Eyes of Thich Nhat Hanh
Text: Mark 8:27-38
Rv. Catherine Fransson, preaching
Seattle First Baptist Church
October 8, 2006
What does Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh think of Jesus? What difference does
that make to me, to you? How does his opinion inform our lives, our struggle with the war, the regime,
the homelessness and lack of basic social services on every corner?
It’s much too easy to bury ourselves in our own problems, challenges at work and home, even
church. In fact that’s why some of us come to worship: to get our nose out of our navel. To remember
the big picture, the larger truths, the transcending wisdom of the ages that lifts us out of our smallness
and gives us hope.
Can a monk whom Martin Luther King Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize give us hope?
King said, “Thich Nhat Hanh is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense
intellectual capacity. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world
brother [and sister]hood, to humanity.”
In the introduction to Nhat Hanh’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ [Riverhead 1995], Brother
David Steindl-Rast comments that Nhat Hanh believes it “safer to approach God through the Holy Spirit
than through theology….” And this Buddhist, this Nhat Hanh speaks of God out of his own experience.
He writes, “Discussing God is not the best use of our energy. If we touch the Holy Spirit, we touch God
not as a concept but as a living reality.” [Foreword xvi] Some Christians aren’t yet conversant with the
Holy Spirit themselves.
Who cares what Thich Nhat Hanh says about Jesus? I ought to care. You ought to care.
Because as Jesus challenges us in today’s scripture, what we say of Jesus, what we believe of Christ,
determines how we live our lives. Turning and looking at the disciples, Jesus rebukes Peter, “Get
behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” [Mk 8:33]
To set our minds on divine things is to care about how everyone answers the question, “Who do you
say that I am?” Because the answer is the heart of the matter.
For Jesus, this encounter with Peter is the beginning of the end; he calls everyone’s bluff. He
turns his face to Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, the city that made him weep. The answer to
his question, “Who do you say I am?” was the key to the rest of Peter’s life. It is the key to our own
lives. It calls our bluff about all the things we say our lives are about. All the things we say, but do not
When historical people like the Buddha and Jesus, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. live
out the call of who they believe God to be, the world knows it. If you and I live out the call of who we
believe God to be, the world will also know us. Who we say Jesus is inspirits our lives. Who Episcopal
Bishop John Spong says Jesus is, is the essence of Christianity beyond the scriptures written well after
the life of Jesus, beyond the creeds of the 3rd and 4th centuries, beyond the formulas of liturgy
prescribed in the middle ages. [Spong’s response to an inquiry on-line last week]. He writes of his
relationship with the living God. Spong said, “I do not believe that God is a Christian or a Buddhist. Yet
both Christianity and Buddhism have pointed hundreds of millions of people toward the mystery of
God.” Seeking faith is not about dogma and the mind alone, though it is about that. It is about the heart.
It is about living as God inspires us to live.
I’m glad we have dispensed with certainty in this community. We dare to ask the questions,
debate them, and allow each of us to find our own way to Jesus. We have much in common, else we
couldn’t worship the way we do. But we agree to allow us all to develop our own answers to some of
the tenets of our faith. That’s dynamic and real. That’s Baptist freedom.
Dialogue is a good thing among believers—of any stripe. In a recent Christian Century article
(9/5/06) the topic is spiritual reasoning: a process of gathering Christians, Muslims, and Jews together
in a neutral space to compare scripture passages from the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, related by
theme. “People assume that problems among religious groups arise out of religious differences….”
writes Peter Ochs, professor of Judaic studies at the University of Virginia. “Our assumption is the
opposite: that religious people like each other because they are religious. They are moved by piety,
discipline, and love of God to pursue similar ends and find solutions.” [“Sacred Book Club,” p. 36.]
Religious people ought to be comfortable with one another because we all believe! We have God in
common. What of a few differences in rubrics? Isn’t the practice of truth the same?
It is a sad reality for me that when I attend a conference with American Baptist ministers as I did
last spring, where I ought to find liberating discussion among colleagues who love God, I spend the first
several hours looking for familiar faces or for tell-tale signs of open minds. There are fundamentalists in
our ranks, and I am not eager to be an outlaw. Last April I sat in the back row and scanned for signs of
the enemy. But by the next morning, I, or more precisely, my prayer had moved me beyond my fear. I
decided to be just myself and risk the outcome. How would you do it? The only way I know is to trust
God knit me together in my mother’s womb, called me by name, and made me God’s own. No one can
argue that is not so for me. Or for you.Interfaith gatherings don’t frighten me as much. The faithful
who take the time to venture outsidetheir boundaries know all of us will not look and act the same.
Rod Romney wrote in a recent sermon that when he met Wayne Teasdale, author of The Mystic Heart,
their mutual friend Jamal suggested,“You both have a great deal in common. You have each outgrown
your religious traditions for something more universal.” Interfaith gatherings attract many
who have outgrown their traditions and seek more universal truths. Interfaith seekers have faith in
common. We like each other because we share the practice of seeking. We look for bridges instead of
walls, connections instead of barriers. Teasdale created the concept of interspirituality to describe
What helps us see this larger human vision, embraced as we are by Earth and the stars, but
largely buried in minutia? Moments of high drama, even trauma, moments of birth and of death. As
many of you have done and will do, I sat by my father for three and a half years, years that were no
match for the sixty years we had been father and daughter up to then, but years so significant to my
knowing him, that he expanded my world and my compassion beyond anything I could have imagined.
