Thich Nhat Hanh in France/Photograph by Alison Wright
Thich Nhat Hanh in France/Photograph by Alison Wright

It’s said that no man is a hero to his butler. But it is with the butler’s view that we get a more complete picture of heroic figures in their full humanity.

For those who like their heroes pure, the butler’s unvarnished view may well be unwelcome. But it’s precisely his perspective that throws into high relief what the hero has accomplished despite his human frailty.

In the early 1980s, Thich Nhat Hanh was already known in the United States primarily for his work for peace during the Vietnam War. Although he had published a few books in English, Thay, as his students call him, was not yet widely known here for the teachings that would later exert such a tremendous influence on Buddhism in the West.

In this issue, editor-at-large Andrew Cooper tells a story of his early travels as Thay’s attendant. The picture that emerges in “The Debacle” is a complex—and at times humorously human—picture of a man who brought the teachings to the very people whose country had brought ruin to his own.

It is fair to say that the Buddhism Nhat Hanh found when he arrived in the West was not the same Buddhism that he left behind. According to Cooper, “There are several ways in which Thay changed the map of dharma. For one, his emphasis on dependent origination, a core teaching shared by all schools of Buddhism, has become one of the signal principles of Western Buddhism. If you look at early dharma books published in the U.S. prior to his coming, you’ll see very little reference to it outside of academia. What he did was to use dependent origination as the thread that tied together all traditions, using it to explicate the teachings of the Pali canon, the Mahayana teachings on emptiness, and the Hua-Yen vision of radical interdependence.”

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