In memoriam: Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk known for popularizing the concept of “Engaged Buddhism,” has just died. (He died Jan. 22 in Vietnam, on the other side of the International Date Line, which was Jan. 21 here in the U.S.) He had been incapacitated by a stroke in 2014, and in 2018 finally received permission from the Vietnamese government to return to his home temple to spend his final days. His name is more properly rendered as Thích Nh?t H?nh, but I’ll use the more common romanization without tonal indications.

Thich Nhat Hanh is probably best known for his series of popular books on Buddhism. Worldcat lists the following titles as the five “most widely held works” in libraries: The Miracle of Mindfulness; Living Buddha, Living Christ; Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life; Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames; and Being Peace. Nhat Hanh arguably did more than anyone else to popularize the concept of mindfulness in the West.

The book of his that I found most interesting, though, one to which I’ve returned a number of times, is The Sutra of the Full Awareness of Breathing (Parallax Press, 1988). This book includes Nhat Hanh’s translation of the ?n?p?nasati Sutta, along with his commentary on the text. This Sutra is no. 118 of the “medium length” sutras that have been collected into the Majjhima Nik?ya. (A later revised version of his translation is now freely available on the website of his Plum Village Buddhist community here.) Nhat Hanh translated the text into French, which was then translated into English; I found the English translation to be lucid, readable, and non-technical. I also liked his The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra; I find Buddhist scriptures difficult to understand, and Nhat Hanh’s commentary helped me understand a little bit about this complex text.

But I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s real impact as a writer and teacher was through his many popular books which give good sound advice for living life. I’ve read a little bit in some of his many books on mindfulness, and was impressed by the good common-sense tone of these books. Unfortunately, mindfulness grew into a fad, and big corporations have learned how to use mindfulness as an opiate to drug their workers into submission. But what Nhat Hanh said about mindfulness had nothing to do with submission to a corporate overlord. Quite the contrary: Nhat Hanh’s writings are permeated with the spirit of Engaged Buddhism, and mindfulness connects one fully with the fate of all beings; instead of quietism and retreat from the world, Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness moves us to become engaged in seeking justice.

If your corporate overlord forces you to do mindfulness — or if your school forces you to do mindfulness — try reading Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. You’ll find out that mindfulness is not a drug forcing you to submit to your employer or your school. Nhat Hanh used mindfulness as a way to advocate for peace during the long-running war in Vietnam. Mindfulness helped empower him to criticize both South Vietnam and North Vietnam, and also to stand up against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, at great personal cost. Mindfulness helped bring Nhat Hanh to the U.S. in 1966, where he helped convince Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak out against the injustices of the Vietnam War. In short, unlike the mindfulness that corporations and schools teach, which seems designed to ensure passive compliance with tyranny, Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness is designed to resist tyranny, oppression, and injustice.

I’m less interested in Nhat Hanh’s teachings on mindfulness — personally, mindfulness does nothing for my spiritual self — and far more interested in him as a teacher. Everyone I’ve talked to who saw him in person has said he was a riveting teacher. Apparently, his English skills weren’t great — I’m told Vietnamese and French were his main languages — but even through an interpreter his teaching was compelling. I get the sense that it was his presence as a teacher that most impressed those who went to hear him. This has been true of the best teachers I’ve known: there’s something about the way they move, the way they hold their bodies, it is their very being that teaches us. The best teachers, I think, cultivate their persons — or as we might say in the West, cultivate their souls — and it is this cultivation of the person which shines through in their teaching. While I never experienced Nhat Hanh in person, I can catch glimpses of this cultivated soul in his writings. I would unhesitatingly call him a brilliant teacher.

Our troubled world needs brilliant teachers like him, teachers who can empower us to stand up for justice and peace. Thich Nhat Hanh will be sorely missed.

Westerners misappropriating non-Western religious imagery

A broad-based interfaith coalition, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, and Jews, has targeted a nightclub chain that uses Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain statues for interior decoration. As reported by Religion News Service, the “Foundation Room” night clubs operated by Live Nation Entertainment in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, and New Orleans uses the following religious imagery as decor: statues of Buddha (Buddhism); statues of Ganesha, Hanuman, Shiva, and Rama (Hinduism); statues of Mahavira and Parshvanatha (Jainism).

