Looking deeply: The writings of Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh

Several Mays ago, I took a class of undergraduate students to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, to walk on the grounds and experience the community that Father Thomas Merton so loved. Brother Paul Quenon, once a novice under Merton, took us to one of Merton’s favorite gingko trees to talk about the contemplative life that he and Merton shared in this serene setting outside Bardstown.

I have introduced students to Merton precisely because he haunts and challenges me. As I have navigated college chaplaincy in his part of the world, I have done so in a polarizing and anguished time. Through experiences such as so-called Muslim bans, the gruesome death of Breonna Taylor and varying Ku Klux Klan rallies, our own quaint college campus has yearned for justice. The call to action has been both ongoing and overwhelming. Remembering the soft countenance of Br. Paul on that warm May day, I often think of Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” where Merton warns against the life of social action without contemplation: “The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his [or her] work for peace. . . . It destroys the fruitfulness of his [or her] own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

It kills the root of inner wisdom that makes the work fruitful. This is the insight of an authentic contemplative growing in his perception. Great thanks are due to the Zen Buddhists who were in conversation with him throughout his life, learning in community with Merton how better to touch what Paul Tillich calls our “ultimate reality.”

One such Buddhist teacher is the prolific writer, scholar and monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967. I recently picked up a copy of his “Living Buddha, Living Christ” (first published in 1994), and I keep it by my bedside with a pencil. What strikes me deeply is the rich compassion seeping from the pages, illuminating the holy in everyday, ordinary practices and circumstances.

Hanh is a Vietnamese native who writes about his consistent engagement in peace work though poverty, war, bombs and refugee resettlement. His capacity to prevail in often desolate circumstances is attributed to his commitment to meditation, defined in his own words as “stopping, calming, and looking deeply.” He has demonstrated meditation while sitting, helping refugees off a boat, handing out peace literature or rebuilding a village.

In his “looking deeply,” Hanh speaks of an understanding that is made possible when we perceive others without judgment. Such insight helps dissolve the boundaries between us, rather than endorsing any group’s claim that they alone hold the truth. During the Vietnam War, Hanh lamented that communists and anticommunists alike insisted that they possessed truth exclusively; he noted that this perspective (called “grasping,” in Buddhist terms) only furthered bloodshed and war. Such grasping gets in the way of dialogue between faith traditions as well, for to truly encounter even our own faith traditions we must learn from each other.

We invite authentic dialogue when we look deeply at our own tradition while also listening deeply to our siblings from other spaces and faiths. Hanh considers King, Merton and Father Daniel Berrigan dear friends and teachers who have deepened his own understanding and practice of Mahayana Buddhism.

When we are able to hear deeply the truth emerging in our own faith and in differing faith traditions, that’s when Hanh sees the Holy Spirit emerging. Recalling a conversation he once had with a Catholic priest, Hanh describes the Holy Spirit as “energy” sent by God, a definition that deeply resonates with Hanh. For him, this energy exists in all persons: a seed waiting. I am reminded of Walt Whitman’s phrase in his poem “Song of the Universal:” “Enclosed and safe within its central heart, / Nestles the seed Perfection.”

Touching this “seed” of perfection – placed in each of us through the Holy Spirit – we learn to love, heal, transform and listen. The Spirit permeating each moment of our existence with these possibilities. It is therefore the task of the Christian (or the Buddhist, for that matter) to determine the movement of the Spirit in the present time. How can we do this? Hanh quotes a question once posed to the Buddha: “Sir, what do you and your monks practice?” According to Hanh, the Buddha replied: “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.”

There is a faithfulness to living firmly in one singular moment in time, in turning one’s attention to the unique ways the Living God may be renewing the world right now. This faithfulness also affirms God’s faithfulness, for in every moment we are being pursued, heard and cared for.

In sum, peace is something that we have the capacity to touch, providing we deeply breathe into our specific location in space and time. Hanh describes meditation as “surveyance of the territory.” Peace is not something reserved for a better time with fewer conflicts; it permeates the space of the present. We simply need a lens to that allows us to perceive it.

In another publication, “Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day,” Hanh offers a mantra for brushing one’s teeth in the morning to help one touch the peace that is inside each of us, even during an innocuous ritual. A meditation practice/mantra for brushing my teeth made me chuckle a bit in disbelief until I realized that it was my usual habit to hum the Doxology a few times over as my electric toothbrush whizzed away in rhythm. I say I do this to ensure that I am brushing for a long enough period — but what I am also doing is giving thanks to God, even unknowingly. To brush one’s teeth is a sign of existence, an opportunity to experience gratitude. This is the wisdom of the contemplative.

