I traveled and at times lived with Thich Nhat Hanh in the late sixties through the early eighties. Here is an extract from a memoir I have been writing plus extracts from various letters in which Nancy and I relate a few stories about him. The autobiographical text is a work-in-progress and should not be reproduced without my permission.
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As 1967 began I was dividing my work time between the Catholic Peace Fellowship — I was its co-secretary — and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which had appointed me “Vietnam Program Director.” I was given an office at the FOR headquarters in Nyack, a town on the west bank of the Hudson River about an hour’s drive north of Manhattan. For fifty dollars the FOR sold me a battered Volkswagen “bug” for the daily commute from East Harlem and, as I had no license, paid for me to take driving lessons.
Initially my FOR job meant taking a Catholic Peace Fellowship project we had launched in October 1966 called “Meals of Reconciliation” and building it into a major FOR program meant to reach, as in fact it did, hundreds of churches and synagogues all over the USA.
The original stimulus had come from a letter Merton had sent me four years earlier:
It seems to me that the basic problem is not political, it is apolitical and human. One of the most important things is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and emphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension which politics pretends to arrogate entirely [to itself]…. This is the necessary first step along the long way … of purifying, humanizing and somehow illuminating politics themselves. Is this possible? … At least we must try…. Hence the desirability of manifestly non-political witness, non-aligned, non-labeled, fighting for the reality of man and his rights and needs … against all alignments.
Our hope was that Meals of Reconciliation would help those involved move beyond a Cold War mentality, beyond ideology and politics, and enter the human dimension.
It was all very simple. Participants gathered for a semi-eucharistic evening meal — rather than bread and wine, rice and tea were served plus, when it was possible, examples of Vietnamese cookery. The project’s overriding goal was to shrink the distance between America and Vietnam, focusing on the immense suffering American bombs were causing explosion-by-explosion in Southeast Asia.
Meals of Reconciliation introduced those taking part to elements of Vietnamese literature, poetry and music. It was a culture, a way of life, which was being targeted and the destruction was heartbreaking. “Blessed are they who mourn,” Jesus declared. We hoped those taking part in one of the might leave in a state of mourning that could widen and deepen their anti-war commitment.
No two Meals of Reconciliation were identical. Menus varied though always rice and tea was at the core. When it was possible people who had been in Vietnam gave brief talks or, when there were no actual witnesses, accounts from observant journalists were read aloud. There was a handbook I had edited that included various suggestions plus a selection of possible readings, including poetry. The poet whose work was invariably used at Meals of Reconciliation was Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk whose name was all but unknown at the time.
Thich Nhat Hanh had begun building a relationship with the Fellowship of Reconciliation after meeting FOR Executive Director Al Hassler when Hassler made a trip to Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) in 1965. A friendship between Hassler and Thich Nhat Hanh quickly took root that deeply influenced both men’s lives and eventually played a major part in helping an unknown Buddhist monk become a world-renowned teacher of mindfulness.
One of the key figures in Vietnam’s peace movement, Nhat Hanh was also the leading figure in the development of “engaged Buddhism,” a pathway that linked insights gained from meditation and the teachings of the Buddha to situations of suffering and injustice. He was founder of a movement of service in Vietnamese villages, the School of Youth for Social Service. One of the precepts of a rule Nhat Hanh had written called on his disciples “not to avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”
Hassler arranged a series of lectures at Cornell University (through which invitation Thich Nhat Hanh’s US visa was obtained) and followed that up with a series of meetings for Nhat Hanh with senators, congressmen, newspapers editors, various religious leaders, most notably Martin Luther King, Jr., and even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
In May 1966 Thomas Merton welcomed Thich Nhat Hanh, accompanied by FOR staff member John Heidbrink, to the Abbey of Gethsemani. The two monks stayed up into the night, sharing the chant of their respective traditions, discussing methods of prayer and meditation, comparing western and eastern aspects of monastic life, and talking about the war.
Thich Nhat Hanh is “a perfectly formed monk,” Merton said to his novices the day after the two-day visit ended, telling them that his Vietnamese guest’s arrival was really the answer to a prayer. In meeting Nhat Hanh, Merton felt he had met Vietnam.
“What is the war like?” Merton had asked his guest. “Everything is destroyed,” Nhat Hanh replied. These three words, Merton told his novices, were the answer of a true monk — not a long-winded analysis but just the essence: “Everything is destroyed.”
