by Liam Fitzpatrick: At a Buddhist temple outside Hue, Vietnam’s onetime capital, 92-year-old Thich Nhat Hanh has come to quietly “transition,” as his disciples put it…
The ailing celebrity monk—quoted by Presidents and hailed by Oprah Winfrey as “one of the most influential spiritual leaders of our times”—is refusing medication prescribed after a stroke in 2014. He lies in a villa in the grounds of the 19th century Tu Hieu Pagoda, awaiting liberation from the cyclical nature of existence.
At the gate, devotees take photos. Some have flown from Europe for a glimpse of Thay, as they call him, using the Vietnamese word for teacher. Since arriving on Oct. 28, he has made several appearances in a wheelchair, greeted by hundreds of pilgrims, though the rains and his frailty have mostly put a stop to these. On a wet afternoon in December, the blinds were drawn back so TIME could observe the monk being paid a visit by a couple of U.S. diplomats. The Zen master, unable to speak, looked as though he could breathe his last at any moment. His room is devoid of all but basic furnishings. Born Nguyen Xuan Bao, he was banished in the 1960s, when the South Vietnamese government deemed as traitorous his refusal to condone the war on communism. He is now back in the temple where he took his vows at 16, after 40 years of exile. Framed above the bed are the words tro ve—”returning”—in his own brushstroke.
In the West, Nhat Hanh is sometimes called the father of mindfulness. He famously taught that we could all be bodhisattvas by finding happiness in the simple things—in mindfully peeling an orange or sipping tea. “A Buddha is someone who is enlightened, capable of loving and forgiving,” he wrote in Your True Home, one of more than 70 books he has authored. “You know that at times you’re like that. So enjoy being a Buddha.”
His influence has spread globally. Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in 2016 that she could not have pulled off the Paris Agreement “if I had not been accompanied by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.” World Bank president Jim Yong Kim called Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness his favorite book.