Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh or “Thay,” as he is known affectionately, is one of the creators of the terms “Interbeing” and “Engaged Buddhism,” the themes of this Dharma talk. Thay was born in central Vietnam in 1926 and became a monk at the age of sixteen. During the Vietnam War, he left his monastery and became actively engaged in helping war victims and advocating peace. In 1966, he toured the United States at the invitation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation to represent the Vietnamese people. As a consequence, he was threatened with arrest in Vietnam and unable to return to his homeland.
In exile, Thich Nhat Hanh served as chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thay founded a retreat center called Plum Village in southern France where he has taught, gardened, and worked to help refugees. He is the author of over sixty books, including Interbeing.
Thay has made ongoing efforts to help Vietnamese children affected by the war and to ensure the safety of boat people who escaped from Vietnam. His mindfulness retreats have been inspirational for American Vietnam War veterans, psychotherapists, environmentalists, and social-change activists.
In the 1970s, I was fortunate to attend one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s daylong retreats near the National Mall in Washington D.C. I still recall clearly his entry into a large conference room filled with Vietnam veteran soldiers and their allies. The monk walked with such precise awareness of every step that we watched in awe. In his address, he expressed great compassion for all who suffer painful consequences from warfare.
We listened to one veteran, “Jim,” recount the tale of returning with his best buddy to their hometown in Texas after they served in Vietnam. Both men settled down, married their high school sweethearts, and had children. Then ten years after the war, the two veterans began to have terrifying flashbacks about their war experiences. Their memories haunted them, destroying their marriages, their jobs, and their ability to sleep. Jim stated, “I am here to mourn and honor my best friend who just committed suicide.”
After we heard several such moving testimonials, Thay asked us to maintain silence for the rest of the day. We ate a simple picnic lunch together and then lined up in a single file to follow the monk and his assistants on a slow procession to the Vietnam memorial monument. Within view of Maya Lin’s imposing polished black granite wall inscribed with the names of 58,000 U.S. soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War, Thay recited aloud a poignant poem that he had created to pay tribute to his 19 family members who perished during the bloodshed in their homeland. I watched tearfully as veterans approached the wall to search for names of fallen comrades, and family members traced with their fingers the names of relatives who had died in combat.
On November 11, 2014, a month after his 89th birthday, Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a severe brain hemorrhage. All around the world, sanghas including ours, prayed for his recovery from the stroke. After intensive physical and speech therapy, neuro-feedback and osteopathy at the University of California in San Francisco along with acupuncture and further therapies in France, the wheelchair-bound monk now has a limited capacity to speak and chant with his beloved sangha at Plum Village. My teacher Jack Kornfield tells the story of accompanying Thay during one of his morning meditation periods, while the monk was recuperating in California. Jack recalls that one of his friend’s eyes was beaming compassion outwardly, while the other eye was turned inward towards the eternal.
In 1964, Thay and a group of monastic and lay Vietnamese Buddhists founded The Order of Interbeing or the Tiep Hien Order to further the principles of Engaged Buddhism. Tiep means, “to be in touch with” and “to continue.” It refers to reconnecting with the reality of the world and of the true mind, which is a source of understanding and compassion. With that reconnection, practitioners are continuing along the Dharma path of previous enlightened masters. Hien means “to realize” and “to make it here and now” by transforming meditative insights that arise in a peaceful mind into actions in real life. In the spirit of Tiep Hien, only the present moment is real; the peace we desire is not in the distant future but to be realized now.
Those who are truly in touch with the joys and sorrows of life are committed to what Buddhists call a bodhisattva path to alleviate suffering around them. They perceive no separation between the inner world of the mind and the world outside. Because for bodhisattvas cause and effect are one, and means are ends-in-themselves, all forms of practice are undertaken mindfully and peacefully with an intention to be awake here and now.
During the Vietnam War, members of the Tiep Hien Order applied Buddhist principles to oppose war, hatred, violence and divisiveness. They moved from the meditation cushion into the realm of social action by organizing anti-war demonstrations and providing care for draft resisters and innocent victims.
According to the Order’s Charter, the aim of Tiep Hien is “to study, experiment and apply Buddhism in an intelligent and effective way to modern life, both individual and societal.” The Charter lists four fundamental principles of Interbeing: non-attachment to views, direct practice-realization, appropriateness of teaching to real needs, and skillful means. Members consider the true spirit of Buddhism more important than any Buddhist institution or tradition. After ordination, all core members attend sixty days of retreat and intensive annual practice.
Members observe and periodically recite fourteen precepts, which both embody and lead to concentration and insight. Related to the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, there are three categories of precepts: the first seven deal with the mind, the next two with speech, and the last five with the body. The 1st precept is about being open-minded without clinging to views or dogmas. The 2nd one warns practitioners not to be attached to their own perceptions and judgments, and the 3rd one says to refrain from forcing others—especially children—to adopt one’s own views. Precept #4 is “Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering.” The 5th precept entails living simply and sharing time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. Precept #6 has two dimensions: “Do not maintain anger or hatred,” and “Learn to look at other beings with the eyes of compassion.” The 7th precept has to do with practicing mindfulness throughout the day without becoming lost in distractions.
The second set of precepts deal with Right Speech. The 8th is two-sided: “Do not utter words that can create discord….Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.” The 9th is multilayered: “Do not say untruthful things….Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain….Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”
The third set of precepts deal with the body. Precept #10 is about sanghas taking a clear stance against oppression and injustice, while avoiding becoming politicized. The 11th precept is “Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature….Select a vocation that helps realize your ideal of compassion.” Precept #12 is not only, “Do not kill,” but also, “Do not let others kill. Find whatever means possible to protect life and to prevent war.” The 13th precept is equally challenging: “Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, [and] prevent others from enriching themselves from human suffering or the suffering of other beings.” Finally, precept #14 is multi-dimensional: “Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect….Sexual expression should not happen without love and commitment….Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.”
Now close your eyes and sense your inner response to hearing about the Order of Interbeing and the tenets of “engaged Buddhism.” What precepts appeal to you and which ones would be uncomfortable for you to undertake?