Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who became a global peace activist, renowned teacher, prolific author, and an advocate for applying eternal Buddhist principles to contemporary social issues, died on January 22 at age 95. He died at the same Buddhist temple in Hue, Vietnam, where he first entered at age 16 to fulfill his childhood dream of following the Buddha.
Born on October 11, 1926, Thich Nhat Hanh developed his transformative view of the contemplative faith in the early 1960s as bombs rained on Vietnam. To the idea of being mindful of every moment — fundamental to Buddhist philosophy — he added direct help. He organized the School of Youth Social Service with monks delivering food and medicine to victims in North and South Vietnam. He called it “engaged Buddhism” in his first book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, which circulated underground in South Vietnam and was first published in English in the U.S. by Hill and Wang in 1967. The Trappist Monk Thomas Merton wrote the foreword. Parallax Press, the publishing house Thich Nhat Hanh co-founded in 1986 in California, will reissue the title in May.
By then Thich Nhat Hanh was in exile, banished for what came to be 39 years. He had been teaching at Cornell and meeting U.S. political, social, and religious leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. After their meeting in 1966, he was by King’s side at a press conference where King denounced the Vietnam War.
In succeeding decades, more than 100 books—novels, poetry collections, spiritual guides, scholarly Buddhist texts, and collections of his Dharma talks—have born his name. He addressed, love, peace, anger, happiness and more, confronting topics from world governments to Google. Oprah Winfrey, in her 2013 interview with him, said she keeps his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ by her bedside. He told her, “Jesus Christ is the Buddha of the West.”
His most recent title, a bestseller, Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, published by HarperOne in October 2021, brings his “engaged” (or “applied” as he later called it) Buddhist approach to environmentalism action. Like several of the works published following his debilitating stroke in 2014, it is a collection of his earlier essays and commentary. Zen was edited by one of his longtime colleagues, Sister True Dedication. Gideon Weil, v-p and editorial director at HarperOne, tells PW, “ It was a privilege to work on nine books with ‘Thay’ Thich Nhat Hanh who brought mindfulness to a broad audience and showed us how to incorporate it into our daily lives.”
Although he worked with several U.S. publishers, he called Parallax his “primary publisher and distributor.” According to publisher Hisae Matsuda, “both Parallax and monastic editors helped Thay develop almost all of his books in English over the years, including those published by the Big Five houses.” Matsuda cited strong demand for mindfulness titles driving up trade sales for Parallax 23% in 2021. Parallax will bring out another title in their Mindfulness Essentials series by him, How to Focus, in July. Lists of their titles with him are posted by Plum Village, the French monastery and mindfulness practice center he and his followers established in 1982.
Matsuda tells PW, Thay was beloved for his compassion, generosity, and joy. “His approach to Buddhist teachings was not dry nor detached, but deeply felt and grounded in practice, first from the heartbreaking experience of colonialism, war, loss, exile, and then from decades of living in community in nature. His words have an immense impact and power. … He will never be forgotten."
At Shambhala, a major publisher of English-language titles on Buddhism, president Nikko Odiseos says their social media channels went viral Saturday with the news of Thay (his well-known nickname, pronounced “tie"). “Thay had an incredible way of making the teachings of the Buddha immediately accessible to anyone regardless of their own backgrounds and beliefs: the Buddha’s teachings were for everyone, not just Buddhists. As authentic as they come, he led by example, not by pronouncement, and this quality, rooted in deep practice and reflection, drew millions to his books and tens of thousands to his talks, teachings, and centers,” Odiseos says.
Shambhala's website posted a directory of their seven titles by him and anthologies where he is included, and also posted excerpts from You Are Here: Thich Nhat Hanh on Dying… and Living, in which the monk wrote: "Living is a joy. Dying in order to begin again is also a joy. Starting over is a wonderful thing, and we are starting over constantly."