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The Buddhist Monk Who Brought Mindfulness to the West Has Died

The Vietnamese, known for leading the peace movement against the Vietnam War, was 95 years old. He died peacefully in a temple in the city of Hué.

Vietnamese monk turned peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, a highly influential Buddhist who is credited with bringing the concept of mindfulness to the West, has died aged 95.

The Zen master, whose influence within Buddhism is seen as second only to that of the Dalai Lama, spent nearly four decades in exile after being expelled from his homeland for calling for an end to the Vietnam War.

Thich Nhat Hanh “died peacefully” at the Tu Hieu temple in the city of Hué, in the Buddhist heartland of Vietnam, announced his Zen teaching organization, the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism.

According to the organization, Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to speak – he has only communicated since then through gestures and in writing.

“We invite our beloved global spiritual family to take a moment to stop, come back to our conscious breathing, while together we hold Thay in our hearts,” the organization said on Twitter, using the Vietnamese word for teacher (as Thich Nhat Hanh was known).

Before his return to Vietnam in 2018, he created retreats around the world and wrote more than 100 books, including mindfulness and meditation – a cornerstone of a global wellness industry worth $4.2 billion and backed by Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, and tech billionaire Marc Benioff.

Religious freedom and peace

Born in 1926, Thich Nhat Hanh was ordained at age 16 and founded a youth school that trained volunteers to build clinics and infrastructure in war-torn villages.

In the early 1960s, he traveled to the US, where he taught at Columbia and Princeton Universities, but after a trip in 1966 to meet US civil rights icon Martin Luther King — who joined his calls for ending the war in Vietnam — was prevented from returning home.

Believing the war to be fundamentally wrong, the monk refused to take sides in the conflict and was consequently persecuted by the governments of both the North and the South.

Thich Nhat Hanh spent the next 39 years in France but continued to champion religious freedom around the world.

In 1967, King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, telling the committee in a letter that “this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity” and that “his ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity”.

Thich Nhat Hanh also continued to help fellow countrymen. When the war came to an end, many fled the country by boat, facing dangerous conditions on the ocean, trying to reach sanctuary abroad. Thich Nhat Hanh managed to save more than 800 people after having chartered two large boats.

That action was part of his belief in “engaged Buddhism,” a term he coined, according to John Powers, a professor of religious studies at Deakin University in Australia.

“One of the problems historically with Buddhism is that Buddhists have been very good at talking about compassion, but they haven’t been good at putting it into practice,” Powells told AFP.

But Thich Nhat Hanh believed that “it’s not enough to sit on a cushion and meditate and that has become a real cornerstone of modern Buddhism,” he added.

Under surveillance

Thich Nhat Hanh was allowed to spend the last days of his life at the Tu Hieu temple but was closely watched by plainclothes police who kept watch outside the complex.

Since his return to Vietnam, hundreds of people had flocked to his pagoda to join the monk on his walks in the temple’s lush gardens.

Most of his followers are devoted to his spiritual messages, not his politics.

“He taught us to love people, to love ourselves, to love nature,” said Tran Thi My Thahn, who made the pilgrimage to Hué with friends from Ho Chi Minh.

His messages have not always been well received as authorities in the one-party, Buddhist-majority country are suspicious of organized religions. In 2009, his followers were driven out of a temple in southern lam Dong province by hired mobs.

But Thich Nhat Hanh’s disciples say they come in peace. “We know that Vietnam has difficulties and we know that the world is also trying to help Vietnam to open up, to have more freedom, more democracy. We try to help too, but we do it in a Buddhist way”, said Thich Chan Phap An, one of the disciples. closest to Thich Nhat Hanh.

“It’s not wise to have a confrontation, but it’s very good to have communication,” he told AFP in 2018.

Source: with agencies

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