Cultivating Civilization Through Compassion

Nick D’alesio

l am a Catholic, and l went to a Jewish synagogue to learn from a Buddhist monk. Accompanied by several esteemed members of the Mount community, I traveled to the Washington Hebrew Congregation (Washington, D.C.) on Thursday, September 14. We attended an evening presentation by one the world's great spiritual, cultural and intellectual guides: Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced: Tick Nat Han).

The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, has lived in exile for the past 34 years in France. He first visited the United States in 1960 to teach at Princeton and Columbia universities, and again in 1966 to speak out against the Vietnam War.

Since 1982, he has visited the U.S. regularly, presenting workshops, retreats, and speaking at public events. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nominated Nhat Hanh to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. King's words remain ever true: "Thich Nhat Hanh is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity."

That evening hundreds gathered to hear this holy man's teachings, which were communicated not in a formal, dry, intellectual manner; but as a three-hour guided meditation, complete with a meditation bell's ringing and monks' chanting. His talk, "The Way of Compassionate Action," centered on a pervading theme throughout his work: mindful living. Mindfulness means paying attention to the details of life, which always brings about new insights. The greatest of these, Nhat Hanh claims, is peace. Yet, to bring peace, we must first be peace. "There is not enough peace in our consciousness," he told the assembled audience. To bring peace to ourselves, we must first "return to our body and focus on our breathing so that we might become aware of ourselves." Self-awareness is thus the first component of mindful living.

One component of our lives that prevents peaceful ]living is anger. This topic constituted a major portion of Nhat Hanh's presentation. "The Buddha says not to do or say anything when angry. What we should do is go back to our anger hold it dearly and smile at it. We must understand it."

The first step towards understanding anger is not suppression, but acceptance of it. "We must embrace it," Hanh said. Most anger, he remarked, finds it root in our interpersonal relationships. What we must learn is how to transform our anger, and this can only be done from within.

For such transformation to occur, according to Nhat Hanh, we must confront the person who causes us to be angry with three statements: (1) "I am angry, and I suffer. I want you to know" (2) "I am doing my best to deal with it, but I'm not succeeding" (3) "Please help me."

For the monk, the third statement is key for it radically challenges our contemporary attitudes the "leave me alone" syndrome. The only way to deal with anger is to reach out and ask for help.

As his talk came to a close, Nhat Hanh whispered a thought a summary to the assembly: "The antidote to violence is compassion. Compassion is the fruit of understanding. Understanding is the bloom of mindfulness."

There is no one statement that adequately captures Buddhism's teachings; but, if there were, Thich Nhat Hanh's summary would be it. The West has much to learn from this deeply profound philosophical-religious tradition. To affirm the 4 pedagogical teaching stance of another implies that we alone do not possess the fullness of truth.

We can learn something from someone else. Truth is broader than any one expression or proposition. Logically speaking, prepositional truth-claims rule out their contraries; but truth is more than simply logic. It is a call issued to us a summons from Mystery that constantly asks us to return and contemplate what we thought we already knew only to discover new and deeper insights. By engaging in truth-seeking we commit ourselves to the service of that search: the continuous revisiting of beliefs so as to embrace our paradoxical nature. Truth is an event.

No one applauded as Nhat Hanh concluded his talk. Instead, his act of reverence towards the audience (a bow) was met with another, similar reverent act: the audience stood and bowed towards their teacher.

As he left the sanctuary area of the synagogue, Nhat Han demonstrated to the assembled people of many faiths the profundity of his teachings: he turned towards the Ten Commandments hanging against the sanctuary wall and bowed. In that simple act of reverence, this holy man taught those assembled more than any recent Vatican document ever could. The truth of things is often only seen when we come face to face with the Other: reverence and respect, not condemnation and contempt. "Soon shall we spew forth this frail spirit. Meanwhile, so long as we draw breath, so long as we live among people, let us cherish [cultivate] humanity" (Seneca, On Anger, III.xl.5).

So begins self-awareness: turn towards your breathing and smile at it.

Next Issue: Friendship and the Search for Truth

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