I watch the funeral and cremation of Thich Nhat Hanh. He transitioned this week, January 22, 2022, at Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam where he was ordained a monk in 1942. I was introduced to his work through Daniel Berrigan who also put in our hands as seminarians, the rule of Nat Hanh’s Tien Hiep order. It was the embodiment of what he termed “engaged Buddhism” and Daniel had shared and studied it with a group of prisoners at Danbury during is own incarceration. As I remember the first rule it was: We will not make an idol of any principle or discipline, including this one.” I also memorized Dan’s long poem, “A Letter to Vietnamese Prisoners,” which was surely conveyed hence via the monk in his Paris community. During Holy Week in 1974 the two of them sat for conversations which were transcribed into a book, The Raft is Not the Shore (Harper/Orbis). What follows I the first book review I ever had published. I believe the book is organized concentrically, with a chapter on “Self-Immolation” at the center. There were a number of them here in the U.S., Norman Morrison, Alice Hertz (on Jefferson Avenue here in Detroit), and the young Catholic Worker, Roger LaPorte whose death played a role in Dan’s conscientious formation.
Raft in the War: Eucharistic Conversations in a Bad Time
Sojourners Magazine October 1978
It is perhaps scandalous to suggest that evangelical Protestants would attend carefully to the conversations of a Catholic priest and a Buddhist monk. But perhaps this book, The Raft is Not the Shore, is itself the scandal. A scandal, one hopes, in keeping with the gospel truth.
This book is hardly new. It’s not hot off the press. But it is patient and enduring. I suspect that when first published, it made few waves in the evangelical communities. And it could soon be lost to us in the fog of amnesia which so quickly enveloped the Indochina war. Time for an early revival.
Many of us testify to the spiritual awakening which accompanied our political awakening around the war. Illusions stripped, victims recognized, powers unmasked, the need for spiritual resource and nurturing community confirmed or at least first guessed.
Still, some questions remain: have we learned the lessons of the Vietnamese? Have we loved our enemies enough to find them not only our sister and brothers, but among our best teachers in the faith?
Thich Nhat Hanh is a monk, poet, and Zen master. A little tract of his has been getting some circulation in this country. It is a meditation guide for activists published variously under the title The Miracle of Being Awake or The Miracle of Mindfulness. Nhat Hanh was for all practical purposes exiled from Vietnam when he went to Paris with the Buddhist Peace Delegation. Neither the Thieu regime nor the new government permitted him to return.
His community is part of movement long active in Vietnam known as “engaged Buddhism,” whose work sounds remarkably like something out of Matthew 25. It has easily been compared with the “applied Christianity” of the Catholic Worker movement.
Berrigan is the better known to us. His voice, as always, has the rhythm of the gospel to it. Good news, as they say, in bad times.
The bad times which were the context for these dialogues are worth remembering. Berrigan and Nhat Hanh sat in the wake of an air war long hyped up in the name of Vietnamization. The Peace Accords were signed. Tiger cages and Saigon jails were overflowing with prisoners political. An American draft resister wrote a preface for the book chronicling the military policy and political situation surrounding these talks. It was rejected as not in keeping with the book’s contemplative spirit — as though the publishers wanted the raft without the fury of the storm.
The other context, every bit as important, is that the conversations took place during Holy Week, and return repeatedly to those central events of the faith. When Thich Nhat Hanh reflects on the Eucharist, it is not in a spiritual or historical vacuum, but at the heart of reality:
One time I meditated on the meaning of the Eucharist. Suddenly I found that message of Jesus so clear. The disciples had been following Him and had seen Him, had the chance to look at Him, to look in His eyes, to see Him smile, to see Him in reality. But it seems to me that they were not capable of being in real contact with that marvelous reality. Then He broke bread and poured wine and said, “This is My flesh, My blood. Drink it, take it, eat it, and you will have life eternal.” I think the message is so clear, so clear to a Buddhist monk. We eat a lot, we drink a lot; but what do we eat? We eat phantoms; we drink ghosts. We don’t eat bread — reality. But if Jesus said, “This is My flesh, this is My blood,” it’s a very drastic way of awakening us from forgetfulness, from ignorance. (p. 2)
There is a conscious indication that these friends shared together in a Eucharist on Holy Thursday. In a very real sense, the entire book issues from that communion table. It is fruit of a genuine reconciling event. These servants of reality focus their hearts on the victims and horrors of the war, seeing the Suffering One, and thereby offer us the only real alternative to such horrors. The power of bread and wine to work a mysterious and subversive healing is revealed anew. And all of their talking is filled with that sacramental spirit.
