Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, writer, and peace activist, died on Saturday at age 95. We share one of his poems in honor of his life and legacy.

Some background: After the Vietnam War, Hanh lived in Plum Village in southern France, where he had been forced into exile from Vietnam. People in refugee camps in Southeast Asia wrote to him about the suffering of the boat people, how half of those fleeing died in the ocean.

One cause of death was sea pirates. One day Hanh received a letter about a young, twelve-year-old girl who was raped by a Thai pirate. Afterward, she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself.

Hanh wrote,

When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate.

But we can’t do that.

In my meditation, I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, I would now be the pirate…

In my meditation, I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates…

If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we might become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.

In response, Hanh created a poem about three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and himself.  He called the poem “Please Call Me by My True Names.”

He wondered, “Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The title of the poem is because I have so many names. When I hear one of the of these names, I have to say, “Yes.””

“Please Call Me by My True Names”

Do not say that I’ll 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 are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when Spring comes,
arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the 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 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 so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

+ Thich Nhat Hanh

(This poem was shared online on January 22, 2022, by SALT Project.)


Hanh asks, “Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other?”

How does this poem wake you up and open the door of your heart?


-Written by Rev. Ann Palmerton

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  1. Martha Campbell January 27, 2022 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    This poem says clearly we cannot dismiss what others suffer and must even live into their suffering. We are now having a very hard time as a country doing that especially because of the pandemic, but also politically where we have a mindset of “I got mine you get yours”. Our faith and BSPC gives us the poetry of the Bible to overcome that if we have ears to hear, but it is truly a never ending journey.

  2. Betty Lou Stull January 27, 2022 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    This is a great reminder that we have no control of the circumstances of our birth- no control over the status or values of our parents, no control over location, no control over anything until we are born and then reach maturity.

  3. Jim Wilson January 27, 2022 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    I appreciate the empathy, but question whether empathy for both sides is enough to constitute compassion. I am not only the girl and the pirate, but me, with agency and a need to try to change the systems that create the pirate and the girl. I really appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh and his insights into what it is to be present, but I think there is more than he suggests in our relationship with the girl and the pirate.

  4. Jodi Jarrett January 28, 2022 at 6:44 am - Reply

    Wow. This is hard to see when you know people that are traumatized by rape and child abuse. I understand what he is saying and I do feel sympathy for the pirate’s situation, but to me that is never an excuse for abuse of another, especially a child.

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