Thich Nhat Hanh and the church

Thich Nhat Hanh is changing the way I think and feel about the church. Honestly, I don’t much like “The Church.” Haven’t for a long time. It is getting more and more difficult for me to love Jesus and follow “the way” of Jesus, “the way” of grace and peace, and at the same time to call myself a “Christian.”

This is especially poignant to me because, as an Episcopalian in America, I am regularly confronted with the judgment of Christians who say something like, “Episcopalians aren’t really Christians.” The little Episcopal parish church I love and belong to is filled with the most sincere, loving, grace-full seekers/believers I’ve ever encountered. This judgment, then, by other Christians creates quite a disconnect for me with Christianity as it seems to be defined in the culture around me.

Then I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s words in Living Buddha, Living Christ: “The church is the hope of Jesus, just as the Sangha [Buddhist congregation] is the hope of the Buddha.” Okay, I trust Thich Nhat Hanh as a man full of the Spirit of love and grace and wisdom, so I have to step back and think about what he’s saying. He continues: “It is through the practice of the church and the Sangha that the teachings come alive. Communities of practice, with all their shortcomings, are the best way to make the teachings available to people. The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit need the church in order to be manifested.”

I had to mull that one over for a bit. In the end, it does not change my belief that much/most of Christianity has little to do with Christ. The key phrase in Thich Nhat Hanh’s statement is “communities of practice.” The word “church,” with a small “c,” describes a “community of practice” in a particular time and place. I have to ask whether there is such a thing as “Christianity” outside of a “community of practice.” No, I don’t think so. There are only communities of practice that are either practicing “the way” of Jesus, “the way”of grace and peace, or not practicing it. The ones who are not, Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as “a false Sangha, a false church.”

I belong to a community of practice, Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, that is doing all within its power to follow “the way” of Jesus. But then I imagine every Christian church in existence would make the same claim. And God is the only Judge. It is human nature to judge others in part by the way others judge us (think of Jesus’ words in Matt. 7: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”) I guess it’s the same with churches.

Thich Nhat Hanh closes this section of teaching with this: “If the church practices well the teachings of Jesus, the Trinity will always be present and the church will have a healing power to transform all that it touches.” Amen to that. I just wonder why I had to read Thich Nhat Hanh to hear it. So here’s my “take-away” on this. My concern must be the community of practice to which I belong–whether it manifests the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and has “a healing power to transform all that it touches.”

All the rest is chaff.

Solitude, Practice, and Becoming Christ

Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk, teacher (Thay), and lover of Jesus says, “When we look into and touch deeply the life and teaching of Jesus, we can penetrate the reality of God. . . . God made himself known to us through Jesus Christ.” In his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thay seeks the reality beneath the surfaces of both Buddhism and Christianity. For both religious systems, he says, “The practice is to touch life deeply so that the Kingdom of God becomes a reality. This is not a matter of devotion. It is a matter of practice.”

In mid-August, I spent a week in solitude at Saint Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, Arkansas. My room at the retreat center was isolated from everyone else on the campus. Three times each day, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I left my room and attended prayers with the 24 sisters who came together to sing and read psalms, prayers, and praises. Sister Madeline shepherded me along the way, demonstrating the art and practice of Benedictine hospitality. During the services, I sat in the corner and listened to that group of women, who had devoted their lives to the service and worship of God, some from the age of fifteen, now in their seventies and eighties. I left the nave of the church each time feeling I had experienced a little touch of heaven, of the eternal angelic lifting of voices and hearts to the Divine. The feathery soft voices, the antiphonal call and response that anchors their days, year after year. The energy of the Holy Spirit lifted on soft wings.

The great desire of a Christian is to become a Christ. In its earliest use, the word “Christian” meant “little Christ.” Little Christs want to grow up to be big Christs. The great desire of a Buddhist is to become a Buddha. One meaning of the common Buddhist term “Bodhisattva” is simply someone who is on the path to enlightenment, the path to Buddha-hood. A little Buddha wanting to grow up to be a big Buddha. We have that in common. Little Christs, little Buddhas trying to grow up into big Christs, big Buddhas. Thay says, “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.”

