By Dipankar Das
Paradoxically, by stationing you firmly in the present, in the mundane here-and-now, the Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh can help you glimpse the end of all frontiers in a breath technique called mindfulness meditation
At a modest gathering of presspersons and social luminaries in New Delhi, India, Thich Nhat Hanh sits on a slight elevation a picture of quiet repose in his unobtrusive brown monk’s robes. Questions and answers fly thick and fast. Suddenly, a hand held bell peals, reminding the participants to return to the present from wherever they are. Focus, Nhat Hanh has already told them on your breathing. There is a pregnant silence the unheard thud of 200 odd people dropping anchor right here mentally stepping into the immediate. This was an off-the-cuff version of what is known as mindfulness meditation.
The master was in India in connection with the release of some of his books and to conduct retreats. Thich Nhat Hanh is at home everywhere and every when and is both comforting and comfortable being comforting. He is 71, but could easily pass off as a man in his forties. His disciples call him “Thay” which translates as spiritual teacher. No other title, exalted or otherwise, quite describes what he is doing teaching and guiding. He has taught in many universities, including Columbia University, USA, and the Sorbonne, France.
An author of more than 60 books, he is fluent in French and English besides Vietnamese. Yet Thay is best known the world over for letting mindfulness meditation out to be aired from the secluded Buddhist monasteries. He is one of the few Buddhist masters to make the world’s most individualistic religion accessible, particularly to the average, cautiously adventurous westerners. Mindfulness is one of the eight principles in the path charted by the Buddha himself.
It calls for the student to be aware of every breath he takes, which in turn enables him to be aware of being alive which is the greatest miracle of all. This method of meditation is hardly the stuff of esoteric, the increasingly popular vipassana itself is a large part of mindfulness meditation. All this breathtaking success begs a question: what logic is it that makes breathing, by definition the least palpable of the body’s involuntary functions, the focus of meditative attention? Mindfulness, Thay explains, is the heart of Buddhist meditation. It is the practice of taking care of the present moment. That is why when you practice mindfulness, you take care of life.
The first function of conscious breathing is to let you stop thinking. The second is to allow you to be in touch with life. The third, to give you a chance to rest and resolve yourself. The principle is that when you breathe consciously, you become your breathing. If your breathing becomes peaceful, you become peaceful. It is very simple.
Adds Thay’s Principal assistant; Sister Chan Kong: The breath is the link between the body and the mind. The mind is distracted in many directions. When the mind and the body become one through awareness of the breath, it is then that you are at one with the universe. But there is a catch. Thay’s warning Breathing is for the enjoyment of breathing it is not to be used to become a Buddha. Becoming a Buddha by breathing is only a byproduct of breathing. The same thing is true of walking. If you think walking is to arrive, then you sacrifice walking. Life is just walking. Life is not a destination, life is a way.
Thay was born in 1925 in what was then the French colony of Indochina. He made the momentous decision to be a monk when he was all of 11 years old and in the middle of a picnic at the Na Son mountain range. He heard of a hermit who lived atop one of the mountains. “People said that a hermit is someone dedicated to becoming peaceful and happy, like a Buddha.” So he climbed, the hermit eluded him, but realization knocked nevertheless, riding the crest of the crystal pure sound of water dripping in a well. When he knelt and drank the sparkling water, “it was as if I were meeting the hermit face to face.”
His life’s vocation was decided. A few years later, he was initiated as a novice monk at Tu Hieu Pagoda, near the imperial city of Hue in central Vietnam. Today, Thay’s vision is manifest in the sprawling 82-acre monastery named Plum Village, located in the Bordeaux province, the heart of France’s wine district. It gets its name from the 1,250 plum trees that line the monastery.
The idea of a commune evolved early in Thay’s life. His religious teaching does not stem from the tangled roots of theology—for him, religion is a verb, more action than contemplation. It is intriguing but some of the world’s nastiest despots, holding sway in places from Myanmar to Jaffna, are wary of Buddhism as a not so pacifist force to be easily messed with.
Part of the credit goes to Thay. Widely considered by the American media as one of the 10 most riveting images of the Vietnam war that helped to bring it to an end is that of a Buddhist monk immolating himself in front of the American embassy in Saigon. (“Militant Buddhism”, was adopted in Sri Lanka, only a decade later). As the war escalated, Thay formulated what he calls engaged Buddhism, which teaches that no individual can have peace as long as all people all over the globe are not at peace. He gave Zen Buddhism, generally regarded as a path to inner illumination, a new, extroverted dimension.
Sister Chan Khong explains it simply and well:”The Buddha did not preach that you should sit in the forest and meditate. That is what Indian Buddhists took to doing. They made him a God, isolating him and putting him on a pedestal. And that is why”, she continues, “Buddhism faded out in India. The Buddha’s efforts, after all, had begun with the resolve to end suffering everywhere in himself, in his family and in the world. We are used to thinking that we have a separate self this is not true. We are co-responsible for all the suffering around us. I don’t necessarily have to kill the sea pirates, but I have to develop a way to stop the sea pirate from raping and murdering.”
