Saturday, February 3, 2007

the thich nhat hanh connection

Thomas Merton with Thich Nhat Hanh
Photograph by John Heidbrink

In May 1966 Merton had a visit from Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Naught-Han), a Buddhist monk, Zen Master, a poet from Vietnam, and a peace activist. During the Vietnam War, Nhat Hanh worked tirelessly to reconcile the warring factions of his country. He came to the U.S. to present a picture of Vietnam that was not given to us by our news media – that of the innocent people who suffered.

Merton immediately recognized in Nhat Hanh someone very like himself. They had both been in monasteries for many years, both were poets, and both had written a poem to a brother killed in war. As the two monks talked, the different religious systems in which they were formed didn’t seem to matter, “Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother,” Merton said in writing a preface for a book on the Vietnam War by Nhat Hanh (also published as an essay “Nhat Hanh Is My Brother”):

“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.” (Faith and Violence)

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 shut the door.”

Merton was intrigued with Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of Zen as a “rare and unique sense of responsibility in the modern world”:

“Wherever he goes he will walk in the strength of his spirit and in the solitude of the Zen monk who sees beyond life and death.” (“Nhat Hanh Is My Brother”)

Nhat Hanh was banned from Vietnam in 1966 and has been living in exile at a retreat center in southern France. He continues to teach mindfulness and what he calls “Engaged Buddhism” – the effort to respond to suffering.

Merton envied the danger of Nhat Hanh’s role in the world, “…do for Nhat Hanh whatever you would do for me if I were in his position. In many ways I wish I were.”

Several years ago I had a book by Nhat Hanh: The Miracle of Mindfulness. The book was probably my first practical introduction into slowing down: looking at what was before me, tasting what I was eating, learning how to wash the dishes. Recently I discovered a website devoted to SLOWNESS – The Slow Movement. I find that I need all of these helps and reminders to keep from being swallowed up in the mad rush. Mindfulness and a refusal to rush are the both the seed and the fruit of contemplativeness, and they are integral to Nhat Hanh’s message.


  1. "We are in touch with the highest spirit in ourselves, we too are a Buddha, filled with the Holy Spirit, and we become very tolerant, very open, very deep and very understanding." (Thich Nhat Hanh)

    "To be a Buddha is to be truly awake--to the nature of existence, change, impermance, suffering, liberation, compassion, and love. To be awake is our deepest truth and goal. We are the Buddha, but the question is: do we know it; do we accept this noble calling? Or do we run from it, hiding behind the firewall of addiction and ignorance? The highest spirit in us is the Buddha-nature or the Holy Spirit. This highest spirit is discovered in the depths of the present moment and so requires mindfulness to know it and be it. May we each develop our capacity for mindfulness" (Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Hours, pg 18)

  2. Thanks for the quotes, John. They add much to the way that I understand Buddhahood and mindfulness.

    I keep going back to just sitting :-)


Lax photography

Robert Lax (1915-2000), Untitled, 1970s; black and white photograph, 11 x 17 inches; Robert Lax Archives. St. Bonaventure University ...