Sunday, July 17, 2011

Living Buddha, Living Christ


We do not have to die to arrive at the gates of Heaven. In fact, we have to be truly alive. The practice is to touch life deeply so that the Kingdom of God becomes a reality. This is not a matter of devotion. It is a matter of practice.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995)

Back in the 1960s, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, scholar and activist Thich Nhat Hanh worked tirelessly relocating refugees of war & rebuilding schools and hospitals, as well as traveling around the United States educating many about the injustice of the American Imperial Adventure in his homeland and convincing Martin Luther King and others to oppose it. He eventually was exiled by the Vietnamese government and settled in France, authoring more than 100 books while touring all over the world.

Nhat Hanh grew up in the context of the French colonization of his homeland. It was well-known by his fellow countrymen that Christian missionaries like the late 17th century Alexandre de Rhodes referred to Buddha as "sinister and deceitful." This hostile climate eventually led to President Diem's ban on the great Buddhist national holiday Wesak in 1963. Nhat Hanh did not really get an opportunity "to touch Jesus Christ and his tradition" until he meet followers of Jesus like King, Thomas Merton and the Dutch Hebe Kohlbrugge, who rescued thousands of Jews during WWII and then committed herself to help Vietnamese orphans and needy children during the Vietnam War (she gave back her WWII medals when her country refused to support her work in Vietnam).

In 1995, Nhat Hanh addressed the value of interfaith dialogue in his Living Buddha, Living Christ by doing what came naturally to him--meditating on nature:

When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain and there would be no flower.

For Thich Nhat Hanh, the flower exemplified Interbeing, the interconnectedness of all living beings and it revealed that if his own tradition (Buddhism) really possessed the truth, then naturally it contained aspects of all other faith traditions. And, he proclaimed, the same must also true about Christianity. His 200-page gem goes on to show just how true this really is, explaining how Buddhist mindfulness is really just the mirror image of the work of the Christian Holy Spirit:

When mindfulness is in you, the Holy Spirit is in you, and your friends will see it, not just by what you say, but through your whole being.

Nhat Hanh, quoting Christian theologians from Origen to Aquinas to Merton, beckons Christian readers to consider the authencity of the concept of God's image in all humanity. If this is true, for Buddhists and Christians alike (and Hindus and Taoists and Atheists, etc), then the realization of the Way of Jesus is possible for everyone. Indeed, Nhat Hanh claims that his devotion to the practice of breathing, walking and eating mindfulness throughout the entire day has allowed him to experience God's Spirit more and more since he became a Buddhist monk at the age of 16.

Now, at 84, Nhat Hanh continues to practice radical nonviolence (combating poverty, ignorance and disease; going to sea to help rescue boat people; evacuating the wounded from combat zones; resettling refugees; helping hungry children and orphans; opposing wars; producing and disseminating peace literature; training peace and social workers; and rebuilding villages destroyed by bombs) as an overflow of his commitment to the radical lifestyle of meditation:

Meditation is not a drug to make us oblivious to our real problems. It should produce awareness in us and also in our society. For us to achieve results, our enlightenment has to be collective. How else can we end the cycle of violence? We ourselves have to contribute, in small and large ways, toward ending our own violence. Looking deeply at our own mind and our own life, we will begin to see what to do and what not to do to bring about a real change.

Meditation is not just sitting on a pillow 24-7 breathing happy thoughts. It, instead, is the mustard seed that leads us to realize the Kingdom of God in this lifetime:

If while we practice we are not aware that the world is suffering, that children are dying of hunger, that social injustice is going on everywhere, we are not practicing mindfulness. We are just trying to escape.

Nat Hanh's work is tremendously valuable to Western Christians whose tradition lacks a commitment to mystical practice. The uber-growth of North American Evangelicalism has led to strong emphasis on (a form of) Bible study and "the quiet time" (prayer, journaling, etc) which has the ultimate goal of worshipping Jesus or glorifying God as an end to itself.

Enter Buddhism which inherently equates true religion with experiencing the Ultimate Reality through awareness which inevitably leads to love, acceptance, understanding, kindness, tolerance and gentleness (compare James 1:27). In fact, the title of Nhat Hanh's work refers to this Buddhist understanding that the Buddha (who mindfully walked this planet 2500 years ago) can only continue to live in the meditative lives of Buddhists today if they actually do what he did. This is precisely what Nhat Hanh expects of Christians:

[When Jesus told his disciples] “I am the Way," the “I” in His statement is life itself, His life, which is the way. If you do not really look at His life, you cannot see the way. If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus. We must practice living deeply, loving, and acting with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus...The living Christ is the Christ of Love who is always generating love, moment after moment. When the church manifests understanding, tolerance, and loving-kindness, Jesus is there. Christians have to help Jesus Christ be manifested by their way of life, showing those around them that love, understanding, and tolerance are possible.

Nhat Hanh, in true EasyYolk fashion, laments the construal of Christianity as "praising Jesus" in response to a guarantee of eternal life in heaven after death. The only way to continue the life of Jesus on earth (He is risen indeed!) is to live out his nonviolent Way, pledging allegiance to a life of forgiveness, humble service and even unconditional love for our enemies. When Christian communities effectively do this, then (and only then) is Jesus alive.

And this is why the Holy Spirit is so important to Nhat Hanh. He is convinced that a focus on beliefs, doctrines and concepts about God does not effectively lead us to the Promised Land of creatively living out the Kingdom of God within our contexts. We can live this radical way only when the Divine Resource planted within all of us is cultivated through a life of prayer and mindfulness. This is a holistic vision of discipline, intentionality and passion, the goal being every moment (in our marriages, at our jobs, eating, working out, etc) of our lives soaked in the awareness of God's Presence within us, within others and in nature all around us.

The writings of Thich Nhat Hanh are a rich resource for all followers of Jesus and Buddha (and everyone else) who believe in both the peaceable fruit of interfaith dialogue and the possibility of bringing heaven to a world weighed down by aggression, addiction, abuse and apathy. His message of mindfulness leads to a movement of unarmed truth and unconditional love that will have the final say in Reality.

*For more on mindfulness meditation, see this.

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