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Thich Nhat Hanh, influential Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist, dead at 95

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist who in the 1960s came to prominence as an opponent of the Vietnam War, died on Saturday surrounded by his followers in the temple where his spiritual journey began. He was 95.

'Apostle of peace' rose to prominence in 1960s as an opponent of Vietnam War

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist who in the 1960s came to prominence as an opponent of the Vietnam War, died on Saturday surrounded by his followers in the temple where his spiritual journey began. He was 95. (Richard Vogel/The Associated Press)

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk, poet and peace activist who in the 1960s came to prominence as an opponent of the Vietnam War, died on Saturday surrounded by his followers in the temple where his spiritual journey began. He was 95.

"The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism announces that our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh passed away peacefully at Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam, at 00:00hrs on 22nd January, 2022, at the age of 95," a statement on his official Twitter account said.

His weeklong funeral will be held at the temple in a quiet and peaceful manner, according to his followers.

"Thich Nhat Hanh will be remembered as arguably one of the most influential and prominent religious leaders in the world," Chargé d'Affaires Marie C. Damour of the U.S. Mission to Vietnam said in a statement.

"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.

Pioneer of Buddhism in the West

In a majestic body of works and public appearances spanning decades, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke in gentle yet powerful tones of the need to "walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet."

He suffered a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to speak, and he returned to Vietnam to live out his final days in the central city of Hue, the ancient capital and his place of birth, after spending much of his adult life in exile.

As a pioneer of Buddhism in the West, he formed the "Plum Village" monastery in France and spoke regularly on the practice of mindfulness — identifying and distancing oneself from certain thoughts without judgment — to the corporate world and his international followers.

"You learn how to suffer. If you know how to suffer, you suffer much, much less. And then you know how to make good use of suffering to create joy and happiness," he said in a 2013 lecture.

"The art of happiness and the art of suffering always go together."

Born Nguyen Xuan Bao in 1926, Thich Nhat Hanh was ordained a monk as modern Vietnam's founding revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, led efforts to liberate the Southeast Asian country from its French colonial rulers.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who spoke seven languages, lectured at Princeton and Columbia universities in the United States in the early 1960s. He returned to Vietnam in 1963 to join a growing Buddhist opposition to the U.S.-Vietnam War, demonstrated by self-immolation protests by several monks.

"I saw communists and anti-communists killing and destroying each other because each side believed they had a monopoly on the truth," he wrote in 1975. "My voice was drowned out by the bombs, mortars and shouting."

'Apostle of peace and non-violence'

Toward the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, he met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., whom he persuaded to speak out against the conflict.

King called Thich Nhat Hanh "an apostle of peace and non-violence" and nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

"I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam," King wrote in his nomination letter.

While in the U.S. to meet King a year earlier, Thich Nhat Hanh was banned by the South Vietnamese government from returning home.

Fellow monk Haemin Sunim, who once acted as Thich Nhat Hanh's translator during a trip to South Korea, said the Zen master was calm, attentive and loving.

"He was like a large pine tree, allowing many people to rest under his branches with his wonderful teaching of mindfulness and compassion," Haemin Sunim told Reuters.

Thich Nhat Hanh is shown during a procession for those killed on both sides of the Vietnam War, in Hanoi in April 2007. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

"He was one of the most amazing people I have ever met."

Thich Nhat Hanh's works and promotion of the idea of mindfulness and meditation have enjoyed a renewed popularity as the world reels from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than a million people and upended daily life.

"Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear," Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. "If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.

"If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here."

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