HUE, VIETNAM (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Vietnamese on Saturday (Jan 29) bidded farewell to the late monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh - one of the world's most influential religious leaders - ahead of his cremation ceremony in the country's Buddhist heartland.
The Zen master, who was credited with bringing mindfulness to the West and whose reach in Buddhism was seen as second only to the Dalai Lama, died aged 95 a week ago at the Tu Hieu Pagoda in the central city of Hue.
His remains were taken to an open cremation site on Saturday morning, followed by a crowd of tens of thousands including Buddhist monks in yellow and brown robes and followers dressed in grey.
The procession chanted Buddhist prayers and, unlike ordinary Vietnamese funerals, there were no speeches.
"We must bid farewell to our master. He plays an important role in my family's life, helping us through our most difficult moments," said Mr Do Quan, a follower who travelled from Hanoi with his wife and son.
Widely known as the father of mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote more than 100 books on the practice and hosted retreats worldwide.
He spent nearly four decades in exile advocating for religious freedom around the world after being barred from his homeland for calling for an end to the Vietnam-American War.
In 1967, US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, telling the committee in a letter: "This gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity."
Vietnamese authorities permitted him to return to the communist country in 2018, but plainclothes police kept watch outside his pagoda compound, closely monitoring his activities.
"I don't understand why even now, the Vietnamese state did not send top leaders to pay tribute to this great man," said a follower who identified himself only as Nam from Ho Chi Minh.
"He deserved so much more. But I think he did not need the authorities' support. He was among the people, that was the greatest thing of all."
A convoy of hundreds of cars and motorbikes - many decked out with flowers - escorted Thich Nhat Hanh's coffin from the Tu Hieu Pagoda to the cremation site.
Along the ancient Hue streets, locals knelt down in prayer.
"The No. 1 man among Hue people," said local resident Vu Van Hiep.
The revered monk's body will be cremated in two days.
He requested his relics be divided up and partly housed at the Tu Hieu Pagoda, as well as sent to his Zen teaching organisation Plum Village's locations worldwide, including to France.
Tributes to the monk have poured in from all over the globe, including from the Dalai Lama, world leaders and Hollywood.