Thich Nhat Hanh and Radical Discipleship

By Ric Hudgens

In the past six weeks, our community has lost bell hooks (December 15) and Jim Forest (Jan 13). Then earlier this week, on January 22, the great teacher of engaged Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, passed. All three were linked. bell hooks wrote a foreword to The Raft Is Not the Shore, which are the transcribed dialogues between Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan. The final book that Jim Forest published was entitled Eyes of Compassion: Living with Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thich Nhat Hanh also had a connection with Dr. Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton. This places him as a surprisingly central figure in the history of our community. Because I already was finding these intersections fascinating, I was and was not surprised to discover an encounter between Thich Nhat Hanh and the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In the Fall of 1962 Thich Nhat Hanh was in exile from a war-torn Vietnam and teaching at Columbia University in New York. He suffered a period of intense withdrawal and depression. “I became a battlefield,” he wrote in his journal. “I couldn’t know until the storm was over if I would survive, not in the sense of my physical life, but in the deeper sense of my core self.” (Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-1966).

He writes that on the night of November 2 he was unable to sleep. He had been reading an account of Bonhoeffer’s last days when he was “awakened to the starry sky that dwells in each of us. I felt a surge of joy, accompanied by the faith that I could endure even greater suffering than I had thought possible. Bonhoeffer was the drop that made my cup overflow, the last link in a long chain, the breeze that nudged the ripened fruit to fall.”

Thich Nhat Hanh’s core teaching is on mindfulness. In a 2003 interview with Krista Tippett, Thich Nhat Hanh said “when you are mindful, you are fully alive; you are fully present. You can get in touch with the wonders of life that can nourish you and heal you. And you are stronger, you are more solid in order to handle the suffering inside of you and around you. When you are mindful, you can recognize, embrace, and handle the pain, the sorrow in you and around you, to bring you relief. And if you continue with concentration and insight, you’ll be able to transform the suffering inside and help transform the suffering around you.” (On Being, September 25, 2003; rebroadcast on January 27, 2022).

Mindfulness teaching was not developed as a mere form of personal peace. His teaching comes out of an engaged commitment to suffering and compassion in difficult circumstances. His classic book The Miracle of Mindfulness was written first as a manual for wartime social workers in Vietnam who were dealing with danger and death every day.

I am reminded of Howard Thurman in Jesus and the Disinherited when he observed that the teaching of Jesus was not aimed at the powerful and privileged but at those whose backs were against the wall. We might say the same for Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching.

The late bell hooks identified as a buddhist-christian (small b, small c). She found resources in each that were important and necessary to her in the work of liberation. It would seem to me that this synthesis makes as much sense as early Christians finding resources within Stoicism – or contemporary Christians who have learned from Marxism or process philosophy.

All religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, have strengths and weaknesses. The multiple crises of our time demand that we network our strengths and limit our liabilities. Therefore we need each other.

I am trusting that the resonance Thich Nhat Hanh found with so many radical disciples, is not a coincidence, rather a work of the liberating Spirit, who calls each of us to the work of compassion, mindfulness, courage, and commitment. I’m giving thanks for the witness of his light.

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