Through this practice we “penetrate the door and enter the abode of the living Buddha and the living Christ, and life eternal presents itself to us.” For followers of Jesus, “Because God the Son is made of the energy of the Holy Spirit, He is the door for us to enter the Kingdom of God.” In the prayers of the Sisters of Saint Scholastica, Jesus is “the Beloved.” Three times each day, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. The energy of the Holy Spirit, the Beloved. The door for us to enter the Kingdom of God. Not a matter of devotion, a matter of practice.



Independence on Independence Day?

I  ask myself how independent, as an individual, I really am on Independence Day. The overwhelming social and cultural pressure on the July 4th holiday is not to be independent or to think independently, but to conform. And that conformity tends to be packaged in a very small box and labeled “patriotic.”

Our word patriot comes from the Greek patriotes, through Latin and medieval French, and meant simply “fellow countryman.” Actually, the Greeks applied the word “patriotes” to barbarians. By the 17th century the word patriot had come to mean “loyal and disinterested supporter of one’s country,” but then lost favor again, being applied to troublemakers by the early 19th century. In the 20th century the word was revived with its current positive connotations, especially in American English.

So, historically the heart of the word patriot is “fellow countryman,” or the people with which you live in a broad community and with which you identify. Based on this fact, a box with the label patriotic should not be a small box, but a very big box, one that includes a commitment to the well-being of all those who live in our country. So a patriot would be one who works tirelessly for good education for all in the country, a decent living wage for all in the country, healthy food and wholesome living conditions for all in the country, programs that promote health, fitness, and emotional well being for all in the country, laws that insure dignity and justice for all and prevent the abuse of power for all in the country, programs that offer a safety net to protect those who struggle to make it on their own, including the elderly, the mentally ill, and those who are broken by circumstances beyond their control. On the other hand, a patriot would also be one who challenges those whose ideas conflict with the truths that the writers of the Declaration of Independence considered “self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” A patriot would challenge those who promote the good of only the powerful and rich, or throw up obstacles to accessing the freedom and opportunities that are available, or exclude people from those opportunities based on race, religion, sexual identity, and other differences.

How have we come to believe that patriotism is first and foremost a matter of waving a flag, or spending trillions on the military, or bashing anyone who says otherwise, or blindly promoting the United States over all other countries in the world, regardless of the facts of any situation? We should never minimize the sacrifice of those who have died in conflict for their countrymen. Theirs is often called the “ultimate” sacrifice. Because I am a patriot, their fellow countryman, I am committed not to “my country right or wrong” but to holding our government accountable for the lives of my countrymen, because our government is no less likely than any other government to send them to their deaths for the wrong reasons, to be influenced by greed and the lust for power. By not keeping our government and ourselves accountable for every life in our country, we simply make the abuse of immense power easier.

So on this 4th of July I offer this blog post, and later I will be a patriot by eating with a few fellow countrymen/women and hopefully being thankful for, and re-commiting myself to, not just freedom but opportunity, dignity, and well-being–life and happiness–for all.

Mindful Eating and the Kingdom of God

Here’s an odd sounding idea for you: Mindful Eating. Think of it in terms of the spiritual side of the Slow Cooking movement that’s been so popular the past few years. In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the practice of being completely in the present moment when you eat. I can hear some of you, especially those with young kids, laughing  now. Thay says, “In Buddhist monasteries, we eat our meals in silence to make it easier to give our full attention to the food and to the other members of the community who are present.” For the monks, it is a practice of appreciating the pleasure of community and the beauty of food to its fullest, in every moment. So each bite of food is chewed at least thirty times, and the person meditates on the blessing of food, the goodness of it, and feels compassion for those who are hungry.

That’s an amazing discipline, and when I imagine trying to do it when our kids were little, I too laugh. But Thay’s larger point in that chapter is about living in the presence of God. He ties that idea to the practice of piety. “Piety” is a much maligned word these days, probably due to our misunderstanding and misapplication of the Puritans’ use of it. Honestly, it’s a word I don’t like because of its unloving connotations for me. But Thay points out the importance of the word “piety” in Judaism, “because all of life is a reflection of God, the infinite source of holiness.” Buddhism has a similar concept based on the “interbeing” of all things. In the end, Thay defines “piety” as “the recognition that everything is linked to the presence of God in every moment.” Okay, that is a definition I can love and work with.

