The Conscious Classroom

Engaged Buddhism: In Honor of Thich Nhat Hahn

January 24, 2022 Episode 50
The Conscious Classroom
Engaged Buddhism: In Honor of Thich Nhat Hahn
Show Notes Transcript

The world renowned and beloved Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hahn passed this week at the age of 95. This episode is dedicated to his work and life, bringing mindfulness to a secular environment, connecting deep mindfulness practice with social, political, and environmental activism, and being a powerful -- albeit profoundly gentle -- activist for change. We value and honor his life, his spirit, and the work he has left behind. The world is brighter for his presence.

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Hello, welcome to this session of the conscious classroom. My name is Amy Edelstein and I'm your host in this session. I'd like to do something a little bit different. The great Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese monk, beloved international teacher, a worldwide figure. Author of a hundred books founder of monasteries and affiliated practice centers around the world passed away at the ripe age of 95.

And I'd like to take this episode in this moment to pause, to offer our respect. To consider his impact and his influence, and to introduce many of you who may not be aware of his profound influence on our understanding of applied mindfulness or to use a term that he coined engaged Buddhism could mean

Thich Nhat Hahn was Vietnamese. He was ordained it's the age of 16 and led a life of really deeply committed practice, but the circumstances of his birth and his existence in the middle of growing up during the Vietnam war. Forced him to consider deeply the conditions of our world right today. And the ways that a powerful practice of mindfulness could work in the world as a force of peace as a force of non-violence as a force of unification and as a force of understanding the universality of human aggression, human pain, human suffering, human inability to communicate human hurt.

And he followed his own profound care and concern and compassion, and also his profound intuition. To reach into the social world and the political world and the environmental movement as a Buddhist monk for us these days, the idea of engaged Buddhism doesn't feel very radical at the time. He was really going against the grain.

And in his tradition and in Buddhism come west in the early decades of, you know, the wave of Buddhism and Hinduism that took hold in America in the fifties and the sixties with the beat generation and then the hippie movie. That movement really looked at meditation as a way to retreat from the world to withdraw from the world, to focus inward and understand the nature of mind in order to free oneself of one's own neurosis and suffering and aggression.

But Thich Nhat Hahn couldn't help, but engage in a secular way with the world around him. He met with Dr. Martin Luther king. He met with a great monk Thomas Merton, who had written conjectures of a guilty bystander about the suffering that he was seeing in the world. Including the suffering of the Vietnam war.

He also met with the Dalai Lama, very engaged leaders of the time. And they found in to not Han a quiet, very well-educated individual. Who not only studied in his home country. He also studied at Princeton and they found an individual in Thich Nhat Hahn who was so disarmingly, gentle, and quiet and thoughtful that he could almost easily be overlooked.

And yet in his gentleness and quietness, what you met in this individual was, was someone with such profound penetration and understanding of the pain of human suffering, the pain of the heart, and the way through that. That it seemed as if almost nothing could stop him.

His influence is one in some ways also that's somewhat invisible. It's like when water nourishes a field. And softens and  moistens the soil. You come back after the rain, you don't see the water anymore. You see the soil coming alive, you see it plumping up with moisture, nutrients, and then you see that soil beginning to grow all the little seedlings in their rows.

All the seeds that were planned to begin to sprout all the seedlings start blowing in the breeze. They grow tall, they bear fruit. You don't really remember that there was this light, spring rain they're prepared the soil. And in some ways to not harm was very much like that. He was a proponent of slow, mindful walking.

Especially in response to angry states of mind, to lack of communication between people he really recommended and, and his retreats  sessions were devoted to mindful walking so that we had an activity to keep us in the presence.

Lifting the foot placing the foot, being present for the movement, not needing any special cushion, any special posture, any special hall. He encouraged anyone who came on his retreats to practice mindful, cutting vegetables, mindful washing dishes. Mindful walking to work so that the quality of our attention and the immediacy of our awareness was something that could not be separated from everyday secular life, because his mission was to create a world of emissaries of compassion, to create people who were aware, who could listen deeply, who could hear another.

He was one of the first in the Buddhist world to talk about engaged, listening, active listening, and in the. Seventies, eighties and nineties, there were many different groups that picked up on this idea of conscious community, conscious communication and conscious listening, compassionate listening, but he was really one of the four runners where he leaned in and he asked his practitioners to be able to be with another, with no judgment.

Even if what they're saying is harsh, even if what they're saying is wrong, even if what they're saying is righteous. Even if what they're saying is vindictive

'cause. He said, when you can listen deeply without judgment, the other person felt heard. And when that person feels heard and. Their heart can soften their heart can open. And when there's an open heart, then there's the possibility for connection, for change for a meeting for transformation.

And he was one who knew a lot about that. You could think that a monk living in a monastery wouldn't have to deal with some of the conflicts that we deal with with families, with coworkers, with political parties, we disagree with, and of course he would hear about those things from his students, but early on in the sixties, When he was calling for an end to the Vietnam war touring the United States and trying to get through to defense secretary McNamara to stop bombing Vietnam.

