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Lions Roar : July 2010
For five days the team visited devastated villages to distribute food and when they came across wounded soldiers, they helped them no matter which side they were on. In the face of this suf- fering, of all his country's long suffering, Thich Nhat Hanh cut his finger and let the blood fall into the river. "This," he said, "is to pray for all who have perished in the war and in the flood." Engaged Buddhism: the practice of applying the insights gained from meditation and dharma teachings to alleviating suffering of a social, environmental, or political nature. Thich Nhat Hanh is widely recognized as the original proponent of this form of prac- tice, but, as the monk himself said in an interview with the Sham- bhala Sun, all Buddhism is engaged: "When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on-not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you. "When I was a novice in Vietnam;' he continued, "we young monks witnessed the suffering caused by the war. So we were very eager to practice Buddhism in such a way that we could bring it into society. That was not easy because the tradition does not di- rectly offer Engaged Buddhism. We had to do it by ourselves." Engaged Buddhism, born amidst the wars in Vietnam, has struck a deep chord in the West, and today Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay as he is affectionately called by his students, is one of the world's most influential Buddhist teachers. He is also a pro- lific writer, and his work has enormous breadth. He has written memoirs and journals, poetry, children's books, and historical fiction. But he's best known for his teachings. In many of his most popular books, including Peace is Every Step and True Love, he unpacks fundamental Buddhist principles and how they are applied to our lives. Other volumes are more scholarly in na- ture, such as The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, which is a commentary on the Diamond Sutra, or Transformation at the Base, which draws from major streams of Buddhist thought to offer a modern presentation of abhidharma, the traditional Buddhist teachings on psychology. Alan Senauke, the former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, talks to me about Nhat Hanh's teachings: "The scholarship is very well grounded without being obscure. He makes teachings that are hard to grasp accessible and he makes them come alive. You can really see how to use them." Jack Kornfield, the author of The Wise Heart, adds, "Thich Nhat Hanh has the ability to express some of the most profound teach- ings of interdependence and emptiness I've ever heard. With the eloquence of a poet, he holds up a sheet of paper and teaches us that the rain cloud and the tree and the logger who cut the tree down are all there in the paper. He's been one of the most significant carriers of the lamp of the dharma to the West that we have had:' THICH NHAT HANH was born Nguyen Xuan Bao in central Vietnam in 1926. The most wonderful memory of his childhood, he told Oprah Winfrey in an interview, was seeing a picture of 38 SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2010 '"d ::r: o """Ì o (J o e """Ì t"rJ C/J >-< o 'Tj '"d I:'""'" I:'""'" X '"d t"rJ C/J C/J Above: Thich Nhat Hanh with Thomas Merton. Right: with Sister Chan Khong. Thich Nhat Hanh cut his finger and let the blood fall into the river. "This;' he said, "is to pray for all who have perished." the Buddha in a magazine when he was around seven or eight. The Buddha was sitting on the grass, smiling, and looking more peaceful than anyone the little boy knew. Nhat Hanh decided he wanted to be like the Buddha, to be a monk. His parents were re- luctant to allow this, thinking it would be a difficult life; however, when he was sixteen years old they permitted him to enter a Zen temple in the Lam Te (Rinzai) sect, located near Hué. There, he began studying under the tutelage of his primary teacher, Master Thanh Quy Chan That, and he was taught that meditation was the door to understanding. Yet the monastics did not just practice meditation all day. At the temple, everyone from the highest monk to the newest member of the community equally followed the principle of "no work, no food." So Nhat Hanh shoveled manure, polished rice, and lugged buckets of wa- ter until his shoulders were red and swollen. After several years, Thich Nhat Hanh officially took the vows of a monk and was sent to the Institute of Buddhist Studies of Bao Quoc. Yet he was dissatisfied with the education provided there, as it lacked emphasis on literature, philosophy, and foreign languages. Authorities at the institute were not receptive to his suggestions to reform the curriculum and as a result he and a