In those awe-filled moments when I saw him as solicitous of the nursing home staff as they
were of him, I saw in him someone I never knew. Someone his parenting never permitted. When I took
the time, changed my routine, became present to him, and began to care for his personal and
emotional needs, then he gave me the gift of his heart.
Buddhist Nhat Hanh said, “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the
green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” He wrote, “Mindfulness, if
practiced continuously, will be strong enough to embrace your fear or anger and transform it. We need
not chase away evil. We can embrace and transform it in a nonviolent, nondualistic way.”
Christ said, the wheat and the weeds grow up together. You will not know until the day of
harvest how to separate one from the other. So if we can’t separate evil away from us, we are going to
have to live with it, to love it back into life, one thing, one person at a time. It’s possible this human
experiment will not end until we have all put down our swords and begun to look into each other’s eyes.
It may take millennia more than have already been counted. But then there will be no more weeds.
Yosh Nakagawa was sitting with Tracy and me a few weeks ago in a labyrinth workshop at
Japanese Baptist Church. He said, “this gym is where, in the spring of 1942, our families stored as
many of our belongings that would fit before we were moved to Puyallup. This room was full to the
ceiling, with each family having only a small share of space. The doors to the church were barricaded
with iron bars.”
He said, “9/11 terrorized all of us, but 9/11 gave me back part of my life. Before then, I was a
terrorist. I was uprooted, imprisoned, and moved finally to Idaho, lest I be too great a threat to my own
country. I had been afraid to leave my home on December 7th. But now I watch while we imprison
others because of their religion and language, and know my country has not learned the lesson of 65
Because of our new region, and our commitment to multiculturalism in fact, not just in rhetoric,
Yosh is finally unafraid to talk with us about the faith that sustained him in those difficult years. Tears fill
his eyes as he dares to tell how God, and who he knew God was, got him through the time when he
was an enemy in his own country. He was just 9 years old.When we sit down with one another across cultures, when we stop
to care for our parents and elders, then the enemy others seemed at one time to be dissolves
into a recognition of common imperfection. We move beyond dogma, beyond race, and beyond
politics to the loss of our illusions, to recognize and live in the present. Dad did the best he could.
And only after many years of practicing my own faith, my love of God, and being in the now, was I able to
see his efforts whole, as if for the first time as a fellow human being, and not a hard man bent on
control. I was able to see beyond myself into a mystical experience, “…where [I was] touched by something
ultimate.” [The Mystic Heart, p. 70]
The Buddhist teaching I find most helpful is practice. Christians have too long thought once
we’re baptized, we assume perfection and can point our fingers at others outside the fold. But we are
all imperfect. Accepting our imperfection is the beginning of growth, of actually practicing Christian life.
Nhat Hanh says, “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 way is Jesus himself and not just some idea of him. A true teaching is not
static. It is not mere words but the reality of life….When we understand and practice deeply the life and
teachings of Buddha or the life and teachings of Jesus, we penetrate the door and enter the abode of
the living Buddha and the living Christ, and life eternal presents itself to us.” [p. 56]
We will never arrive, but if we accept the love God showers upon us, we will learn to accept
ourselves and grow toward wholeness. Once we place our faith in God, then we can practice following
him in all the ways life presents to us, in complete confidence that Jesus’ own life, as well as the lives of
others, will show us what we need to know.
We can learn from anyone. Jesus’ way is not a list of rules, it is a relationship. Thich Nhat
Hanh’s relationship with the Buddha doesn’t prevent him from developing a relationship with Jesus. Or
any other holy teacher. Jesus did not need exclusive rights to his teachings. And since his Abba was
his teacher, I suspect he knew intuitively that there were already then, and would be even more
teachers in many cultures and languages, faiths and practices, teaching the truths of the cosmos to
human life on the planet.Else how would any of us learn from any other?
These great transcending truths of the world religions all come down to simple things like water,
bread and wine. Like being kind. Like making room. Like sharing. But more, these truths come down to
your own awakening every morning, and mine, whether we roll out of bed with hope and gratitude, or with fear and
suspicion. They come down to who we say Jesus is. They come down to how we befriend ourselves, whether
with love and compassion or fear and loathing.
Jesus said, the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. We are
called to love God. We are called to love ourselves. And we are called to love others. Who knows but
that such love encompasses Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and all eternal truths humans
conceive of to explain the mystery of God in every time and culture? We share the journey; we are kin
with the whole created order.
If you doubt that, listen to this—a selection about low tide on a tiny island
in the dark of night: “…if you sit still in the dark, breathing quietly, the world will come to life around you.
Astonishment will rise in you like the slow tide, sliding in under the soles of your feet. And then you will
understand: you are kin in a family of living things, aware in a world of awareness, alive in a world of
lives, breathing as the shrimp breathe, as the kelp breathes, as
the water breathes, as the alderbreathes, the slow in and out. Except for argon and some
nitrogen, every gas that enters your lungs was created by some living creature—oxygen by plankton, carbon
dioxide by the hemlocks. Every breath you take weaves you into the fabric of life.” [Kathleen
Dean Moore, The Pine Island Paradox.Milkweed Editions, 2004 p. 54]
We, creatures also, know too little to insist there is only one way. In Nhat Hanh’s words “The
lack of understanding brings about the lack of tolerance and true love, which results in the alienation of
people from the church. True understanding comes from true practice. Understanding and love are
values that transcend all dogma.” [198-99]
When I moved from my adversarial position as my mother’s protector against my patriarchal
father, when I became my father’s care giver, sitting knee to knee in his small, spare room, I moved
from dogma to mindfulness, from politics to practice. And it was only then that I began to love him with
my whole heart.