livingbuddhaLiving Buddha, Living Christ
10th Anniversary Edition
Thich Nhat Hanh
New York: Riverhead, 2007
256 pp.; $15 (paper)

“Love the pitcher less and the water more.” This is how the Sufi poet Rumi fashioned the key to a global spirituality – not a new religion, but a growing recognition that the religions we have are multiform containers of a single, precious planetary resource, idioms of a universal spiritual grammar. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful heeding of Rumi’s counsel than Thich Nhat Hanh’sLiving Buddha, Living Christ, a reading of Buddhism and Christianity (and, by implication, other faiths) as vast cultural-symbolic contexts for enabling human ethical maturity. With his characteristic quiet authority, Nhat Hanh portrays the two traditions as complementary modes of moving from our natural self-centeredness to a re-centering in a higher order of existence, a process that, when genuine, bears fruits as cherished in Nairobi and Nanjing as in New York: understanding, compassion, love, kindness, generosity, honesty, patience, forgiveness, justice. These transcultural fruits belong to no one religion but are the common aim of all deserving of the name.

Thich Nhat Hanh came to the world’s attention as an activist Buddhist monk during the Vietnam War, the leader of the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. He famously coined the term “engaged Buddhism” to express the synergy of social action and meditation – and he has walked his talk. Exiled from postwar Vietnam, he settled in southern France; now in his eighth decade, he continues to teach internationally and to guide his Order of Interbeing. Like many of Nhat Hanh’s books, Living Buddha, Living Christ takes the form of simple dharma talks that eschew extended argument and thereby conceal his ample learning. In fact, he studied religion at Princeton, taught at Columbia and Cornell, reads the Buddhist scriptures in Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese, and teaches in English, French, and Japanese in addition to his native Vietnamese.

Nhat Hanh’s controlling assumption in Living Buddha, Living Christ is the unfailingly salutary power of mindfulness. The latter may be a Buddhist term, but Buddhists don’t own what it points to. For Nhat Hanh, mindfulness – sustained attention or presence – is rooted in the very scheme of things, a reflection at the human level of the universe’s own miraculous ability to fashion order and structure amidst a general countertrend. Mindfulness doesn’t cure all, but it always cures. It corrects the mind’s natural tendency toward dispersion, diffusion, and agitation, redeploying mental energy toward insight, clarity, and well-being. And it is mindfulness at which so many spiritual exercises aim. Meditation and prayer are but local cultivations of this generically human capacity. The real wonder, Nhat Hanh has said, is not to walk on water but to walk mindfully on this green earth.

From mindfulness, says Nhat Hanh, comes true listening, true understanding, and true love. When these are present in two or more gathered in Jesus’s name you have a church, a community guided by the Holy Spirit. When listening, understanding (prajna), and love (karuna) are present in two or more gathered in the Buddha’s name, you have a sangha, a community guided by mindfulness. “Mindfulness is very much like the Holy Spirit,” says Nhat Hanh. “Both are agents of healing” – a bold linkage that takes us to the heart of the book’s title: living Buddha and living Christ. Jesus and Gotama died, but death could not contain them. They live in and as anyone who tries to follow their example, embody their understanding, practice their compassion.

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