The Practice of non-practice: Thich Nhat Hanh


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, January 21, 2024

Over the last several months, we have been exploring the lives and teachings of some of the great spiritual activists of the last century. Encouraged by that old Unitarian belief, as A. Powell Davies allegedly put it, that “[l]ife is just a chance to grow a soul,” we have turned to their biographies to see if we could glean answers to the kind of questions that animate the pursuit of the good life. “What is the good life?,” we have asked. “When do you know you are living it?” “What models, what exemplars, might you follow as you seek to live into it?,” we have continued to query.

This month, we turn to the sole figure in our series who had a direct connection to our congregation. In March 1988, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh spoke from this pulpit. I suspect that some of you were here that day.

Unfortunately, I do not know what he said to the gathered members and friends of First Unitarian Universalist. There is no record of the substance of his address, only that it happened and that afterwards he invited several people linked to the congregation to join him on a retreat outside of Houston. I think that a few of you participated in that.

The Rev. Bob Schaibly, then First Unitarian Universalist’s senior minister, was one of the people on the retreat. He had helped organize it and been responsible for bringing Nhat Hanh to Houston. It had such an impact him on him that it led him to organize the Houston Zen Community, which later became the Houston Zen Center, and, shortly afterwards, to travel to France, on Nhat Hanh’s invitation, to visit Plum Village.

Plum Village is the monastery that Nhat Hanh founded in 1982 while living in exile. He was forced out of Vietnam in the 1960s for refusing to take sides in the conflict between the Communists and the US allied regime. He believed, in the words of his translator Mobi Ho, “that both sides were but the reflection of one reality, and the true enemies were not people, but ideology, hatred, and ignorance.”

The true enemies are not people, but ideology, hatred, and ignorance. If you hear in those words something of the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.., it probably helps explain why, in 1967, King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. King believe that “this gentle monk from Vietnam” deserved the prize because he had the power to “reawaken people to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace.”

The teaching of beauty and love found in peace, Nhat Hanh inspired Rev. Schaibly. In the summer of 1989, the congregation’s then senior minister spent ten days at Plum Village. That autumn he came back to Houston and deepened his commitment to Zen Buddhism. He offered First Unitarian Universalist a series of four sermons on his experiences in France. He led meditation sessions and retreats. In 1992, Nhat Hanh invited him to come back to Plum Village, ordained him a Dharma teacher, and gave him the name True Deliverance.

Sometime after that–and some of you might know precisely when–First Unitarian Universalist honored Rev. Schaibly’s commitment to Zen Buddhism by creating the Zen garden in the courtyard. The book of collected sermons that the congregation published on Rev. Schaibly’s retirement featured a photo of him sitting cross-legged on a rock by the garden, looking like he had just finished meditation.

Curiously, that book does not include anything from his series “Notes from a Buddhist Monastery”–which I think are some of his best sermons–or reflections on his relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh. If you want something that is publicly available on that subject, you will need to turn materials published by his Zen friends. In their obituary of him, they preserve the sole remark we have by Nhat Hanh from his time on our campus. Apparently, in a private conversation, he told Rev. Schaibly that he should focus on “being” rather than looking for self-worth, as many people do, in “doing.”

Being, doing, unlike Thich Nhat Hanh and Rev. Schaibly, I am not a Buddhist. This autobiographical detail is, in some sense, part of the point of “Lives of the Spirit.” It reflects an understanding central to much of contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Ours is a pluralistic movement. We hold that no single religious tradition, no solitary scripture, no singular teacher, has a monopoly on the truth. The phrase “revelation is not sealed” is a commonplace amongst us. Many of take seriously the adage, offered in the Hindu text the Rig Veda, “Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”

Truth is one, the wise call it by many names, you do not have to be a Buddhist to glean something from Thich Nhat Hanh. The same was true last month and the month before when we offered you reflections on two of the great Christian mystics of the twentieth century–Dorothy Day and Howard Thurman.