In 1964, Thay organized the School of Youth for Social Services, which served as Vietnam’s main training Program for Buddhist peace workers. The group espoused a philosophy of decentralization for solving problems of agriculture, health, sanitation and education, which had become endemic in Vietnam. Hundreds of volunteers helped build schools and health clinics and rebuild villages destroyed by American saturation bombing. They sustained a dream through whose war torn years, envisioning a community where peace workers could meet share ideas heal and return to the world rejuvenated to continue their work.
His plan, however, was thwarted when he went to the USA to plead for peace. When his stay in America was drawing to a close, he fell victim to the only unhidden understanding between the Communist government in North Vietnam and the USA backed South Vietnamese regime; fierce enemies, both banned him from returning to Vietnam.
But they couldn’t stop him talking. The then American Secretary of State, Robert McNamara, canceled one of his appointments to listen carefully to what this monk had to say, which was encapsulated in a phrase that has become part of posterity: “Liberate us from your liberation.” Martin Luther King Jr was so impressed that he nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel peace Prize and for the first time publicly voiced his opposition to the war. The war ended, but not Thay’s exile.
Thay spent several years on a small farm, 150 km from Paris, before founding Plum Village. Now, almost 25 years later, Plum Village has grown into what he calls a practice center, a place that offers people the occasion to look at their life deeply; at their real problems Plum Village is home to just about 100 monks and nuns. A substantial chunk of Plum Village income, says sister Chang Khong, comes from visitors who stay there, paying $ 220 for a week. Any extra money funds various welfare schemes in countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam. Visitors to Plum Village include peace activists coming to be instructed and encouraged. American Vietnam war veterans come to exercise their ghosts. Vietnamese come to heal their war wounds.
In 1966, Thay was joined by Sister Chan Khong, then a lecturer in biology. Her first spiritual teacher had emphasized learning the scriptures, but Thay encouraged her to do what she did best—engage in active social programmers, not just study. The times were tough but not without absurdity. “The communists,” she says, “wanted us to denounce the nationalist government and vice versa, but we walked the tightrope of neutrality and were left alone. By the end of the war, we had more than 10,000 people working with us.”
A theologically syncretic outlook is Thay’s calling card. Though a Zen Buddhist himself, he does not discriminate between religious denominations. When Christians and Jews go to Plum Village, they are encouraged to water the seeds of their own religions, not spurn them. His emphasis is: Jew or Christian or anyone else, be good.
Recently, while conducting retreats in Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Bodh Gaya, cities in India, he found the communal and caste tensions in India very disturbing. If people around you are suffering, you will suffer sooner or later. If the Muslim suffers, so does the Hindu. Both of them have to go deep to reconcile their own spirituality. After all, it was from some hidden depths that came the first sound of crystal pure water.
Plum Village is a community of seekers form diverse background. Some of them traveled with Thich Nhat Hanh on his recent visit to India and were articulate about their search. Says sister Chan Khong, the seniormost nun: “We spend our lives running from one goal to another, till we die.” She doesn’t prescribe rejecting material goals, but her advice based on the Buddhist understanding of meditation is: “Be in the moment, enjoy the sunshine while waking up, enjoy the running of water from the tap, enjoy the walk. If you have to learn chemistry, enjoy chemistry and not because it is going to help you get a degree. That way you not only have one life but the whole universe. Don’t wait to arrive at your destination; it might be your grave.”
Ask how it feels to be a monk or nun in a passionless age of hi tech gizmos and the fast life. “I can not be happy if I cannot be a monk,” says a be-robed youngster. “I desire a spiritual life.” A young American monk says: “Yes we tasted distractions which were unwholesome for our lives. This is a wholesome path. Music was a hiding place for me before. Today, it does not mean I give up music, I just channel new learning into music.”
An American monk of Vietnamese origin is eloquent: “I grew up during the war. I wanted liberty and took the spiritual path. The shaven head may seem strange but it is fulfilling. Mindfulness is a matter of practice. Conscious breathing help to keep your feet firmly on the ground.” Though acquainted with all aspects of modern life, he says he found nothing interesting. “We want to go deeper science and the arts do not teach how to travel on this path. The Buddha showed how to overcome and we feel great that we can cultivate the Buddha in us.”
A young nun says: “I become a nun not because I was running away, but because going to school and office robbed me of communication with positive things. The more you are in the melting pot, the lonelier you feel. Here we are developing a capacity to overcome suffering in all walks of life, and to live together. We are building a small society in which everybody is developing compassion to create a happy place. In the West, because of rampant aggression and competitiveness, monkhood is a necessity. Here in India, the material condition is so low but people are more relaxed. Mindfulness is a way of knowing what we are doing.
Unlike traditional masters, stiff, stern, stentorian, Thay is comfortable with many roles. He is my teacher, he is my father, says a disciple. “Sometimes he is close and gentle, sometimes contradictory. But we feel his love. He does not expect us to be perfect but to learn from our mistakes.” Another monk echoes this:“He allows the student-teacher relationship to evolve on its own. He teaches that wisdom has to go with action. Intellectual ability can be transmitted, but to learn wisdom is difficult.”
Is Buddhism, with its openness, the religion of the future? “Yes,” replies Sister Khong, “especially if those who practice Buddhism try not to restrict it to its form but practice its essence.”
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