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After Thay: Plum Village Reckons With the Loss of Its Founder

After Thay: Plum Village Reckons With the Loss of Its Founder

After Thay: Plum Village Reckons With the Loss of Its Founder

This article was originally published on Tricycle with the support of CRCC’s global project on engaged spirituality

Monastics in long brown robes entered the hall for formal lunch in order of seniority, the longest ordained members of the Plum Village tradition leading the way. Monks on one side of the room and nuns on the opposite, they sat down on purple mats and pillows and adjusted their robes like blankets over their crossed legs. Backs straight, hands in their laps, eyes cast down or closed, they waited as their brothers, sisters, and lay visitors—about 200 people in all—filled in the rows behind them.

One mat at the front of the room was left empty, covered in a simple brown quilt. An orchid with twenty delicate yellow flowers sat in front of it, along with a simple wood placard bearing the word ThayThay is Vietnamese for “teacher,” and the placard held the seat of the founder of the community, Thich Nhat Hanh. In January of 2020, when I visited Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh had already moved back to Vietnam to live out the last of his days at his home temple. He died in January 2022.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote more than one hundred books, and his teachings on mindfulness, engaged Buddhism, and interbeing (his word for interconnectedness) have been influential within and beyond Buddhism. His legacy can also be seen in the formal lunch—monastic and lay students together seeking to embody what he taught.

Thich Nhat Hanh did not name a successor. If the Buddha is to be reborn in the 21st century, “he will manifest in the form of ‘A Beloved Community,’” he wrote, referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a community committed to equality, justice, and nonviolent reconciliation.

Yet our attachments to our egos can impede harmony even among the most well-intentioned followers. From the Buddha’s death onward, power struggles and division have resulted in the development of various schools, often with differing ideas about the transmission of authority. Throughout history and into modern times, Buddhist sects—as well as those within Christianity, Islam, and other religions—have splintered following the passing of charismatic leaders.

Such leaders, the foundational sociological thinker Max Weber theorized, earn their authority based on their charisma or “divinely conferred” gifts. There is contention among scholars about how Weber’s theories apply to Eastern and nontheistic cultures, says Rhys Williams, a sociologist who studies religious organizations at Loyola University Chicago. Yet he adds, Thich Nhah Hanh undoubtedly held authority grounded in his unique qualities and abilities, to use a more secular definition of charisma.

Charisma allows leaders to push boundaries and bring social change, for better or worse, which also makes their deaths a particularly volatile time, Williams explains. In communities that survive the loss of a charismatic leader, Weber saw that authority tends to move to either the person who can claim the closest connection to the past leader or to the person who qualifies based on an agreed-upon set of rules, such as winning an election. In these ways, charisma becomes institutionalized, allowing it to last beyond the lifetime of a singular person.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s death offers an opportunity to see how the dynamics play out in one Buddhist community today. Since his stroke in 2014, his followers have tried to maintain the ineffable qualities that lent him his charismatic authority. For his monastic continuation in particular, doing so presents intertwined challenges: they must maintain a young tradition and stay true to his spirit by pushing at its bounds—all while no single person holds authority.

Click here to read the full article on Tricycle

Megan Sweas is the editor and director of communications with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.