Live Nation said in a statement that the Foundation Room clubs are (according to them) all about “promoting unity, peace, and harmony.” Before you cynically respond “Bullshit!” — it may be that Live Nation’s management really did see the misappropriation of these religious images as promoting unity. Since they’re based in the U.S., we can assume that they — consciously or unconsciously — see the “Judeo-Christian tradition” as normative; and while “Judeo” is merely a modifier of “Christian” in this formulation, Judaism is still seen as somehow normative. Since Christianity and Judaism are part of mainstream U.S. culture, Live Nation’s management would never think of putting up a cross or star of David in one of their nightclubs.

Why then is it OK to use religious images from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism? Well, part of the answer might well be that “religion” as a concept is a Western concept that only dates back to the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, the West did not have a concept that corresponds to our current notion of “religion.” And “religion” as a concept was developed in part as a way to bolster Western colonialist ambitions: “religion” was defined in such a way that only Christianity (and perhaps Judaism, in a debased way) fit the definition; this allowed Western powers to justify domination of non-Western cultures on the grounds Christianizing them. (For more on the link between “religion” and colonialism, see e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies [Oxford Univ. Press, 2000]; William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict [Oxford Univ. Press, 2009]).

Not surprisingly, colonized peoples are accorded less respect than the colonizers. This might make more sense if I put this in racial terms, since so many of us are thinking about race these days: in the Western worldview, Christianity is seen as the property of the West, which means it’s a white religion; while Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism are generally seen as having adherents who are people of color; while you wouldn’t use white people’s religious symbol in a night club, it would be OK to use the religious symbol belonging to people of color.

However, while colonialism and racism are strongly linked, I find it more helpful to view this dispute over religious imagery in nightclubs as a legacy of colonialism. After all, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism do have white adherents, and there are strong traditions of black and Latinx Christianity. But non-Christian religions are still seen as somehow “primitive” or less advanced than Christianity, and thus may be accorded less respect; and just as in the past, this viewpoint still allows Western nations to see non-Western nations as suitable for colonial domination through both economics and military action.

Maybe I’m making too much out of this. But I do want to explain why Live Nation Entertainment didn’t put crosses or statues of Jesus Christ in their nightclubs; why does Jesus Christ get their respect, but not the Buddha?

Paper bag puppets for a Jataka tale

I’m in the middle of writing curriculum for middle elementary grades, and here’s a children’s craft project I just developed for this curriculum. These are puppets for acting out the story-within-the-story of the Buddhist Jataka tale “The Little Tree Spirit” (which you can read on my old blog here).

You will need:
patterns that you print and cut out ahead of time
glue sticks or paste
scissors
pencils
black magic markers
paper bags (lunch bag size, 5 x 10 in. folded)
paper or card stock in the following colors:
—pink (for noses and mouths)
—white (for eyes)
—dull green (for Little Tree Spirit)
—bright green (for Great Tree Spirit)
—orange (for Tiger)
—yellow (for Lion’s head)
—brown (for Lion’s mane)

Let’s start by seeing how the Tiger is made.

(1) Cut out the head, attach it to the paper bag:

Trace the head shape from the patterns or draw it freehand on orange paper, then cut it out. Glue the head to what is the usually bottom of the paper bag.

(2) Add details to the head:

Cut out the nose from pink paper, and two eyes from white paper. Glue on the eyes and nose, and draw pupils in the eyes. Using the black magic marker, draw stripes and whiskers on the tiger as shown above.

(3) Add the mouth:

Cut out the mouth, and fold it at about one third of the way across the diameter (about one inch from the edge). Glue the mouth in the flap formed by the bottom of the paper bag where it’s folded over, as shown in the drawing. You want a little bit of the pink mouth to show below the head of the puppet.

(4) Try your puppet:

Put your hand inside the puppet, and make sure the mouth looks right when you open and close the puppet’s mouth.

(5) Make the other puppets:

The rest of the puppets are made in much the same way. (1) For the Lion: use the same head pattern but cut the head out of yellow paper; then cut a mane out of brown paper and glue the head on the mane. (2) For the Little Tree Spirit: use the tree pattern and cut the tree out of green paper. (3) For the Great Tree Spirit: use the mane pattern, cutting the shape out of green paper for the “head.”

Now you have all the puppets you need to act out the story. They’re kind of crude, but they’re effective.