One aspect of their conversation concerned the formation of young monks, a process that in Vietnam begins not in a novitiate classroom but in the monastery kitchen and gardens where the novice may feel he is nothing more than an unpaid laborer ignored by everyone. Unbeknownst to the novice, in fact the apprentice monk is being quietly watched by an elder who, once he has come to know the novice without exchanging a word, at last reveals himself as a spiritual parent. Only then does spoken conversation and guidance begin.
Monastic formation, whether Buddhist or Christian, has much to do with discovering the significance of “insignificant” moments and the most routine activities: washing dishes, cutting vegetables, pulling weeds, sweeping floors, waiting in line, walking from here to there. It is an attitude Nhat Hanh sums up in one word: mindfulness. For example, it doesn’t help to rush from a “less sacred” to a “more sacred” part of the monastery where, once you arrive, you change gears and move and behave more reverently. “Before you can meditate,” Nhat Hanh told Merton and Merton told his novices, “you must learn how to close the door.” Aware of how often they ran to the church in order to be on time to chant the monastic offices, leaving behind them a trail of slammed doors, the novices laughed.
Nhat Hanh, Merton told the novices, is an example of a true monk who cannot ignore a social crisis in the world around him but is “professionally involved” simply because a monk sees and hears. “A genuine monk has an orientation toward peace and a reverence for life,” Merton said. “He tries to save whatever he can.”
Soon after the visit Merton wrote a letter to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo proposing the award go to Thich Nhat Hanh. Martin Luther King Jr. had already made a similar nomination. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” wrote Merton. “He is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things exactly the same way.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, fluent in English and French, became a voice for all those Vietnamese who were victims of all sides in the war but whose sufferings were mainly due to the high-tech Goliath-might of the US military.
I had met and briefly spoken with Thich Nhat Hanh when he first visited Shadowcliff, the river mansion in which the FOR was housed, and immediately was enchanted not only by what he had to say about his homeland but by his entire manner. His voice was as gentle as a windbell. He spoke slowly, quietly, carefully, sparingly. His wide open eyes were as receptive and unguarded as I imagined the eyes of Jesus or the Buddha might be. No pretense, no self-importance, no rhetoric. Afterward I said to Al Hassler, “I could lidten to this guy for hours even if he were reading aloud from the telephone book.” Al laughed. “Me too!”
Al Hassler was the person who normally accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh wherever he went but occasionally another staff member might have that privilege. One evening, when Al was not feeling well, I was pressed into the job. I was to pick Nhat Hanh up at an apartment near Columbia University and take him by subway to a small gathering at a ritzy apartment in mid-town Manhattan.
The event we attended was, for both Nhat Hanh and me, a waste of time. The principal guest was a Hindu guru whose ego could have filled every floor of the Empire State Building. He wore a pale saffron robe and pale saffron sandals, had a box of pale saffron kleenex at his side, and every sentence he pronounced about the path to enlightenment seemed made of pale saffron words. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him drive off afterward in a pale saffron Rolls. I don’t recall Nhat Hanh saying a single word while we were there but his expression was one of discomfort.
Slipping away at the earliest possible moment (lying to our hostess, I said Thich Nhat Hanh had another engagement), we took the elevator down and returned to the street. I suggested perhaps a cup of tea wouldn’t be a bad idea. Nhat Hanh agreed. We found a nearby neon-lit café. And there it was they I decided to ask a question of a Zen master that I thought only a Zen master could answer.
A little background: Not many weeks before, while visiting a friend at the University of Oklahoma, I had tried LSD, an experiment way off my beaten track. I liked neither marijuana nor hashish (both made me feel vaguely paranoid) and avoided them. I wasn’t interested in drugs. But I had heard a little about LSD. This not-yet-illegal drug had been seriously described by my friend in Oklahoma as “a shortcut to enlightenment.”
The night-long experience had indeed, to use a hard-core sixties phrase, “blown my mind.” For perhaps eight hours I dived into my own subconscious brain in which eternity was an experience rather than a concept. I was able to watch a sound drift slowly into my head and observe how my own neurons received that sound and eventually made decisions about it, deciding it was, for example, a word or a note of music or a dangerous noise that required my moving away. Just to hear a simple sentence was a major event. The editorial, sorting-out part of the brain was a bright, colorful metropolis calmly making sense of all the data my senses were providing, at the same time comparing this and that, taking a fresh look at relevant memories, making some wild guesses, considering what if any response might be required to the events going on around me. Slowly coming out of the experience at dawn, feeling I had lived an infinity of lifetimes, I wondered indeed if this was enlightenment.