The reader likewise should come as to the table. The hints and clues and leadings are to be eaten, partaken as of body and blood, and advisedly. It is not a book you devour, unable to put down. Small meditational pieces, fully tasted, are more than enough to swallow.
For example, the section concerning “Jesus and Buddha” is about looking into their eyes, and seeing the least of our sister and brothers. It offers a way of reading Scripture: entering the story and history and situation fully present and hearing the word as a personal experience.
Nhat Hanh reports of astounding an Israeli professor who once asked if he would be willing to sacrifice Buddhism for the sake of real peace in Vietnam. The monk’s reply: yes. To save Buddhism at the expense of peace would be such a violation as to lose both. And after all, “Even if you don’t have any temples or monks you can still be a Buddhist in your heart and life.”
The Buddhist seems to travel pretty light, as though stripped for the race. There is much to learn once again from the shoestring-and-rice-cake existence which is the necessary and chosen way of the Vietnamese religious and service communities. The chapter on “Economics” speaks clearly to the political attachments of an American church laden with property and investments.
The talk of “Government and Religion” might equally well have been called, “A Practical Guide to Church and State.” The experience of the Unified Buddhist Church operating illegally in contrast to an official church swallowed by the Thieu regime is reminiscent of the pre-war Confessing Church in Germany. The seductions of conventional politics and the pragmatic submission to party line or ideology are, it seems, everywhere.
A sense of exile is present in these conversations. On the one hand, they exhibit the eschatological exile of being in the world but not of it, the unconfirmed dislocation which pushes us to the edge of institutions and makes us aliens in almost any culture. But the political exile of the Paris community comes through especially as a kind of international torture, cut off from those known and loved, precisely when they endure suffering and death.
Yet all these meditations are shared with a self-possessed clarity and presence. The chapters seem to begin and end with a deep breath of silence. In the text, that rhythm is punctuated by the woodcuts of a Vietnamese artist, Vo Dinh. These are meditations in and of themselves. Sometimes a respite and solace, as with the clear ringing of a bamboo bell in a countryside. And at other times they are nearly too much to bear, as with a wounded victim against the moon of a huge thorn tree.
The centerpiece of the book is an extended conversation about the self-immolations which took place in Vietnam and also (though lesser known) in the United States. It is no haphazard coincidence that this deep, thoughtful, and personally painful sharing would occur on Good Friday afternoon. The expectation and hope is clearly that the cross of Christ and the immolations shed light on one another. It is exactly here that the scandal of the book is most pronounced. We, North American Christians especially, have reduced the cross to a military decoration, a theological abstraction, a good luck charm, an attic relic, an embellished altarpiece. And so we are judged by comparison. The immolations have been rendered all but incomprehensible to us. That is the scandal.
But Berrigan and Nhat Hanh will not let us off so easily. Berrigan says:
One thinks of the proud and self-conscious statements of Jesus about His own death. He is anxious to free His action from misunderstanding about His being a victim of circumstances or of evil. He is always asserting His self-possession — the deliberate nature of the death. He is about to enter. So He says, “No one takes my life from Me, but I give My life freely…” Jesus’s death, I think, in a very real sense can be called a self-immolation.
Here I would add a personal testimony: my eyes have been opened by the witness of the young woman, Nhat Chi Mai, and others. In their deaths I was called to see the burning agony of a whole people. Their bodies and lives lit up a moral landscape and I saw myself judged. I looked upon the cross and believe I saw it as for the first time. It is by the mercy and grace of our God that these our “enemies” enlightened the very event in which I find my salvation. A church reawakened to the way of the cross would be a powerful happening.
Everything in The Raft moves toward hope. The final portion on “Communities of Resistance” is like a beginning confirmed. Elements of a life together are imagined and described: places of healing and centeredness and spiritual resource.
Some of the Vietnamese communities had been submitting themselves to a daily spiritual discipline which began with an injunction against idolatry (even of Buddhist doctrine), moved through relationships to suffering and violence, and attended to life in community and personal meditation. It is easy to imagine a radically biblical community prayerfully submitting to the concrete Christian equivalent.
It is worth repeating that none of this invites a detour into esoterics. No spiritual sidetrack, no doctrinal distraction, is intended or offered. Quite simply, with an immediate purity of heart, these friends call us to a deepening of our faith.