Civilization Through Compassion
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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