The Parisian suburb of Sceaux, September, 1975
In the early seventies, I was a committed practitioner of Zen, living full-time at the Rochester Zen Center and practicing under Philip Kapleau, one of the few American Zen teachers at that time and author of The Three Pillars of Zen. My life there was totally focused on meditative practice; sitting three to four hours daily and attending monthly week-long silent retreats that were intensely aimed towards having a “break-through” experience. In this context, someone mailed me a NY Times op-ed article on the Buddhist peace movement in Vietnam. It focused on non-violence, reconciliation, and emphasized the extreme suffering being inflicted on the ordinary Vietnamese as the two sides, locked in their violent war, continued their struggle for dominance. The author of this perceptive and compassionate article was a Zen monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, a name unknown to me. The fact that a Zen monk could be so deeply involved in a non-violent social movement to end the war resonated deeply within me. At that early stage of American Buddhist practice, I had found a decided lack of social awareness and community involvement in the Zen community. The teachings and practices were totally skewed in the direction of an “on the cushion” meditative life. I resolved to track this monk down!
Through investigations within the Catholic peace movement and Fellowship of Reconciliation, the religious activist communities that knew Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) at that time, I was able to locate him in Paris, and began a written communication with him and Cao Phuong (now Sister Chan Khong) that lasted for several years prior to our face to face meeting. I became involved with publicizing the activities of Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation among the larger Buddhist community in the States and raising funds for their projects to alleviate the suffering of war refugees in Vietnam.
In 1975, I was finally able to realize my deep desire to meet Thay and Sister Phuong (as many called her) by traveling to Paris. At that time, Thay was living in a small apartment in the Parisian suburb of Sceaux, assisted by an American secretary, Mobi Ho. Life there was focused on activities to publicize the movement for peace and reconciliation in Vietnam being conducted by the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBC), as well as constantly fund raising and letter writing for the displaced and forgotten civilian Vietnamese, especially refugees and orphans. The days were long and the news from Vietnam was often heartbreaking. Yet there was always time for meditation, mindful outdoor walking on the tree-shaded streets of Sceaux to a nearby park, lively discussions on Dharma and Buddhist social work, tea drinking, singing, (especially after dinner, Sister Phuong’s voice was mesmerizing), poetry reciting, relaxed meal preparation, and fellowship while eating. I remember Phuong’s brother, a well-known singer in South Vietnam, was a constant visitor to their apartment. Though he was not involved in their Buddhist or political activities, they showed him respect and friendship, and we all enjoyed his energetic, humorous songs and guitar accompaniment.
What are my recollections of Thay at that time? More than simply an exemplar of a Buddhist social activist and tireless proponent of non-violence (which he definitely was!), Thay was a very powerful Zen teacher for me. During this period of his life, he was in the West as a representative of the UBC and the leader of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation and was not publically functioning or known as a Zen teacher. He had had limited (zero?) contact with the nascent developments of Zen Buddhism in the West. So in many ways, I believe that I was a source of interest and curiosity for him. Quite honestly, during the several weeks I lived with him in Sceaux, he let no opportunity pass without both subtly or forthrightly undermining and challenging most of my basic tenets of Zen practice that I tightly held to at that time.
When I would tell him about the many hours we would sit in meditation (zazen) at the Zen Center, he would minimize this activity by not showing much interest in it. Instead, he would inquire about the quality of the meditators daily lives and let me know that it was how we led our life that was most important to him. He would ask me, are these American Zen practitioners happy? Do they have good family relationships? Do they know how to love? These were the questions that most concerned him, rather than how many hours were spent on the sitting cushion. I remember him using math to make his point, e.g., if one sits three hours daily in meditation and spends the rest of one’s waking hours (fourteen hours) doing various activities, which part of one’s day is most important? If all one’s emphasis is on the quality of one’s three hour meditation life and not on the quality of one’s daily life, isn’t this an acutely imbalanced life?
When I talked with Thay about the “seriousness” of our practice, such as there was no moving allowed during periods of sitting meditation or the continuous use by the meditation hall monitors of the kyasaku (wooden stick) on meditators’ shoulders to spur them to more focused and energetic meditation, I noticed that Thay visibly winced. In response, he talked to me about the Buddhist teachings of non-violence and that Buddhists should not only be non-violent and non-aggressive in relation to other people, but to our own bodies as well. When I would talk about the single-minded focus of our Zen retreats (sesshins) towards having a kensho (break-through) experience, he would regale me with Zen anecdotes about “do or die” practitioners who actually did die without experiencing an awakening. He would tell me other stories that showed the futility of that kind of aggressive practice mentality or how harmful it could be if these “do or die” encouragement talks were not delivered skillfully by an enlightened teacher.