The reality is that everything is linked to God in every moment. Piety is our recognition of that reality. Not a one-time recognition, like “okay, I agree with that.” Not “being a believer.” Jesus said something about the demons believing. The Buddhist concept of mindfulness calls us to orient ourselves each moment to true reality, to be aware–when we breathe, or eat, or touch someone–that the Spirit is there, that each moment itself is a gift from God. I think of mindfulness as the mind full of ness (ness being the true nature of things–God as reality in every moment).

Thay points out that in Christianity the best example of this orientation is the Eucharist. “When we celebrate the Eucharist,” he says, “sharing the bread and the wine as the body of God, we do it in the same spirit of piety, of mindfulness, aware that we are alive, enjoying dwelling in the present moment.” I would add that it makes me stop and experience incarnation, the presence of God in that moment, in this world.

I’m going to finish with one last thought from Thay. After lamenting that humans often, instead of eating mindfully, simply “ingest” our worries and anxieties, he says, “If we allow ourselves to touch our bread deeply, we become reborn, because our bread is life itself. Eating it deeply, we touch the sun, the clouds, the earth, [those things that nourished the grain] and everything in the cosmos. We touch life, and we touch the Kingdom of God.”

And so we come full circle, back to Mindful Eating. The Kingdom of God in bread, meat, water, fruit, vegetables, wine. I think that’s a pretty good place to start.


Living Buddha, Living Christ, Touching God

Touching God sounds like an absurd idea. People commonly claim that God has touched them, but I can’t remember anyone claiming he or she has touched God. I wonder, why not? If we claim God is alive, and if we are alive, why don’t we claim to touch God?

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explores the Trinity and the idea of touching God. Hang with me for a minute while I share a few of his observations. “When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy. . . . To me, mindfulness is very much like the Holy Spirit. Both are agents of healing. . . . In the Bible, when someone touches Christ, he or she is healed. . . . When you touch deep understanding and love, you are healed. . . . The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, penetrated Him deeply, and He revealed the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. . . . all of us also have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us . . . When we touch that seed, we are able to touch God the Father and God the Son.” Quite a statement for one of the leading Buddhist voices in the world.

I said at the beginning, “If we claim God is alive, and if we are alive, why don’t we claim to touch God?” Maybe the problem is not whether God is alive, but whether we are alive. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We always postpone being alive to the future, we don’t know exactly when.” Well, this is nothing new. We are aware of our human tendency to miss today because we are obsessed with the future. But listen to what he says next: “It is possible we will never be truly alive in our entire life.” That’s worth considering. Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, Julian of Norwich, and other great men and women have turned toward the simplified, slowed-down life to try to “be truly alive.” Think of Socrates’ “the unexamined life” and so forth. I’m not prepared to do what those folks did–become a cobbler, go to Walden, be the Gadfly of Athens, wall myself up in a room. But Thich Nhat Hanh says that even a schmuck like me can be truly alive: “The technique, if we must speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, that the only moment to be alive is the present moment.”

So we are back to mindfulness. “When you are really there,” he says (my italics), “showing your loving-kindness and understanding, the energy of the Holy Spirit is in you. . . . When the energy of the Holy Spirit is in us, we are truly alive, capable of understanding the suffering of others and motivated by the desire to help transform the situation.” Hmm . . . mindfulness . . . being in the moment . . . the Holy Spirit.

So is touching God an absurd idea? Do Buddhism and Christianity share something here? Can we touch God if we are not truly alive, and are we truly alive only in the present moment? Do we experience the present moment only through that deep awareness called mindfulness? Can we touch the Holy Spirit by practicing mindfulness (as opposed to the Holy Spirit touching us at any time, maybe the most unexpected and awkward times)?

When it comes to touching God, I am with this faithful Buddhist monk: “It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice.”


Straight and Narrow–Deep and Wide

I have a guest voice for you today. I think you’ll like what she has to say.

Straight and narrow – deep and wide

by Val Gonzalez

The slender, stony track, perilously steep, led to a constricted gate in a rock wall. My shins were bruised, my knees skinned, my entire attention focused on each step.

I awoke with a permeating revelation. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I, too, am a recovering fundamentalist. I was taught that following Jesus meant following all the rules. Well-schooled in the King James Version, I was instructed not to question. The result of this training has been a lifetime of fear. Because, you see, I have questioned. I have doubted. I have sinned in varying magnitudes setting off minor tremors and the occasional major seism.