Now I was face to face with one of few people who would know, but to ask seemed risky. Might a real Zen master be scandalized by such a question? A shortcut to enlightenment? What impertinence! But what the hell, I decided. I’ll never have another chance to find out. And so I asked.
Nhat Hanh’s eyes widened in surprise, but there was no trace of irritation. Looking back, I think he was astonished that there were people involved in anti-war protest who were interested in such a topic. “Please tell me what you experienced,” he said. I did my best and have rarely been listened to so attentively. When I finished, Nhat Hanh said, “Perhaps it is not enlightenment — no drug can do that — but you are on the way.” He told me he had once tried marijuana but would never do so again — he had been unable to sleep for days afterward.
There was a deep sense of connection, an almost audible click.
Then he asked if in the future I would accompany him in his travels whenever Al Hassler was unavailable. “If you say yes, you have to be good at saying no. Every third day for me is a day of mindfulness. On those days under no circumstances will I give any talk or participate in any meeting, no matter how important it may seem. On those days I need someone who can be a stonewall. Can you do that? Others have said they could but in actual practice could not. For them proposed events were too important.”
I assured him I was good at saying no. I could say no to the president or to the pope. I liked the word “no.”
In the months that followed we traveled thousands of miles together. I had many opportunities to say no to TV interview requests, meetings with important people, opportunities that, on any other day would have been very worthwhile. My no was waterproof.
It was from Nhat Hanh that I first became aware of walking as an opportunity to repair the damaged connection between the physical and spiritual. In conversation Nhat Hanh had sometimes spoken of the importance of what he called “mindful breathing,” a phrase that seemed quite odd to me at first. Breathing is breathing — we learn it in the first minute of our lives. Yet I was aware that his walking was somehow different than mine and could imagine this might have something to do with his way of breathing. Even if we were late for an appointment, he always walked in an attentive, unhurried way.
It wasn’t until we climbed the steps to my sixth floor apartment in East Harlem that I began to understand. Though in my late twenties and quite fit, I was always out of breath by the time I reached my front door. Nhat Hanh, on the other hand, seemed rested. I asked him how he did that. “You have to learn how to breathe while you walk,” he replied. “Let’s go back to the bottom and walk up again. I will show you how to breathe while climbing stairs.” On the way back up, he quietly described how he was breathing. It wasn’t a difficult lesson. Linking slow, attentive breaths with taking the stairs made an astonishing difference. The climb took one or two minutes longer, but when I reached my door I found myself refreshed instead of depleted.
Traveling together, Nhat Hanh was always the first to wake. His nights were short. When he decided it was time to wake me, he would sit at the foot of whatever bed or couch I was using and quietly say, “Zheem! Zheem! [Jim! Jim!] The ginger tea is ready.” Indeed there was a pot of tea in his hand, the perfume of fresh ginger in the air, a happy smile on his face and a teasing look in his eyes.
Almost every night there was an invitation for us to have a meal with a family that had played a part in whatever Nhat Hanh was doing locally but almost always the response I had to make was, “No thank you — Thich Nhat Hanh is too tired.” We would be brought to wherever we were staying, say goodnight to our hosts, then when they had left look for a Chinese restaurant, the simpler the better.
By now Thich Nhat Hanh was becoming “Thay” (pronounced Tie), the Vietnamese word for teacher. I was never short of questions and Thay was happy to respond both with words but also drawings or calligraphy. “Do you know,” he asked, “how to write your name in Chinese?” I had no idea. “Look. This is the sign for a tree.” He drew in my notebook a cross with two root-like diagonal lines descending right and left from the intersection. “Then you draw it again and you have a forest. Two trees! Add to the sign for forest the sign for zen, you have a zen forest, which is the sign for monastery.” “What about the word for monk,” I asked. “Very simple. He drew the sign for a human being and placed it over a dot. “The dot means nothing. A monk is a person standing on nothing.”
Thay was certainly a teacher for me but sometimes the roles were reversed. Thay was extremely curious about Christianity, not only as a theory or theology but how it is lived. Thus I often told him stories about Christian saints that I held in especially high regard — Francis of Assisi, for example. We also talked about the Buddha — a man who had found out, as Thay explained, how to be completely awake. Thay thought Jesus was also someone who was fully awake.
Even though our meals were almost always very simple (the only exception I recall was at Korean restaurant in Seattle), they were playful. Thay, wanting me to become comfortable in using chopsticks, liked to make me practice lifting melting ice cubes out of glasses of water. Much laughter.
