Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Early one summer morning, two decades ago, I walked with several hundred other people down a sidewalk in Amherst, Massachusetts. Leading our walk was the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who wore the plain brown robes of his monastic order. Walking beside him were the children of participants in our weeklong retreat. In the next row were robed monks and nuns from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in southern France, followed by our own assembled body. Transcending the boundaries of age, class, race, religion, and gender, our diverse group included Jews, Catholic nuns, Protestant clergy, lay Buddhist practitioners, secular professionals, and American veterans of the Vietnam War.

This was not my first walk with Thich Nhat Hanh, nor would it be my last. In a previous year, I had walked with Thây (Viet.,“ teacher”), as we affectionately called him, down a wooded path at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and I would walk with him again, in a future year, on the quiet campus of Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.  But the walk in Amherst stands out in memory, chiefly because it occurred in an urban setting. The sounds of construction were in the air. Down Massachusetts Avenue, traffic flowed as usual. To my surprise, when we crossed a busy intersection, commuting drivers waited respectfully, even when the light had changed. No horns blared; no angry voices yelled at us to get a move one.

That is remarkable in retrospect, because we were moving very slowly. We were practicing walking meditation, an integral component of the Zen tradition. Earlier during this retreat, which was held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in August, 2001 and entitled “Peace and Nonviolence in the Family, School, and Workplace,” we had practiced indoor walking meditation (“One step for the in-breath, one for the out-breath”), endeavoring to take “peaceful steps” and, in Thây’s words, to “live deeply in every moment of our daily lives.” Outdoors, in this public setting, we moved faster, but our pace was still slow enough to foster conscious awareness of our lungs breathing, our feet meeting the sidewalk, our bodies moving through the early-morning air. “Walk like a free person,” Thây advised. For those of us accustomed to being in a hurry and with a destination uppermost in mind, the practice of mindful walking required discipline and concentration. Yet even the children adapted readily to it, as though it were only natural.

They also adapted, willingly and without exception, to our group’s unbroken silence. No one spoke. No one gossiped or complained, or made small talk, or offered their unsolicited opinions. In addition to mindful walking, we were also practicing Noble Silence, as it is known in Buddhist circles. In lieu of the usual human chatter, we listened to the sounds of our steps, the rustle of our clothing, the birdsong from nearby trees. As was often the case at Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreats, where an ethos of silence prevailed during most of the day and night, our refraining from inessential speech enabled us to appreciate the freshness of our immediate surroundings and the fertile activity of our inner lives.  Complex feelings were granted room to expand and be examined. Thoughts were allowed to arise, endure, and disappear, even as we monitored their passing.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, describing him as “an Apostle of Peace and Nonviolence.” Not only did Thây advocate tirelessly for those causes.  In his quiet voice and his gentle demeanor, he fully embodied them, moment by moment and hour after hour. Like water permeating the cells of a thirsty organism, the peaceful energy he imparted spread through his retreats, affecting us all. And as we walked, slowly and silently down that city sidewalk, we too embodied the energy of peace and nonviolence, however imperfectly, and onlookers responded accordingly.

In practicing walking meditation under Thich Nhat Hanh’s tutelage, we were learning, in his oft-repeated words, a method for transforming our fears and anxieties into positive energy and our aversions and frustrations into constructive action. But looking back from the vantage point of September, 2020, I see that we were also making a public statement and sending a potent message, both to ourselves and to the world, a message as forceful in its way as the most impassioned political oratory. Peace is possible, we were saying. Nonviolence is possible. And as our walk vividly demonstrated, when the true intention is present, and when the necessary conditions have been established, peace and nonviolence will manifest, as surely as a river flowing to the sea or the sun rising in the eastern sky.


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In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else. (more…)

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730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. (more…)

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