September 21, 2013
I have, for some time, been wanting to share with you some reflections on Thich Nhat Hanh's presence in America. Some of these things I’ve shared with you in small ways over the course of our practice together. I thought it would be good to share them now in a fuller, more thoughtful way. I offer these reflections as a small piece of a large, complex and rich picture, with so much potential for fruitful exchange- my little finger pointing towards the immense moon of truth. As always, I give thanks for our practice together and for all of your support and presence over the years.
I know that we’ve spoken before about the dual nature of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings in the west: on the one hand he is a Buddhist sharing Buddhist teachings and practice; on the other hand, he goes to great pains to reinterpret the Buddha’s teachings in a language that is accessible and helpful to people of various religious (or no religious) backgrounds. He has spoken of the need for Christians to “go back to their roots and find the jewels buried there”. He has spoken of the need to create a “formless practice”. To my mind this means we should not be attached to the particular shape of our words, methods, teachings, but should be open to teaching, practicing in a way which takes down barriers between ourselves and others.
At times I’ve heard sangha members request more “Buddhist flavor” in our practice (i.e. Chanting sutras, 4 noble truths, etc) and I heard a Christian sangha member express disappointment that a Thich Nhat Hanh retreat was “so Buddhist” when the books and practices she had experienced and loved, and a previous retreat were not particularly Buddhist in flavor. In our sangha, I’m aware of this “lovely” tension all the time.
Everyday, at work in my neighborhood, in the grocery store, I’m aware that I am surrounded by people who are mostly Christian. Whether practicing or not, most Americans’ spiritual roots are in the Christian faith. When I consider the well being of these people and their families, I think the best thing is that their Christian roots would be strong, that they would find a good community, a priest, a pastor, a teaching and practice to nourish and support their lives.
In 1997, then Catholic Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict) wrote, “In the 1950s someone said that the undoing of the Catholic Church in the 20th century wouldn't come from Marxism but from Buddhism. They were right.” While we have since heard more positive observations about Buddhism from the Catholic Church, I know there can be some uneasiness among even the most open-minded Christians, about what Buddhism’s growing popularity means for the future of Christianity. Sincere, deep and wise Christians hope that their children will continue to nourish and support the beauties of their faith tradition.
That being said, my experience practicing as a Christian is that there are teachings and practices that do not correspond well to the deep reality of life- teachings and practices which contribute to people’s suffering. I have a strong desire to see reform happen. I'm grateful that I have taken refuge in the teachings of the Buddha and can approach Christianity from the clarity of that perspective. I'm not in danger when I encounter the Christian concepts of good/evil, heaven/hell, God/creation, salvation/damnation.
My sense is that our mindfulness teaching and practice can be a great gift to the Christian communities. While there are those who are threatened by Buddhism’s presence in America, there are many Christians who love Thich Nhat Hanh and are hungry for the teaching and practice he offers- they incorporate this into their Christian practice. I hope our Buddhist communities in America could be a help and support to Christian people rather than a threat. Do we encourage young people who come to our centers to go back to their roots, even as we welcome them to our beautiful practice?
In our Omaha community we have tended to emphasize the mindfulness practices and de-emphasize the Buddhist language and other elements. We advertise that we are a practice for people “of all religious faiths and no religious faith”. This is in the spirit of Thay’s request that we create a formless practice. Several of our most devoted practitioners consider Christianity their primary spiritual practice. We hope that they will come, take in the practice and bring back the fruit to their Christian communities. In this way, Buddhism’s presence in America could help nourish and support our Christian roots (or Jewish, or Islamic, etc)- Thay’s vision of the Buddha and Christ as brothers.
I know that many, maybe most sanghas and practitioners wish to identify completely and deeply with the Buddhist roots of Thay’s teachings. They want to BE Buddhist and embrace all that that implies: read the sutras, chant, study the 4 noble truths and eightfold path, and be involved in all the rights, rituals and celebrations. This is a wonderful development.
I hope that the people who have committed time and energy to creating a sangha, could have a lot of freedom to shape the sangha according to their spirit. That the larger sangha body could support and allow a lot of freedom for these sanghas to bloom according to their own nature, even as they work to explore and practice Thay’s teachings. I hope that part of that support would include encouraging the sangha to invite people of all religious backgrounds into the practice, to, when possible, use language which does not set up boundaries between Buddhist and Christian or Buddhist and Jew, and to encourage people who have become alienated from their spiritual roots to find away to affirm the beautiful elements of those teachings. Also, that we would provide opportunities for our Christian, Jewish, etc, sister’s and brothers to teach us, that we would be open to learning new ways of seeing and practicing.
Again, I just offer this as my small perspective as we continue to work to establish Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings on American soil.
Blessings as we practice beautifully together into the future,
Honey Locust Sangha- Omaha, NE