Today, I learned that this great teacher passed away at the age 93 in his homeland of Viet Nam. Eliza Barclay wrote on Vox last September, "Thich Nhat Hanh has done more than perhaps any Buddhist alive today to articulate and disseminate the core Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, kindness, and compassion to a broad global audience." Read her article here.
Our True Heritage
The cosmos is filled with precious gems.
I want to offer a handful of them to you this morning.
Each moment you are alive is a gem,
shining through and containing earth and sky, water and clouds.
It needs you to breathe gently
for the miracles to be displayed.
Suddenly you hear the birds singing,
the pines chanting,
see the flowers blooming,
the blue sky,
the white clouds,
the smile and the marvelous look
of your beloved.
You, the richest person on Earth,
who have been going around begging for a living,
stop being the destitute child.
Come back and claim your heritage.
We should enjoy our happiness
and offer it to everyone.
Cherish this very moment.
Let go of the stream of distress
and embrace life fully in your arms.
From "Call Me By My True Names" The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh.
This amazing Buddhist monk and mystic spent most of his life in dialog between these two great contemplative traditions. With over 100 books to his name, it's safe to say he has been a major influence on anyone who has taken their spiritual journey seriously.
Considered second only to the Dalai Lama in fame and influence Thich made his name standing up for human rights and promoting reconciliation work during the Vietnam War, which led Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for a Nobel Prize (Barclay).
There is just too much to write about him. Thankfully much has already been written. And yet, some of his best work wasn't published in his book, but in his own life. Especially at the end. He taught us how to be at peace with death, and the cruelty that is often involved when the human body begins to shut down.
His influence on me came at a time I was unable to make sense of my own religious faith, and of a God who would cast aside others for not believing in a "doctrinal" way. I was reading and studying other faith and contemplative traditions, and saw more overlap than opposite ideas. I began to ask questions and read the books of others who were contemplating the same questions.
Thich Nhat Hanh helped to put words in my heart where there had only been feelings. As such, I believe my view of God became larger than I had ever experienced before.
I would come to see Jesus as the Christ, and discover that this meant Jesus was something greater than I had been taught.
For me, a traditional Protestant Christian, this taught me that it wasn't simply enough to "believe." There was more to this thing called Christianity that was being overlooked by many of my church leaders and teachers. Faith is important. But faith is a practice, a verb not a noun. This simple, yet profound realization made the gospel come alive for me. I mean COME ALIVE. I had read it, I had studied it and even taught it, but I had never really lived it. I have never, as Thich suggests, "Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet."
Up this point I had never truly practiced seeing people in a way that Jesus would. I was still having trouble meeting people where they were - in their poverty and pain. Up until this point, I was a "my faith saves me and I'm all good" kind of guy. Completely ignoring all that Jesus not only taught but practiced on a daily basis. Thich realized this. And embraced Jesus, not as a Christian or even a Buddhist but as a human being doing what we are all called to do. If one believed this Palestinian Jew was the Christ, the Anointed Messiah, then why wouldn't we do everything exactly as he taught? [That's another blog for another time.]
But here's the thing, Jesus' teachings are not far from what the Buddha taught some 500 years before. It's not hard for his teachings to have been passed on, and reached that part of the world over that amount of time. And it's not a stretch for me to also believe that God gave that wisdom to both men. Why wouldn't a God of life use all life to reveal God's self to the world? See what St. Paul had to say about this in Romans. In many christian circles just writing this would get me excommunicated or at least thrown out of the party. And yet, Thich welcomed me to explore these thoughts deeper until I found true meaning of God, and what it meant to dwell in God and have God dwell inside me.
There are differences between "us" and "them" for sure. But there are lessons from both that have been passed down throughout the generations that we cannot ignore. And the way to do that is to be in dialogue with one another, learning from each person you meet because we have all been passed wisdom down from the ages before us. And we all must also pass it on ourselves.
"Buddhist and Christians alike, in dialogue, want to recognize similarities as well as differences in their traditions. It is good that an orange is an orange and a mango is a mango. The colors, the smells, and the tastes are different, but looking deeply, we see that they are both authentic fruits. Looking more deeply, we can see the sunshine, the rain, the minerals, and the earth in both of them. Only their manifestations are different. Authentic experience makes a religion a true tradition. Religious experience is, above all, human experience. If religions are authentic, they contain the same elements of stability, joy, peace, understanding, and love. The similarities as well as the differences are there. They differ only in terms of emphasis. Glucose and acid are in all fruits, but their degrees differ. We cannot say that one is a real fruit and the other is not."
excerpt from Living Buddha, Living Christ (p. 194-95)
Our own life has to be our message.