Thay noticed things that I hardly saw and took absolutely for granted, as happened one day at the University of Michigan. He had been invited to give a lecture on the war in Vietnam to be followed by a poetry reading. Waiting for the elevator doors to open to go up to the lecture hall, I noticed Thay quietly gazing at the electric clock above the elevator doors. Then he said “You know, Zheem, a few hundred years ago it would not have been a clock, it would have been a crucifix.” So simple but so startling a comment. He was right. More than a tool of social coordination, the clock had become a religious object in our world, a symbol of secular social unity, a symbol so powerful that it could depose another.
One day we were in San Francisco and found ourselves walking in a seedy district, the Tenderloin. In fact we were passing a sex store with wide windows and startling photos. Embarrassed, I pretended I didn’t see the store, imagining Thay would do the same. But no. He stopped, calmly gazing at the nothing-not-revealed pornography. Then he pointed to a sign in the window that read, “You must be 21 years old and able to prove it to enter this store.” “Jim,” asked Thay, “are you 21?” I noticed his smile and realized the question was about the advantages of being a child. “No, I’m not 21.” “Good,” said Thay. “Neither am I. We don’t have to go inside.”
One of our trips was to Montana where Thay was a speaker at a day-long university “teach-in” on Vietnam. The event went well, with about a thousand students and faculty taking part, including a US senator as well as a representative from the State Department. But afterward because of the weather, there was a twenty-four hour delay with the return flight. Thay liked my suggestion that we use our rented car and unexpected free time for a visit to nearby Yellowstone National Park. Neither of us had ever been there. We were lucky to get in — because of a blizzard, the roads had been blocked but snow plows had just cleared the main road. Ours was the first car of the day to arrive at the park’s Montana entrance. Once in, a surprise awaited us, a sort of welcoming committee. A few miles into the park, I stopped the car so we could admire a mother bear playing in the deep snow with her two cubs. Then one of the cubs clambered onto the hood and began licking the window. The mother came closer — clearly she was guarding her child. Thay began laughing, then kissed the window just where the cub’s pink tongue was engaged.
One evening, while speaking at a large Protestant church in St. Louis about what the war was doing to Vietnamese peasants, Nhat Hanh awoke not understanding or grief but the white-hot rage of one man in the audience. In the question period he stood up and spoke with searing scorn of the “supposed compassion” of “this Mister Hanh.” He asked, “If you care so much about your people, Mister Hanh, why are you here? If you care so much for the people who are wounded, why don’t you spend your time with them?” At this point my recollection of his words is replaced by the memory of intense anger overwhelming me. The stranger’s anger had become my anger, only directed at him. When the man finished, I looked toward Nhat Hanh in bewilderment. What could he or anyone say? The spirit of war itself had suddenly filled the room, and it seemed hard to breathe.
There was a prolonged silence. Then Nhat Hanh began to speak — quietly, with astonishing calm, even with a sense of personal caring for the man who had just damned him. Thay’s words seemed like rain falling on fire.
“If you want the tree to grow,” he said, “it does not help to water the leaves. You have to water the roots. Many of the roots of the war are here, in your country. To help the people who are to be bombed, to try to protect them from this suffering, I have to come here.”
The atmosphere in the room was transformed. In the man’s fury we had experienced our own furies; we had seen the world as through a bomb bay. In Nhat Hanh’s response we had experienced an alternate possibility: the possibility — here brought to Christians by a Buddhist and to Americans by an “enemy” — overcoming hatred with love, of breaking the seemingly endless chain reaction of violence that had tortured human history.
But after his response, Nhat Hanh whispered something to the chairman and walked abruptly from the room. Sensing something was wrong, I left the book table at which I was stationed and followed Thay outside. It was a cool, clear night. Thay stood on the sidewalk at the edge of the church parking lot. He was struggling for air like someone who had been deeply underwater and had barely managed to swim to the surface before drowning. I had never seen him like this. It was several minutes before I dared ask him how he was or what had happened.
Thay explained that the man’s comments had been terribly upsetting. “I wanted to respond to him with anger. So I had made myself breathe deeply and very slowly in order to find a way to respond with calm and understanding. But my breathing was too slow and too deep.”
“But why not be angry with him,” I asked. “Even pacifists have a right to be angry.”
“If it were just myself, yes,” said Thay. “But I am here to speak for Vietnamese peasants. I have to show those who came here tonight what we can be at our best.”
