Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of visiting an island temple in Vietnam during the war. At the top of the hill were two 60-foot-tall statues-Buddha and Jesus standing with arms around each other-incarnations of peace and hope as military helicopters flew past. This compelling image of compassion and reconciliation embodies for me the rich possibilities of interfaith dialogue offered in Living Buddha, Living Christ by the wise and beloved Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
While Christianity was a vehicle of colonization in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh has been compelled by the wisdom of a living practice exemplified by such sojourners as Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan (who reciprocally have honored him as a spiritual brother). Drawing on many years of interfaith exchanges begun during his peace trips to America, Nhat Hanh (or Thay for teacher) offers bridging insights into points where Buddhist and Christian practices meet. In so doing, he encourages Westerners to see the "jewels in their own tradition" with fresh eyes.
Thay's emphasis on "transformational practice" exemplifies his profound sense that it is our daily lives, not books or sermons, that embody a continuation of the "living Buddha" and "living Christ." Most of us would agree that an integrated living faith is nourished by regular prayer and contemplation, but many of us find it difficult to "make time" in the rush of family and work. Further, devotional life has often been seen as a personalist activity, while those engaged on the front lines of midwifing kingdom ethics in the home and in the world often get caught up in urgent actions that seem to leave no time for sustaining spiritual practices. It is this division between devotional and daily life that Thay's teachings on mindfulness practices may help to address.
From his own practice of "engaged Buddhism," Thay makes no distinction between the prayer of the heart and the hands. However, he asserts that the first step to peacemaking and compassionate action is watering the seeds of peace and uprooting the seeds of war in your own heart. This is enabled by concentrating and calming the mind, emotions, and body through attention to the breath in order to be fully present and dwell deeply in the present moment.
For Christians, this practice may be seen as a concrete form of prayer. As the psalmist recognized, it is in the stillness of a quiet heart that we come to know God intimately and profoundly.
Thay recalls the Hebrew connection between breath and spirit to suggest that the fruits of mindfulness practice are the fruits of the Holy Spirit: gentleness, peace, lovingkindness, compassion, wisdom, and healing. Rather than being something to put off until you have time, this "transformational practice" is essential to sustaining and nurturing a living faith.
Thay credits mindfulness practice with sustaining and protecting
him, along with hundreds of other peaceworkers in Vietnam, as
they tended the wounded, buried the dead, sheltered the orphaned,
and rebuilt bombed villages. As he stresses, "to take good
care of yourself and to take good care of living beings and of
the environment is the best way to love God."
THAY SUGGESTS that Christians' fundamental mindfulness practice is the "first supper," initiated by Christ to wake the disciples from their forgetfulness. As we touch the bread and wine deeply, we touch the body and community of the living Christ, the kingdom of God, and life itself anew.
Thay's instruction in mindful eating recalls to us that every meal is a Eucharist, a time for simple and humble gratitude of heart for the gift of life itself. Such a practice is profoundly incarnational. It allows for kingdom grace to break into our mundane and hectic lives.
Finally, Thay offers the central ethical guidelines from Buddhist wisdom teachings as "the right medicine to heal" the rootlessness or spiritual homelessness that wounds so many Westerners, particularly young people. Undertaking a living practice of the "Five Wonderful Precepts" offers a means of "rerooting" in one's own heart and spirit, family, faith community, and, finally, nation. The precepts remind us of the interdependency of all beings in the earth community. In brief, the precepts include reverence for life; generosity of heart; responsible sexuality; loving speech and deep listening; and mindful consumption of food, media, and values.
Undertaking to live out these values invites Christians to revisit the precepts (or commandments) of our own tradition. In what ways can we bring them to life to speak to our contemporary circumstances, to ensure that "a future will be possible" for all beings?
For those readers who feel anxious about such bridgings between Buddhism and Christianity, I urge you to consider Nhat Hanh's reminder that one spiritual tradition may not have a "monopoly on truth." As Thay said after sharing the Eucharist with Daniel Berrigan, "To me, religious life is life. I do not see any reason to spend one's whole life tasting just one kind of fruit." True and deep interfaith dialogue, including the openness to receiving truths from new contexts and seeing "the jewels in our own tradition" in new ways, may be a radical path toward reconciliation between cultures, races, religions, and generations for the coming millennium.
BRENDA CARR is an associate professor of Canadian literature at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is a member of Warm Snow Sangha and the Church of the Ascension in Ottawa.
Review of Living Buddha, Living Christ. By Thich Nhat Hanh. Riverhead Books, 1995.