25 January 2022

Thich Nhat Hahn – Pirates, Boatpeople and a Meeting in Melbourne – A Tribute

Some rare beings embody what it is to live a life completely devoted to the spiritual path and the betterment of others. 

Thich Nhat Hahn, a humble yet extra-ordinarily influential Vietnamese monk, was once such exemplar. 

Global spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh was renowned for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace.

Having experienced a stroke in 2014 and having been unable to speak since, it is no real consolation to say we knew he might die soon. 

His death leaves a gap that will be hard to fill by any one person and a sadness that will be felt for some time. 

His direct influence, his smile, his presence, his radiant inner peace is no more in present time. 

True, he leaves a wonderful legacy, largely through his advocacy for peace and mindfulness, but there is something about the finality of the loss when death arrives. 

The International Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism has announced 

Our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has passed away peacefully at Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam on 22nd January, 2022, at the age of 95.

We invite our global spiritual family to take a few moments to be still, to come back to our mindful breathing, as we together hold Thay (the Vietnamese word for teacher by which he is affectionately known) in our hearts in peace and loving gratitude for all he has offered the world.

In tribute to a man held in great respect by people of all traditions, the next 2 blogs will recount 2 remarkable meetings but first,

    Thought for the day

         His demeanour, light as a butterfly. 

         His steps, solid as a water buffalo. 

         His joy at being alive 

         As palpable as the awakening morning. 

         Fully present. 

         His life, a teaching.

              Gary Gach on Thich Nhat Hahn


A Caution

This true story does contain graphic details and may distress some people

The Context

i) The boatpeople

Following the Vietnam war around 800,000 boatpeople braved over-crowded boats, thirst and starvation, storms and pirates to flee to other countries. Many made it to Australia, yet the UN estimates 200,000 to 400,000 people died at sea. 

In 1981, 452 boats carrying Vietnamese boat people arrived in Thailand carrying 15,479 refugees; 349 of the boats had been attacked by pirates an average of three times each. 228 women had been abducted, many who survived had been raped and 881 people were dead or missing. 

ii) The teacher

While recovering from my leg amputation in 1975, I had the good fortune to come across Thich Nhat Hahn’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness, first published in that same year. Thay as he is known, writes so eloquently, so simply, so directly. 

The book informed my own practice and recovery. 

Washing the dishes has never been the same since. 

I love doing them. 

They remind me of Thay and they remind us that each moment holds within it an opportunity to work toward greater self-understanding and peacefulness – or anger and frustration if you prefer!

Then in 1987, Thich Nhat Hahn – a serious Buddhist scholar, published his seminal biography of the Buddha, Old Path, White Clouds. With its lyrical language and accessible Buddhist teachings, it became a mega-bestseller and has been published in over twenty languages.

Both books became standard recommendations when our cancer groups and meditation retreats began. 

Thay has definitely been one of my spiritual heroes.

The Meeting

Travelling as this is being written I cannot be sure of the date. My guess is it was late 80’s. But I sure do remember the meeting! One does not expect a teaching from a spiritual hero to be so explosive that physical violence seemed a real possibility.

My invitation came courtesy of someone who knew of my work with mindfulness and meditation and I was one of only a handful of non-Vietnamese in an audience of around 100, all gathered for an afternoon with Thich Nhat Hahn. I was excited! 

It turned out the audience was primarily Vietnamese refugee boatpeople. 

Thay was introduced by an incredibly beautiful and self-assured woman. 

Thay himself is a very small, very quiet person with a huge presence. 

The crowd was restless, even agitated from the beginning.

The agitation built rather quickly as Thay first spoke of the benefits of mindfulness and then moved on to address the elephant in the room – the pirates. 

At the time, the mayhem created by the pirates was well known and it transpired later Thay was travelling to countries where refugees had settled with the intention of helping relieve their suffering. 

This was the Melbourne leg of the tour!

The message was simple. Stay with the anger, the blame, the rage and continue to suffer personally, or learn to forgive and possibly move on a little and be free to live again. 

Simple message. Incendiary effect.

As the forgiveness message was developed, a corresponding agitation grew and rippled through the audience. I was sitting in the middle of the small hall in which the crowd was rapidly becoming electric. Men were rising in their seats muttering and cursing, women were calling out, and the very real threat of violence was building. Never been in a meeting like it…

The offended 

Finally, a man just in front of me exploded, jumped to his feet and hurled Vietnamese abuse at Thay. The moderator – the beautiful woman – calmly asked him to speak in English! The man switched without missing a beat and I suspect backed up a little to start again…

“How dare you suggest we forgive! 

What gives you the right to speak in such a way to those of us who lost so much.”

The man was screaming and the man beside him was holding him as if to prevent him lunging forward at Thay.

“My family was attacked by pirates. 

They bound me then went to rape one of my daughters. My wife tried to intervene. They shot her and threw her overboard. Then they raped my daughter, shot her and threw her overboard. My younger daughter they raped but let her live. 

How dare you talk to me of forgiveness!”

I had never seen a good idea – that of forgiveness – so powerfully challenged in real life. 

The force of this heart-broken man, the anguish and pain in his voice combined with a rage that was palpable physical. The force of his words; if he had hit Thay, it would not have been much different. And he was not alone; pretty well everyone in the room was at breaking point. 

I waited with some apprehension to see how Thay would respond. Was it possible to turn this around? To transform the energy that was so angry? Was he even going to get out of the hall in one piece?