It isn’t easy to describe the influence Thay had on me. Partly it was simply helpful guidance about what I would call prayer and Thay would call mindfulness. He helped carry me, a Christian, into the deeper waters of my own faith, never suggesting that I would do better as a Buddhist. In contrast with Dan and Phil Berrigan, Thay exerted no pressure to do anything, to do more than I was doing, to struggle harder to end the war in Vietnam. But because of Thay, Vietnam was no longer a distant country but a country of kites, flutes, ancient festivals, children and parents, a country as close as Thay’s voice, a voice I could easily hear whether Thay was present or a thousand miles away.
When I was invited to be part of the group that would carry out a Catonsville-like burning of draft records, part of the reason for saying yes was my love of Thich Nhat Hanh and all the Vietnamese people he represented.
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 The Hidden Ground of Love, letter dated 8 December 1962, p 272.
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stories from the 70s…
I sometimes think of an evening with Vietnamese friends in a cramped apartment in the outskirts of Paris in the early 1970s. At the heart of the community was the poet and mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. An interesting discussion was going on the living room, but I had been given the task that evening of doing the washing up. The pots, pans and dishes seemed to reach half way to the ceiling of that closet-sized kitchen. I felt really annoyed. I was stuck with an infinity of dirty dishes while a great conversation was happening just out of earshot in the living room.
Somehow Nhat Hanh picked up on my irritation. Suddenly he was standing next to me. “Jim,” he asked, “what is the best way to wash the dishes?” I knew I was suddenly facing one of those very tricky Zen questions. I tried to think what would be a good Zen answer, but all I could come up with was, “You should wash the dishes to get them clean.” “No,” said Nhat Hanh. “You should wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’ve been mulling over that answer ever since — more than three decades of mulling.
But what he said next was instantly helpful: “You should wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.”
That sentence was a flash of lightning. While I still mostly wash the dishes to get them clean, every now and then I find I am, just for a passing moment, washing the baby Jesus. And when that happens, though I haven’t gone anywhere, it’s something like reaching the Mount of the Beatitudes after a very long walk.
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a purchase at a butcher shop
I recall going with Nhat Hanh and Phuong to one of the Paris airports to pick up a volunteer who was arriving from America. On the way back, the volunteer stressed how dedicated a vegetarian she was and how good it was to be with people who were committed vegetarians. Passing by the shop of a poultry butcher in Paris, Nhat Hanh asked Phuong to stop. He went inside and bought a chicken, which we ate that night for supper at our apartment in Sceaux. It’s the only time I know of when Nhat Hanh ate meat.
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A lesson in perception
I often think about how Thich Nhat Hanh uses the image of one river/two shores as a way of attacking dualistic perception: Standing on a river bank, I see two shores, the shore I am standing on and the shore facing me, on the other side of the river. Two shores — you see them with your own eyes — two! But in reality there is only one shore. If I walk from where I stand to the source of the river and continue round that point, the “other side” becomes this side — the two-ness was created only by bending it. In time I will be on the opposite embankment, facing the spot where I was formerly standing, and I will have never crossed the stream to get there and I will never have changed shores.
“Is there a river that separates the two sides, a river which no boat can cross? Is such an absurdly complete separation possible? Please come over to my boat. I will show you that there is a river but is no separation. Do not hesitate. I will row the boat myself. You can join me in rowing too. But let us row slowly and very, very quietly.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
explaining non-duality to Jim Forest, July 1972, Paris
(photo taken at our house in May 1982)
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“The miracle is to walk on earth”
In the seventies, I spent time in France with Nhat Hanh on a yearly basis. He was becoming better known then — his home had become for many people a center of pilgrimage. One of the things I found him teaching was his method of attentive walking. Once a day, all his guests would set off in a silent procession led by him. The walk was prefaced with his advice that we practice slow, mindful breathing while at the same time being aware of each footstep, seeing each moment of contact between foot and earth as a prayer for peace. We went single file, moving slowly, deeply aware of the texture of the earth and grass, the scent of the air, the movement of leaves in the trees, the sound of insects and birds. Many times as I walked I was reminded of the words of Jesus: “You must be like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Such attentive walking was a return to the hyper-alertness of childhood.
Mindful breathing connected with mindful walking gradually becomes normal. It is then a small step to connect walking and breathing with prayer.
I was reminded of the original title he intended for his first English-language book on meditation (published as The Miracle of Mindfulness),”The miracle is to walk on earth.”
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Small b buddhists and small c christians…
“Small b buddhists can talk with and cooperate with small c christians but it is difficult for big B Buddhists and big C Christians to find common ground.” Thay said this on the day he led a retreat for the staff of the International Fellowhip of Reconciliation in Alkmaar, Holland, in 1982.