In those services, through sermon and song, we attempted to provide you reflections of their spirituality to inspire your own. Our worship those Sundays likely felt a bit more Christian than it usually does. Certainly, Dr. Rocke’s rendition of the spirituals during the Thurman service was the most classically Trinitarian experience we have offered in this building in quite sometime.

It was not a reflection of my theology. I am, if anything, exceptionally critical of atonement theology–the belief that Jesus died for our sins. It has all too often been used to justify interpersonal violence and led abused people, particularly women, to sympathize with their abusers and endure abusive relationships. If Jesus suffered, paid the ultimate price, for the humanity he loved then we should too, the logic runs.

And yet, and yet, Howard Thurman was inspired by the formulation found in “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord).” And while I do not agree with the portion of his theology reflected in that spiritual, I do find something of worth in much of his teaching. It is his insight, after all, that the mystic is someone who discovers something within their own “experience that opens up into the infinite,” that animates our explorations of spiritual activists.

The infinite in the particular, Thurman, Day, they, like others in our series pointed a way–not the way, a way–towards connecting with the ground of being of which we are all a part. The hope is that by offering you something from such exemplars you might gain, whether you identify as a Christian or not, something that will help grow your soul.

Neither a Christian nor a Buddhist, my own soul has grown greatly from my engagements with mystics–those who found the infinite in the particular–from each tradition. Teachers like Day, Thurman, and Thich Nhat Hanh, have helped me refine my own spiritual position: the practice of something I name the resurrection of the living.

If you have been coming here for awhile, you have likely heard me speak on the resurrection of the living before. It is the teaching, the wisdom, found in so many of the world’s religions, that tells us that the purpose of life is to open ourselves to the glory, the beauty, the wonder around us. It is the challenge to be present to life as it is. To reside in being, as Thich Nhat Hanh told Rev. Schaibly, rather than doing. It is the claim, reflected in the Buddhist teaching, that Buddha, and any bodhisattva, was someone who was “awake.”

Awake, being, doing, here I return to Thich Nhat Hanh. When he died at the age of 95, in late 2022, he was one of the great popularizers of Buddhism. He named its practices mindfulness and taught that its essence was “being aware and awake to the present moment.”

Being aware and awake to the present moment, we have attempted to offer you invitations into that practice throughout this morning’s service–altered as it has been by unanticipated illness. When Rev. Scott invited you to “[b]reathe quietly and more deeply than usual” and “[b]e mindful of the position of your body” did you become more aware? As I speak now, do you find yourself fully present, not only to this sermon, but the sensations of your body, the way your lungs fill and empty, your chest rises and falls, with each breath? The softness–if you are in the sanctuary–of the pew cushion, the gleam of the wood, the varied details of the bricks, the natural mosaic of the cork floor, when we become aware, when we awaken, we discover truth that we already know.

Being, not doing, we remember, as the Vietnamese monk taught, “you are in the universe and the universe is in you: if the universe is, you are; if you are, the universe is. There is no birth. There is no death. There is no coming. There is no going.” There is only being.

There is only being, Nhat Hanh’s own explorations of such teachings led him directly to a life as a peace activist. He called his form of mindfulness “engaged Buddhism” and taught that to lead a religious life–an authentic life of the spirit–was to be devoted towards building a more beautiful and peaceful world.

During the Vietnam War he wrote a poem titled “Condemnation.” It contained the verses:

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I cannot accept this war.
I never could I never will.

It offered the condemnation:

“Beware! Turn around and face your real enemies
–ambition, violence hatred and greed.”

It earned him the disdain of the US allied government at the time he was traveling around South Vietnam rebuilding bombed villages, setting up schools, establishing medical centers, and reuniting scattered families.

No gratitude from the powers and principalities for that, he was exiled in 1973 and moved to France. There he established Plum Village, the first of a global network of ten monasteries, before finally being allowed to return to Vietnam in 2005. He moved back there in 2018, so he could die on the ground where he was birthed.