When addressing something as profound as God transforming and healing the world in all moments, we can find it awfully hard to see such transformation in concrete pain, suffering, climate change, outrageous pandemics, egregious income inequality and so on. Looking for calm may appear to be a practice of evasion, an escapist coping mechanism or even a quietist practice that negates the reality of the world. However, Hanh is clearly aware of each of these temptations and encourages pursuit of God’s Spirit, exactly as it moves in reality. The kingdom, Hanh understands, is for the present. The Lord’s Prayer expresses this beautifully, Hanh acknowledges, as we ask that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Holy Spirit is not only the energy sent to each beloved child of God to communicate what God is doing in any given moment. The Spirit, Hanh says, also works in community as “the soul of the church.” When the church serves as an agent of healing in the world, there is no “helper” and “helped.” Rather, two parts of one body of Christ are caring for each other. (Hanh amusingly notes that if one strikes one’s finger by accident, the other hand does not rush in to assist, boasting “See what I do for you, injured finger? I am doing charitable work!”) Hanh connects the church to the Buddhist sangha, a community of Buddhists likened to the various body parts of the one Buddha. He later warns that without deep listening or compassion, neither the sangha nor congregation can be called authentic, regardless of the beautiful architecture, longevity or wealth of the space.

If a sangha or congregation is lost, it can be found again. If an individual or a community (of Buddha, of Christ) appears to be “missing the mark,” we can cultivate the capacity for deep listening through a return to spiritual practice. Echoing Merton’s sentiments on the significance of attending to the roots to enact fruitful peacemaking or social action, Hanh proposes that we “transform ourselves by going back to the island for refuge.” We have appropriated this practice in the West to promote our own navel gazing — but here the “island” is not an escape but, rather, a heart in which one finds one’s own “candle of understanding, light, and love.” I am reminded of Jesus’s tale of the foolish bridesmaids, who quite literally burned the midnight oil with little acknowledgment that they were in danger of snuffing their lights out. But the bridegroom (a metaphor for Christ) cannot be seen or greeted if one has no oil remaining. One can also not rely on another to replenish their oil but must, instead, pay close enough attention to one’s own lamp to ensure that it remains trimmed and burning. Only in this instance can the bridesmaids greet the bridegroom when he arrives.

Returning to the Lord’s Prayer, Hanh elaborates on its careful instruction, emphasizing certain words: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The capacity for forgiveness and the capacity to refrain from evil (as a response to evil) are necessary actions for us to do God’s work in the world, as Jesus highlights in the faithful witness of his entire life. Because the response of Christ is literally our way, truth and life (Hanh’s observation), we must look deeply into anger so that we can at last recognize the suffering of our enemy and dissolve the boundary between us. Hanh offers no plea to eradicate anger, but rather asks us to transcend it through closer inspection and deeper breaths. I imagine Jesus transcending his anger when he speaks into the shadows of Golgotha: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.” In the depths of hell, Jesus tapped into living water. This active response was made possible by the center that he returned to, by his careful deliberation to listen deeply to the crowds and institutions that sought both his torture and death. Christ is not without the capacity for anger or wrong response, but he chooses love from the deep.

Engaging with both the teaching and actions of Jesus, we are reminded of what it means to invoke his name. Hanh wants us to be clear about what we are calling upon when we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” In this call, we seek a living, loving, transforming kingdom available to us through Christ, if only we would hear and act upon his life and teachings. If we invoke the words alone as a kind of talisman of healing or safety, Hanh fears, we will lose sight of our path. In clinging to form, we may very well lose the essence. In Hanh’s own Buddhist tradition, prayer without action is rendered incomplete, a tree that will not bear fruit.

In my anxiety over Merton’s instruction to stop surrendering to so many demands, I see wisdom emerging. If I lose what grounds me, my capacity for compassion will diminish: toward both me and others. It is not wrong for me to be angry over the injustices of the world or about our callous responses to the suffering of others, yet there is something more to seek. My responses require the clarity that comes with touching God’s peace in the here and now, no matter what else occupies this space. I require the energy of the ever-present Holy Spirit, always available to me if I set aside my own egoistic desires for a time.

A deep breath. An embrace of the pneuma of God. The Spirit moves right now, the world is transformed by the Living God in this moment. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever.