Out of the Monastery, Into the World

By Alix Madrigal Though he spends more time with monks and nuns than politicians, Zen Buddhist monk and best-selling author Thich Nhat Hanh—Peace Is Every Step and the new Living Buddha, Living Christ—is no stranger to world affairs. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk forged his philosophy of "engaged Buddhism" during the war in Vietnam, and his subsequent efforts to end that war got him both exiled from his country and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Still, Nhat Hanh was surprised to receive a call from the Gorbachev Foundation asking him to speak in San Francisco at its State of the World Forum. His first instinct, Nhat Hanh said recently, was to refuse. "I don't feel comfortable with politicians. But friends suggested that I meet with the politicians and share something with them. So I sent a message that if the organizers made time for the politicians to practice a day of mindfulness, I'd be glad to talk. I thought they'd never accept that."

Much to Nhat Hanh's surprise, his offer was accepted. Except, as politicians were involved, there had to be a certain amount of compromise, which is how Nhat Hanh came to lead the likes of MargaretThatcher, George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, James Baker, George Shultz, Mario Cuomo, and Ted Turner in a half-day of walking meditation and mindful breathing. Mindfulness and meditation, central to Buddhism, may be new to politicians and unfamiliar to most Christians and Jews, but Nhat Hanh believes that, in spirit, the religions aren't really all that different—and that being the case, people are better off sticking with their own tradition.

Living Buddha, Living Christ began several years ago at a retreat in Munich in which fifty percent of the participants were Christians. Much of the book, which points out the similarities in the two great leaders and the two great religions, came from the transcripts of Nhat Hanh's talks at that retreat. "I think we should not be caught in words and concepts," he says. "All of us need love, and if you practice well as a Christian, you generate love and understanding. If you practice Buddhism well, you generate very much the same energy. And we can learn from each other."

While Nhat Hanh sees no conflict in embracing both religions—some of his students, he says, are ministers, and he has Christ on his altar alongside the Buddha—he strongly believes that what's important "is to get in touch with the true values of your spiritual tradition, to feel rooted in your culture. That is why," he says, "I never advise a person to abandon his or her roots, spiritual or cultural, and embrace something else. I always tell people to go back to their tradition, to discover its value and beauties and get their nourishment there."

At his community in France, Nhat Hanh says, every time they plant a tree they have a special meditation. "I entrust myself to earth, and earth entrusts herself to me. I entrust myself to the Buddha and the Buddha entrusts himself to me." Just as the tree needs the earth for life and the earth needs the tree to protect and enrich its soil, Nhat Hanh says he needs the Buddha for spiritual guidance and the Buddha needs him for his work to live in the world. "In the same way, Christians need Christ and Jesus needs Christians."

One Christian who Nhat Hanh chastises in the book is Pope John Paul II, who in his own book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, contends that Christ is "the one mediator between God and humanity."

That was not written in anger, Nhat Hanh says. "I myself and many of my friends have suffered a lot from war, and the deepest wounds of the war stem from the lack of tolerance. That is why I always oppose intolerance. I think my friends who are Christians understand and are for true dialogue and the effort to dissipate misunderstanding and prejudice. I count very much on their support."

Nhat Hanh practices "engaged" Buddhism, taking it out of the monastery and into the world. The practice began during the war in Vietnam, but even before that, Nhat Hanh felt the need to bring Buddhism into daily life. "The war compelled us to practice in the heart of society" to help alleviate suffering wherever he could, he said, even if it meant just filling body bags. But it was something else that first pulled him to become a monk.

"In every one of us, there is a baby monk or a baby nun," Nhat Hanh says. "I was able to touch the baby monk in me when I was very little. I was seven, and I saw a drawing of the Buddha sitting on the grass and looking very calm. Very, very calm. I said to myself, I want to be like that. So the seed of the baby monk in me was watered."

A few years later, Nhat Hanh went to the mountains on a class picnic. "I was very excited because a hermit lived up there, and I had been told that a hermit is someone who practices to become a Buddha. But when we arrived on the mountain, very thirsty and very tired, I was disappointed because the hermit wasn't there—I guessed that a hermit does not want to see so many people, so he must have been hiding." Believing he could find the holy man, Nhat Hanh went off into the forest on his own. "Suddenly," he says, "I heard the sound of water, like music," and he came upon a natural well, where he drank and slept. "I had never had anything as delicious as that water, and it satisfied all my desires. I did not even want to see the hermit anymore. In my little boy's brain I believed that the hermit had turned himself into the well so I could meet him privately."

After that, Nhat Hanh says, he was transformed, and determined to become a monk. But it took him a long time to convince his parents. "My parents thought that monks have hard lives. But in fact," he says with a wise smile, "as a monk, I have had a lot of happiness."

Alix Madrigal is on the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle. This article is reprinted with permission from the Chronicle Book Review, Sunday, October 1, 1995.

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