Thich Nhat Hanh's "Relationships For Dummies"

by Perry Garfinkel, Huffington Post, December 7, 2007

San Francisco, USA -- He's taller than you'd expect -- especially for a Vietnamese man -- and thinner. He has big ears and huge eyes set deep into his face, giving the impression that he is watching you very closely but from very far away. And he speaks so softly that you have to pay exquisite attention or miss his point entirely. Maybe that's his point.

<< Thich Nhat Hanh (second from right)

A Buddhist teacher friend of mine calls his brand Buddhism Lite, and I agreed when I first saw Thich Nhat Hanh address a packed auditorium at Berkeley High School in California in 1988. His simple message and his demure persona convinced me that this guy was never going to catch on in the West.

Little did I know.

Many people already knew he had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King for his anti-Vietnam War activities, speeches and writings. Thay, as he is commonly called by his students (it means teacher), was lecturing at Columbia University in 1963 when he saw the oft-published photo that riveted and repulsed and galvanized anyone with a sentient heart: the Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc sitting in full lotus position, sitting as still as if he were in deep meditation, but in fact sitting fully engulfed in flames in a Saigon plaza. Thay rushed home realizing that the conflagration was about to rage out of control in the country he so dearly loved. Working nonstop, he mobilized his community of monks to rebuild bombed out homes, to resettle homeless people, to organize agricultural cooperatives.

At that time he set up the Order of Inter-being, a phrase reflecting a clever poet's love of wordplay as well as a sublime comprehension of Buddhism. In the most economic fashion, the word speaks volumes about the law of cause and effect, about karma, with respect to our global community. My interpretation of Inter-being: OK, fine, you practiced mindful meditation enough to move from simply "doing" to "being." Now what are you going to do with being? Wallow in it? Or take that insight further, to your relationships -- with family, with friends, with lovers, with colleagues, with yourself. That is, are you ready to learn how to "be" together, to inter-be? It expresses the Buddhist concept of interdependence, and is at the heart of the socially engaged Buddhism movement, a term Thay himself is credited with creating. Eventually the Communist-led Vietnamese government, quite perturbed by his activities, forced him to exile to France.

Even after the Paris Peace Accord was signed in 1973 and Thay was still denied reentry into Vietnam, he led efforts from France to rescue countrymen fleeing Vietnam by boats. He established the Unified Buddhist Church in France. In 1982, he and his community of monks founded Plum Village, a retreat center in southern France for lay meditators and monks; it also serves as a center for the study and practice of conflict negotiation and peace. Plum Village today is more vibrant than ever, as are Thay's centers in South Woodstock, Vermont, Escondido, California, and Pine Bush, New York.

Buddhism Lite, indeed.

I met Rev. Hanh on a warm August day at Plum Village, 90 kilometers east of Bordeaux, a region more famous to devotees of the god Bacchus than of the Buddha. We sat inside his cottage which overlooked a patchwork quilt of rich, green vineyards interspersed with radiant yellow sunflowers -- a landscape that would have had Van Gogh running for his easel. He had accepted my request to interview him for National Geographic Magazine on one condition, a condition he requires of all journalists no matter how prestigious the publication. First I had to sit his retreat, then I could conduct the interview. I welcomed the opportunity after being on the road way too long.

I got there as a retreat was in progress for the Vietnamese Diaspora, an in-gathering of families and friends who had settled in far-flung Western countries after fleeing Vietnam in 1975, when the Communists took over their country. Though I have attended many retreats over the years, I had never attended one led by Rev. Hanh. But that was not why I felt like a fish out of water. The fact was I felt little in common with Vietnamese people. I had never been to Vietnam. I knew little to nothing about their culture, except that I loved their spring rolls. Though I had protested the Vietnam War, had been tear-gassed at Dupont Circle in 1969 in Washington, D.C., had seen them on television through the '60s and and '70s, their faces speaking the international language of grief and terror, I had never actually met a Vietnamese person.

But over several days, the Vietnamese of Plum Village won my heart with their warmth and compassion, with their good humor, curiosity and intelligence, with their friendliness after some initial shyness -- and with their spring rolls. They exemplify the human condition: they have suffered immeasurably and they have hope.

Between the sittings, Thay's talks took me somewhat aback. Knowing his role in influencing a more socially and politically relevant Buddhism, I was surprised that his lectures were about everyday mundane relationships -- about open communication between parents and children, about keeping love vibrant and new between husband and wife, about the importance of non-discrimination and mutual understanding in the increasing number of relationships between couples of different religious and cultural backgrounds.

When I finally got to interview him, I could hardly wait to ask: "Aren't there enough relationship gurus?" I was thinking of Dr. Phil, John Gray, Oprah and others who impart their "truth" to us between commercial breaks, in books, on books-on-tape, on DVDs and videos ad nauseam. "Aren't there more important issues to discuss?"

"Such as wear, violence, death, economic and environmental problems, terrorism?" he asked rhetorically. My tape recorder seemed to strain as much as me to hear his softly spoken and carefully chosen words. "The conflict in the Middle East, tension between religious groups -- these are all about relationships. We create ignorance through poor communication. Misunderstanding begins in the microcosm, between two people. It creates fear and fear creates violence. When you act with violence and anger, you only create more violence and anger. The majority of people who come here suffer from relationship, health and money problems. But if your relationships are good, then you are happy, your health improves, and you'll be more successful in your enterprise."

I had forgotten, as we often do, that profundity comes in the simplest truth. I was not surprised that, like all good Buddhist teachers, Thay brought his abiding message back to the cushion.

"It all starts with a spin on an old adage," he said with a wry smile. "Don't just do something; sit there. With all this socially engaged work, with interpersonal relationships, with inter-being, first you must learn what the Buddha learned, to still the mind. They you don't take action; action takes you."