While mulling over topics for an introductory “comparative world religions” column I learned of the serene death of the influential Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, on Jan. 22. The gentle Zen monk was 95 and had at last returned to his homeland in Vietnam.
Although my partner and I never made it down to his Deer Park Monastery in Escondido where Nhất Hạnh occasionally visited, his peaceful influence has always been strong, especially in California.
I did hear the Dalai Lama speak at UC Santa Barbara twice, but the two Asian Buddhists came out of very different Eastern traditions, which is an object lesson in understanding the world religions: none of them are monolithic.
When I taught comparative world religions at Crane Country Day School in Montecito for 15 years, my definition emphasized “philosophies” and specific suggestions for ethical living, and seldom explored miracles and gods or theology.
Buddhism is always extra attractive to open-minded sixth- and seventh-grade students since it does not require any special fealty to revelation or obsessive “belief” systems. No, Buddhism at its best is merely a thoughtful philosophy recommending ways of living that attract less suffering — less for the individual and for those around him or her.
I’ve had students question this apparent negativity, but what Nhất Hạnh taught was everyday spiritual ethics amid life’s ups and downs. So he’d say let’s not pay too much attention to the moral proclamations of various pundits or ersatz spiritual leaders who preach truisms and fake scripture, rather let us study how they treat people around them.
Amid some fame and world notoriety, Nhất Hạnh remained a humble monk waging peaceful activism.
After years of studying Buddhism in preparing for my world religions classes, I see now how it’s almost entirely “ethical” and filled with great stories that soften our arrogance, temper our moods and assist us in daily living.
Buddhist compassion for animals and all living forms is particularly strong, and children love the examples in the animal stories in The Jātaka Tales. And postmodern adults need living models — not gods or spirits —like the Dalai Lama and Nhất Hạnh and Angela Merkel of Germany.
Spirituality comes on ordinary feet — and Nhất Hạnh liked to make the pithy aphorism, “No mud, no lotus.” Getting your hands dirty in the muck of real life brings humility, some learning and reduction in suffering.
At his famous retreat at Plum Village Monastery near Thénac, France, Nhất Hạnh taught a kind of “Engaged Buddhism” where aspirants are enjoined to be IN the world despite all its deceptions (maya) and pain. Technically, he was working from the Mahāyāna perspective, but his words through many books and tapes recommend moderate living and treating others as you yourself want to be treated.
Increasing my efforts to honor all the living creatures crossing my path, this then leads into treating the soil and even the rocks and clouds around us as “sacred.” My effort to push for preserving the “old-growth” conifers on nearby Reyes Peak in Los Padres National Forest from the Agriculture Department’s chainsaws follows from Nhất Hạnh’s ideas of peaceful activism for the planet and its life forms.
Part of a spiritual outlook can lead to oversimplification, of course, and enjoining humans just “to treat each other better” may seem ridiculously optimistic and shallow.
But we know that the planet’s staggering 7.5 billion humans still rely on 1.5 billion imprisoned cows, they’ve erected incredible structures, and with the help of the many machines and artificial intelligence we completely rule over all of Gaia —it’s called the Anthropocene Age.
In order to minimize the damage we’re wreaking, a solid Buddhistic approach would start with reducing one’s own needs, and addressing others in milder and more affectionate tones.
I relish political debate and occasionally turn quite caustic. On countless videos I’ve noticed how Nhất Hạnh treated every single person he met with exquisite courtesy and thoughtfulness — a way of living and one-pointedness I am unable to emulate, but one I try to imitate whenever possible.
Nhất Hạnh in his teachings and in his example of modest living taught us to be simple users of our earth’s modest resources, especially as our species grows fantastically in number, heedless like lemmings. We can seek advice and living examples from humans around us in order to elevate (ahh, reduce) our lifestyles while enjoying the moment more.
Being Peace is my most-cherished Thích Nhất Hạnh book, and here’s a favorite poem:
“Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.”
The rational side of my Western-educated brain cries, “How saccharine, what a load of hogwash!” Yet the fully alive buddhi (heart-mind) retorts, “But all you reflect is negative and comparative, what about this blazing blue sky and ample food on the table?”
Where is our strong gratitude for all the positives in our lives right now? The absolute worst thing we can do to our children is model cynicism and overweening fear: both the extreme right-wingers and left-wingers play this game and diminish the Common Good.
Nhất Hạnh has spoken about the orthodox Buddhist outlook, emphasizing the traditional Four Noble Truths. Channeling him and other sincere Buddhists, I summarize them this way:
» Every human life undergoes suffering (and the body will die)
» We suffer because we crave worldly stuff
» When freed from these desires (cravings) the suffering stops (or lessens)
» To eliminate desire you have to embrace the Eightfold Path
No need to go into the eight-step program here, but we note there isn’t any Buddhist emphasis on sin or physics or gods; it’s mainly a pragmatic philosophy trying to help the individual human live better by suffering less.
Trying to figure out how to live with the least suffering and most enthusiasm requires considerable focus and restraint. One can be a musician of studied ennui like my contemporary John Mellencamp (we are both from Vincennes, Indiana, and he’s a part-time Montecito resident), a fighting revolutionary like Thomas Paine or Rosa Luxemburg, or one can develop a warmer buddhi heart and learn to accept the flaws in others as well as those in oneself.
Through walking meditation and study we can change. The gentle departure of this simple Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, shows us a deep and honorable path in life.
— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity and has written extensively about the local backcountry. His latest book, Autobiography in the Anthropocene, is available at Lulu.com. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.