In 1966, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was forced from his homeland, but in all his years of exile, he has not wavered from his pursuit of inner and global peace.
It was another sold-out appearance by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, and a very long and very peaceful line of devotees snaked around the courtyard outside the Berkeley Community Theater.
Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most popular meditation teachers in the West, had just come from a short meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Center in Marin County, a Day of Mindfulness attended by 2,500 students of Buddhism.
Inside the Berkeley Community Theater, the peaceful silence belies the fact that 3,500 people have packed themselves in the auditorium, paying $20 a ticket to benefit the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Community of Mindful Living, the loose, international network drawn together by the simple Buddhist teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.
A bell rings out from the stage, and sound waves radiate up the rising rows of seats. “All Rise,” says a monk, and Thich Nhat Hanh, wearing a brown robe, slowly walks on stage, leading 35 similarly dressed monks and nuns.
Most people in the audience — and all the monks — press their palms together at the heart, making the Buddhist sign of respect. Thich Nhat Hanh sits on an elevated platform beside a large brass bell, next to an arrangement of giant sunflowers. “Learn how to stop running,” he says. “Many of us have been running all our lives. Practice stopping.”
Thich Nhat Hanh first came to the United States in 1966, as a peace activist, in the midst of the Vietnam War. He meant to stay a few months, but was barred from returning home by the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam. Today, the Communist leaders of the reunited Vietnam continue the policy of keeping him away.
Over the last two decades, Thich Nhat Hanh has worked with many war-scarred veterans of the Vietnam conflict, helping them reconcile the violence of the past. When he’s not traveling the world, leading retreats and giving lectures, Thich Nhat Hanh lives in Plum Village in southwestern France, a community of monks, nuns and lay people.
He was interviewed last month beneath a small grove of trees at Kim Son Monastery in the mountains between Gilroy and Watsonville. Joining the conversation was Sister Chan Khong, co-founder of Plum Village, Alan Senauke of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Wes “Scoop” Nisker of Inquiring Mind magazine, and Arnie Kotler of Parallax Press, which publishes Thich Nhat Hanh’s works.
Q: At your recent retreats and talks, you’ve talked about the challenges and pain many of us feel in our families and within ourselves. What do you feel we need to learn about that in the West?
A: My teaching always focuses on the real problems we are having in the present moment. There is violence. There is loneliness within. There is anger within. There is restlessness within. And we suffer. And because we suffer, we are not able to help the people around us. Even if we have the desire to help, we cannot help because we don’t have enough peace inside.
Society is very individualistic, selfish, with people thinking about himself or herself alone. Each for himself, each for herself alone. But in fact even if you have the desire, the intention, to help others, it would still be difficult for you to do so, because when you are not in peace with yourself, it’s very difficult to relate to people in a peaceful way in order to help them.
If we observe our elementary schools or high schools or universities, we see that now. Everyone is thinking of himself or herself. To go to school is to get a diploma, for you to have a means to survive later on at a job. And you don’t care; you don’t have the time to care. And maybe you are not interested in other people.
School is no longer a family, like we had in the past. I think in Asia, we used to have that very strongly. And I think in the West it did exist, that spirit of family within the context of public school. Now that is gone. Each is for himself or herself. And in such an environment, we can not train ourselves in understanding each other and loving each other. That is why when we graduate and go into the society, we cannot do more than that.
Q: How did we get so lost in our individualism? Do you think there is something innate in human beings that is selfish?
A: There is a tendency to be individualistic in us, a seed of egoism. But that isn’t all, because in us there is the other seed, the seed of togetherness and the desire to be with other people, the desire to help and to be kind to others. That seed exists in every one of us.
But if you are exposed to an environment where the negative is watered every day, that seed will grow and manifest itself in your daily life strongly. If you have the chance to be exposed to a loving, understanding environment where the seed of compassion, loving kindness, can be watered every day, then you become a more loving person. So, it’s not that we only have this kind of tendency, we have also the opposite tendency.
The garbage notices the flower and the flower notices the garbage. These are tendencies, somehow organic. So they need not be enemies of each other. If you know how to take care of one, and the other, you don’t need to have a conflict between the two. It’s like suffering and happiness.
We have the tendency to run away from suffering and to look for happiness. But, in fact, if you have not suffered, you have no chance to experience real happiness. So, suffering is the base of happiness. You can learn from your suffering. And then you have a chance to be happy. But if you don’t know anything about suffering, I don’t think happiness can be real and deep.
Q: I wanted to ask you a few questions about your childhood in French colonial Vietnam. Did your parents raise you as a Buddhist or Catholic or any religious upbringing when you were a young child?