In the midst of such a temblor and the accompanying spiritual crisis, I had a revelatory dream in which I was climbing a mountain. In that vision, I was scrambling boulders to the left of the path, on the very edge of the precipice, trying to keep up with my spiritual teacher. On the far right, there was a broad, smooth road that hugged the slope, full of travelers. When, finally, my teacher paused, I called, “why are you so close to the edge?” Smiling, he waved his arm toward the abyss. I had been so intent on the trek, I’d only been minding my steps while he was skipping like an antelope. I had missed what was now splendidly obvious. “Unless you get close to the edge, you’ll miss the view.”

I’ve explored many faiths and, at times, practiced none at all, but I’ve decided to follow Jesus. Now, due to my track record and complementary suffering, I think I’m something of an expert: Rules don’t always reflect the respect, mercy and loving kindness at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. So, my spiritual journey is an individual journey. The straight gate and narrow path won’t allow the security of the herd. It’s a lonely, unsure way. It’s messy; impossible to navigate without stumbles and setbacks.

But, I aim to stay as close to the edge as possible. Because, when I breathe into my fear, and allow courage to swell and love to win, boulder-skipping becomes easier, compassion simpler, and, honestly, that view! It’s heavenly.

Val Gonzalez is the Executive Director of Terra Studios. I met Val at a workshop at the Village Writing School in Eureka Springs . Check out Val’s site at

The Coercion of the Past

On a trip to Mt View last weekend, I took along a mindless page-turner to help me relax and wile away the hours on the front porch of the Inn at Mountain View. Michael Crichton’s Timeline, is a novel about time travel in which four contemporary researchers are transported back to the late 14th century. For me, Crichton is usually boring for about fifty pages as he tries to build some kind of believable setting/background for the tale he is about to tell, and then he turns on the suspense. This book, though it might be boring for more than fifty pages, eventually turns into a good vacation read, 500 pages you can burn through in a day or two.

BUT I was really struck by this little nugget buried on page 359, spoken by the character who is financing all the experiments in time travel:

“We are all ruled by the past, although no one understands it. No one recognizes the power of the past . . . .

“A teenager has breakfast, then goes to the store to buy the latest CD of a new band. The kid thinks he lives in a modern moment. But who has defined what a ‘band’ is? Who defined a ‘store’? Who defined a ‘teenager’? Or ‘breakfast’? To say nothing of all the rest, the kid’s entire social setting–family, school, clothing, transportation and government.

“None of this has been decided in the present. Most of it was decided hundreds of years ago. Five hundred years, a thousand years. This kid is sitting on top of a mountain that is the past. And he never notices it. He is ruled by what he never sees, never thinks about, doesn’t know. It is a form of coercion that is accepted without question. This same kid is skeptical of other forms of control–parental restrictions, commercial messages, government laws. But the invisible rule of the past, which decides nearly everything in his life, goes unquestioned.”

Okay, Michael Chrichton is not a great literary stylist, but those thoughts about the power of the past–the coercion of the past, the invisible rule of the past–are pretty provoking. If someone had said those things to me when I was eighteen, I would have laughed. I was autonomous, in control, and immortal. The past had little to offer and absolutely no impact on me. The future was mine for the molding, and forward was the only direction I looked.

Now, as a 67-year-old retired English professor and writer, I feel more acutely the power of all the things Chrichton mentioned above, but even more so the coercive power of genetics. We are coerced daily by those diabolical double helixes of nucleic acids, handed down by great-grandfathers, great-grandmothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers. We swim in a shifting nucleotide that pulls one way and then the other. We don’t understand why we do half the things we do. We are like the poor Apostle Paul–“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” The human condition.

Ah, well. As a good Episcopalian, I say embrace it. Learn a new stroke. Swim on.

Looking Deeply

In his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh quotes Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Then he says, “‘Be still’ means to become peaceful and concentrated. The Buddhist term is samatha (stopping, calming, concentrating). ‘Know’ means to acquire wisdom, insight, or understanding. The Buddhist term is vipasyana (insight, or looking deeply). ‘Looking deeply’ means observing something or someone with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears. The result is insight into the true nature of the object.”

