Black and white photo of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist. Credit: Prachatai / flickr

With the passing (he would say “continuation”) of the internationally prominent monk and Venerable Zen and mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, the world has lost one of its leading voices for peace and non-violence. In the face of such a significant loss to humanity, not only is the Canadian media’s pro forma reporting and the Canadian government’s muted response sad expressions of our societies Abrahamic or, most often today, Judeo-Christian orientation and preferential bias, it is also quite disheartening.

Born in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh spent his entire adult life sharing learnings and insights with respect to joy, compassion, loving-kindness, mindfulness and the promotion of human rights — a life journey that took place well over six decades. Much has been written about Nhat Hanh’s support for the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the instrumental role he played in convincing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a stand against the Vietnam War, leading King to nominate Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

Equally well known, is Nhat Hanh’s inspirational interfaith work and instrumental role in the founding of the Engaged Buddhism movement. This movement calls on practitioners to apply Buddhist ethics and the teachings of the Buddha dharma – through meditative practice – to go well beyond the contemplative work and engage with social and political issues in order to help bring about the end of personal and collective un-satisfactoriness (suffering) and injustice.

This global spiritual leader embodied throughout his life’s work the very essence of his teaching of mindfulness, joy, loving-kindness and compassion. A prolific writer and a deeply thoughtful peace activist, Nhat Hanh’s ongoing impact on the world is quite simply immeasurable.

As one of the 360,000 or so people in Canada who now identify as Buddhist, I was privileged to be present among those who listened when Thay (Vietnamese for teacher, as Nhat Hanh is known by his followers – members of the Order of Inter-being – and other of his students) was in Toronto in 2013 to share his wisdom on global peace and happiness as well as having assisted and attended a week-long meditation retreat led by Thay in the Eastern Townships of Quebec several years before that.

Drawing from both direct experiences – and then by extension and now virtually – I remember and take considerable inspiration, insight and learning from his sharing and mindful presence.

Central to Engaged Buddhism, is our collective responsibility to speak out against hate, prejudice, intolerance, violence and war. Given the current state of the world, Nhat Hanh’s plea for humanity to act with a good heart remains just as urgent, if not more so, today, as it was 60 years ago. 

When Thay began to actively promote Engaged Buddhism, the world was witnessing the crisis of the Vietnam War. Since then, the two Gulf Wars – among too many all too soon and too often forgotten others – have ravaged the lives of millions of people around the globe. Poverty, hunger and other deprivations brought about by authoritarianism, corporate greed, and climate change have resulted in the suffering of ever larger numbers of displaced peoples and refugees around the world, leaving that many more in varying degrees if not complete devastation.

Adding to these crises, the pandemic has exacerbated, though not caused, the disparities that we have been witnessing. The disparities are not only between the global South (the so-called developing countries) and the wealthier global North, but also within wealthy nations like Canada due to the many underlying and long-standing institutional and structural inequalities.

More than ever, we must heed Thay’s message of compassionate listening, of the interconnection between ourselves and all other beings, as we search for truth, sustainability and reconciliation on many fronts.

In recognition of his “prominent presence far beyond the spiritual community,” the U.S. Department of State issued a statement “on behalf of the American people” to remember his lasting legacy and the profound mark he has left on humanity. Yet no official statement has yet been issued by the government of Canada, or by the Prime Minister’s office.

While no doubt not every person in Canada supported (or supports) Thay’s position on the Vietnam War, we could all agree that his message of compassion, loving-kindness and peace is something that we should all embrace and strive to achieve.

This is particularly so in the Canadian context where racism, poverty, and inequality are driving an ever deeper wedge into our society and dividing us further into the haves and the have-nots. We look to our political leaders to develop concrete policies – motivated by compassion – to redress if not eliminate these multiple inequities, and to help alleviate the sufferings of all of us, particularly those that find themselves on the margins of society – with circumstances further impacted by the pandemic.

But as a first modest gesture – and viewed in that context – an appropriate acknowledgement from the Canadian government of the profound loss of this global leader would be very much welcome.

Michael Kerr

Michael Kerr is a community development worker, equity and human rights advocate and since 2007 has worked as a Coordinator with Colour of Poverty - Colour of Change – the racial justice education and...