Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Happy Birthday, Thich Nhat Hanh

Today is the birthday of Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps one of the most famous Buddhist monks ever.  His influence has stretched far and wide; perhaps he is most famous in terms of his influence for persuading Dr. Martin Luther King to oppose the Vietnam War.  In terms of my own personal influences, I'm amazed at how many of my mentors, both the ones I've known in real life and the ones I've known through their writing, acknowledge the importance of his ideas.

In doing some research this morning, I was struck by how many monasteries he has founded.  I am fascinated by intentional communities of all sorts, and I'm convinced that intentional communities with an underlying spiritual commitment have a better chance of lasting through the decades or the centuries.  But I tend to forget that forming intentional communities aren't just activities done by ancient monks in medieval times.  No, people are still banding together even today.

In terms of social justice and liberation theology, Thich Nhat Hanh has moved Buddhism in a direction similar to those embraced by liberation theologians and people of all sorts working for social justice.  It's not enough to practice detachment.  It's not enough to meditate.  It's not enough to make oneself a peaceful person through these techniques.  No, engaged Buddhism teaches us that we must take all sorts of stands against oppression.

I'm grateful that I'm part of a religious tradition that is open to wisdom from non-Christian sources.  I can't imagine what it would be like to be part of a community who rejected Thich Nhat Hanh, just because he's Buddhist.

The more I study religions of the world, the more intrigued I am by the intersections.  I do agree with Brian McLaren, who says, "Now contrary to popular opinion, it is not true that all religions say basically the same things.  They have much in common, but there are notable contradictions and incompatibilities, many of which become more significant as they go deeper.  But in many cases (again, not all), at any given moment, different religions are not always saying different things about the same subjects; rather they are often talking about different subjects entirely" (A Generous Orthodoxy, page 255).  But it is interesting to look for similarities.

Perhaps it's time for me to read Going Home:  Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, a book of Thich Nhat Hanh's which isn't quoted very much.  I bought it years ago, but haven't read it yet.  My spouse, who has spent more years studying world religions than I have, read it, and said it was good but didn't seem particularly heretical.

Of course, he was raised Lutheran too, and like me, he did his undergraduate work in a liberal arts college.  These ideas wouldn't be radical to us.

So, happy birthday to one of my favorite monks, with sincere gratitude for all he's brought to the human race!  If we canonized non-Christians, this monk would be the first on my list of candidates.

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