaged Buddhism" dedicated to nonviolence, mindfulness and social service.

In 1966, he met the U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in what was a remarkable encounter for both. Nhat Hanh told King he was a "Bodhisattva," or enlightened being, for his efforts to promote social justice.

The monk's efforts to promote reconciliation between the U.S.-backed South and communist North Vietnam so impressed King that a year later he nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In his exchanges with King, Nhat Hanh explained one of the rare controversies in his long life of advocating for peace — over the immolations of some Vietnamese monks and nuns to protest the war.

"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 said in an interview with U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey. "Jesus Christ died in the same spirit."

Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai academic who embraced Nhat Hanh's idea of socially engaged Buddhism, said the Zen master 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 monk, as a poet, and as a clear writer," Sivaraksa was quoted as saying.

According to Nhat Hanh, "Buddhism means to be awake — mindful of what is happening in one's body, feelings, mind and in the world. If you are awake, you cannot do otherwise than act compassionately to help relieve suffering you see around you. So Buddhism must be engaged in the world. If it is not engaged, it is not Buddhism."

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.

The dramatic homecoming seemed to signal an easing of controls on religion. Nhat Hanh's followers were invited by the abbot of Bat Nha to settle at his mountain monastery, where they remained for several years until relations with the authorities began to sour over Nhat Hanh's calls for an end to government control over religion.

By late 2009 to early 2010, Nhat Hanh's followers were evicted from the monastery and from another temple where they had taken refuge.

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.

"I try to live every moment like that, relaxed, dwelling peacefully in the present moment and respond to events with compassion," he told Winfrey.

Nhat Hanh moved to Thailand in late 2016 and then returned to Vietnam in late 2018, where he was receiving traditional medicine treatments for the after-effects of his stroke and enjoyed "strolls" around the temple grounds in his wheelchair, according to the Buddhist online newsletter LionsRoar.com.

It was a quiet, simple end to an extraordinary life, one entirely in keeping with his love for taking joy from the humblest aspects of life. "No mud, no lotus," says one of his many brief sayings.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press