He clearly had a personal distaste for the stern, formalistic and martial-like quality of “samurai” Zen. Instead, he began to teach me about a more open, spacious and gentle practice that he had learned from his Vietnamese Zen teachers. Zen practice, he would say, is about a consistently cultivated wakefulness and ripening rather than a practice narrowly focused on intense periods of targeted meditative practice. Over and over he would tell that to be real and truly beneficial to the practitioner and society, transformation must occur in daily life and not just on the meditation cushion or at the meditation center. He explained to me how the Zen arts like flower arranging and tea ceremony are practiced in Vietnam in a very different aesthetic than the Japanese, i.e. less formal and rigid, with more emphasis on naturalness, joy and spontaneity. Especially for Thay, tea ceremony was a time of human relationship and enjoyment. Not only enjoyment of the tea, but of those drinking tea together.
At the Zen Center where I practiced at that time nearly everyone who was “serious” about their practice would be given the koan “Mu” to be the focus of their meditative life. The tradition was to “work” on this koan until one had a kensho experience. One year, three years, five years, one stayed with this practice no matter what! Thay found this approach to be overly rigid and appeared to be a ‘cookie cutter’ (my words) approach to Zen practice. He believed that the meditative life should be a creative and experimental journey, and that one should participate in meditative practices that produce the necessary healing and transformation specific for one’s personal conditioning. Cookie-cutter approaches to spiritual practice (one practice fits all) he found stultifying and stated that meditation practices (including koan practice) were there simply to serve the practitioner in their awakening. The teacher should assign koans to their students in a manner that was a part of an experimental, flexible and creative process. His statement to me, “if you’re not getting good results from one practice, talk with your teacher and try another,” was a direct contradiction to the meditative mentorship that I had been receiving.
It seemed no matter what belief I held to at the time, Thay took great delight in directly challenging it. He knew I was a strict vegetarian, but (to the best of my recollection) at that time, although Thay might not have partaken, Phuong and the others followed a traditional Vietnamese diet that might include from time to time small amounts of fish sauce, fish or meat at mealtime. I remember one lazy day, when the food being prepared clearly had some fish or meat in it; Thay, looking directly at me as we sat at the dining table, said (with a mischievous smile), “I know that Fred, being a good bodhisattva, would never refuse to eat food that someone especially prepared for him.” In the face of his continued onslaught against all my cherished beliefs about Zen practice, I was initially defensive, then confused, then somewhat distraught, but ultimately, liberated. After talking with him each day, I remember needing to take long walks to digest what he had just thrown at me. It was initially difficult for me to accept the intense shift in thinking and belief systems he was proposing and how radical and open his thinking was at that time compared to mine. Yet, he provided me a wonderful opportunity to become more balanced and to recover from the lop-sided practice that I had experienced for the past seven years.
Thay was also extremely interested and curious about the cultural transmission of Zen to the West. He was surprised that at American Buddhist centers and temples, practitioners would chant Buddhist sutras and other prayers and texts in a language that they didn’t understand, e.g. Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese. He continually stressed to me that Buddhism can only thrive in the West (as it did in Asia) when it adopts the cultural norms of the country it is entering. Buddhist texts and prayers have meaning, he would say, and need to be chanted in the native language of the person chanting. Buddhist rituals should be performed in English using forms and norms of American culture, and be denuded of the cultural accretions that were developed in the host Asian country. Over and over, he would tell me that American Buddhism must be American, and we must utilize the art forms and language of our own county if Buddhism is to truly take root.
At that time, Thay did not wear monastic robes, but dressed in brown pants and shirts. In colder weather, he favored a type of brown jacket/overcoat favored by French worker priests. Actually, I believe his models at that time were Catholic priest activists like the Berrigan brothers in the States or the French worker priests. While still personally following the monastic commitments, these men lived outside the formal strictures of the monastery/church and actively participated in bettering the lives of their society. At this time in his life, Thay was on the ‘outs’ with the overseas Vietnamese community, as most were either actively pro-Saigon or pro-NLF. Of course, Thay was neither.
I remember once going with Phuong to the Vietnamese temple in Paris to meet the monk residing there. I recall her telling me that this monk, although he respected Thay, could not openly receive him in the temple because of fear of parishioner backlash. Instead, he would meet with Thay privately (secretly) from time to time. When I returned from that visit to the temple, Thay asked me if I had seen the altar there dedicated to KuanYin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He described the central role KuanYin worship plays in Vietnamese Buddhism, and how she is traditionally worshipped with food offerings, prayers and chants. Still, with a chill, I remember him asking me, “Fred do you know the best offering to make to the Bodhisattva of Compassion?” He then held up his two hands and looking me directly in the eyes, “These are the true offerings to give her!”