Throughout his time, he remained steadfast in his peace activism. In 2008, he spoke out against the Iraq war. “We know very well that airplanes, guns and bombs, cannot remove wrong perceptions,” he stated. “Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline, and they rely … on the armed forces to remove terrorism.”

The conflict today is different. But, gazing upon the ruins of Gaza, it is possible to hear Nhat Hanh offering the same admonition to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Biden. Bombing buildings, maiming civilians, ruining gardens, obliterating hospitals and schools–all of the major medical facilities and universities in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed–killing people will not bring about peace. Violence begets more violence. Close to 25,000 Palestinian dead does not bring back the Israelis killed on October 7th. More than 7,000 dead children will not release hostages, Nhat Hanh would almost certainly say if he was alive today.

Alive today, we are alive today, at its core we might recognize that such a simple statement summarizes much of Nhat Hanh’s engaged Buddhism. Political violence is always offered in the hope of obtaining some future end. Netanyahu orders the killing of civilians today to create peace tomorrow. Violence now is supposed to bring peace later. But, fixated not on the present but some imagined time ahead, the cycle continues. The corpses pile up. A more beautiful world does not come.

Alive today, we are alive today, instead Nhat Hanh’s engaged Buddhism would have us encounter other humans not as means to ends–objects to be disposed of in the quest to achieve some later goal–but part of the same universe as us, graced with the same worthiness and dignity that we assign ourselves.

Alive today, Rev. Schaibly took this teaching to mean, “You already have within you what it is you need.” We are born, each of us, with the capacity to wake up to the world as it is. “[A]ny person can become a Buddha,” Nhat Hanh wrote. This realization, he believed, should give “rise to happiness.” Enlightenment, ultimate compression, is available to each of us–is inborn within all of us.

The constant possibility of joy in daily life, the opportunity to wake up to the world as it is and undergo the resurrection of the living, is what Nhat Hanh tried to point us to. He believed that the path to peace–alive today–lay as much in small acts of consciousness cultivating, as it did in the work of movements.

I try to follow this advice each day, in the morning, as part of my routine. I do not practice Buddhist meditation. But I do try to open myself to mindfulness. I start the day with tea. I pour hot water into the pot, rinse it out, and pour water in again. I put green leaves into the wire caddy. I watch them steep, see them unfurl. They are brighter, more brilliant, as they sit and turn the water from clear to jade.

And then there is that first sip, “the actual moment. … this actual moment is life. Don’t be attached to the future. Don’t worry abut the things you have to do,” I tell myself.

Even if you are not a Buddhist, you can incorporate such practices into your life. Look at a pebble, look at a flower, gaze at your hand, stare a broken stone, be present, be mindful, awaken yourself to the world that is, undergo the resurrection of the living. It offers a path to peace. It uncovers the beauty around us. It opens you to the joy of life–tea in the morning–and reminds you of the presence of happiness that might be found.

It might be that lifting up, this morning, as we have, Thich Nhat Hanh’s life of the spirit helps point you to greater happiness or better equips you to create more beauty and peace. And that might not be true, each of us must find our own path, discover the teachers and traditions that help us along our way. Not one path but many is the Unitarian Universalist teaching.

Rev. Schaibly, devotee of Zen Buddhism and disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh, understood this. He concluded one of his sermons on his time at Plum Village this way:

We are all perhaps like the Zen student who came to the master one evening to ask and to listen. It was very late when he finished his questions. The master said, ‘Why don’t you go to bed.’ And the student bowed, and lifted the screen to go out. He said, ‘The hall is very dark.’

The master said, “Here, take this candle,” lighting one for the student. The student reached out and took the candle. The master leaned forward and blew it out.

There the story ends! Whatever might it mean? Perhaps this: We all learn to live in the dark.

We all learn to live in the dark, was Rev. Schaibly’s interpretation of the story. You are invited to make your own. Just as you are invited in this community to determine which of these lives of the spirit–if any–point you on the way.

In the hopes that we each might find the way we seek–and the knowledge that the way is easier if search together–I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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