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Spiritual Practices: Thich Nhat Hahn, et al

By Rev. Denise Tracy

Presented by Omni-U Virtual University 

Each one of us has a spiritual journey. Are you more of a "transcendentalist"- connecting yourself to the elements of the world- or, an "inscendentalist" who goes deeper within to connect your self to understand the world?

Like many others, I became acquainted with Unitarian Universalism through my study of the "transcendentalists".  The Boston Brahmins lived in the city where the shipping industry brought goods and ideas from all over the world. In "How the Swans Came to the Lake," Rick Fields wrote about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who studied eastern religions. Emerson became a writer and Thoreau became the one who experimented with and lived out this faith.

Their movement became known as "Transcendentalism."

Transcendentalism is the drive to live away from the world. Believers connect themselves to the outer elements and, thus, spiritualize their daily living. "Inscendence," a concept coined and advocated by Thomas Berry as an alternative to "transcendence," is a way of describing a path to fulfillment and healing through deeper inhabitation of one's own body on all levels: the genetic  body; the social body of community; and, the ecological body of one's habitat. "Inscendence" is not the impulse to rise above the world, ie., transcend or overcome the world, but to climb into it, to seek its core.

As I was preparing for my annual sermon on famous people who made their transitions the year before, the name Thich Nhat Hanh leaped off the page. So, I began to read about him. 

Born in 1926, he realized ,at 6 years old,  that he felt calm when he saw a picture of the Buddha. Although his parents had reservations,  he entered a monastery at the age of 12. All monks took- or were given- the last name of Thich. He became widely known as Thich Nhat Hanh, but  his name acually begins with Nhat Hanh .

He grew into his roles of monk, author, poet, teacher and, eventually, peace activist. He founded the Plum Village Buddhist tradition which, because of Thich Nhat Hanh, became the home of the 'Engaged Buddhism" movement. This became a primary denomination for Buddhism. At Plum Village the members were part of the "Order of Interbeing". 

Hundreds of thousands of his people were being killed during the war in Vietnam and, because Thich Nhat Hahn was a pacifist, he was exiled from his country in 1966. The Vietnam government said that, as a pacifist, he was against the war which meant that he was declared to be a communist. During the war, his school at Plum Village was destroyed three times. Each time it was rebuilt.

The destruction of his country and its people, increased Thich Nhat Hahn's  efforts to become more engaged in  expanding his faith. He created many Plum Villages all over the world for the practice of meditation and deep listening as  ways of living. He regarded   nonviolence as a solution to conflict.

He became closely allied with theologians  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Merton. After meeting Thich Nhat Hanh, Merton declared, “The universe is listening, I cannot accept this war.”  In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr nominated him for the Noble Peace prize.

Thich Nhat Hanh became aware of the plight of the Viet Namese, Cambodians, and Laotians who were leaving their countries by boat and losing their lives on the open ocean. He raised money and created a fleet of boats for their rescue. All the while, he was advocating the study of "Mindfulness" as a way of approaching both inner- and world- conflict. His books  were a source of support for the monasteries that he built all over the world.. In 2005, after a 30 year exile, he returned to Viet Nam. In 2018, he re-founded the temple where he had become a monk as a young boy.

Thich Nhat Hanh became one of the  most famous voices for peace in our lifetime. He died,at the age of 95, in the village where he began his ministry in 2022.

Thich Nhat Hahn suggested that inner peace was needed to face and teach the world. The goal of developing a deep inner peace is to remain calm and, by one’s centered response, to draw truth to human exchange. 

On one occasion Thich Nhat Hanh was speaking in a St. Louis Christian Church as he advocated stopping the bombing of Viet Nam. A man in the audience shouted, “If you care so much about your people, why are you here?” Nhat Hanh replied, "If a tree is dying, you do not water the leaves, you water the roots. The roots of this war are here.” Thich Nhat Hanh then went outside to compose himself- to keep his inner calm and, thus, refrain from becoming angry.

Thich Nhat Hanh cultivated a new approach to Buddhism, one that challenged the world to pay attention, to listen and, then, to quietly affirm that inner peace can create world peace. The Plum Villages around the world invite people to stay, learn, and live this "engaged Buddhism." To enter into these communities is to live in "a radical happiness," that reaches from one heartbeat or breath to another. A radical happiness that calls us to pay attention to each moment that we are alive, and to practice simple living as a new paradigm.

Amen, Shalom and Blessed Be.

Recommended Readings: 

Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology.

Thich Nhat Hahn, For a Future to Be  Possible. 

Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism.

Thich Nhat Hahn, Essential Writings.

Marc Andrus, Brothers in the Beloved Community: The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hahn and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe:Earth, Spiritually, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Emerson's Essays: The First and Second Series Complete.

Self Reliance, Nature and The American Scholar.

Henry David Thoreau: 

Transcendentalism Collection.

Walden, Walking and Civil Disobedience.

Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Artist of the Beautiful.

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