On a humorous note, everyday there would be some down-time from the refugee work that Thay and Phuong were focused on, and we would usually take a walk on the tree lined streets of Sceaux. We usually headed to a beautiful traditional French park perhaps a twenty minute walk from their apartment. As we spent most of the day within the apartment, the after lunch walks were our main opportunity for exercise and to get out into “France”. While Thay was deeply loved by all, not everyone wanted to take the afternoon walk with him. Due to his naturally slow paced mindful walking, Thay would rarely reach the park and usually never got much further than a few blocks from the apartment before having to turn back.
Another highlight of my time with Thay was the arrival of Dan Berrigan, the radical Jesuit priest who was a close friend of Thay’s. Dan was recording his talks with Thay and these would become the basis of a future book, The Raft Is Not the Shore: Conversations Toward a Buddhist/Christian Awareness. Dan was a wonderful man, a great story teller, a man of true integrity who looked to Thay as a brother and mentor. For Dan, Thay was a fellow celibate monastic and non-violent activist, a fellow poet and writer, as well as a deeply committed contemplative. Dan was unable to find such mentors within his own tradition (Thomas Merton had died), and it was both inspiring and instructive for me to listen in (and sometimes participate) in their dialogues. I recall their conversations concerning the mistaken belief many social and political activists had at the time that there was a tension/conflict between the activist and meditative life. Actually, they both believed strongly that a contemplative/meditative discipline was almost essential for the maintenance of the emotional well being of the committed activist. Thay said that activities to better the world and end war were simply “love in action” and he based his Buddhist activism on a non-dual view of reality. Both men shared the tenet that those who believed strongly in non-violence and the contemplative life as the basis of societal transformation needed to establish what Thay called “communities of resistance.”
We spent much time talking together about Buddhist social work, as Thay had been a founder of the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam and continued, although in exile, to be the spiritual father of this movement. It was interesting to me that Thay and Phuong were unacquainted with the century old history of social welfare and community development in the U.S. and Europe, and I did the best I could to share with them what history and ideas of the social work movement I knew. It appeared that this concept was a fairly recent development in Vietnamese history, and the idea that there could be a profession that worked for social betterment, e.g., social worker or community organizer, was unknown in their country until quite recently.
Let me add that during my stay, there was a deep sadness developing in Thay and Sister Phuong. For many months, since the signing of the peace accords, they had been seeking a visa from the Vietnamese embassy in Paris to return to Vietnam. Both Thay and Phuong intensely wanted to return to their homeland, to see again their friends and family whom they loved and missed so dearly. Equally important, now that the war had ended, they wanted to return to participate in the rebuilding of their country from the social and economic devastation that had occurred. I recall Thay saying he wanted to work among the hill tribes of Vietnam, who had suffered greatly in past history from actions of the ruling Vietnamese. After being given an endless and frustrating run around for months by the NLF representatives in Paris, they had finally realized that they were never going to be given an entry visa by the new regime and their temporary exile in the West was now to become permanent. Their grief was palpable.
On the last day of my visit to Sceaux, Thay and Sister Phuong drove us to the airport. Due to Parisian traffic, the journey took almost two hours. It was on that ride that Thay began to tell me the story and history of the Tiep Hien Order, and the underlying Buddhist teachings that supported its precepts and activities. I immediately asked him to ordain me right there in the car, I was so inspired. Thay cooled me down and stated that with the disruption caused by the war and his exile to France, there had been no ordinations since the original six members. At that point in time, he was unsure whether it would have a future either in Vietnam, much less the rest of the world. Yet he assured me that if the Order was ever resuscitated, he would not forget my aspiration.
Fred Eppsteiner (Brother True Energy)
St. Petersburg, FL October, 2010
(Footnote to Thay’s interchange with me about eating meet)
Reading this anecdote may be unsettling to some who know Thay’s current strong views against eating meat. I share the following anecdote from Jim Forest was a long-term Catholic peace activist and writer who was very close with Thay in the Seventies and Eighties:
In correspondence with a friend not long ago, I was reminded of this one: I recall going with Nhat Hanh and Phuong to one of the Paris airports to pick up a volunteer who was arriving from America. On the way back, the volunteer stressed how dedicated a vegetarian she was and how good it was to be with people who were such committed vegetarians. Passing by the shop of a poultry butcher in Paris, Nhat Hanh asked Phuong to stop. He went inside and bought a chicken, which we ate that night for supper at our apartment in Sceaux. It’s the only time I know of when Nhat Hanh ate meat.