He was dealing firsthand with sides that couldn't listen to each other. Sides that we're so convinced of the evilness of the other, that they were willing to kill.

And he refused to take sides against the north Vietnamese in favor of the south Vietnamese and both sides were very frustrated, put a lot of pressure on him and condemned him.

And the reason why they condemned him is because in our world, we're used to an us and them. And what he saw was he saw beyond the separation. This is why his work may be so relevant to our times. We can barely listen to each other.

His practice of being mindful, using the breath, using walking to calm our minds, to see our own hatred, to see our own anger until we can soften so that then we can go and listen to another and be present. And here without judgment here, past the harshness and the aim to hurt. And here that human heart that is also suffering and trapped and frightened and aggressive

it's in that listening and then that not taking sides, that he felt that true. The true fruits of meditation could come into the world.

He was also one of the few teachers of, of these times until very recently who. Created a space for families and for children at his  center in Southwestern, France which is called plum village. It's a home for monastics Vietnamese and also European American county.

But he didn't separate the monastic community fully from the family community, the lay community. And he set up these small villages within this center. That's in the rural France. It's meant to be very beautiful. I've never been there, but it's very peaceful. Where and set up very simple rules for families to come together.

Children would have programs, but their parents would stay with them. Be responsible for them programs for teenagers. Also with the parents there the teenagers that have their own day programs, but they would stay with their parents and he created a way for families to be engaged. In mindful awareness so that it wasn't something that the parents went off and did separate from family life.

And it wasn't something that the kids went off and did that the parents weren't involved with,

there are very few other centers that even thought of doing. At the time when he did. And now that there's more and more movement to bring different contemplative practices into schools and into families, we still see that they're, they're often compartmentalized.

So you can see is very unusual way of making mindful awareness, a secular way of being present. Foundation for a life well lived and a foundation to deal with, to cure, to leave V8 suffering, mental illness,


He addressed it. Digital addiction, substance addiction. He was on afraid of really touching into the reality of the issues that people often kept behind closed doors, especially when going on retreat.

No, in subsequent years with, you know, much more understanding of trauma, there are different approaches. To trauma and mindfulness. Whereas he encouraged individuals to sit and to be with their pain, be with their fear, be with their suffering and then be able to talk to other members of the program they might be on, or the, the facilitators of the program that they were on.

There's been a lot of innovative work since about how to be delicate around trauma,

but he really did begin the idea of allowing the retreat  setting to be one of healing and restoration.

And I think that in the conscious class, As we think about what we're trying to do with our students, how we're trying to build a community of caring of listening, of seeing one another with respect, with deep respect, deep respect for their humanity, for their presence in the world, for their being on the air.

Having discrimination about right and wrong and skillful speech and unskillful speech and prejudice. But at the same time, being able to listen to another, without vilifying them to be able to listen past the difference because our classrooms are community. We may have children whose families believe in very different things, but we have to create community in our classroom.

We have to see beyond difference and support everybody's growth.

And I think that Thich Nhat Hahn has tremendous value.

And if you haven't had a chance to read, and he has this 75 books that he wrote in English or listened to some of his talks, let yourself listen past the simplicity, past the sense of this delicate, gentle delivery so that you hear. The power, the flexibility, the pliability, and the unbelievable strength, and that made this very unassuming character into an international figure whose legacy has touched millions of us.

Even those of us who don't really know who he is. Never met him. Never did one of his retreats never came across any of his quotes.

We are still even by listening to podcasts like this influenced and owe him our profound gratitude and respect. For being able to bring the unbelievable transformative quality and potential of the simplest mindfulness practice into every area of our lives.

I'd like to close with a few quotes from Thich Nhat Hahn so you can hear the simplicity. The depth and what he's really pointing to

this is from his book, the heart of the Buddhist teachings, transforming, suffering into peace, joy, and liberation. We said, letting go gives us freedom. And freedom is the only condition for happiness. If in our heart, we still cling to any. Anger, anxiety or possessions, we cannot be free.

This is another very applicable quote for us. When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don't blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it's not doing it. It may need fertilizer or more water or less sun. You'd never blame the lettuce yet. If we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person, but if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well.

Like the lettuce blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That's my experience. Nobody. No reasoning, no argument. Just understanding if you understand, and you show that you understand you can love and the situation will change.

And we'll end with this one waking up this morning. I smile. 24 brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each month. And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion

and that's extend a moment of silence offering up our own presence, contemplation open-heartedness intention and effort to be present. To be available to be compassionate, to be discerning and to be committed, to profoundly changing our world through the way we interact with ourselves, with our families, with our colleagues, with the world around.

Thank you for sharing the reflection of such a beautiful life did not have. On the power of presence, mindfulness, love and compassion. I wish you all wellness and fullness. And may you also find a community, a practice for your family, where you can be deeply present with one another and feel deeply heard and feel deeply loved.