In the last six months we’ve lost three leaders whose contributions to peace and reconciliation will last beyond our lifetimes. Desmond Tutu’s work on behalf of interpreting and organizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa is best known today. Among activists and advocates for peace, Thich Nhat Hanh’s role as the leading Vietnamese Buddhist peacemaker is well known in the U.S. and Europe. Less widely known at present is the African-American feminist and Buddhist writer bell hooks. Her meeting with “Thay” or “teacher” as Nhat Hanh was called by his followers bolstered hooks’ growth in Buddhist thought.
The former Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) Emma Jordan-Simpson described bell hooks’ account of meeting Thay in the late 1960’s with these words:
“When she (hooks) was introduced to Thay, she blurted it out: “I’m so angry!” Immediately she felt ashamed. In the presence of a loving teacher, she was only able to bring up the ugliness she was feeling inside!” Simpson continues with Thay’s response. “Thay’s words to bell hooks are the words that all of us who are exhausted and depleted by what it means to live in a world perpetually at war, but who are still able to feel anger, need to hear and to hold.”
Thay said to hooks, “Hold on to your anger and use it as compost in your garden.” The FOR Director commented on hooks’ encounter, “We are angry that we live in a perpetual state of war and we are angry about what these times are revealing to us. But we reveal who we are when we can find ways to use that anger as compost in gardens growing peace”.
Martin Luther King acknowledged Thich Nhat Hanh as having helped lead him to oppose publicly the U.S. War in Vietnam. After his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in April, 1967 King nominated the Buddhist leader for the Nobel Peace Prize. His conversation with Thay was arranged by the FOR, which sponsored Nhat Hanh’s tour of the U.S. after the escalation in Vietnam. Thay’s gentle, forceful presence accompanied by words of profound compassion for perpetrators and victims of the War on his country led many other people in the U.S. to question if not strongly oppose their nation’s mission in Vietnam. His stories and views had a profound impact on people’s stance on the War. But it was also his interpretations and descriptions of Buddhist practices that made a lasting impression on the lives of many.
In a 1974 article for Fellowship magazine, the journal of FOR, Thay wrote about one encounter with a U.S. Christian. “One day I was asked by a Christian in a bus: ‘Why do you monks burn yourselves to death? It is an awful thing.’ I tried to explain to him what Thich Quang Duc wanted when he set himself on fire. But the gentleman did not want to listen. He said ‘I can’t understand a religion that allows its members to burn themselves.’”
Thay then reflected in the article on the encounter, “I could have told him that I did not believe that Christianity could allow its followers to go and burn other people either. Thousands of women and children have been burned by napalm that was dropped from the sky. But what is the purpose of such a discussion?” Nhat Hanh concludes, “The only thing that counts is the ability to understand the pain of a brother. And this brother is neither a number nor a concept. This brother is made of real flesh and skin and feeling.” He then comments with the insight, “We cannot recognize our brother through an ideology or a political label. People have been shooting at labels and by doing so they have shot many of their brothers and sisters.”
Thich Nhat Hanh concludes the opening chapter of his best known book in English, The Miracle of Mindfulness with the question, “If you spend all day practicing mindfulness, how will there ever be enough time to change and build an alternative society”. His answer follows with his calligraphy on the next page:
His practice of “breathing mindfully” is clearly and powefully elaborated for readers unfamiliar with Buddhist thought and many in the West have integrated his instructions in their own meditation. When one is able to live mindfully one is in control of our constantly distracted mind and be fully present in the moment. The essential component of “mindfulness” is attention to our breath. Thay explains, “You should know how to breathe to maintain mindfulness, as breathing is a natural and extremely effective tool which can prevent dispersion. Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of our mind again.”
Order a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness from your local indie bookshop. It comes in all formats including audiobook.
Read about the friendship of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh in a book available in the Fellowship of Reconciliation bookstore. Also available at the website below is a copy of the Spring 2020 issue of Fellowship magazine devoted to Thich Nhat Hanh’s articles and poems for the magazine as well as peacmakers’ tributes.
On Being host Krista Tippett paid tribute to Thay in a podcast this winter and replayed her earlier interview with him at: