Gorbachev

Thich Nhat Hanh's Fall 1995 Visit to North America

Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and ten monks and nuns from Plum Village arrived in Los Angeles on September 10 to begin a month-long tour of North America. Their first week was in southern California, dedicated to the Vietnamese community—a four-day retreat near San Bernadino and a Sunday public lecture in Santa Ana. On Monday, September 18, Jim Fauss and Arnie Kotler met Thay and the Plum Village entourage at the San Francisco Airport. Jim drove the ten monks and nuns to Camp Swig, an hour away, while Arnie showed Thay and Sister Chan Khong to the Aiport Hotel, where, after a short rest, Thay met with Alix Madrigal of the San Francisco Chronicle for an interview about the just-published Living Buddha, Living Christ. The interview was warm and convivial, and Ms. Madrigal's report is reprinted in the pages that follow. mb15-ThichNhatHanh

Thay arrived at Camp Swig, a beautiful, rustic summer camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, surrounded by redwoods and live oaks, in time for dinner, and then joined the 550 retreatants in the camp assembly hall to chant an invocation of Kwan Yin's name, joined by the Plum Village monks and nuns. Thay then lovingly introduced each monk and each nun, followed by an orientation talk by Sister Chan Khong, Sister Jina, and Arnie on mindful breathing, walking, eating, and bowing. During the four-day retreat, Thay expounded on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, as well as teachings on the four mantras (see "True Presence," page one) and a beautiful story about a young man named David and an angel named Angelina. The retreat went seamlessly well thanks to the lovely presence of the monks and nuns and the gentle guidance of many members of the Order of Interbeing.

On Saturday, September 23, Thay led a Day of Mindfulness at Spirit Rock Meditation Center north of San Francisco, for 2,200 people. From Sunday through Wednesday, Thay and the Plum Village disciples led a Day of Mindfulness and retreat for the Vietnamese community at Kim Son Monastery near San Jose. On Tuesday, September 26, Thay gave a public lecture to nearly 4,000 people at the Berkeley Community Theater. The evening began with Betsy Rose singing "Breathing In, Breathing Out" and "In My Two Hands," and, following Wes Nisker's joyful introduction, Thay and the monks and nuns again invoked the name of Kwan Yin. Thay offered the four mantras and the newly printed "mantra Tshirts" were made available to reinforce the practice.

On Wednesday, Thay and Sister Chan Khong went to the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, where Thay was to participate in several panel discussions and give a keynote address for the State of the World Forum, hosted by Mikhail Gorbachev. On September 17, USA Weekend reported, "Next week in San Francisco, when Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel, and George Bush meet at the State of the World Forum, they'll be addressed by a diminutive Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has gained a large following among Americans. Official events include a half day of practicing 'mindfulness,' the heart of Buddhist meditation." In his opening remarks, President Gorbachev expressed particular appreciation "that Thich Nhat Hanh and other spiritual leaders are present at the Forum." Joan Halifax presents an account of the conference on the page that follows. Before leaving San Francisco, Thay was interviewed by Michael Toms of New Dimensions Radio, Jerry Brown on alive, callin radio broadcast, and Ram Dass, for future TV broadcast.

On Tuesday, October 3, Thay et al. flew to Newark and went by van to Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, to lead a 4-day retreat for 800 people on "The Buddha's Teachings on Love." On Monday, October 9, Thay lectured to a standing room only crowd of 3,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New York City, organized by the New York Community of Mindfulness. Three days later he lectured at the Washington, D.C. Hebrew Congregation to 2,200 people, organized by the Washington Mindfulness Community. At both of these East Coast lectures, as in Berkeley, a palpable silence filled the room, where practitioners and non-practitioners alike basked in the Dharma, so beautifully presented by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

After a meeting with State Department officials, an interview by Pythia Peay of the Religion News Service, and a lecture in Vietnamese in Arlington, Virginia, Thay and his monks and nuns flew back to France on October 17, preparing for a well-deserved rest before beginning the winter practice period at Plum Village. On the pages that follow are accounts by a monk and a nun about the retreats, and tastes of the Gorbachev conference, the State Department visit, and other moments along the way.

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Introduction of Thay

Mrs. Raisa Gorbachev, President Gorbachev, and all the wonderful and distinguished people who are here. Rigoberta Menchu in her keynote address yesterday said that there is a lot of power for good in this room. I know of no conference in the last 35 years that has brought so many extraordinary and accomplished people from the social, political, scientific, academic, and spiritual worlds together—and especially in such an intimate and trusting atmosphere. I am very honored to introduce to you one of the most influential and empowering spiritual persons of today, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. I first met Thich Nhat Hanh in 1982 at the "Reverence for Life Conference" in New York City. I immediately saw that he had that anticipated—but rare—trait of Zen masters that he not only was what he was teaching—is what he is teaching—but that he also has that even rarer power to produce a direct understanding in others of what he is teaching. It was deeply gratifying to see and know that this is possible. At that time, we decided to march together with six friends in the upcoming and, I believe, last great Peace March in the United States. Over one million persons marched, and it was immediately apparent that he was not in this parade simply to be counted as someone who was against the missiles installed in Western Europe aimed at the Soviet Union, he was acknowledging with each step the potential use of these missiles and the unimaginable destruction of which they are capable. His presence was so big that it carried to the eight of us walking together—very slowly and peacefully—and to the whole of the march, so that the six lanes' wide of people behind us simply did not pass us. The experience of this tangible power to move and be in a spiritual space that is not our ordinary social or psychological space, and the direct experience of this teacher changed my life.

There are many other things that can be said about him. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end the Vietnam War both in Vietnam and in the United States. And I could speak about his work in Vietnam as a young man before and then during the war—helping anyone needing help; his teaching in Europe and the United States—and recently in China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan; his work bringing the plight of the boat people to the attention of the world; his presence at the Paris Peace talks in 1969; his monastic and lay retreat center called Plum Village in southern France; his scholarly and popular writings, poetry, and translations—but this would take a great deal of time. There are 1.5 million copies of his books in print in English, and these books are also in print in more than 20 other languages. He has taught Buddhism and his direct practice of mindful walking in 25 countries and on every continent. His most well-known books are Peace Is Every Step, Being Peace, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and his new—just published book—Living Buddha, Living Christ. I give you one of the great teachers of this century, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.

Richard Baker-Roshi is abbot of Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Colorado. Joan Halifax is leader of Upaya Sangha in Santa Fe. 

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State of the World Forum

By Joan Halifax In September, Thich Nhat Hanh quietly stood before nearly 1,000 people in San Francisco and asked the question, "How do we realize peace?" Gathered were world leaders, business leaders, religious teachers, and others. This meeting was initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev and colleagues from around the world, including Nobel Laureates, Presidents and Prime Ministers, and other luminaries. The meeting began an initiative on the part of Mr. Gorbachev to create a global community of individuals committed to a deep inquiry into the challenges that will face us in the coming century.

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In the midst of the Forum, Thay sat like a Buddha reminding us of what we were really looking for. As some raced to meetings, Thay and 100 others did a meditation walk through the halls and on the roof garden of the Fairmont Hotel. In the steady quietness of the walk, people who were hurrying slowed down, and many joined us. At his keynote address, Thay offered the precepts as guidelines, whether we are Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim. He reminded us of the ravages of war and the gifts of peace. He encouraged us to slow down and to look deeply into the present moment.

As Thay has said, if we care for the planet, we care for ourselves. If we take care of hungry children, we feed all beings. This sensibility of compassion in action was the awakening bell throughout the gathering. In the closing plenary session, biologist Jane Goodall said, "For me, stewardship has come to mean caring as much as we can, not only for each other but for the creatures, the nonhuman beings with whom we share the planet. It is when every one of us has the empowerment to know that we have the stewardship of this amazing planet in our hands, then gradually we can move towards true human potential for compassion, for respect, and for love."

Richard Baker-Roshi is abbot of Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Colorado. Joan Halifax is leader of Upaya Sangha in Santa Fe. 

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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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