Spiritual Giants: Thich Nhat Hanh

Luke 6: 17 – 23 – Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN

Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “To love our enemy is impossible.”

Are these Christian and Buddhist teachings at odds with one another? Or can these two great spiritual teachers, Jesus of Nazareth and Thich Nhat Hanh, lead us to a deeper love for all, including ourselves?

We continue with our sermon series “Spiritual Giants.” We are exploring the lives of influential persons who have passed from life to Life in the past year. We kicked off the sermon series with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Last week, I was scheduled to talk about the amazing life of bell hooks, but since that sermon was never preached we will come back to bell hooks at a later date. Today, we will be exploring the life of Thich Nhat Hanh also known as Thay.

(picture 1) Thay never sought to hold a title or position. He never sought the limelight. Yet, this simple, gentle monk moved the hearts of countless people. He has been described as “the most important figure in Western Buddhism.” He is said to be one of the ten most influential leaders in Buddhist history. He sold over three million books in the U.S. alone and tens of millions worldwide. Who is this spiritual giant?

(picture 2) Thay was born in central Vietnam in 1926. At the age of 9, he was captivated by a peaceful image of the Buddha which he saw on a magazine. It was a stark contrast to the injustice and suffering that he witnessed around him. The image awakened a strong desire in him to become just like the Buddha, one who embodied calm and peace.

At the age of 16 years old, Thay began training as a monk. (picture 3) Meanwhile, the Great Famine of 1945 in Vietnam was taking place.. Stepping out of the temple, he saw bodies out in the streets of those who had died of hunger.  

(picture 4) When war came to Vietnam, monks and nuns were confronted with the question of whether to stay meditating in the monasteries, or to help those around them who were suffering. Thich Nhat chose to do both, and in doing so founded the Engaged Buddhism movement. He coined the phrase “Lotus in a Sea of Fire.” In fact, the words, Nhat Hanh literally means “One Action.” Every Vietnamese Buddhist begins with Thich, so it was from that time that Thay became known as Thich Nhat Hanh.

(picture 5) Thich Nhat Hanh traveled to the US and Europe. He opposed the war in Vietnam and for that action was exiled from Vietnam for nearly 4 decades. He could not return to his home country. He met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was so impressed with Thich Nhat Hanh that he nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

(picture 6) In 1976, Thich Nhat Hanh began to hear of people fleeing South Vietnam by boat. There were thousands adrift on the open seas, at the mercy of storms and pirates. When boats did make it to shore, they were often pushed back out. Thich Nhat Hanh said, “It’s not enough just to talk about compassion; we have to do the work of compassion.” And so, he rented two large boats, an oil tanker, and a small airplane to search the water. Within a few weeks, he rescued over 800 people from the high seas.

(picture 7) In 1982, Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers found an old farm in France in which they established a mindfulness practice center, which became known as Plum Village, after the 1250 plum trees they soon planted. (picture 8) Within two decades, Plum Village would grow into the largest Buddhist retreat center in the west with over 10,000 visitors each year.

(picture 9) Thich Nhat Hanh would go on to lead retreats for all kinds of people around the world. He even led retreats for American war veterans – the very people who had been sent to attack his homeland – to deepen reconciliation between all sides (Plum Village website, extended autobiography on Thich Nhat Hanh).

(picture 10) Thich Nhat Hanh helped to bring together Buddhism and Christianity. He wrote a book entitled, Living Buddha, Living Christ. He says, “When you are a truly happy Christian, you are also a Buddhist. And vice versa. “ He really did not believe that there was much difference between Buddhists and Christians. And indeed, there is much similarity between Buddha and Jesus.

Buddha was born of a virgin.  Both fasted in the wilderness and were tempted.  Both performed miracles, healed the sick, and walked on water.

Both were about 30 years of age when they began their ministry.  Both had a “band of disciples” who accompanied them.  Buddha was called the “savior of the world”, “light of the world,” “eternal one” – just as Jesus was.

And the teachings are very similar. They both preach about love and compassion.

In our scripture passage today, Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Rooted in Buddhism, however, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “It is impossible to love your enemies.” Are these two teachings incongruent or congruent?

First, let us look at Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” What does that look like in practice? He goes on to say, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer them your other cheek. If someone asks for your shirt, give them your coat as well.” Summing up his lesson, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, expecting nothing in return.” And that is the key to the whole series. Jesus challenges his listeners to love not as a strategy for gain, a quid quo pro, but rather for the sake of love itself – or better, for the sake of the beloved.

As a sidenote, please understand that when Jesus says to turn the other cheek, he is not advocating that we stay in an abusive situation. That would be acquiescence and not love. True love acts to end abuse. Holding abusers accountable is not only consistent with “loving our enemies,” but an expression of it.

We are to live not simply by the Golden Rule, but by a Golden love, a love expecting nothing in return, a love beyond exchange (SALT Project, 2/15/2022) “Love your enemies,” says Jesus.

(picture 11) Thich Nhat Hanh says, “It is impossible to love our enemies.” Is Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching congruent or incongruent with Jesus’s teaching? According to Thich Nhat Hanh the moment we understand our enemy, we feel compassion toward them and they are no longer our enemy. He gives this example. He said that there were many people who fled in boats from Vietnam. And many of these boats were invaded by pirates. One day, Thich Nhat Hanh received a letter about a young girl who was violated by a pirate. She was only 12, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. He writes, “When you first learn about something like this, you get angry with the pirate. You want to shoot the pirate. But if you or I were born today in those fishing villages and had experienced abuse or neglect, we might become sea pirates in 25 years.” After a long meditation, he wrote a poem entitled, “Please Call Me by My True Names,” because he/ we have so many names. In that poem, Thich Nhat Hanh writes,

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

Refugee on a small boat,

Who throws herself into the ocean

After being violated by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

My heart not yet capable

Of seeing and loving.

Please call me by my true names.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Humans are not our enemy. Our enemy is hatred, division, and violence.”

And indeed, for Jesus and Thich Nhat Hanh, the only way forward is with love and compassion.

(picture 12) Thich Nhat Hanh passed from this life to the next last month at the age of 95 in his home country of Vietnam. Although he is no longer with us physically, I believe that he is still very much alive in our world. In his words, “A cloud never dies. A cloud can become snow or hail or rain. But it is impossible for a cloud to pass from being into non-being. And that is true with our loved ones. They have not died. They continue in a new form.”

And so it is with you, Thich Nhat Hanh. You continue to live on in our ever expanding hearts of love, compassion, and peace. Amen.