Sunday, October 13, 2013

Thich Nhat Hanh's Engaged Buddhism

Thich Nhat Hanh is the kind of religious celebrity who doesn't seem to get wrapped up in celebrity and who, for me at least, hasn't gone stale.   While the celebrity thing is often an invitation for manipulation, as clearly happened with Mother Teresa, or a venue for personal aggrandizement, as with John Paul II, it doesn't seem to have made what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk represent seem tainted.

A few years back, finding that sitting still to meditate didn't work for me, I bought a recording of walking meditation which contained a dvd of him talking and of him giving a group instruction and a cd of "guided meditations" by one of his students. I have found those to work for me far better than sitting does.   When my young niece watched the dvd she was struck at how a fly landed on his face and he didn't stop talking or brush it aside, which she took as a proof of humble gentleness.  

Since then I've listened to a number of talks given by him, online.  One of the things that impresses me is his advocacy for engaged Buddhism, Buddhism that actively engages in social justice and against wrong doing for the wider world.  

Here is a recent On Being show, containing an interview Krista Tippet conducted with Thich Nhat Hanh  and some commentary.   You can find the complete interview she conducted with a lot more information at the show website.  One of the most interesting parts of it is what Cheri Maples, a police captain has to say about what she's learned from Hanh's teaching and how it interacts with her work which is frequently problematic, if not at odds with Buddhism.  From the show transcript:

And what happened to me is my heart started to soften and kind of break open for the first time. I had gotten very mechanical about how I was doing my job. I had no idea that I had shut down that way. And I came home and, especially that first week when it was so new and everything felt so fresh, I started to understand that, in a very, very deep level, that it's possible to bring this into your work as a cop because, as my energy started to change, the energy that I got back from other people started to change, even including the people that I had to arrest and take to jail.

But probably the first example of that was I was on a domestic violence call, and it was one of these calls where I would have just arrested the guy. I would have just, 'Hey, enough's enough,' you know? This was a scenario where breaking up is hard to do, and there was a little girl, and they were exchanging custody. And he was kind of holding the little girl hostage, not wanting to give her back to Mom. And there had been no violence that had taken place, but both Mom and the little girl were very scared and intimidated. And ordinarily I would have said, 'That's it,' slapped the handcuffs on him, taken him to jail. But something stopped me, and it was I had just come out of this retreat. And I got the little girl, got him to give me the little girl, took care of her, got her and her mom set, told them just to leave, went back. And I just talked to this guy from my heart, and, within five minutes, I mean, I've got this big gun belt on. I'm about 5'3". Right? And this guy's like 6'6". And he's bawling, you know. And I'm holding this guy with this big gun belt on and everything. And he was just in incredible pain, and that's what I started realizing we deal with is misplaced anger because people are in incredible pain.

So I ran into him three days later in a little store on Willy Street, where I lived at the time. And this guy comes, he sees me off-duty, he picks me up, gives me this big bear hug and said, 'You saved my life that night. Thank you.' And so when you have experiences like that, and you start to realize, 'Well, what am I doing different here?' I mean, really, it's about softening your heart. When you're a police officer and you do this work, you need to find a way to be able to maintain both the compassionate bodhisattva within you and the fierce bodhisattva and know when each is called for and how to combine the two. And once you start down this path, it's possible to learn that.

I am not a Buddhist, though I have a lot of respect for the religion and enough regard for it to find its distortion and cheapening into a fad and a fashion distasteful.  The engaged Buddhism movement, which Hanh is a part of, is a wonderful development which I hope increases.

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