Nhat Hanh: Seeing with the Eyes of Compassion

Thich Nhat Hanh with my son Daniel, Paris 1974

by Jim Forest

[afterword to the first edition of Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness]

In 1968 I was traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh on a Fellowship of Reconciliation tour during which there were meetings with church and student groups, senators, journalists, professors, business people, and—blessed relief—a few poets. Almost everywhere he went, this brown-robed Buddhist monk from Vietnam (looking many years younger than the man in his forties he was) quickly disarmed those he met.

His gentleness, intelligence, and sanity made it impossible for most who encountered him to hang on to their stereotypes of what the Vietnamese were like. The vast treasury of the Vietnamese and Buddhist past spilled over through his stories and explanations. His interest in Christianity, even his enthusiasm for it, often inspired Christians to shed their condescension toward Nhat Hanh’s own tradition. He was able to help thousands of Americans glimpse the war through the eyes of peasants laboring in rice paddies and raising their children and grandchildren in villages surrounded by ancient groves of bamboo. He awoke the child within the adult as he described the craft of the village kite maker and the sound of the wind instruments these fragile vessels would carry toward the clouds.

After an hour with him, one was haunted with the beauties of Vietnam and filled with anguish at America’s military intervention in the political and cultural tribulations of the Vietnamese people. One was stripped of all the ideological loyalties that justified one party or another in their battles, and felt the horror of the skies raked with bombers, houses and humans burned to ash, children left to face life without the presence and love of their parents and grandparents.

But there was one evening when Nhat Hanh awoke not understanding but rather the rage of one American. Nhat Hanh had been talking in the auditorium of a wealthy Christian church in a St. Louis suburb. As always, he emphasized the need for Americans to stop their bombing and killing in his country. There had been questions and answers when a large man stood up and spoke with searing scorn of the “supposed compassion” of “this Mr. Hanh.”

“If you care so much about your people, Mr. 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 the man’s words is replaced by the memory of the intense anger that overwhelmed me.

When he finished, I looked toward Nhat Hanh in bewilderment. What could he—or anyone—say? The spirit of the war itself had suddenly filled the room, and it seemed hard to breathe.

There was a silence. Then Nhat Hanh began to speak—quietly, with deep calm, indeed with a sense of personal caring for the man who had just damned him. The words seemed like rain falling on fire. “If you want the tree to grow,” he said, “it won’t 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”) of overcoming hatred with love, of breaking the seemingly endless chain reaction of violence throughout human history.

But after his response, Nhat Hanh whispered something to the chairman and walked quickly from the room. Aware something was wrong, I followed him out. It was a cool, clear night. Nhat Hanh stood on the sidewalk beside the church parking lot. He was struggling for air—like someone who had been deeply underwater and who had barely managed to swim to the surface before gasping for breath. It was several minutes before I dared ask him how he was or what had happened.

Nhat Hanh explained that the man’s comments had been terribly upsetting. He had wanted to respond to him with anger. So he had made himself breathe very deeply and slowly in order to find a way to respond with calm and understanding. But the breathing had been too slow and too deep.

“Why not be angry with him,” I asked. “Even pacifists have a right to be angry.”

“If it were just myself, yes. But I am here to speak for Vietnamese peasants. I have to show them what we can be at our best.”

The moment was an important one in my life, one pondered again and again since then. For one thing, it was the first time that I realized there was a connection between the way one breathes and the way one responds to the world around.

Until the mid-1970s, Nhat Hanh made no attempt to teach Western people any of the skills of meditation—what he calls mindfulness. Only in 1974, first with a few Western friends helping the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, later with a group at that city’s Quaker International Center, did he begin to teach meditation. It was in this year that he wrote published The Miracle of Mindfulness, a small manual on meditation.

Nhat Hanh is a poet, Zen Master, and a cochairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Vietnam, he played a major role in the creation of “engaged Buddhism”—a profound religious renewal rooted in compassion and service out of which emerged countless projects that combined to help the war’s victims with nonviolent opposition to the war itself. For their work, thousands of Buddhists—nuns, monks, and laypeople—were shot or imprisoned.

His work in Vietnam gave birth to several institutions: a small monastery that was an early base of the nonviolent movement, the School of Youth for Social Service, Van Hanh University, and the La Boi Press, one of the principal vehicles for cultural and religious renewal.

Nhat Hanh’s poetry provides the words of many of the most popular songs in contemporary Vietnam, songs of hope surviving grief.

Even in exile, representing overseas the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, he has continued to be a force for nonviolence and reconciliation in his homeland and an organizer of supportive responses from other countries. (His friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. was a factor in Dr. King’s decision to ignore the advice of many colleagues and contributors who opposed his “mixing issues” and to join in the opposition to the Vietnam War. Shortly before his assassination, Dr. King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Prize for Peace.)

During conversations with Nhat Hanh and his coworkers in Paris, our thoughts turned to the absence of a meditative dimension in much of the American peace movement. Its absence helped explain why so much of the “peace” movement had exhibited such slight and superficial interest in the Buddhists’ nonviolent campaign against the war. The weaponless Buddhists were judged as not truly “political,” as “merely” a religious movement: admirable, unusually courageous when compared to other religious groups, but peripheral.

What American peace activists might learn from their Vietnamese counterparts is that, until there is a more meditative dimension in the peace movement, our perceptions of reality, and thus our ability to help occasion understanding and transformation, will be terribly crippled. Whatever our religious or nonreligious background and vocabulary may be, we will be overlooking something as essential to our lives and work as breath itself.

Breath itself. Breathing. It comes to many as astonishing news that something as simple as attention to breathing has a central part to play in meditation and prayer. It is like a mystery novelist’s idea of hiding the diamonds in the goldfish bowl: too obvious to be noticed. But since the news has made its way past my own barriers of skepticism, there has been no end of confirmations—principally, the confirmation of experience.

The problem with meditation is that the contexts for it are too close at hand. The chances, as Nhat Hanh points out, are scattered everywhere: in the bathtub, at the kitchen sink, on at a cutting board, on a sidewalk or path, on a tenement staircase, on a picket line, at a typewriter … literally anywhere. The moments and places of silence and stillness are wondrous and helpful, but not restricted. The meditative life doesn’t require a secluded, greenhouse existence. (But it does need occasional periods of time, even a whole day of the week, when special attention can be given to becoming more mindful. But then Christians and Jews ought not to be newcomers to the Sabbath.)

To the skeptic, Nhat Hanh’s suggestions will seem quite absurd, the latest card trick dealt out of the ancient deck of mystical doubletalk. But the pacifist affirmation itself—choosing to nurture life and to live without weapons in a murderous world—strikes many as no smaller an absurdity than accepting a world of violence. The way of meditation only carries that personal disarmament we have already begun an essential step deeper: nonviolence not only in the face of governments and corporations and liberation armies but a nonviolent encounter with reality itself.

This is the way to understand a simple truth Nhat Hanh has mentioned elsewhere: “Those who are without compassion cannot see what is seen with the eyes of compassion.” That more inclusive sight makes the small but crucial difference between despair and hope.

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text and photo copyright by Jim Forest

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