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Cooking with Nhat Hanh: a story told by Nancy Forest:
I came to the Netherlands in April of 1982 with my daughter Caitlan, who was five years old at the time. Jim and I were married shortly after that. We had been friends for many years in the US. Both of us worked together at the headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York, and Jim move to Holland in 1977 to serve as general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). We had kept in touch during those five years. Jim was Cait’s godfather.
Shortly after I had moved here, Jim told me Thich Nhat Hanh would be coming to Alkmaar to visit. I had never met Nhat Hanh, but of course I had heard a great deal about him, and I knew how close Jim and Nhat Hanh had been over the years. Jim said Nhat Hanh would be coming to our house, and that the IFOR staff would be coming over as well to meet with him.
It was a beautiful day in May. First the staff arrived and took seats in our living room, then Nhat Hanh himself arrived, dressed in his brown robe. A hush fell over the staff members, and everyone was apparently in awe of this man. I remember feeling nervous that he was coming to our house, nervous about hosting this event. After he had sat down, the room fell silent and a sort of Zen silence fell on the room. It was hard for me to tell what to make of the atmosphere in the living room that day, but it made me uncomfortable.
In the meantime, Cait, who had just been given her first bicycle and was practicing riding it in the parking lot behind our house, kept running in to tell me how far she was advancing. So you have this room full of awestruck adults sitting there with what appeared to me glazed looks on their faces, and my little daughter running in, breathless with excitement.
After Nhat Hanh finished speaking with the staff, Jim came up to me and told me he had invited him to dinner. This was a little more than I could handle. I went into the kitchen at the back of the house and started chopping vegetables. I remember feeling that I really had to get out of that living room, that there was something definitely weird about what was going on there. It didn’t feel genuine, while the vegetables were certain genuine and so was Cait.
After a few minutes, Nhat Hanh came into the kitchen and, almost effortlessly, started helping me with the vegetables. I think he just started talking to me in the most ordinary way. He ended up telling me how to make rice balls — how to grind the sesame seeds in a coffee grinder, to make the balls with sticky rice and to roll them in the ground sesame seeds. It was lots of fun and I remember laughing with him. The artificial Zen atmosphere was completely absent. Cait kept coming in, and Nhat Hanh was delighted with her.
This was my first Zen lesson.
— Nancy Forest
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Plum Village Memories
We visited Plum Village in the summer of 1984. We came by car — Jim and myself, Caitlan, then six, and Anne, who had recently turned one. At the time Plum Village was no more than a nice piece of rural property in the countryside northeast of Bordeaux with a small plum orchard, a kind of deep ravine, an open field, a couple of old farm buildings, and a zendo (meditation hall), recently built. Thay lived there with Phuong, his longtime collaborator from Vietnam and now a nun with a different name, and several other Vietnamese. There was not yet a formal monastic order. I don’t recall anyone wearing monastic robes except Thay. There was no monastic schedule. We ate in a rather ugly windowless room. The cooking was done in a dark corner on a grease-encrusted stove.
It was all very relaxed and peaceful. Thay was remarkably accessible. We have photos of him playing with Anne under a tree. When we were there, a small group of American Buddhists were also visiting, cheerful young people who did a lot of the cooking. At one point, one of the Americans decided to spend some time cleaning the stove. He scrubbed and chipped away at the accumulated grease. While he was working Thay came up to him and just stood there and watched. Finally, Thay said quietly, “We never do that.” It was very funny.
Caitlan really enjoyed herself. She took to Phuong and the Americans right away. I remember her spending a lot of time helping Phuong pack medicine to send to Vietnam.
We had meditation in the zendo a few times. I remember Caitlan wanting to come with us. I told her we were just going to sit quietly for a long time, probably too long for a lively six-year-old girl. But she insisted. She loved being there, and she really loved being with Phuong and the Americans. So she came, and she sat through the entire meditation. I couldn’t believe it.
Sometimes Thay would announce that he was going on a mindfulness walk, and anyone who wanted to was welcome to walk with him. It was all quite ad hoc.
The mindfulness walks took place around a large field. We walked slowly and in silence. Cait came with us and really enjoyed it, which was amazing for a seven-year-old. The sun would be low, birds singing, sweet smell of summer in the air. Every sensory thing was amplified by everyone’s quiet attention. I remember during one walk I suddenly realized that someone was walking right next to me. It was Thay. He didn’t say anything, but he fell into step with me. For the rest of the walk he was there, walking in tandem with my steps. It was both playful and reassuring. I am walking with you.
