Thich Nhat Hanh died last week at the age of 95. The New York Times described him as a Vietnamese monk “with global influence” who “championed what he called ‘engaged Buddhism,’ applying its principles in pressing for peace.” 

In the 1960s, Nhat Hanh urged Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose the war in Vietnam (King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967) and was instrumental in the process that led to the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. He was a proponent of mindfulness meditation, the practice that, in recent years, has become widespread in the West. My first encounter with mindfulness came through one of his online guided meditations. He had the gentlest voice I’ve ever heard. The experience changed me.

I considered Thich Nhat Hanh one of the “Big Four” spiritual figures in the world.

Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop who partnered with Nelson Mandela to bring about the end of apartheid and who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which enabled South Africa to move beyond the bitterness produced by apartheid, died the day after Christmas at the age of 90. 

Suddenly, the “Big Four” has been reduced by half. That leaves the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis, who are 86 and 85 years old respectively. The deaths of Nhat Hanh and Tutu have left a spiritual void. Who will fill it?

I searched online and found Watkins’ annual list of “the 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People in 2022,” which appeared in the Jan. 13 edition of their magazine. Watkins is a book shop in London that “has been encouraging spiritual discovery and providing seekers with esoteric knowledge for over 120 years.” They began their annual 100 list in 2011 “with the goal of celebrating the world’s living spiritual teachers.” According to their criteria, the list’s choices are based on being frequently googled, appearing in Nielsen data, having a Wikipedia page, and being “actively talked about throughout the internet.” That makes the selections more democratic, they say. 

The Watkins list has Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama at #1 and 2. Somehow, Gwyneth Paltrow appears on the list (for the first time) at #9, whereas Thich Nhat Hanh is #38. Go figure. Desmond Tutu is #6 with an asterisk (he died after the magazine went to print). 

Their list features the dynamic teen eco-activist Greta Thunberg (at a lofty #3). I would include her as well, but I would add another young activist, Malala Youfsazi, who promotes education for women worldwide. Watkins and I agree on Franciscan priest/author Richard Rohr, but I would include Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer/educator and, though I’ve only read one of his books, Jon Pavlovitz, author of If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk. I would also add Jack Miles, a former Jesuit (and former Oak Park resident), whose two books, God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, changed the way I view the Bible.

My list makes room for Dr. Paul Farmer, who founded Partners in Health in Haiti and has since expanded his health care network globally. My only politician is Jimmy Carter, our most spiritually inspiring president (since Abraham Lincoln).

The Watkins list includes celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey (#7) and Ariana Huffington (#25). Influential? Definitely. Spiritual? I don’t know. And that goes for the many authors on the list: Eckhart Tolle, Matthew Fox, Paulo Coelho, Alice Walker, Deepak Chopra, Pema Chodron, Don Miguel Ruiz (author of The Four Agreements), Ken Wilber, Jack Kornfield, Eben Alexander, Tara Brach, Caroline Myss (an Oak Park resident), Richard Bach (who reportedly wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull while living in Oak Park), Marianne Williamson (who ran for president), Karen Armstrong (historian of religion), Gary Zukav, Elaine Pagels, and beat poet Gary Snyder. All have reputations and a following, but it’s one thing to write wisely about spirituality. It’s another to live it beyond the written word.

The only other institutional religious figures I recognized on the list were Rowan Williams and Justin Welby, the 104th and 105th archbishops of Canterbury respectively. I was particularly impressed by Williams when he was interviewed for On Being.

I could compile a worthy list just by going through the roster of Krista Tippett’s interviewees over the past 20 years, including Michael Pollan this past Sunday, who has written much about food and the potential of plants, most recently the spiritual and therapeutic benefits of psychedelics used in a safe, structured, guided setting. I would add Tippett herself to my list because her show has had a significant influence on my spiritual development. 

My list also includes personal mentors, one of whom, Alex Rakowski, died this past year at the age of 90. Others are Charlie Finn and Bill Burke (youngsters in their 80s) and Fr. Jim O’Connor (Trappist monk at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa, who is deaf and living in the eternal now in his late 90s; he, too, grew up in Oak Park).

I would add Fr. Mike Pfleger (pastor/activist at St. Sabina’s Parish in Chicago), Greg Boyle (a Jesuit who works with gang members in L.A.), Nuns on the Bus, Sr. Joan Chittister (a firebrand for change), and Vinnie Ferraro (who found mindfulness by way of prison). 

I’m still mourning Civil Rights icon John Lewis, eco-activist/author Barry Lopez, Catholic writer extraordinaire Brian Doyle, and poet Mary Oliver, all of whom died recently but left a wonderful legacy. Writers, at least, remain with us through their words after they depart.

What distinguishes spiritual giants, on the other hand, is their living presence, which reassures and reinforces. Influential and inspiring? Yes, but also living their spiritual values beyond the cultural spotlight. Their impact is felt worldwide. They provide guidance and wisdom, but also serve as exemplary role models, with unquestioned holiness, or at least wholeness. They have tamed or transcended ego, which is to say achieved humility, while articulating a vision for improving the world that is universally applicable and achievable. Living with evident simplicity, exuding authenticity, demonstrating compassion. Plus the quality that these four have (or had) in abundance: Joy.

A high bar indeed … and in deed.

Spiritual role models help us believe that genuine goodness is still possible. They serve as a touchstone, an antidote to cynicism — Nhat Hanh’s persistent peacemaking, Tutu’s commitment to reconciliation, Francis’ tender care for the poor and displaced, and the Dalai Lama’s indomitable smile in exile. 

Yet we are surrounded every day by the goodness of those who never enter the spotlight. We don’t really need spiritual giants to get where we’re going.

We just need everyone going in the same direction.

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