Following the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, thousands of people fled from the victorious communist forces by sailing to neighbouring countries. When these “boat people” attempted to land in Singapore, the police pushed them back out to sea, where many died.
In 1978 the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who has died aged 95, went to Singapore for a conference on religion and peace. By working with fishermen he helped get provisions to those at sea and smuggle some refugees ashore; he then took them to the French embassy compound so that the next morning they could surrender to the police and enter the official arrival system.
When Nhat Hanh was arrested and threatened with deportation, hundreds were put in peril. He reflected: “If I could not be peaceful in the midst of danger, the peace I might realise in easier times would not mean anything.”
Despite the pressure, Nhat Hanh and his colleagues did some walking meditation, and got the idea of asking the French ambassador to write a letter for them to take to the prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. After a cabinet meeting they were granted 10 more days, which they used to wind up the operation.
Nhat Hanh pointed to this as an example of “engaged Buddhism”, where mindfulness – “the capacity to be aware of what is going on, and what is there” – forms the basis for offering practical help to address the issues and injustices of the modern world. Through developing a movement to promote it in the west as well as in Asia, he did much to bring the practice of mindfulness into the social mainstream, by emphasising that a contemplative attitude could inform every moment of the day, not just those devoted to explicit meditation.
His philosophy of “interbeing”, which holds that we should regard ourselves as interconnected parts of the fabric of life, rather than as separate entities, has been an important influence on many environmentalists.
Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said that she could not have achieved the Paris agreement of 2016 “if I had not been accompanied by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh”. He was also an influential advocate for nonviolence. A group of imprisoned Sinn Féin leaders adopted his teachings and, having become elected politicians, in 2012 invited him to address the Stormont Assembly.
At the height of the war between communist North Vietnam and US-supported South Vietnam in 1966, Nhat Hanh travelled to the US “to tell Americans of Vietnam’s suffering”. He met academic, religious and political leaders, including the Catholic author Thomas Merton and defence secretary Robert McNamara, and argued persuasively for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement.
Largely due to Nhat Han’s influence, Martin Luther King declared his opposition to the war, and later that year nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel peace prize, writing: “Thich Nhat Hanh offers a solution acceptable to rational leaders … His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” However, King breached protocol (and perhaps offended the Nobel committee) by publishing the nomination letter, and no award was made.
In Europe Nhat Hanh met Pope Paul VI to urge cooperation between Buddhists and Catholics in Vietnam, and in 1969 he established the Buddhist peace delegation at the Paris peace talks. After the 1973 peace accords Nhat Hanh was refused permission to return to Vietnam and instead embarked on a new sphere of activity as a Buddhist teacher in the west. With Sister Chan Khong he established a meditation centre aouth-east of Paris, and in 1982 he founded Plum Village in the Dordogne, in south-west France – now home to more than 200 nuns and monks - as a base. The thousands of meditation practitioners who visited the various Plum Village centres in Europe, the US, Australia and Asia knew him by the name of Thay.
In 1987 a disciple founded a small publishing house that printed Being Peace, a book of his writings. With little promotion the book quickly sold 100,000 and was followed by other bestselling titles such as The Sun My Heart, and Old Path, White Clouds – a novelised life of the Buddha. Nhat Hanh has written more than 100 books, many of them available in English, including poetry, meditation teaching and advice for activists.
Born Nguyen Xuan Bao in Hue, central Vietnam, he entered a monastery aged 16 and received the name Nhat Hanh at his full ordination in 1949 – Thich is a title used by Vietnamese monks. From the start of his monastic life, Nhat Hanh combined meditation practice with social action and scholarship – he became fluent in eight languages – and by the age of 30 he was editing a journal that urged Buddhism to modernise and oppose both the war and South Vietnam’s dictatorship.
In 1961 he went to the US to study, and taught comparative religion at Princeton and Columbia universities. Three years later he returned to Vietnam. Buddhism was widely respected as a grassroots alternative to communism, capitalism and the war, but it lacked means to translate this prestige into social change. In short order, Nhat Hanh founded the Van Hanh Buddhist University, a publishing house, the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), and the Order of Interbeing – a lay organisation based on the combination of social action and mindful awareness.
The South Vietnamese government declared that anyone promoting “neutralism” would be considered pro-Communist, and many of Nhat Hanh’s colleagues were killed, while he narrowly survived an assassination attempt. Despite this, by the end of the war the SYSS included 10,000 monks and lay people who travelled into the countryside to establish schools and clinics and rebuild villages.
In later years Nhat Hanh’s life mirrored that of other Buddhist leaders in the west – writing, leading retreats and guiding the development of the Order of Interbeing, which grew into an international Buddhist movement with several hundred monks, and many more lay teachers and practice communities.
On his return visits to Vietnam in 2005 and 2007 Nhat Hanh was greeted warmly by ordinary Buddhists, but leaders of the outlawed United Buddhist Church – some of whom had been under house arrest for decades – refused to meet him, arguing that his visit would legitimise repression of Buddhism.
Nhat Hanh’s teaching combined traditional Zen meditation practices with others drawn from Theravada Buddhism. His principle of engaged Buddhism expressed his belief that meditative calm must be tested in the midst of conflict: “Other people can occupy your country, they can even put you in prison, but they cannot take away your true home and your freedom.”
In 2014 he had a stroke. He moved to Thailand in late 2016 and two years later returned to Vietnam. There he received traditional medicine treatments for the after-effects of his stroke at the Tu Hieu Pagoda, the monastery in Hue where he had been ordained.
•Thich Nhat Hanh (Nguyen Xuan Bao), Buddhist teacher and peace activist, born 11 October 1926; died 21 January 2022