Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Simple, Quiet Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh was perhaps the softest-spoken man I've ever encountered. My wife and I went to see him deliver a public lecture, sometime in the early 2000s. I can no longer recall the exact date or the venue, but I'm pretty sure it was on a university campus in Chicago. As he sat lotus-style, surrounded by fellow monks, he spoke so calmly and quietly into the microphone that we strained to hear his words coming out of the auditorium's sound system. But just being in the presence of such a spiritual giant was in itself an experience I'll never forget.

My wife woke me up this morning with the sad news that the man affectionately known as Thay, or "teacher," had died. The 95-year-old Buddhist monk had been in poor health for several years since suffering a massive stroke that left him unable to speak. Having been exiled from his native Vietnam for his peacemaking efforts during the war that tore the country apart, he built a monastic community in France and lived there until he was finally allowed to come home in 2018. He lived out his final years at the Vietnamese temple where he was ordained a monk in 1942.

I first encountered Thay when I was immersed in the study of Buddhism. I was something of an armchair Buddhist for about 15 years, having taken an intrerest in the tradition after walking away from the Catholicism of my upbringing. Thay's book Living Buddha, Living Christ helped me build a bridge from one faith to the other, and it also opened my eyes to the reality that no single religion held an exclusive claim to the Truth. At their core, they all attempted to either point us toward union with the divine or to imbue us with the humility to see ourselves in others. 

The Buddhists excelled in the latter, and Thay in particular focused his teachings on the concept of "interbeing," the observation that none of us exists independently, and that once we can clearly perceive the intricate web of existence of which we're all a part, we will become more naturally inclined to treat others, and our world, with greater love and compassion. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, Christ said, and if we see ourselves in others, then why would we even want to do them harm? Thay once astutely observed that to love your enemies, as the Sermon on the Mount teaches us, is impossible -- not because of the repulsion we might feel toward an enemy, but because once you truly love your enemy, both you and your enemy have been transformed, such that the other person is no longer your enemy but your friend. Understanding the essence of interbeing, seeing ourselves in others, grows our compassion toward others, as we see that they suffer and struggle through life just as we do. 

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about Thay was that he believed this to be true, in his deepest heart of hearts. He genuinely thought that the world could achieve lasting peace by tirelessly striving toward embracing the tenets of interbeing. And he embraced those ideals in the way he lived his life. He was the quietest, gentlest, most humble man on the outside, but inside he possessed an unwavering belief that practicing peace and compassion, without compromise, would transform the world. Still waters run deep, they say, and few embodied that truth as well as Thay did. It would have been a grave mistake to interpret his outer gentleness as a sign of inner indifference.

Dr. Martin Luther King, himself a peaceful giant of a man, saw these qualities in Thay and nominated the monk for the Nobel Peace Prize. "He is an Apostle of Peace and Nonviolence," Dr. King wrote. "His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity."

Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who took a shine to Zen philosophy and was friends with the Dalai Lama, considered himself a spiritual contemporary of Thay, inasmuch as they shared a vision for the world built on a compassionate union of humanity that cut across all artificial boundaties. Merton had this to say about Thay when the Zen monk faced potential persecution in his Vietnamese homeland for standing up for peace:

I have said Nhat Hanh is my brother, and it is true. We are both monks, and we have lived the monastic life about the same number of years. We are both poets, both existentialists. I have far more in common with Nhat Hanh than I have with many Americans, and I do not hesitate to say it. It is vitally important that such bonds be admitted. They are the bonds of a new solidarity and a new brotherhood which is beginning to be evident on all the five continents and which cuts across all political, religious, and cultural lines to unite young men and women in every country in something that is more concrete than an ideal and more alive than a program. This unity of the young is the only hope of the world.

I liked to think of myself as a Thomas Merton-Dorothy Day Catholic when I came back to the church. Merton, like Thay, saw the common threads that bind humanity together, superseding our surface differences; and he embraced the value of unity in diversity, for even if we hold to religious expressions that look very different at first glance, he unuderstood that those religions are driven by the same basic root impulses and desires. Dorothy Day, meanwhile, lived a commendable life of feeding, clothing, and sheltering the poor and needy, embodying Christ's call for his followers to do so when he told them in the 25th chapter of Matthew, "Whatsoever you did for the least of these, my brethren, you did for me." 

