Passing of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh

By Joe Byrne

Thich Nhat Hanh, the famed Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Monk and peacemaker, passed to the ultimate dimension on January 22, 2022. He was 95 years old.

Thay – his honorary title – became well known in the 1960s for his opposition to the Vietnam War. During that time, he urged his fellow monks and Buddhist practitioners in Vietnam to do war relief. This was the basis of what he would later call “engaged buddhism.” In 1966 he came to the United States to lobby the U.S. government for peace. Because of his refusal to take sides in the conflict, both the South Vietnamese government, and later the communist regime, refused to let Thich Nhat Hanh return to Vietnam. However, at the end of his life, after a debilitating stroke, the Vietnamese government allowed him to return to the monastery in Hue where he took his vows. And that is where he died, on January 22.

In the 1970s, Thay began to teach mindfulness to Vietnamese and Western practitioners. Initially, this movement attracted mostly anti-war activists, and indeed Thay emphasized that mindfulness was a practice for people to find inner peace to sustain them in the work for social justice. The mindfulness movement has long since gone mainstream.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan in the 1960s

In the 1960s, Thay was a friend to many peacemakers, most particularly Martin Luther King, Jr.; Daniel Berrigan, S.J.; and Thomas Merton. Martin Luther King nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize. Merton wrote a famous essay entitled “Nhat Hanh is My Brother.” Berrigan co-wrote a book with Thay called The Raft is Not the Shore.

Echoing his teacher Gautama Buddha, Thay always said that he would live on his teachings, and in his students. He also lives on on the internet, in the form of dharma talks in written, audio and video formats; and in the teachings of his students, monastic and lay. There are all manner of such materials on the website of Plum Village, a monastic center he founded in France, and where he lived for many years.

I conclude with a poem written by Thich Nhat Hanh which is often recited at memorial services.

Contemplation of No-Coming, No-Going

This body is not me,
I am not limited by this body.

I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born, and I have never died.

Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
Manifestations from my wondrous true mind.

Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,
sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.

So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say good-bye,
say good-bye, to meet again soon.

We meet today,
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.