The Response

I was close enough to observe. Thay was visibly moved and in my own impure observation, a little taken aback. But he was seated as he spoke and he paused. He very deliberately sat back in his chair– just a little – and consciously breathed. I could see it and it left an indelible impression. He returned to his breath; took a few almost imperceptibly deliberate, steading breaths, held his silence for just a few moments and the began to speak in the same calm and steady voice he had been using before the tirade.

These were the days before talks were routinely recorded and it was no time to be taking notes, so I am not quite sure exactly how he did it. He did begin by acknowledging the man’s pain… of course anyone in his situation would be devastated and suffering deeply. He did this with such open sincerity and for long enough that the man began to listen.

Then somehow he skilfully shifted to the pirates and speculated on what sort of life they had led to get to where they could perpetrate such horrors on others. 

As the enraged man settled a little more and the conversation could advance, Thay pointed out how these pirates started as fisherman who lived simple subsistence lives, totally dependent on the sea for food. 

When overfishing from outsiders depleted their food sources and their own families faced starvation, they turned to progressively more aggressive ways of making a living.

There was no pretence that what the pirates did was OK, just an invitation to be a little understanding. An invitation to rethink the context of the trauma they created. An invitation to compassion.

Then Thay moved on to ask the man about how it felt for him personally to suffer so much. At this point the man moved from rage to tears. Between sobs, he spoke fitfully of how much he loved his wife and daughters and of all that had been lost. The mood in the hall by now was also swinging as the audience was also caught in the feeling of collective pain.

Finally – why not forgive? Maybe it is possible? It will not change the fact of what you have been through, but maybe it will free you to live and love more fully once again???

The Aftermath

I do not know how the man’s life unfolded from there; I do hope he found some peace amidst what were extra-ordinarily difficult times.

But for myself, I had witnessed an incredible example of how to be with someone in full on rage; how staying calm and centred made it possible to engage empathetically and compassionately in the face of what seemed initially to be an overwhelming challenge.

While never having a similar confrontation, my work with people impacted by major illness and loss created many highly emotional situations. So I am pleased to be able to retell this story and to acknowledge that Thich Nhat Hahn provided a template for how to be with someone in extreme circumstances.

Thich Nhat Hahn’s list of accomplishments 

is almost unbelievable and well worth reading – LINK HERE. Staggering actually. What a man! What a pleasure to have had some small connection.

In the next blog, visiting Plum Village, listening to Thay in person, walking mindfully and presenting retreats with his monks…


  1. I nearly deleted this newsletter without reading as I was " in a hurry" but followed a nudge to open it and read. What a life lesson for me in what you miss if you dont live in the now! Thank you for sharing this story and amazing example of how to be with people empathetically and with compassion as they share their suffering. I worked with some of the women from Vietnamese Boat community in the 80s in Melbourne (as they were called at that time) and remember being overwhelmed by their stories and pain. This gives me comfort to know Thay was there with them assisting them through their suffering.

  2. Thankyou Ian for sharing your experience of being with Thich Nhat Hanh in Melbourne. I have be guided by Thich's writings and teaching for over 30 years and as you recounted how Thich responded to the rage and pain of the suffering father and husband my thoughts went to one of Thich's poems "Please call me by my true Names". I look forward to reading your next blog of visiting Plum Village. kind regards Stephen Robards

  3. Ian, I remember receiving messages more than six months ago, including from you, that Thich was very close to death and people should meditate and pray for him. After that I kind of assumed he had died. Then in the last several days when I started to see posts about his death I assumed (lots of assuming) that people were reposting old reports. I even commented on one friends post that Thich Nhat Hahn had died around a year ago. More fool me when I found out the truth. I don't think I ever saw him in person. Don't think I did, but not entirely sure. And I don't mean that the 1970s and 80s went by in a blur, like the 60s, and if you remember anything then you weren't there! I mean that I heard a lot of Buddhist monks speak and teach, but I don't remember the names of most of them. Buddhist teaching was not quite as much my area as Yoga and Vedanta. I remember all the yogis and Indian philosopher/gurus I had the good fortune to listen to and learn from. I liked and valued the Buddhist teachers too but didn't quite make that my speciality. I think I would remember Thich though, and I well remember being at your Melbourne living Centre in the '80s when "The Miracle of Mindfulness" was always on the shelf of books for sale. In fact, much later, when 'modern mindfulness' stated to gain traction, being taught mainly by western academics, psychologists etc, I wondered "how come they are not acknowledging Thich Nhat Hahn, the Dalai Lama and the Buddhists who developed the idea of mindfulness? And are they dumbing down the wonderful truths in the mindfulness teaching of Thich?"
    I think if I had seen Thich I would remember that encounter. I saw J Krishnamurti in San Francisco in the early 1980s, in a large civic hall. The stage was utterly bare save for a small chair in the middle. In silence this very small, graying, older man walked slowly out to the chair, was silent a while, then began to speak. And held the large audience spellbound and silent for 90 minutes or so. As you say, I understand Thich was both small and soft spoken. I reckon if he was one of those Buddhist teachers I listened to 30 - 45 years ago it would have stayed with me as powerfully as the small, quiet Krishnamurti has.
    Thanks for your recollections of him. Look forward to the next.

  4. Many thanks Ian. The passing of such a wonderful human being is a loss to us all. He truly did practice what he preached. Looking forward to our next blog.

  5. Thank you for sharing

  6. Thank you for this very valuable teaching