Return to the Breath - Remembering Thich That Hanh
On January 22, 2022, the world mourned the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh at his home temple in Vietnam at the age of 95. Known affectionately as "Thay" (pronounced “Tay”) by his followers, he is undoubtedly one of the most well-known Buddhists of the modern era, and his impact in bringing Buddhism to the world was profound. He was a pivotal teacher for me on my Buddhist path, and his passing is deeply felt.
Born in 1926 and ordained at 16, Nhat Hanh went to the U.S. in 1961 at the age of 35 to study and teach at Princeton and Columbia Universities. On returning home in 1964, he dove into anti-war activism as the Vietnam War escalated. He founded the Order of Inter-being, which promoted “engaged Buddhism” through nonviolence, mindfulness, and social service. Both “Engaged Buddhism” and “Mindfulness” will always be closely associated with Nhat Hanh, who is credited for bringing both movements to worldwide consciousness.
Nhat Hanh explains, “Buddhism means to be awake—mindful of what is happening [...] 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.” He speaks about mindfulness as a means to weather the storms of life and realize happiness, encouraging us to always “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.”
In a remarkable 1966 encounter, Nhat Hanh met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. He greatly admired Dr. King for his efforts to promote social justice and told Dr. King he was a bodhisattva, an enlightened being. Dr. King, on his part, was so impressed with Thay’s efforts to promote reconciliation between the U.S.-backed South and communist North Vietnam that he later nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nhat Hanh’s efforts in 1966 to campaign against the war angered both North and South Vietnam’s governments, and he was barred from returning home, leaving him, he said, “like a bee without a beehive.” He was not allowed to return until 2005. Over the preceding decades, he founded a retreat center in southern France he named Plum Village—his home for most of the rest of his life—and established ten more centers all over the world where he visited and conducted retreats, including Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.
Over nearly eight decades, Nhat Hanh refined his teachings into concepts meant to be accessible to all. He was a well-read and prolific writer, authoring over 100 books. Through his books, talks, and retreats, he introduced Zen Buddhism, at its essence, as peace through compassionate listening.
After suffering a stroke in 2014 that left him unable to speak, Nhat Hanh’s passing was not unexpected, but still painful for his followers. He envisioned the meaning of death—both his and others—as a transformation from one manifestation to another, where nothing is ever really lost, only changed. In his book No Death, No Fear, he spoke about his mother’s passing, “I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea [...] Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet...wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth, I knew my mother was there with me.”
Thich Nhat Hanh’s passing will be felt deeply by those of us who cherished his message of peace and compassion, and a life that inspired action. A memorial service held in honor of
Nhat Hanh at Deer Park highlighted the theme, “A cloud never dies.” “That’s the theme of the seven-day service we are holding for our teacher,” said Brother Phap Dung, a dharma teacher at the monastery. “It means our teacher doesn’t die; he just manifests differently now. The cloud becomes rain, becomes grass, becomes tea. He’s not dead now, he’s just in a different form.”
Rev. Ellen Crane