The object of most of Thay’s writing seems to be to encourage us to “look deeply” into every moment of our lives. Also, “Looking deeply” seems to be the object of the practice of meditation in both the Buddhist and Christian traditions–the conscious effort to see into the true nature of life, of love, of God. But meditation as a method of spiritual growth might be seen as something we do not only when we sit in silence and focus our attention (as in “be still and know”), but also a way of doing everything we do. Being mindful, looking deeply at every act. This, it seems to me, is the only way to “pray without ceasing”–the prayer of looking deeply into each moment of our lives. Not a prayer of words, but a prayer of being.

Living Buddha, Living Christ

Living Buddha, Living Christ is the title of a book written in 1995 by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, who has a world-wide following as a voice for peace. Very early in the book, he says that his “path to discovering Jesus as one of my spiritual ancestors was not easy.” Nobody should be surprised to find that the reason for this difficulty was the aggressive  and sometimes violent treatment of Buddhists by Christians in their attempt to “spread the gospel” in Vietnam.

Thay (Teacher, which is what his friends and students call Thich Nhat Hanh) says, “It was only later, through friendships with Christian men and women who truly embody the spirit of understanding and compassion of Jesus, that I have been able to touch the depths of Christianity.” These people, he says, “have made me feel that Lord Jesus is still here with us.”

I wonder how many of us can say something very similar to this. I  certainly can. I am able to believe in God only because of knowing people who embody Christ. I created quite a stir a year ago, near the end of a four-year study of Old and New Testaments, church history, and theology, by saying flatly, “Nothing good has ever come out of theology.” I had come to believe that theology, as it has been practiced by every religion that I’m aware of, has led to division and violence within religious communities. I’m not ignoring the fact that theology has the potential to lead people to do loving, compassionate things, as would the study of Matt 25 or James 2. But the history of the church is in large part the history of powerful men and groups of men (and usually only men) using theology to alienate, exile, and do violence against men (and women) who disagreed with their reading of the Bible.

As Thay says, it can be harder to have an honest and loving dialogue within one’s own religious community/tradition than with a different community/tradition. I confess that this is one of my own biggest struggles–to love, accept, and listen deeply to those in the Christian community who are at the other end of the spectrum from me. As a very liberal/progressive believer, I fall easily into the trap of dismissing very conservative believers (which most of the people from my early life are) as simply heartless and legalistic and narrow minded. I said this was a confession, didn’t I? But Thay says, “By respecting the differences within our own church and seeing how these differences enrich one another, we are more open to appreciating the richness and diversity of other traditions.” In other words, I may not be able to truly appreciate Buddhism if I cannot appreciate and value Christian conservatism.

I think this is where I say to conservatives, “Forgive me for not listening deeply and not opening my mind to consider what you have to say.” There. We have all heard that confession is good for the soul, so my soul is a little better now. Thank you.

I’m going to continue to share from my responses to Thay’s beautiful book. I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to re-post any of these discussions.

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The Dead

This morning I read again the final paragraph of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” a story about a melancholy Irish professor, who thinks his marriage is one thing and finds that it is really something else. It is a story about the disillusionment of romantic fantasies. “The Dead” is one of Joyce’s best-known stories, the final story in his first collection, Dubliners. It has been one of my favorite stories for many years because of its celebration of friendship around a banquet table, both the joy and the pain, because of its wonderful variety of characters, and especially because of its beautiful language.

At the end of the story, the main character, Gabriel, sits in the dark in a hotel room, his wife asleep on the bed. He has just learned of his wife’s heartbreak when she was a young woman at the death of a young man named Michael Furey.

Here’s the paragraph: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly throughout the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

We are all Gabriel, believing we are one thing and occasionally coming face to face with the reality that we are not that thing at all, that we have created for/of ourselves a fiction we can live with but that cannot last. Afterwards, when we know ourselves better, we are better able to know others and to live a compassionate life.

After Dubliners, Joyce published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, both of which I love and taught at the university, and then he finished his fiction writing with Finnegans Wake. These last three works were significant events in the development of the complex Modernist style, but in the earlier Dubliners he used traditional story-telling technique and rich, layered language to reveal the vulnerable and quixotic hearts of human beings in everyday lives. It is one of those works that makes my wiring crackle when I read it.

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