And I still believe that being a good Catholic, let alone a good Christian, means, first and foremost, following the moral and ethical example that Christ left for us. Slavish devotion to dogmatic minutiae misses the point and leads to self-righteous Pharisaism, but just saying you believe without putting in an effort to imitate the compassionate heart of Christ isn't enough. And condemning others for the speck in their eye while you have a log in your own only makes you a self-righteous hypocrite. Our job, as Jordan Peterson so magnificently stated it, is to "pick up your damn cross and stumble up the hill." We will suffer in this life. The Buddha told us that, and so did Christ. How we react to that suffering determines our capacity for inner transformation. Will we reach Nirvana? Will we find the Kingdom of God within ourselves? Not without putting in the hard work to change ourselves. 

I can see in myself how I'm losing the battle. I'm not the person I was when my wife and I went to see Thay giving his lecture. When I returned to the Catholic church with a fresh perspective gained from my spiritual travels through the East, I would have defended the strident Anabaptist and Quaker view of every Christian's responsibility toward cultivating peaceful nonviolence and unconditional enemy-love, based on a straightforward reading of the Sermon on the Mount. That we are called to unconditionally reject violence, hatred, and anger is a view that Thay himself promoted. 

But the world we inhabit makes living out those values tremendously difficult. In many ways, it feels as if we're reverting to a new Dark Ages, where the iron hand of a tyrannical and all-powerful church is being revived, but this time by way of secular forces bent on silencing, demonizing, alienating, and ostracizing anyone who deviates from its unbending and frequently irrational dogma. As civic religion declines, a zealous political religion is rapidly filling the void left behind, leaving in its wake a hostile society that's exceedingly difficult to meet with love and compassion. When massive authoritarian institutional powers want to control your movements, dictate what you can and can't say, and either praise or condemn you based on your outward appearance and immutable characteristics, how do you not respond with anger and hostility? How do you not resign yourself to utter despair? How do you rise above and resist the temptation to become the mirror image of that which despises you?

The obvious answer is that you just knuckle down and do it. You pick up your damn cross and stumble up the hill. But that takes a trememdous force of will. Anyone can practice equanimity in peaceful times, but doing it in the midst of a chaotic world that stands in hostile opposition to your very existence is the stuff of heroes. And yet as the likes of Dr. King and Gandhi have shown us, nonviolent passive resistance has the power to topple even the greatest of evils. There's something to be said for flipping tables in the temple to draw attention and make a dramatic point, but holy men like Thich Nhat Hanh would tell us that remaining steadfast in our commitment to peaceful interbeing is the only surefire way to defeat hatred and evil.

I used to believe the same. For me, Thay's death offers an opportunity to reflect on how to embrace those values in such challenging and tumlutuous times. 

One may counter that it's easy to preach peace from the safety of a monastic community detached from the everyday world. And yet we see where the alternative leads -- which makes me believe that, far from being empty platitudes of passivity, Thay's words are as insightful and potentially life-changing as those of the Sermon on the Mount, in that living a life of peace is just about the hardest thing you can do, yet it also holds an unmatched potential for changing both us and the world we live in. 

Merton said of Thay that his efforts toward peace, which came at a high personal price, illustrated that "we are people who still desire the truth where we can find it and still decide in favor of man against the political machine when we get a fair chance to do so." Merton, in other words, understood that politics is not our savior. It won't lead us to any kind of lasting truth or peace, because politics only understands power and focuses on temporary solutions to fleeting social problems. Relatedly, my wife, in bringing me the news about Thay this morning, observed that we don't hear as much about the Dalai Lama as we used to. I think she's right, and I think that in itself a sign of how the spiritual is being subsumed by the political in our world. We're increasingly tuning out our spiritual mentors in favor of finding salvation in our political tribes. 

Great minds like Merton's and Thay's pointed us toward something bigger, more deeply transformative. Perhaps it is only through bringing the power of the eternal spiritual to bear on the temporal and ephemeral realm of the political that we'll be able to rise above what troubles us in this life.

In that regard, maybe Thay's message to the world wasn't the foolishly naive optimism that a jaded world might regard it as being, but rather the deepest of wisdom -- perhaps the only kind of wisdom that can save us in the long run.

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