Nhat Hanh on Meditation: Like Rain Falling on Fire

By Jim Forest

[Fellowship magazine / September 1975 / page 3-4]

In 1968, I was traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh on a Fellowship 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 40s 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 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 ?lled 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 measureless rage of one American. He 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 Mister Hanh.”

“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 the intense anger which 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 ?lled 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. Sensing something was wrong, I left the book table I had been standing behind and 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. 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. Instead he had made himself breathe deeply and very 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 us.

Until very recently, Nhat Hanh has made no attempt to teach Western people any of the skills of meditation — what he often calls mindfulness. Only during the past year, 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, has be begun to teach meditation. Now he has written a small book on the subject, The Miracle of Being Awake, a manual on meditation for activists.

Nhat Hanh, as Fellowship readers are likely to recall, is a poet, Zen master, and a co-chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Vietnam, he has played a major role in the creation of “engaged Buddhism” — a profound religious renewal rooted in compassion and service out of which have emerged countless projects which have joined help to the war’s victims with nonviolent opposition to the war itself. For their work, thousands of Buddhists — nuns, monks and lay people — have been shot or imprisoned.

His work in Vietnam gave birth to the School of Youth for Social Service, Van Hanh University, a small monastery that was an early base of the nonviolent movement, a pacifist underground press (led by his co-worker Cao Ngoc Phuong), and the La Boi Press, one of the principal vehicles of cultural and religious renewal.

His 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 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.

Only a few of Nhat Hanh’s books have yet been published outside of Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, The Cry of Vietnam, The Path of Return Continues the Journey, Zen Keys, and (coming this fall) The Raft is Not the Shore.

During conversations with Nhat Hanh and his co-workers in Paris this summer, in the apartment of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation, 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 (perhaps better called the American-withdrawal movement) had exhibited such slight and superficial interest in the Buddhists’ nonviolent campaign against the war. The weaponless Buddhists were not judged truly “political”, “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 non-religious back- ground 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 notice. But since the news has made its way past my own barriers of skepticism, there have 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, in the kitchen sink, on a cutting board, 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 indispensable. The meditative life doesn’t require a secluded, greenhouse existence. (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, a bad joke at the end of history, the latest card trick dealt out of the ancient deck of mystical double-talk. But the pacifist affirmation itself strikes many as no smaller an absurdity: choosing to nurture life and to live without weapons in a murderous world. 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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