By Pierre Marchand
Ven. Thich Nhat Nanh is widely recognized as the originator of the global movement that has now come to be known as ‘engaged Buddhism’. A Vietnamese Zen monk, he championed a peace movement in Vietnam during the war in the 1960s and ’70s and since then has worked to engage spiritual wisdom in problems of politics, and everyday living.
How do you see the role of Buddhism in stopping war and building peace?
I think Buddhism helps stop the war within us first. It helps stop the conflicts within, so that we can really build better relationships with other people, our family, and our community. Without doing that, we cannot help much in stopping the conflicts in society and in the world. Peace begins with myself, and I think that is very Buddhist in essence. Many Christians and Jews believe the same thing. That principle, that vision is universal, not only Buddhist, but Christian, Jewish, and also humanist, non-religious.
When you are at war with yourself, you can start the war with other people around you, and it’s very difficult to help build peace in society. That is why the beginning is always to go back and look at and settle the conflicts and war within yourself. You don’t need to become a Buddha in order to start building peace in society, but as you begin to make peace inside, you already do something to help the peace around you.
Can you tell us about your meetings during those days, with people like Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Thomas Merton and (peace activist) Alfred Hassler?
I met Dr Martin Luther King in Chicago, US, for the first time in June 1966 while I was making a tour of North America. After just half an hour of talking together, we held a press conference. And it was very easy to communicate.
I met him the second time at Geneva during a conference on peace called Pacem in Terris. He invited me up to his apartment for breakfast, and we discussed the situation in Vietnam, in America, in the world. Then I was able to tell him that in Vietnam many of us consider him to be a bodhisattva working for human rights and peace. He was very pleased. It was only a few months before he was assassinated, so I’m pleased I could tell him that.
Thomas Merton I met in the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. We had a good time together exchanging many things, including our experiences of living in monasteries! At that time I was not sure that I could go home to Vietnam. Because I had spoken out, it was dangerous to go home. He wrote something supporting me, and he asked his friends to do whatever they could do to support me in this difficult moment.
Thomas Merton was the first Christian monk to study the practice of Buddhism very deeply.
Yes, he had studied Zen Buddhism. I gave him a book of mine written in French, Le Buddhisme d’Aujourd’hui. He wrote a review of it.
I spent two days with him, and he took me to visit the childhood home of Lincoln. After I left, he gave a talk to his monks and said, ‘Just looking at how he closes the door, you know that he’s a true monk.’ (Laughs.) That’s funny, because in Plum Village (Thich Nhat Hanh’s residence in France) a Catholic lady from Germany once came for three weeks of practice. Before she left us, she said, ‘I came because I read something from Thomas Merton about Thich Nhat Hanh’s closing the door. I was curious. I wanted to come just to see how you close the door. I stayed three weeks for the practice, and I am very glad that I have come. I also have learned how to close the door!’
Recently, I met an American man who was reading Thomas Merton’s books. He was very surprised that Merton wrote, ‘Nhat Hanh is more my brother than most of my Catholic monks’. He asked me if Merton became a Buddhist.
He did not have to become a Buddhist, because he had Buddha-nature within himself. A good Christian always manifests the Buddha-nature, and a good Buddhist always manifests the love and compassion of Jesus.
Alfred Hassler? I worked with him in Vietnam. He was the executive secretary of FOR (Fellowship of Reconciliation), and he tried his best to help us. He organized a speaking tour for me, and I went to Australia and many countries in Europe with him. After that, FOR organized a world tour for me. I went to the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. And when I learned that I was barred from going back to Vietnam, I went to France and took asylum there.
In 1966, a journalist in Washington, DC, told me that the government of Vietnam had informed Great Britain, Japan, and the United States that they had invalidated my passport, and that it should not be honored by them. So when I visited Washington, DC, I risked deportation. I asked Sister Cao Ngoc Phuong to come to Washington to accompany me back to France. We were afraid that at the Paris airport, I would be caught, so we asked a number of personalities in Paris to come greet us at the airport and protect us.
How do you see the current work of engaged Buddhism?
Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism, because if you really practice Buddhism, it becomes part of your daily life, having to do with your relationship with people around you; with you and your society.
So practicing Buddhism does not mean you cut yourself off from society. Real Buddhism brings you into a better relationship with society, and that is why you can bring your practice into daily life, and into your society. That is what we mean by engaged Buddhism.
Engaged Buddhism does not mean that we only care about people without shelter and without food, and charity work. You do that, but you do that work as a kind of practice. See, if you try to do charity work and you lose your practice of mindfulness, that is no longer engaged Buddhism. It is just charity work. And you cannot go far if you are not supported by a spiritual practice. Therefore I would say that engaged Buddhism is the popularization of mindfulness practice in daily life. You bring mindfulness practice into relationships within you and with people in the world. That is the heart of the matter. If you think that engaged Buddhism is social work, you are wrong. You run a soup kitchen, you run a bakery, and you help people to die. All this kind of work is good if you do it mindfully. They are all forms of the practice of mindfulness. But if you lose yourself in your charity and social work, I cannot call it engaged Buddhism.
Engaged Buddhism is the art of bringing mindful living into society. People might suffer because of a lack of food, shelter, medicine, and social assistance, but people suffer a lot because they don’t know how to live with understanding and compassion. The practice of mindfulness brings the capacity to understand and be compassionate. It reduces greatly the amount of suffering in your heart and in our society.
Do you think it is possible to learn how to love and to teach how to love? Or is love just something natural that cannot be taught?
Love is something you have to contemplate to learn, because you cannot love unless you understand. If you don’t understand that person, it’s impossible for you to love him or her. And in order to understand, you have to take the time to look deeply into his or her situation, to understand their suffering, to understand their difficulties, to understand the deepest aspirations of that person; otherwise you cannot really love. Meditation is looking deeply in order to understand, and once you understand, love comes naturally, because understanding is the source of love.
What do you mean by mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the capacity of being present in the here and the now, living deeply each moment of your life. If you are really there, you understand the suffering of the people around you, and you’ll be able to do something in order to remove their suffering. You’ll be able to refrain from doing something that can create more suffering. Mindfulness is to unite the body and the mind in order to really touch the wonders of life and recognize suffering, and to be able to do something to remove it.
What does non-violence mean to you?
The essence of non-violence is understanding and compassion, so when you cultivate understanding and compassion, you are ractising non-violence. You cannot be absolutely non-violent – but the more you can understand, the more you can be compassionate, the more you can be non-violent.
You should learn to look at non-violence as something Buddha-like. A Buddha’s non-violence is higher. His degree of non-violence is higher than a house, because his understanding and his love have a great equality.
Non-violence is not a principle. It is a flower that blooms on the ground of understanding and love. Non-violence is something to cultivate.
In Plum Village, because our practice is the ground of everything, we know that if we are not happy, if we do not live in harmony with each other, if we cannot embrace each other, then it will be difficult for us to organize a retreat for others while we are not happy with ourselves or with each other. That is why my recommendation is that the practice within our community should be strong. We should practice so we can be happy enough as a community before we think of other strategies in order to create peace and happiness around us.
Courtesy Fellowship magazine, published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Websites: www.forusa.org, www.ifor.org
Pierre Marchand is a human rights activist who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is author of The Little Princess and the Birds, which can be ordered in India from
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