The Final Flame: An Obituary to Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh (1926-2022)

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Thích Nhất Hạnh.

By Ik Kittisenee.

Dear Thay (as your students refer you ‘Master’),

I was inspired to write a letter after your passing as you wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. explaining how Venerable Thích Quảng Đức enacted self-immolation in 1963.[1] Your esteemed Mahayana Buddhist teacher utilized his blazing body on the roadside of Saigon to elucidate the cries and suffering of the people and their flaming homeland, Vietnam under the suppressive Ngô Đình Diệm regime. His image ‘went viral,’ provoking the world to turn her attention to this Cold-War battleground. On 29 January 2022, when I was watching the cremation flame of your memorial service, I recall the flame lit in 1963. Both fires are different but interconnected. The first was lit as the inauguration light while the latter the concluding flame. Like other obituaries, I should laud your contributions toward humanity particularly the ways in which you show us how to nurture love and compassion even in the midst of war, violence, and other atrocities.

As a kid of a Chinese immigrant family at a Thai-Lao border town where a huge Vietnamese refugee community (Viet ciao) shared our neighborhood, I had witnessed the fiery tension between these two ethnic communities (Sino-Thais and Viet ciaos). Both imposed on their kids a millennia-long conflict history between the Chinese and Vietnamese empires. We competed and fought in marketplaces, schools, and other public spaces. Most ancestors of the Sino-Thai families fled the Communist China while their counterparts escaped the Vietnamese War to seek a refuge in Thailand. They evaded wars in their home countries and made new wars in a foreign land. Both sides ignored the fact that they shared the same destiny, being ethnic minorities and immigrants at a periphery of the Thai state. That said, I grew up knowing less about the suffering lives of people from Vietnam and adopting unhealthy beliefs resulting from my family’s upbringing endorsed by fire—the legacy of geopolitics between our far-reaching ancestors.

Your booklet, “The Path of Return Continues the Journey,” uprooted ethnic bias long engraved in my heart. I came across this book in my teens. It chased away my ignorance about Vietnam.[2] I was moved by the incident of five volunteer workers from a non-violent organization, “The School of Youth for Social Service,” brutally murdered by a group of strangers along the Saigon River in 1967. Soon after you composed this book of a play narrating the afterlife story of these members taking on a journey upstream. On the vessel, they discussed the root cause of conflict in their homeland as well as how to cultivate compassion, forgiveness, and loving kindness toward the perpetrators. I was intrigued, imagining the moment you lost these young peacemakers who wanted to provide healing for the grassroot people after the effects of the Vietnam War. You turned the incident of suffering into the work of wisdom—allowing death to illuminate the peace process in your homeland.

In contrary to your compatriots to further Vietnam War in the third country where they relocated, you created the third space—’Plum Village,’ where people from any political fractions can rest from battle, though momentarily. In California, there is the Little Saigon where the Southern Vietnamese are more welcome whereas the Little Hanoi in several countries in Eastern Europe opens their door to Northern Vietnamese.[3] Even within the confine of the Buddhist monasteries of these Little Towns, the bipartisan politics are markedly acknowledged. As you are originally from Hue, politically referred to as a part of the South but geographically and historically, ‘middle’ or ‘central.’ Plum Village has been serving as a mediator among people of all background, regardless of political ideology, race, and gender. This exemplifies what you termed as ‘Engaged Buddhism.’ A notable black feminist activist, bell hooks (1952-2021), also informed her influence from Thay.[4] Thay’s seeds of peace-making effort has thus grown beyond your original country, Vietnam. At the last chapter of your legacy, I appreciate your wish not to bury your body but be cremated so your ashes could be allocated around Plum Village centers and monasteries across the globe.[5]

Image of Thích Nhất Hạnh
Thích Nhất Hạnh [6]

A candle was lit,
To find the exit from darkness;
Another gave away the light,
To shine all over the place.
I wish no more candles be lit…
I wish this is the final flame…


With deep respect,
Napakadol “Ik” Kittisenee

[1] Thích Nhất Hạnh. 1966. “In Search of the Enemy of Man.”
[2] Thích Nhất Hạnh. 1972. The Path of Return Continues the Journey. New York: Hoa Binh Press.
[3] Janet A. Hoskins and Nguyen Thi Hien. (2020). Vietnamese Transnational Religions: The Cold War Polarities of Temples in “Little Hanois” and “Little Saigons”. Transnational Religious Spaces. pp.183-209. Berlin: De Gruyter.
[4] Helen Tworkov. 1992. Agent of Change: An Interview with bell hooks.
[5] Funeral for Thich Nhat Hanh held in Vietnam, Associated Press in Hanoi Sat 29 Jan 2022.
[6] Thich Nhat Hanh, Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.