Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 254

There is an old Jewish legend that every generation has 36 righteous ones on whose piety the fate of the world depends. One of those pillars, Thich Nhat Hanh, died last week.

More than 40 years ago I interviewed him at Plum Village in France when I was writing my book, Peace Is Our Calling, The book, which explored whether the Benedictine motto Pax, peace, only pertained to inner peace or had a broader public dimension, contained interviews with leading monastic and peace movement figures. When I heard the news that this 95-year-old Buddhist spiritual leader, writer, and peace activist had breathed his last, I picked up my book and reread the interview. Here are some excerpts that I hope describe a “righteous one” and let’s pray that somewhere on the globe one has arisen to take his place:

I spent yesterday with Cao Phuong and Thich Nhat Hahn, leaders of the Buddhist Peace Delegation during the Vietnam War, who are still living in exile on a farm in France (Plum Village). Phuong, a former biology professor in Saigon and leader of the Buddhist student peace movement, picked us up at a train station in Troyes.

Following a 20-minute drive we turned up the narrow, bumpy road and Phuong pointed to the simple farmhouse that she, Nhat Hanh, and others had built. While the war raged on, the Buddhist peace delegation would leave Paris on weekends and come here to renew themselves—meditating, reading, working on the farmhouse, digging in the garden, and getting back in touch with a rhythm and lifestyle that the war had cruelly disrupted. Until they are permitted to return to the land of their birth, the farmhouse serves as home.

“There he is,” said Phuong, and I looked toward the tree where she pointed. Nhat Hanh—the poet/monk and militant pacifist feared by so many government officials and army generals—smiled, waved, and. took a few last swings on the home-made tire swing.

Soon we were seated on the living room carpet, sipping tea and I asked Nhat Hanh if he didn’t consider the action by Buddhist monks—demonstrating in the streets, organizing massive nonviolent resistance, self immolation—to be very “unmonastic.” There was a long period of silence and then he answered: “Monks are people. You don’t expect monks to be non-people. It is very natural. They have to eat and sleep and need to react against war and all bad things.”

He continued: “Monastic life is only a means. If the means do not serve, it becomes meaningless. If the sufferings do not shake you violently so that you come awake, you have some false peace which you enjoy in your shell. As long as that shell is not threatened, you do not move out of your shell. Many monasteries in Vietnam felt this way. ‘Why go out into the streets?’ they asked. ‘Our work is our being. Our work is to pray for peace. Why go out and demonstrate? There are activist groups doing that.’ Then the war came and shook everything, and they came awake. But it was too late—well, it’s never too late—but it was late enough.

That was a direct as Nhat Hanh got during the interview. Most of the questions he answered with stories or riddles. “I think I will call a news conference and give the Nobel Peace Prize to the poplar tree,” he laughed. And again, “For a long time I’ve wanted to hold an international religious conference where people will come and try to take a bath. There must be a technique of taking a bath.”

The formal interview was followed by a Vietnamese meal. I was a mess with the chopsticks, dropping more rice and vegetables on the floor than in my mouth. Nhat Hanh finally came to my rescue. “Try these,” he said and handed me a fork and spoon. Nhat Hanh kept the dinner conversation going and seemed more relaxed without a tape recorder, his ideas more concrete.

He would give the peace prize to the poplar tree he explained because it is what it is in the best way possible. “That’s all you can expect of anyone,” he said. The monk should be the best monk, the father the best father—and in that way one would become a whole person and automatically a person of peace.

How about the international conference on taking a bath? Nhat Hanh laughed softly and said, “We would share with one another how we washed ourselves of our prejudices, viewpoints of life and allowed ourselves to be open to new realities. Perhaps we would leave the conference emptier than when we arrived.”

One writer has said that “perhaps more than any other nonviolent leader, Nhat Hanh has made us aware of the need for a meditative dimension in the peace movement. It is this valuable gift that Nhat Hanh wants to offer. “If I come to the United States, I would come to teach people to meditate,” he said. “Once people become awake and begin to experience their own sufferings, they begin to experience the sufferings of others. This is a normal definition of compassion.”

Nhat Hanh walked us to the car and presented me with a parting gift. I wasn’t surprised to receive another of those two-edged swords. “Have you heard this story,” he asked. “Once there was a monk who for thirty years sought enlightenment but could not find it. One day his master said, ‘Go find some wood for the fire.’ The monk searched and searched but could find no wood. He returned to the master with empty hands. ‘There is nothing that can be used for wood?’ the master asked. ‘I found nothing but the Buddha,’ the monk replied. ‘Bring me the Buddha,’ he was told. Then, much to the horror of the monk, the master took an ax and split the Buddha in two, throwing it into the fire. And the monk was enlightened.”

“So,” said Nhat Hanh, “go home and burn your tapes.”

P.S. If you’re interested in reading Peace Is Our Calling, click here.

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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.

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