A: They belonged to the Buddhist tradition. They practiced not a lot. Just like many Christians over here. But I think, again, the seed of Buddhism is in every one of us.
But in my case, my seed, the Buddhism was watered quite early in my life. One day I happened to see the drawing of a Buddha on the cover of a Buddhist magazine, sitting gracefully, peacefully, happily on the grass. It had a profound effect on me. Just the drawing of a Buddha sitting on the grass. I was very impressed because I observed and saw the people around me were not very peaceful. They seemed to suffer.
Q: What are some of your vivid memories of growing up in Vietnam in the 1930s? What was going on around you at that time?
A: The French were still there, and we were following the French way of life. I attended elementary school, where French and Vietnamese were taught. We also learned a few hours of Chinese in elementary school. We learned French. I had to learn history, geography, in French. And I also had to learn some Vietnamese history and geography in Vietnamese.
We were also aware of the underground resistance to the French, to French colonialism. I saw young men and young women arrested just because they were members of the resistance. And when I grew up, I also saw hunger. There was a time when every morning when I got up I saw many dead bodies on the street, because people did not have anything to eat.
Young students had to go and beg for rice. And at lunch, we went into each house and asked for a rice bowl. We collected this rice and then we divided it into a smaller rice bowl and distributed it to the dying people. They were dying of hunger.
I remember one thing — I never forget — the students, although they were young, had to make a terrible decision. They knew they could not help everyone to survive. The amount of rice they could get every day was very limited. So they decided to help only a portion of that huge amount of people. And they abandoned the rest. I think it’s terrible for young students to make such a decision. They were like God, they had to decide who would live and who would die. I never can forget such an experience.
Q: Did seeing all this suffering have a lot to do with your decision to become a monk?
A: Yes. And at my time, Buddhism was available for the first time in Vietnamese. Before, if you wanted to learn Buddhism, all the books were in Chinese. That magazine with the drawing of the Buddha was one of some 10 Buddhist magazines published in Vietnamese. And before that, no documents were available in Vietnamese.
So, it was a dream of a little boy to go out and learn Buddhism, to practice Buddhism in order to relieve the suffering of other people in society. Later on, when I became a novice monk, I also learned and practiced by this kind of desire.
Q: Have you ever regretted at all becoming a monk and not having a family and children yourself?
A: When I became a novice monk, I lived in a temple where the atmosphere was quite like in a family. The abbot is like a father and other monks are like your big brothers, your small, younger brothers. It is a kind of family. So I don’t think that the desire to set up a family, to live like everyone was so strong, because it is clear that I had a happy time of being a novice. I had a lot of joy, of happiness. I always tell my monks and young students that if you are happy during the first two years of your practice as a novice, I think you are going to be happy as a monk.
Q: What did your father do for a living in Vietnam?
A: My father worked in the government. At that time, there was the French government and also there was a Vietnamese government with an emperor.
My father served in the government of Vietnamese. His task was to settle new people. Wherever there was an area where the population was too dense, he would take hundreds of them to an area where they could clear the forest and settle these people, to make a new village. He enjoyed very much doing that.
Q: Did you have any brothers and sisters?
A: Yes. Five.
Q: Wasn’t the Catholic Church fairly strong then in French colonial Vietnam? Were they a strong force in society at that time?
A: They were less than 10 percent, but they were well-organized. They had the support of the French government. If you were a Catholic, if you were protected by a Catholic priest, you had more safety than the Buddhists. Because the Buddhist was suspected of siding with the resistance.
Q: So was the Catholic Church seen as a foreign force, an occupying force like part of the government?
A: Yes. Buddhists were always suspected as siding with the resistance. And, in fact, that was true to a very large extent.
Q: When you first came to the United States in 1966, the Vietnam War was going on. What brought you here?
A: In 1966, I was invited by a peace organization called The Fellowship of Reconciliation. To come and present the situation in Vietnam, not as government, but as representing the people, the people who are caught between the two warring parties. I also got an invitation from Cornell University to give a series of lectures on Southeast Asia and Buddhism. My intention was to be away for three months.
Q: But you’ve never been back to Vietnam?
A: No. From that time on I decided to stay on and continue the work. But because America was involved in Vietnam, I could not live here, so I made a tour around the world, and I decided to stay in France. Later on, we founded the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris to bring information that was not available to the warring parties. We had the support of the Buddhist hierarchy in Vietnam, and the Buddhist community in Vietnam.