Mindfulness meditation is not religiously neutral

Recently I read a blog post by Amod Lee on mindfulness meditation and whether it might be problematic for Christians. Lee notes that some Christian groups have mounted legal challenges to teaching mindfulness meditation in public schools, on the basis that mindfulness meditation is a religious practice, not a secular technique. Lee goes on to say that he is “not particularly interested in the particular American legal issues involved,” but rather wants to consider this issue “as a philosopher, a Buddhist, and a practitioner of mindfulness meditation.” Coming from that perspective, Lee argues that mindfulness meditation could be problematic for Christians:

“A key element to mindfulness practice is disidentification: one notices one’s thoughts and emotions as they surface, and observes them from a distance. In so doing, one comes to observe one’s mind, one’s self, as a divided entity, reducible into parts. One takes an approach which Augustine would have associated with his Manichean foes: where the soul is not one thing but the battleground for a struggle between good and evil intentions.

“That doesn’t mean one can’t practise mindfulness meditation as a Christian — or even that mindfulness meditation must mean one ceases to believe in an immortal soul. But the mindfulness approach, which explicitly comes out of Buddhist non-self, is explicitly in tension with the unified immortal essence postulated by most Christians. I think Christians would do well to at least be cautious around it.”

I found this argument helpful for me personally: I meditated for years, and finally stopped because I hated it. In the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I never like meditation because I felt all the meditation techniques I was taught pushed me towards a negation of the self. By contrast, when I learned meditative techniques of self-inquiry while studying transcendental phenomenology in Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, I found those techniques deepened my self-understanding without negating the self. Husserl’s technique led me to an understanding of intersubjectivity — that is, awareness of the self as a node in an intersubjective web of many selves — and eventually this led me to a sense that awareness of intersubjectivity is a highly desirable spiritual outcome. Similarly, meditative practices of observing non-human organisms, inspired in part by Henry Thoreau’s journals, also led me an awareness of my (non-negated) self as part of a web of intersubjective selves, many of which are non-human selves. Rather than negating the self, my own spiritual exploration led me to understand my connection with other selves, an outcome I find personally more rewarding.

My personal spiritual exploration leads me to expand on Lee’s conclusion: mindfulness meditation carries distinctly Buddhist content that people other than traditional Christians might also be cautious of, and even actively dislike. It is, in short, not a neutral practice.

(One last note: I’ve been to Unitarian Universalist worship services and workshops where the minister or workshop leader leads some kind of mindfulness meditation exercise with the unspoken assumption that everyone present will want to do mindfulness meditation. It would be wise for Unitarian Universalists to realize that mindfulness meditation is a practice borrowed from another tradition, to be careful that we do not misappropriate it, and if we do use it to remember that some Unitarian Universalists will find it distasteful or unpleasant.)

Places of worship in south Palo Alto

A few days ago, I started at my office in the Unitarian Universalist Church, and took a walk around the neighborhood. In less than an hour, I walked past or near 7 different faith communities.

I walked to the corner of Charleston and Middlefield; down the street and just out of sight on my left was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at 3865 Middlefield Rd., which is locally famous for the annual Christmas Creche exhibit that is erected in its front yard in December.

Continuing down Charleston, I crossed Fabian Way; to my left, a few blocks down at 3900 Fabian Way is Kehillah Jewish High School, where the Keddem Congregation, a Reconstructionist Jewish faith community, holds its larger events and services.

At the corner of Charleston and San Antonio Road, I walked next to the Jewish Community Center, where, every Sunday, the C3 Silicon Valley Church rents their auditorium for a worship service. The C3 Church is a worldwide movement based in Pentecostal Christianity.

Turning left on San Antonio, I came to Anjuman-e-Jamali, a new Dahwoodi Bohra mosque, an impressive stone-clad building; the minaret is over 60 feet tall, though supposedly it isn’t functional.

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I crossed back over Charleston Rd., and went a block or two into the city of Mountain View, where I saw the Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, in a large building that looks like a corporate headquarters or maybe a big-box store. The Web site lists no denominational connection, but recent pastors have had connections to Pentecostalism.

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Back over the city line in Palo Alto, along San Antonio Rd., I walked by the small Central Chinese Christian Church. Unfortunately, the Web site is in Chinese, so I don’t know which branch of Christianity this church comes from.

