He's taller than you'd expect -- especially for a Vietnamese man -- and
thinner. He has big ears and huge eyes set deep into his face, giving
the impression that he is watching you very closely but from very far
away. And he speaks so softly that you have to pay exquisite attention
or miss his point entirely. Maybe that's his point.
A Buddhist teacher friend of mine calls his brand Buddhism Lite, and I
agreed when I first saw Thich Nhat Hanh address a packed
auditorium at Berkeley High School in California in 1988. His simple
message and his demure persona convinced me that this guy was never
going to catch on in the West.
Little did I know.
Many people already knew he had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize
by Martin Luther King for his anti-Vietnam War activities, speeches and
writings. Thay, as he is commonly called by his students (it means
teacher), was lecturing at Columbia University in 1963 when he saw the
oft-published photo that riveted and repulsed and galvanized anyone
with a sentient heart: the Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc
sitting in full lotus position, sitting as still as if he were in deep
meditation, but in fact sitting fully engulfed in flames in a Saigon
plaza. Thay rushed home realizing that the conflagration was about to
rage out of control in the country he so dearly loved. Working nonstop,
he mobilized his community of monks to rebuild bombed out homes, to
resettle homeless people, to organize agricultural cooperatives.
At that time he set up the Order of Inter-being, a phrase reflecting a
clever poet's love of wordplay as well as a sublime comprehension of
Buddhism. In the most economic fashion, the word speaks volumes about
the law of cause and effect, about karma, with respect to our global
community. My interpretation of Inter-being: OK, fine, you practiced
mindful meditation enough to move from simply "doing" to "being." Now
what are you going to do with being? Wallow in it? Or take that insight
further, to your relationships -- with family, with friends, with
lovers, with colleagues, with yourself. That is, are you ready to learn
how to "be" together, to inter-be? It expresses the Buddhist concept of
interdependence, and is at the heart of the socially engaged Buddhism
movement, a term Thay himself is credited with creating. Eventually the
Communist-led Vietnamese government, quite perturbed by his activities,
forced him to exile to France.
Even after the Paris Peace Accord was signed in 1973 and Thay was still
denied reentry into Vietnam, he led efforts from France to rescue
countrymen fleeing Vietnam by boats. He established the Unified
Buddhist Church in France. In 1982, he and his community of monks
founded Plum Village, a retreat center in southern France for lay
meditators and monks; it also serves as a center for the study and
practice of conflict negotiation and peace. Plum Village today is more
vibrant than ever, as are Thay's centers in South Woodstock, Vermont,
Escondido, California, and Pine Bush, New York.
Buddhism Lite, indeed.
I met Rev. Hanh on a warm August day at Plum Village, 90 kilometers
east of Bordeaux, a region more famous to devotees of the god Bacchus
than of the Buddha. We sat inside his cottage which overlooked a
patchwork quilt of rich, green vineyards interspersed with radiant
yellow sunflowers -- a landscape that would have had Van Gogh running
for his easel. He had accepted my request to interview him for National
Geographic Magazine on one condition, a condition he requires of all
journalists no matter how prestigious the publication. First I had to
sit his retreat, then I could conduct the interview. I welcomed the
opportunity after being on the road way too long.
I got there as a retreat was in progress for the Vietnamese Diaspora,
an in-gathering of families and friends who had settled in far-flung
Western countries after fleeing Vietnam in 1975, when the Communists
took over their country. Though I have attended many retreats over the
years, I had never attended one led by Rev. Hanh. But that was not why
I felt like a fish out of water. The fact was I felt little in common
with Vietnamese people. I had never been to Vietnam. I knew little to
nothing about their culture, except that I loved their spring rolls.
Though I had protested the Vietnam War, had been tear-gassed at Dupont
Circle in 1969 in Washington, D.C., had seen them on television through
the '60s and and '70s, their faces speaking the international language
of grief and terror, I had never actually met a Vietnamese person.
But over several days, the Vietnamese of Plum Village won my heart with
their warmth and compassion, with their good humor, curiosity and
intelligence, with their friendliness after some initial shyness -- and
with their spring rolls. They exemplify the human condition: they have
suffered immeasurably and they have hope.
Between the sittings, Thay's talks took me somewhat aback. Knowing his
role in influencing a more socially and politically relevant Buddhism,
I was surprised that his lectures were about everyday mundane
relationships -- about open communication between parents and children,
about keeping love vibrant and new between husband and wife, about the
importance of non-discrimination and mutual understanding in the
increasing number of relationships between couples of different
religious and cultural backgrounds.
When I finally got to interview him, I could hardly wait to ask:
"Aren't there enough relationship gurus?" I was thinking of Dr. Phil,
John Gray, Oprah and others who impart their "truth" to us between
commercial breaks, in books, on books-on-tape, on DVDs and videos ad
nauseam. "Aren't there more important issues to discuss?"
"Such as wear, violence, death, economic and environmental problems,
terrorism?" he asked rhetorically. My tape recorder seemed to strain as
much as me to hear his softly spoken and carefully chosen words. "The
conflict in the Middle East, tension between religious groups -- these
are all about relationships. We create ignorance through poor
communication. Misunderstanding begins in the microcosm, between two
people. It creates fear and fear creates violence. When you act with
violence and anger, you only create more violence and anger. The
majority of people who come here suffer from relationship, health and
money problems. But if your relationships are good, then you are happy,
your health improves, and you'll be more successful in your
I had forgotten, as we often do, that profundity comes in the simplest
truth. I was not surprised that, like all good Buddhist teachers, Thay
brought his abiding message back to the cushion.
"It all starts with a spin on an old adage," he said with a wry smile.
"Don't just do something; sit there. With all this socially engaged
work, with interpersonal relationships, with inter-being, first you
must learn what the Buddha learned, to still the mind. They you don't
take action; action takes you."
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