Photo credit: Kelvin Cheuk
Thích Nhất Hạnh, pronounced Tik-N’yat-Hawn, was a Vietnamese monk of the Zen tradition, part of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. The first word in his name, Thích, is actually a title meaning “teacher” and I stumbled across him when learning about Buddhism in 2006. Over time I collected dozens of his books, out of the many he wrote throughout his life.
He was one of several highly influential people I had encountered in the early years of my life, who shaped who I am as a writer and inspired me in ways few could. One of those profound human beings you’ve probably never heard of, who impacted this world in ways most of us can only dream of.
Born as Nguyen Xuan Bao in Hue, Vietnam on October 11, 1926 he became ordained at the age of 16 and today is a modern day legend in human rights the world over. First displaying his dedication to the practice he developed called Engaged Buddhism, when he chose to stay during the hell-fire of the Vietnam War, caring for the injured on both sides of the conflict and calling for peace. In 1966, while traveling abroad, both the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese political parties banned him from returning, and he remained in exile for the next several decades until his first return in 2005. He would travel there four more times before his death on January 22, 2022.
In 1967 he was nominated by his friend Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize. A spiritual leader, author, artist, peace activist, and humanitarian, there are few people who could speak on matters of the heart and soul the way that Nhất Hạnh did for the last eight decades. A bright light, pure and unyielding, from a generation far stronger than my own. Humble, balanced and wise souls like his are what our world needs the most and yet has the least. His presence was only rivaled by that of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a sub-branch of Vajrayana Buddhism.
In 2014, Nhất Hạnh had a stroke at Plum Village Monastery in southern France, a Zen Buddhist center he founded and had been living at from 1982 onward. The stroke caused partial paralysis and he became wheelchair-bound and unable to speak. In 2018, he was permitted to return to Vietnam and call it his permanent home, to live out his remaining time in the land of his youth, the land that sparked his spiritual journey.
I find it deeply saddening that his time in this world has come to an end. However, he has left behind a phenomenal legacy that will carry on through his students for generations to come. Thích Nhất Hạnh spent a lot of time and effort bringing Zen Buddhist practices to the West in a way that was practical and useful to our way of life. He has been and will continue to be a strong spiritual leader.
I’d like to leave here a collection of excerpts and poetry from his journal entries that were written during the Vietnam War and later published as Fragrant Palm Leaves, they are poignant and passionate, deeply thoughtful, aching and reinvigorating all at the same time, much the way that Nhất Hạnh was himself, throughout his life.
I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands
to keep the loneliness warm
two hands protecting,~Thích Nhất Hạnh
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing
my soul from leaving me in anger.
Promise me this day,
Promise me now,
While the sun is overhead
Exactly at the zenith,
Even as they
Strike you down
With a mountain of hatred and violence;
Even as they step on you and crush you like a worm,
Even as they dismember and disembowel you,
Man is not your enemy.
The only thing worthy of you is compassion – invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face the beast in man.
One day, when you face this beast alone,
With your courage intact, your eyes kind,
Untroubled (even as no one sees them),
Out of your smile
Will bloom a flower.
And those who love you
Will behold you
Across ten thousand worlds of birth and dying.
Alone again,Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote this poem in response to the 1967 executions of 4 young Buddhist monks, who had joined the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam during the war, an organization led by him that provided medical care to victims on both sides of the conflict.
I will go on with bent head,
Knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
The sun and the moon
Will continue to shine,
Guiding my way.