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I walked back down Charleston Rd., and returned to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

The final tally for a one-hour, 2-12 mile walk:
1 Jewish congregation: Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, rented space
1 Muslim congregation: Dahwoodi Bohra (a sect of Shia Islam)
4 Christian congregations:
— Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), Restorationist Christian
— C3 Church, Pentecostal Christian
— Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, nondenominational Christian
— Central Chinese Christian Church, unknown Christian
1 post-Christian congregation, Unitarian Universalist

Environmental ethics panel

Presenters at the Environmental Ethics session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, were Lyndsey Graves, recent graduate of Boston University School of Theology; Michael Malley, student at Methodist Theological School in Ohio; and Etin Anwar, professor at Hobart and William Smith College.

I was particularly interested to hear Graves’s presentation, “Liberal vs. Literal?: Opportunities for Environmentally Ethical Pentecostal Interpretations of Genesis 1:26-28.” Pentecostalism is arguably the fastest growing religious group in the world, and as such could be a valuable interfaith ally in addressing the current global environmental crises.

Graves chose to address Gen. 1:26-28 because it has been such an influential text, with its injunction to “subdue” and have “dominion” over the earth. While this text has often been interpreted as giving humankind license to exploit other organisms and non-living things, eco-theologians have re-interpreted the text as calling on humans to be responsible stewards of the earth. Graves said that today, some Pentecostals are now “creatively coming up with ways to reinterpret Genesis 1:26-28.”

“I am focusing on the words ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’,” Graves said. She pointed out that liberal Christians can say that this passage is not particularly important to them, or they can re-interpret the text to call for stewardship, “which I do not think is really justified in the Hebrew.”

But Pentecostals do not really have these options. Pentecostals assert the “inerrancy of the word of God, and because of this they do not aim to evaluate the Bible, but “to understand it and submit” to the will of God.

Graves reviewed the work of several relevant theologians who have provided readings of the text that might prove useful to Pentecostals.

Continue reading “Environmental ethics panel”

List of faith communities near Palo Alto

I’ve been compiling a list of religious organizations mostly in Silicon Valley, from San Jose to San Francisco. The middle school class of our congregation visits other faith communities, and this list is designed to be used as a resource to help the class find places to visit.

Even though I was familiar with the work of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, even though I expected a wide diversity of religious traditions, I was still astonished at the religious diversity I found: there are hundreds of faith communities, ranging from Anabaptists to Zoroastrians, within an hour’s drive of our congregation.

Most of the research I did was online. It proved difficult to research some faith communities online, as quite a few do not have Web sites, or they have Web sites that are so outdated you don’t trust them. Yelp proved to an excellent source of information about many faith communities, especially when there were recent reviews (search for “Religious organizations” in a given locale). Youtube also proved a good source of information in a few cases; sometimes faith communities have inadequate Web sites but their members may post videos that provide useful information. One or two congregations had Facebook pages that provided the most recent information.

This list also relies on some real-world research. Our middle school class has visited some of these congregations, as noted on the list below. I also relied a lot on word-of-mouth information — people telling me about some faith community that they knew about, or had friends in, or belonged to.

Perhaps the most difficult part of making this list was figuring out a reasonable way to organize it. I started with the eight major world religions identified in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One; added Zoroastrian, Sikh, Baha’i, and Jain to the list; then finished off with a list of New Religious Movements organized according to the categories in the book New Religious Movements, ed. Christopher Partridge. That takes care of the major divisions. It was more difficult to know how to categorize sub-groups within Christianity and Islam. Christianity is arguably the most diverse of the major world religions, and I did the best I could based on various scholarly reference works. Islam was also challenging to categorize, and I finally decided to use the categories from the Salatomatic Web site.

If you live in Silicon Valley, I’d love it if you looked over the list — then let me know if you see any errors or obvious omissions.

And now: the list! Continue reading “List of faith communities near Palo Alto”

Fudo Myoo

FudoMyoo

Fudo Myoo is a Japanese Buddhist deity, one of the Five Great Kings, or Godai Myoo.

The Godai Myoo “are considered to have great magical powers to fight against heresy, passion, ignorance, illusion, and other spiritual obstacles. The most popular Myoo in Japan is Fudo, whose name means literally ‘The Immovable One.’ He is an incarnation of Dainichi Nyorai, who is an idealization of the truth of the universe, from whom all other Buddhas and boddhisatvas are born. Fudo is thought to fight against all evil to protect Buddhist law.” — Selected Works: The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, c1994), p. 179.

This image is a digitally manipulated photograph of a sculpture in the Asian Art Museum labeled “The Buddhist deity Achala Vidyaraja (Japanese: Fudo Myoo),” dated to 1100-1185, catalog no. B605146+.