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Dissing Thich Nhat Hanh?

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On Sunday, I posted a quote by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, who I think I can safely say is one of the world’s most beloved dharma teachers. To get more coverage for this blog, I also ‘tweet’ updates on new postings through the Twitter accounts that I maintain, @fivedirections (for my consulting business) and @UpayaChaplains (an account I run for Upaya Zen Center’s Chaplaincy Program).

Soon that post was  ‘re-tweeted’ from @BarkingUnicorn, preceded with the acronym AYFKM. Once I figured out that AYFKM meant “Are you fucking kidding me?” I was a little surprised… who was this Barking Unicorn and what did he have against my post and/or Thich Nhat Hanh? I decided to ask him, and here’s what he messaged back to me:

What the quote recommends does absolutely nothing to solve the problem, only makes one feel good for no reason. Which is OK.

Remember — all this is going on in Twitter where every correspondence has to be less than 140 characters. It’s great for getting right to the point.

Once I got over my initial ego bruise that someone was dissing my blog, I started to think about this comment some more. After all, it takes chutzpah to critique Thich Nhat Hanh. And I realized, the comment actually gets to the heart of some of my own questions about how to ‘be’ a socially engaged Buddhist.

On the one hand, Barking Unicorn is right — Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote encourages us to take care of ourselves and our minds, and by doing so we will better know how take care of the problem. But that doesn’t directly address the problem. And there are plenty of Buddhists (and others) who take that approach as a cop-out to grappling with some pretty tough issues… it’s kind of like the New Age philosphy: by linking hands and meditating during the Harmonic Convergence, we will make a more peaceful world.

I think there is a missing step. Meditation and mindfulness are wonderful, indispensable practices. If we are socially engaged Buddhists, they must come before anything else…. the energy of our intention is crucial. And yet, I don’t think that can be the end point. We still need to roll up our sleeves, sit down with people from various sides of an issue, and do the difficult work of dialoging, organizing, calling our Congressional representatives, voting, protesting, whatever else is called for to shift society toward more justice and peace.  And then, back to meditation, we need to practice with whatever the outcome might be.

My tendency has often been to skip through the meditation piece and move right to the action, often resulting in not-so-great results and burnout. I’m continually trying to find this balance of action and reflection. Which is why this blog will go dark for the next week, as I return to deep practice once again, to nourish my soul and prepare myself for whatever work is to come. I’ll be sitting Rohatsu sesshin at Upaya Zen Center and at home this week and turning off my computer and phone until December 8.

A bow to Barking Unicorn, whoever you are, for bringing all this up. And maybe the whole point is his last sentence, “Which is OK.” Maybe everything is OK. That will be my koan for the next seven days. In the meantime, let me know what you think about Thay’s quote, which you can find here.

Have a good week!

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

8 responses »

  1. I’ll start by saying that I am very new to Buddhist ideas, so I could well be misunderstanding something here, but I’ll venture a comment nevertheless:

    It seems to me that the last sentence of TNH’s quote is the kicker, i.e., “Shall we continue our journey?” To me, this implies that the mindfulness, smiling, seed-planting, etc., are parts of the whole but not the whole thing. These are indeed actions, but other practical and specific actions must be taken too, examples of which you have already cited. TNH’s whole approach has to do with this kind of real-world engagement, doesn’t it? Anyway, my two cents.

    Have a good sesshin retreat 🙂

  2. I think the quote itself, without knowing or reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh’s life work, could be questioned. In fact, it could be used as a defense by those who see Buddhist practice as “not about” engaging in the world, especially in the social/political world. Of course, that’s if you focus on the quote itself. TNH’s life has been a constant demonstration of engagement.

    As for myself, I continue to feel there has to be some kind of balance between meditative/contemplative work, and some kind of action, activity in the muck of the world. And not just giving a few bucks to charity, or working a shift at a soup kitchen. We must be more intentional, see more systemically, and sometimes be bold and status quo upsetting.

    Although he sounds “soft” at times, I think TNH has done these things. He’s a worthy teacher for us all. I’m continually grateful to him for persevering, and being able to develop a gentleness teamed with wisdom that is so rare amongst the male population of this world.

  3. TNH is as gentle as a butterfly but also has the strength of a tractor

  4. I love your blog – I love that you are tangling with this. Thankyou for this thoughtful response. It reminds me to take pause and reflect on criticism rather than to dismiss it immediately! I will follow your other posts with interest. I am new on the path so I can use all the thought- provoking things I can get!

  5. Maia, I had to laugh, as Barking Unicorn has been stirring my pot also . . . both on Twitter, and on Mind Deep blog.

    Wishing you a happy, mindful retreat!

    Deep bow,


  6. Just some thoughts on your first sentence. I’m not sure you can safely say that TNH is one of the world’s most beloved dharma teachers. He is certainly one of the most widely known, but I’d put in my two cents that most Buddhists haven’t heard of him. You can probably safely say that among Buddhists in the West, he is one of the most popular—especially with white folk. TNH’s sanghas are immensely popular in the overseas Vietnamese community, but I have been surprised with the number of overseas Vietnamese that I’ve met who have very strong opinions against him and his organization.

  7. Arun, thanks for always questioning assumptions.

    Reflecting on the other comments… I am not necessarily questioning Thich Nhat Hanh’s cred as a socially engaged Buddhist. But my experience over a number of years of being connected with his community was that there was a tendency among a fair number of people who follow Thay’s teachings to take the ‘lite’ approach toward engagement and activism, to stop at the ‘breathe and smile’ step.

    However, at the same time, I am working with my own tendency to undervalue dharma practice as the foundation of activism — so I find that I am often in a place of creative tension with this dynamic of reflection/action. Yes, let’s definitely continue our journey!

  8. Pingback: Jizo Celebrates His/Her First Birthday « The Jizo Chronicles

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