Opinion: The life of an apostle of peace

Staff file photo / Yong Oh, left, and Janka Livoncova lead a meditation class at Clearspring Yoga on Wednesday, May 11, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Meditation is an important activity in Buddhism that helps to promote behaviors that are central to its teachings.

I first met Thich Nhat Hahn some 20 years ago; someone gave me a book of his. I'd never read anything like it before.

There was no ego in his writing, no self-promoting wit or sharp-knife criticism. As an up-and-coming writer, I was stunned; how does one communicate without such accouterments? It felt like reading water.

"To preserve peace, our hearts must be at peace with the world, with our brothers and our sisters," he wrote. "We may think of peace as the absence of war, that if the great powers would reduce their weapons arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we will see our own minds - our own prejudices, fears and ignorance."

I spent years believing the fighting for peace was, well, a fight: you had right and wrong, victory and defeat. And the enemy? He was always over there.

Look again, Nhat Hanh said.

"Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of the bombs are still here - in our hearts and minds - and, sooner or later, we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women," he wrote.

Born in 1926 in Vietnam, Nhat Hanh was a monk by 16. A prolific writer and teacher, he studied at Princeton University, taught at Columbia University and founded the grassroots School of Youth for Social Service to train thousands of Vietnamese in nonviolent response to the war.

He would soon offer the world a version of Buddhism he called "Engaged Buddhism." Exiled from Vietnam in 1967 for trying to broker peace, he took refuge in Plum Village, a community in France which, over time, became a refuge for thousands of visitors from around the world.

Last Saturday, at 95, he died.

Yet, I can hear him saying: Did I really?

"Waves appear to be born and die. But if we look more deeply, we see that the waves, although coming and going, are also water, which is always there," he wrote. "Notions like high and low, birth and death can be applied to waves, but water is free of such distinctions. Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes that it is water. At that moment, all fear of death disappears."

"Looking deeply, we can also see that the waves are at the same time water," he wrote elsewhere.

During the Vietnam War, Nhat Hanh endured the brutality of war and the death of his people.

Yet, nonviolence remained foundational. He was friends with Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, monk Thomas Merton and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who, in 1967, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

"I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam," King wrote. "Thich Nhat Hanh offers a way out of this nightmare, a solution acceptable to rational leaders. He has traveled the world, counseling statesmen, religious leaders, scholars and writers and enlisting their support. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity."

He taught students - disconnected from nature - to hug trees for 15 minutes a day. Told his followers to write love letters to politicians. After 9/11, Nhat Hanh gave an interview entitled "What I Would Say to Osama bin Laden."

"The first thing I would do is listen," he said. "I would try to understand why he had acted in that cruel way. I would try to understand all of the suffering that had led him to violence."

He never chose sides, instead reminding us of the connectivity within all of life. He spoke of "Interbeing."

"If you wish to have the insight of Interbeing, you only need to look at a basket of fresh green vegetables," he wrote. "Looking deeply you will see the sunshine, clouds, compost, gardeners and hundreds of thousands of elements more. Vegetables cannot arise on their own, they can only arise when there is sun, clouds, earth, etc. If you take the sun out of the basket of vegetables the vegetables will no longer be there. If you take the clouds away it is the same."

For a free collection of Nhat Hanh's writings, visit plumvillage.org.

His words seem to matter today as much as ever.

"America is burning with hatred," he once wrote. "That is why we have to tell our Christian friends, 'You are children of Christ.' You have to return to yourselves and look deeply and find out why this violence happened. Why is there so much hatred? What lies under all this violence?"

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.