It was not my intention to come here to the West and spread Buddhism. The intention was to come here and try to end the war. But because of that and because of the need of the people, our friends, that is why we had to begin to share the practice with our Western friends.
Q: You’re still barred from going back to Vietnam? Is it possible for you to go back?
A: No, no.
Q: Do you think that may change? Do you hope that will change? You must be sad about that.
A: Yes, it is sad. In the beginning, I missed my country very much. I used to dream of going back. But now I feel that I am home. Although I have been away for more than 30 years, my books, my tapes, have found a way back to Vietnam. We don’t know how, but the people are very talented. Many friends of ours visiting Vietnam from Australia, from Europe, report to me that my presence in Vietnam is very tangible, very real. So, I don’t suffer because I cannot go home.
Q: At your talk at the Berkeley Community Theater, you said: “Nirvana is another word for God.” But isn’t there a major difference between the Christian God and the Buddhist idea of nirvana? How is it different and how is it the same?
A: I think there are different levels of understanding of Buddhism, and there are different levels of understanding of Christianity. For a Buddhist like me, it would not be very difficult to be, to talk and to share with a Christian mystic.
In the beginning, you might look for God as someone outside yourself in the form of a human being, and maybe you would be interested to do so because it is easier. But if you really focus in your practice, you will find it is not someone else out of you.
You begin to feel the love inside you. And, finally, you find out that God is the ground of your being. Like the water is the substance of the wave. What is always there as a ground of your being. I remember that Paul Tillich, the German theologian, said about God: “the ground of being.”
Love is the ground of being. That kind of language is very close to the language of Zen Buddhism. As you compare the water with the wave, you see wave and water are the same but not the same. Because from the side of the wave, you see the beginning and end, the notion of high and low, small or big, this and the other. But from the side of water, you don’t see these things. You are free from all these things. And yet the wave is at the same time water. Because water is the substance of the wave, the ground of being of the wave.
Q: Do you encourage people in the West to stay with their own tradition rather than convert to Buddhism?
A: Yes. When you are open to other traditions, and you are ready to learn from other traditions, you have an opportunity to understand your own tradition differently. That is what I have learned. Because you may have an idea about your tradition. But that idea might not be the best idea you may have of your tradition. Your tradition might be much different. You might be in love with just one idea. So the encounter between different spiritual traditions might help.
There are those who have practiced Buddhism and have gone back to their tradition and have discovered many things they have not seen before. I always think and believe that every spiritual tradition belongs to the heritage of mankind. We have the right to benefit from every spiritual tradition. You need to know, you need to profit from each tradition. Because each tradition has its own jewels, values.
It’s like you eat the fruits if you love the apples. That doesn’t prevent you from trying mangoes or bananas, and you don’t betray your orange at all when you try bananas and mangoes. We have the right to enjoy all kind of fruits, and we have the right to enjoy every spiritual tradition of humanity.
And you should not exclude any other traditions. And to say “My tradition is the only authentic tradition,” that is too narrow. We have to free ourselves from that kind of thinking.
Q: Every time you come to America, I notice more people come to see you, and you’re selling more books than ever. There are many Buddhists, monks and teachers. Why are you so popular?
A: I never thought that I’m popular.
Q: You should have seen the line out in front of the Berkeley Community Theater.
A: Every time I see things like that, I only feel how much people need peace, how much they are hungry for spirituality. People are hungry and yet you don’t try to satisfy their hunger. I think of the church, the Catholic Church. I think they need to do something to renew the teaching, to offer understanding, acceptance, so that people will not abandon their old tradition and go searching for something else.
Q: Is there a danger for people to focus on you as a guru, and think all they have to do is listen to you and read your books?
A: I always urge them to be themselves, to go back to their roots. There is no danger at all if we both like to try my practice, because my practice has the aid of bringing people back to their own cultural and spiritual roots. And my only concern is for people to have an opportunity to practice so they will suffer less. Then they will go back to their roots, to their tradition and try to renew their tradition, not only for the sake of the tradition but for the sake of the people that belong to the tradition.
THICH NHAT HANH
— 1926: Born in French colonial Vietnam. — 1942: Becomes a novice Buddhist monk. — 1966: Founds the Order of Interbeing in Vietnam and embarks on first U.S. trip. — 1967: Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (No winner was selected that year.) — 1982: Founds Plum Village, Buddhist community in southern France. — 1983: Starts the Community of Mindful Living and begins annual tours around the world. — 1985: Founds Berkeley-based Parallax Press with a group of students. — 1987: Publishes “Being Peace,” which now has more than 200,000 copies in print, the first of 35 books and tapes.
Join the conversation