– Nancy Forest / 3 March 2018 / revised 21 May 2020
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This also comes from Nancy…
Notes of a conversation with Thich Nhat Hanh on August 21, 1984 at the Plum Village in France
(Thay was outside sitting on a stone.)
Nancy: Do you have a moment to talk?
Thay: Yes, please. Sit here on a stone.
N: I’ve felt rather out of it here. I’m not a person from one of the Zen Centers, and I’m not an old friend, like Jim.
T: (very emphatically) No, no! You are wrong. Maybe you are better than Jim!
N: (I tell him my “North Pole” experience — how, when I was young, I had a profound experience of standing at the point on the globe where all lines converge and intersect — an overwhelming experience of being at the absolute Center.)
T: It’s true we are each, as you say, like the North Pole. (He takes a stick and places it at the edge of his stone.) We are each on the edge. We are each separate, and each one of us has everyone within us.
N: How can that be?
T: (He holds up a leaf.) As this leaf holds within it everything – all the sun, all water, all earth.
N: But it also makes you realize we do everything alone. Everything, every step – alone. Walk through life alone. Die alone.
T: Yes. I told the people in the Zen Centers in America, “Meditation is a personal matter!” (He smiles.) That means meditation is an exercise in being alone – in realizing what it is to be alone. There is a story in Zen Buddhism about a monk. His name was (pause), “The Monk Who Was Alone.” He did everything alone – eat alone, wash dishes alone – everything. They said to him, “Why do you do everything alone?” He said, “Because that is the way we are.”
N: (I tell him how, lately, I’ve been reading so many things which all seem to pertain to this event. How I pick up a book or read an article, and it all connects. I tell him at first I thought it was a coincidence that so much of what I read is connected.)
T: (Smiles and shakes his head.) It’s no coincidence.
N: I’ve read some of Merton. And about the Hasidic Jews. And the story of the Fall in the Bible – Adam and Eve. About how, before the Fall, Eve just stood in her place, and walked in the garden. God had given them everything they needed, and it was all good. Eve didn’t know what evil was. Then when she was tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she decided there wasn’t enough for her, just standing there – even though she didn’t have any idea what “evil” was. So by eating, she destroyed the garden.
I’ve thought a lot about that here – walking slowly through the woods.
T: But you know – good and evil are just concepts. Maybe even the serpent was good, and the apple. All good. It’s like this stick. I can say, “This half is good, this half is evil.” They’re all concepts. Maybe Eve was even good after the Fall. You say “before the Fall – after the Fall.” It’s all the same.
N: The Hasidic Jews always are dancing. It’s all holy, everything. But after Eve ate the apple, we don’t know if she really was able to know good from evil – we only know she was ashamed.
N: Merton said Eve wasn’t good before the Fall and bad afterwards. He said she was her True Self before the Fall and not her True Self afterwards.
T: And he also said, “Everything is Good.” (He smiles and stares at me) – and he said that in Bangkok! (Long pause.) You know, if you are really able to understand this, you can look at all the nuclear weapons and … (very long pause – his eyes scan the distance) … and smile.
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Nhat Hanh believes that meditation has a healing effect by helping people let go of the pains of history and planting the seed of peace. The following excerpts were selected from his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, A Manual on Meditation:
“Is family life easier than being a bachelor?” I asked. Allen didn’t answer directly. But I understood. I asked another question: “A lot of people say that if you have a family you’re less lonely and have more security. Is that true?” Allen nodded his head and mumbled something softly. But I understood. Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks. “But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I o through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!” Allen smiled as he spoke. I was surprised. I knew that Allen hadn’t learned this from reading any books. This was something he had discovered for himself in his own daily life.
Washing the dishes to wash the dishes
Thirty years ago, when I was still a novice at Tu Hieu Pagoda, washing the dishes was hardly a pleasant task. During the Season of Retreat when all the monks returned to the monastery, two novices had to do all the cooking and wash the dishes for sometimes well over one hundred monks. There was no soap. We had only ashes, rice husks, and coconut husks, and that was all. Cleaning such a high stack of bowls was a chore, especially during the winter when the water was freezing cold. Then you had to heat up a big pot of water before you could do any scrubbing. Nowadays one stands in a kitchen equipped with liquid soap, special scrubpads, and even running hot water which makes it all the more agreeable. It is easier to enjoy washing the dishes now. Anyone can wash them in a hurry, then sit down and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards. I can see a machine for washing clothes, although I wash my own things out by hand, but a dishwashing machine is going just a little too far! While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly:
Why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.
