Dr. John Young January 28, 2007
Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville
Thich Nhat Hahn’s True Love
Thich Nhat Hahn was born in 1926 in Vietnam. When he was 16, he became a Buddhist monk. Six years later, he founded a center for Buddhist studies in South Vietnam, and eleven years later he came to the United States for the first time to study and teach. Two years after that, in 1963, he returned to Vietnam to lead nonviolent protests against the Vietnam War. By a year later, he was exiled from both North and South Vietnam for his antiwar activities; so, he began his mission to spread a message of mindfulness through the world. A year later, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1968, Thich Nhat Hanh led the Vietnamese Buddhist group to the Paris peace talks to help end the war in Vietnam. In 1982, he founded Plum Village in France, a retreat center and Buddhist community. He is now 80 years old, has published seventy-five books, taught workshops throughout the world, and has founded additional Buddhist communities in Vermont and California.
In the late 1980s, I spent eight days in silent retreat with Thich Nhat Hahn at the Omega Institute in the Hudson valley of New York. I consider it one of the more important spiritual experiences in my life. He is a courageous and effective nonviolent activist; he is a thoughtful and realistic man transfused with love, and he is a person of exuberant and dedicated spirituality. He taught me that every worthwhile act can be done with a reverent and mindful spirit. Blessings to Thich Nhat Hahn!
In February our Spiritual Studies group, at 9:30 Sundays in the Fletcher Room, will consider Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, True Love, first published in the U.S. in 2004. Its four basic lessons are the Buddhist teachings of true love: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Buddhists do not think that true love is easy; for them love demands life-long training and discipline. To be true, love needs to contain both real understanding and right action which takes time and patience. You need to continue to concentrate and to do deep looking so that you may understand yourself and those you wish to love.
We all know that the greatest gift we can give to someone is our full and honest presence, our undivided and loving attention; that is what loving-kindness means. However, if we don’t watch ourselves carefully, it is way-too-easy to seldom do it. Everyone is in so much of a hurry; our lives are so divided up and scattered. It is one thing to say that: ‘you are there for someone,’ and something else again to actually be there for them when it really counts. It is such a great gift that most of us can remember, even years later, when someone pays attention. Sometimes, it may even hurt at the time, because they have, in love, said something that we did not want, at that moment, to hear. Some who has left Jacksonville for another state called me this week to say that something I had said three years ago was right on the money, and now it had been very helpful to her, but she had not liked it at all when I had first said it. She had, however, taken it in because we had a relationship of trust and mutual respect, and in recent months, it had served her well. She realized now that I had acted in loving-kindness.
Think of when someone was there for you, when you were treated with loving-kindness. I invite you to take three minutes now and talk to the person to your left and tell them one time some spoke to you in loving-kindness, were really there for you, that changed your life, and you recognize as a lesson in love, a very brief example or excerpt from the ‘whole story.’ Concentrate on what the person said or did, and the primary impact on you.
Compassion is the realization that the other person is suffering, and often in a love relationship the recognition that you may be a cause or contributor to their suffering. Just your recognition that another is suffering is a relief and release for them. They are not alone in their despair, confusion, or agony. Then, give them the time and space to tell and/or show you what is troubling them, and the patience and fortitude to coax them into helping you understand your part in that suffering. I hope that people can be deeply mutually helpful to one another in the congregations I serve, to be effectively compassionate with one another through mutual intimacies. Sometimes, in my enthusiasm to help this happen, I have been more revealing than was comfortable for some individuals. I have contributed to their suffering, even though my aim was to help them to ameliorate their suffering. I have needed to learn to discern better when such revelations are appropriate and actually helpful, and to be sure that they are helping them and not simply furthering my preferred vision for the ideal congregation. When did someone unexpectedly help you to share their suffering with them? This time turn to the person on your right and ask them to share an incident when someone effectively heard and responded to their suffering.
True love also focuses on the miracles that are happening around us all the time. Each of us is lovable. We need to concentrate on the flowers that are blooming, on the seeds that are growing, on the ways that each of us is flourishing. Yes, everything is dying and imperfect, and we do need to be realistic about the facts of life; however, it is both self-defeating and socially unhealthy to focus upon ours or other’s faults and inadequacies. That is seldom an act of love; it does not produce joy, and daily joys are necessary for true love. So, if something is worth doing, then it is worthy of our being mindful and joyful in the doing. Washing the dishes is a daily form of meditation and worship for me. Thich Nhat Hahn taught me that more than 20 years ago. Saying hello and goodbye and finding out how the daily joys of the people you are interacting with are religious acts, and they deserve to be practiced religiously. Think of one of your daily joys and say it out loud to the people around you!
The fourth of the Buddhist precepts of true love, equanimity, is perhaps the most difficult. It arises in situations in which we are suffering, and we think that our suffering has been created by one of the people we love most in the world. We need to overcome our pride and say to them: ‘I am suffering, please help me.’ It is those times when we feel like going to our room, staying by ourselves, crying. The obstacle to overcoming our suffering is our own pride. We need to approach them humbly, without anger or blame, and tell them why we are hurting, and ask for their help in getting past our agony. Then, we need to be compassionate and mindful in our listening to their answers and find ways to nurture joy from situations that may have created great pain. The Buddha reminded us that we are often caught in misperceptions. Too often, people remain mired in their favorite misperceptions for years or a life-time. The Buddha talked about internal formations, knots that block communication and interaction, and make people who are living together into bombs constantly in danger of going off with one another. Had problems with your father? Picture him as a child of 5 and share his pain and confusion. We become afraid of ourselves, of our own feelings, and so, thousands of years before modern psychology, the Buddha said that we had to deal with these inner conflicts and gain equanimity from resolving them so that we could love ourselves and, thereby, pave our way to loving other people and the world appropriately.
Thich Nhat Hahn said that meditation is facing the facts of reality: pain and joy, ignorance and understanding. Meditation is not transforming oneself into a battlefield where one side is fighting another, where good fights against evil. The task of meditation is not to chase away or to suppress the energies of anger, jealousy or fear, but to invite another energy that will be able to care for the anger, and transform it into useful energy. Like a mother hearing her baby crying, she puts down whatever she is doing and goes and picks up the baby. The moment the baby is lifted up, the baby relaxes. The mother does not yet know what’s the matter, but the child already feels relief. Offer the energy of tenderness, then do deep looking, just like a loving mother, and you will soon see how to transform the jealousy, fear, or rage into more constructive energies. We need to be able to embrace the pain, to care for it, so that we may transform it.
Thich Nhat Hahn, as a good Buddhist, believes that in order to live life with true love, with kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, that it is necessary to have a faith, be part of a spiritual community, and engage daily in your spiritual practice. To be mindful, become Buddha-like, is Thich Nhat Hahn’s faith. Buddhists believe that you cannot do your spiritually successfully alone; you need a Sangha, a congregation or community in which to develop, nourish, and share your spiritual practice. Being spiritual is not, however, neither your faith nor community, but what you do to exemplify your principles in your daily life, your dharma. A lone heroic act is just that, it is a one shot thing. Your real character is what you do on a daily basis. Not all of us are going to be rich or famous, but every one of us, even during our worst days, can be loving, can be kind, compassionate, joyful, and can find some measure of equanimity. When we do so, we express true love, and we make a better world, for ourselves and for the people around us. Our true love can nurture tides that can help to move the Earth and nourish the future.