Lessons on Death, Life & Everything Between with Thich That Hanh

If you find yourself here, you’re likely someone who has spent a great deal of time contemplating your own mortality. 

Or, perhaps you came here because you’d like to get more intimate with your mortality.

Either way, we’re glad you’re here. Because we have the honor and privilege to sit with and contemplate on one of the most famed Buddhist monks of our time, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thich Nhat Hanh recently passed away, and in honor of him, we offer some poems, quotes and contemplations written by him in his lifetime on life, death and everything in between.

Take in these lessons and let them soothe your fears, feelings on loss, life, and death, below:


On Fear of Death

A gentle reminder that this body may die, but our spirit lives on forever:

This body is not me. I am not limited by this body.

I am life without boundaries.

I have never been born,

And I have never died.

– Contemplation on no-coming and no-going by Thich Nhat Hanh


On Becoming Nothing

We are always wanting to “become” something. But what if our greatest ally was to become nothing? Thich Nhat Hanh offers us this contemplation to comfort our fears on dying and loss:

“Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a life span beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die. We believe that we are born from nothing and when we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with fear of annihilation.

The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.”


On Suffering 

We all avoid suffering like the plague (too soon for a joke on plagues?), but what if suffering was actually our greatest teacher? This quote offers that in a beautiful, simple way:

“We have the tendency to run away from suffering and to look for happiness. But, in fact, if you have not suffered, you have no chance to experience real happiness.”


On Honoring Our Ancestral Wisdom Within

We have so much to learn from those who have come before us, that lives within us. This reference to the plum tree is a perfect example of that lesson:

“Look into a plum tree.  In each plum on the tree there is a pit.  That pit contains the plum tree and all previous generations of plum tree.  The plum pit contains an eternity of plum trees.  Inside the pit is an intelligence and wisdom that knows how to become a plum tree, how to produce branches, leaves, flowers and plums.  It cannot do this on its own.  It can only do this because it has received the experience and heritage of so many generations of ancestors.  You are the same.  You possess the wisdom and intelligence of how to become a full human being  because you inherited an eternity of wisdom not only from your blood ancestors but from your spiritual ancestors, too.”

– Excerpt from No Death, No Fear


On Touching Deathlessness

This poem touches such a depth on the topic of death that changed my ideas on it forever:

Death comes

with his impressive scythe

and says,

“You should be afraid of me.”

I look up and ask,

“Why should I be afraid of you?”

“Because I will make you dead.

I will make you nonexistent.”

“How can you make me nonexistent?”


Death does not answer.

He swings his impressive scythe.


I say, “I come and I go. Then I come again. And I go again.

I always come back. You can neither make me exist nor nonexist.”

“How do you know that you will come again?” Death asks.

“I know because I have done that countless times,” I say.

“How do I know that you are telling the truth?

Who can be the witness?” Death frowns.


I touch the Earth and say,

“Earth is the witness. She is my mother.”


Suddenly, Death hears the music.

Suddenly, Death hears the birds singing from all directions.

Suddenly, Death sees the trees blossoming.

Earth makes herself apparent to Death

and smiles lovingly to him.

Death melts in the loving gaze of Earth.


O my beloved,

touch Earth every time you get scared.

Touch her deeply,

and your sorrow will melt away.

Touch her deeply,

and you will touch the Deathless.

– Published in Call Me by My True Names


On Truly Living

In the face of death, we must ask ourselves… are we truly living? This quote is a beautiful reminder of that:

“Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.”


On The Miracle of Impermanence

Change is one of the hardest things to grapple with in our human existence. However, it’s also the only constant in our life. This quote by Thich Nhat Hanh gives me hope on the impermanence of all that life touches:

“We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side.  Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.  Life itself is possible.  If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn.  If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat.  If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman.  Then your grandchildren would never manifest.  So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, ‘Warm welcome and long live impermanence.’ We should be happy.  When we can see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.”


On The In-Escapable Nature of Death

Here is a chant that Nhat Hanh shares that is recited daily in Buddhist Monasteries: 

‘Breathing in and out, I am aware of the fact that I am of the nature to die; I cannot escape dying.  I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot escape old age.  I am of the nature to get sick.  Because I have a body, I cannot avoid sickness.  Everything I cherish, treasure and cling to today, I will have to abandon one day.  The only thing I can carry with me is the fruit of my own action.  I cannot bring along with me anything else except the fruit of my actions in terms of thought, speech and bodily acts.’” 


On Polarity And Truth

This poem was read to me in a special ceremony right after the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh and it has stuck with me since. The last stanzas are so beautiful, and its entirety reminds us that we are everything we see, the light and the dark. We are life and death. We are all of it, and that its ok:

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—

even today I am still arriving.


Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.


I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.


I am a mayfly metamorphosing

on the surface of the river.

And I am the bird

that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.


I am a frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond.

And I am the grass-snake

that silently feeds itself on the frog.


I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.


I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.


And I am also the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.


I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his “debt of blood” to my people

dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.


My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.


Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.


Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up

and the door of my heart

could be left open,

the door of compassion.


About Thich Nhat Hanh

According to Wikipedia:

Thích Nhất Hạnh was a Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, peace activist, prolific author, poet, teacher, and founder of the Plum Village Tradition, historically recognized as the main inspiration for engaged Buddhism. Known as the “father of mindfulness”, Nhất Hạnh was a major influence on Western practices of Buddhism. 

In memory of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thank you for your wisdom and teachings.


What did you get from these excerpts, lessons and teachings? Tell us below in the comments!

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  1. funeralOne Blog » Blog Archive Lessons on Death, Life & Everything Between with Thich That Hanh – funeral

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  2. Gloria Morales Curtin

    His words bring peace & purpose