Saturday, May 2, 2009
A Christian friend in Thailand, Lance Woodruff, sent the following question:
Jim, as one of Thomas Merton’s biographers, do you have questions or comments which come to mind as a Christian encounters the sacred in other religions? Have you received insight or inspiration from Buddhism or other religions which you might share with me?
Here is the main part of my response:
In my own life, a close relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has been an immense blessing.
In that regard, Thomas Merton set a good example for me. There was never any question in his mind about how much we Christians have to learn from others of any of the principal (and often some of the minor) religious traditions. Merton had a particular affinity for Buddhism, but also had important relationships with Jews, Hindus, and at least one Moslem of the Sufi tradition. (One might add, in a time when inter-Christian dialogue was exceptional, he had close ties with both Orthodox and Protestant Christians.)
Here is an extract from my biography of Merton, Living With Wisdom, about the meeting Merton had with Nhat Hanh in 1965:
Merton immediately recognized Nhat Hanh as someone very like himself. It was like meeting Chuang Tzu in the flesh. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed provided bridges toward each other. “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton wrote soon afterward. “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.”
When Merton asked Nhat Hanh what the war was doing to Vietnam, the Buddhist said simply, “Everything is destroyed.” This, Merton said to the monks at his Sunday lecture, was truly a monk’s answer, revealing the essence without wasting a word.
Merton described the rigorous formation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam and the fact that instruction in meditation doesn’t begin early. “Before you can learn to meditate,” he said, quoting Nhat Hanh, “you have to learn how to close the door.” The monks laughed; they were used to the reverberation of slamming doors as latecomers raced to church.
Here’s a Nhat Hanh story I told in The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life:
... It was from Thich Nhat Hanh that I first became aware of walking as an opportunity to repair the damaged connection between the physical and the spiritual.
In the late sixties, he asked me to accompany him on his lecture trips in the United States. He spoke to audiences about Vietnamese culture and what the war looked like to ordinary Vietnamese people. At times he also spoke about the monastic vocation and meditation.
In conversation, Nhat Hanh sometimes spoke of the importance of what he called “mindful breathing,” a phrase that seemed quite odd to me at first. 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 walked in an attentive, unhurried way.
It wasn’t until we climbed the steps to my sixth floor apartment in Manhattan that I began to take his example to heart. Though in my late twenties and very fit, I was 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.
In the seventies, I spent time in France with Nhat Hanh on a yearly basis. He was 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.
In correspondence with a friend, I was recently reminded of this one:
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 such committed vegetarians. Passing by a poelier 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.
Finally, here’s a story Nhat Hanh tells about me in one of his books, The Miracle of Mindfulness:
I have a close friend named Jim Forest. ... Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we've finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else. 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 was the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes 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 if 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 drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, 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.
One important sentence Nhat Hanh left out of his account is this: "When you wash the dishes, wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.” A very important sentence in my life! I learned from those few words not only something about the potential sacramentality of dirty dishes but of anything we touch and also how times of irritation can easily be transformed into times of meditation and prayer.
I could tell stories about ways Nhat Hanh has influenced my life from now until the next year and perhaps have a few still to tell, but for today this is all I have time for.
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Here’s a story that Nancy tells about her first encounter with Nhat Hanh.
My first Zen lesson
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 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.
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note: The photo of Nhat Hanh is one I took is Paris in 1975. It is copyrighted and may not be used without written permission.
-- Jim Forest
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