Vietnamese monk-turned-peace-activist Thich Nhat Hanh, a hugely influential Buddhist credited with bringing mindfulness to the West, has died aged 95.
The Zen master, whose reach within Buddhism is seen as second only to the Dalai Lama, spent nearly four decades in exile after being banished from his homeland for calling for an end to the Vietnam-American War.
Thich Nhat Hanh "passed away peacefully" at the Tu Hieu Temple in the city of Hue, Vietnam's Buddhist heartland, his Zen teaching organisation, the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, said.
Thich Nhat Hanh at Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on March 16, 2007. Source: AAP
A week-long funeral will be held at the Tu Hieu Temple.
"We invite our beloved global spiritual family to take a few moments to be still, to come back to our mindful breathing, as we together hold Thay in our hearts," the organisation said on Nhat Hanh's Twitter account, using the Vietnamese word for teacher.
Before his return to Vietnam in 2018, he set up retreats around the world and wrote over 100 books including on mindfulness and meditation - a cornerstone of a $4.2 trillion global wellness industry espoused by Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington and tech billionaire Marc Benioff.
Religious freedom, peace
Born in 1926, Thich Nhat Hanh was ordained aged 16 and went on to found a youth school which trained volunteers to build clinics and infrastructure in villages blighted by war.
In the early 1960s he travelled to the United States, where he taught at Columbia and Princeton universities, but after one trip in 1966 to meet US civil rights icon Martin Luther King - who joined his calls to end the Vietnam-American War - he was barred from returning home.
Believing that war was fundamentally wrong, the monk refused to take sides in the conflict and was consequently persecuted by the governments of both North and South Vietnam.
Thich Nhat Hanh spent the next 39 years in France, but continued to advocate for religious freedom around the world.
In 1967, King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, telling the committee in a letter: "this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity".
"His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity."
King's youngest daughter, Bernice King, paid tribute to Thich Nhat Hanh on Twitter.
"I celebrate and honor Thich Nhat Hanh’s life and global influence for peace," she wrote.
Thich Nhat Hanh also continued to help his fellow Vietnamese.
As the war came to an end, many fled the country by boat, facing perilous conditions on the ocean as they attempted to reach sanctuary overseas.
Thich Nhat Hanh was able to save more than 800 people after he hired two large boats.
Such action was part of his belief in "engaged Buddhism", a term which he coined, according to John Powers, a professor of religious studies at Australia's Deakin University.
"One of the problems historically with Buddhism is that Buddhists have been really good about talking about compassion... but (they) have not been that great at putting it into practice," Powers said.
But Thich Nhat Nanh believed "it's not enough to sit on a cushion and meditate... and that's become a real cornerstone of a lot of modern Buddhism".
Under close watch
He was permitted by authorities to see out his final days at the Tu Hieu temple, but was closely monitored by plainclothes police who kept vigil outside his gated compound.
Since his return to Vietnam, hundreds flocked to his pagoda to join the monk on his outings around the temple's lush gardens.
Most of his followers are devoted to his spiritual messages, not his politics.
Buddhist monks and nuns with Thich Nhat Hanh at a praying ceremony marking the first day of Lunar New Year at Tu Hieu temple in Vietnam on January 25, 2020. Source: Getty
"He taught us to love people, to love ourselves, to love nature," said Tran Thi My Thanh, who made the pilgrimage to Hue with friends from Ho Chi Minh City.
His messages have not always been welcomed as authorities in Buddhist majority one-party Vietnam are wary of organised religion: in 2009 his followers were driven from their temple in southern Lam Dong province by hired mobs.
But Thich Nhat Hanh's disciples say they come in peace.
"We know that Vietnam has difficulty, and we know the world also tries to help Vietnam open up, to have more freedom, more democracy... we try to help also, but we do it in a Buddhist way," said Thich Chan Phap An, one of Thich Nhat Hanh's closest disciples.
"It's not wise to have confrontation, but it's very good to have communication," he told AFP in 2018.
'Legacy will remain'
People around the world have posted tributes on social media, with many reflecting on the impact he had on their lives.
Rabbi and meditation teacher Jay Michaelson wrote he had "a deep understanding of how to communicate and a passionate commitment to justice".
Law professor Anjali Vats said he had a profound impact on her life.
"His life's work helped me become the person I am today," she wrote.
"Thich Nhat Hanh will be remembered as arguably one of the most influential and prominent religious leaders in the world," Chargé d'Affaires Marie C. Damour of US Mission to Vietnam said in a statement.
"Through his teachings and literary work, his legacy will remain for generations to come," she said, adding that his teachings, in particular on bringing mindfulness into daily life, have enriched the lives of innumerable people.
Fellow monk Haenim Sunim, who once acted as Thich Nhat Hanh's translator during a trip to South Korea, said the Zen master was calm, attentive and loving.
"He was like a large pine tree, allowing many people to rest under his branches with his wonderful teaching of mindfulness and compassion," Haemin Sunim told Reuters.
"He was one of the most amazing people I have ever met."
Thich Nhat Hanh's works and promotion of the idea of mindfulness and meditation have enjoyed a renewed popularity as the world reels from the effects of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed over a million people and upended daily life.
"Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear," Thich Nhat Hanh wrote.
"If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.
"If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here."
Additional reporting: Reuters