The cup in your hands
In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship, later for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down an d drinking tea with everyone also. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way — to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.
If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes , the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While of other thing, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future — and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.
Eating a tangerine
I remember a number of years ago, when Jim and I were first traveling together in the United States, we sat under a tree and shared a tangerine. He began to talk about what we would be doing in the future. Whenever we thought about a project that seemed attractive or inspiring, Jim became so immersed in it that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine in his mouth and, before he had begun chewing again. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. All I had to say was, “You ought to eat the tangerine section you’ve already take.” Jim was startled into realizing what he was doing. It was as if he hadn’t been eating the tangerine at all. If he had been eating anything, he was “eating” his future plans.
A tangerine has sections. If you can eat just one section, you can probably eat the entire tangerine. But if you can’t eat a single section, you cannot eat the tangerine. Jim understood. He slowly put his hand down and focused on the presence of the slice already in his mouth. He chewed it thoughtfully before reaching down and taking another section.
Later, when Jim went to prison for a activities against the war, I was worried about whether he could endure the four walls of prison and sent him a very short letter: “Do you remember the tangerine we shared when we were together? Your being there is like the tangerine. Eat it and be one with it. Tomorrow it will be no more.”
The Essential Discipline
More than thirty years ago, when I first entered the monastery, the monks gave me a small book called “The Essential Discipline for Daily Use,” written by the Buddhist monk Doc The from Bao Son pagoda, and they told me to memorize it. It was a thick book. It couldn’t have the thoughts Doc The used to awaken his mind while doing any task. When he woke up in the morning, his first thought was, “Just awakened, I hope that every person will attain great awareness and see in complete clarity.” When he washed his hands, he used this thought to place himself in mindfulness: “Washing my hands, I hope that every person will have pure hands to receive reality.” The book is comprised entirely of such sentences. Their goal was to help the beginning practitioner take hold of his own consciousness. The Zen Master Doc The helped all of us young novices to practice, in a relatively easy way, those things which are taught in the Sutra of Mindfulness. Each time you put on your robe, washed the dishes, went to the bathroom, folded your mat, carried buckets of water, or brushed your teeth, you could use one of the thoughts from the book in order to take hold of your own consciousness.
The Sutra of Mindfulness say, “When walking, the practitioner must be conscious that he is walking. When sitting, the practitioner must be conscious that he is sitting. When lying down, the practitioner must be conscious that he is lying down……No mater what position one’s body is in, the practitioner must be conscious of that position. Practicing thus, the practitioner lives in direct and constant mindfulness of the body….” The mindfulness of the position of one’s body is not enough, however. We must be conscious of each breath, each movement, every thought and feeling, everything which has any relation to ourselves. But what is the purpose of the Sutra’s instruction? Where are we to find the time to practicing mindfulness, how will there ever be enough time to do all the work that needs to be done to change and to build an alternative study Joey’s lesson, take An’s diapers to the laundromat, and practice mindfulness at the same time?
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Venerable Master Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen Buddhist monk, scholar, poet, and a political figure from Vietnam. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. In 1966, he came to the United States a spokesperson for monks who felt that reconciliation was possible in Vietnam, if the U.S.A. Stopped its war effort. He was the Chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris talks that produced the peace accords later. After the Vietnam was, he organized efforts to rescue boat people fleeing the new regime.
In the United States he was welcomed by antiwar groups on college campuses. He was supportive of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, when the American civil rights leader declared his opposition to the war. After Dr. King won the Noble Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King recommended the same award be given to Thich Nhat Hanh.
Thich Nhat Hanh lives in Plum Village, a small Vietnamese Buddhist community, in the southwest of France. He is the author of The Miracle of Mindfulness, A Guide to Walking Meditation, Being Peace, Peace In Every Step, The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life and many other books.
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“When we recognize the violence that has taken root within us, in the everyday we think, speak and act, we can wake up and live in a new way… Shining the light of awareness on the roots of violence within our hearts and thoughts, we can stop the war where it begins, in our minds.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
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In Peace Is Every Step, Thay recalls being a child and taking half an hour or more to finish a cookie that his mother bought him. “I would take a small bite and look up at the sky,” he writes. “Then I would touch the dog with my feet and take another small bite. I just enjoyed being there, with the sky, the earth, the bamboo thickets, the cat, the dog, the flowers.”
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