August 15, 2007
The current issues of two Buddhist publications contain articles about the eminent Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. The Shambhala Sun, founded by the pioneering Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (his son and heir, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is now the publication's president), devotes sixteen pages to Nhat Hanh and features his photo on the cover. Inquiring Mind, “a journal of the vipassana community,” which this year celebrated its 20th anniversary, has an intriguing piece by Arnie Kotler, once Nhat Hanh’s editor, publisher, disciple, and assistant, that discusses the painful dissolution of their long and close relationship.
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most prominent Buddhist masters teaching in the West, so it is not startling that two Buddhist publications feature articles about him at roughly the same time. What makes the situation worth noting, and worth some reflection, is how differently he is portrayed in each. I honestly don’t know if considering the Shambhala Sun’s portrayal of Nhat Hanh alongside that of the Inquiring Mind gives one a more complete picture of this important teacher or just makes the matter more confusing. But I think the real opportunity here is not so much to learn about the real Thich Nhat Hanh (whatever that might mean) but to learn something about the nature of journalism, in particular, Buddhist journalism.
The Shambhala Sun’s Thich Nhat Hanh section comprises two articles and a teaching with a mix of excerpts. The picture that emerges is one of a Buddhist master steeped in the wisdom, compassion, and virtue of the tradition he represents and which we, the readers, seek to learn. It is a heroic picture of an exemplary figure, and to readers of Buddhist publications, including Tricycle and Inquiring Mind, it is a familiar one.
The Thich Nhat Hanh in the Inquiring Mind essay is very different indeed. Alongside his virtues as a Buddhist master, a poet, and a peace worker, this Thich Nhat Hanh is manipulative, hypocritical, and even litigious. He takes Kotler under his wing as a student and the two form a close working partnership—out of which come the books and teaching tours that formed the basis for Nhat Hanh’s current popularity—then, suddenly and for no clearly stated reason, he dumps Kotler like some U.S. Attorney in the Gonzalez Department of Justice.
Will the real Thich Nhat Hanh please stand up? Or peel a tangerine?
Well, like I said, I don’t think that’s the edifying question. Leaving aside the question of who or what or whether there even is a single true identity to do the standing (which in a Buddhist context is a lot to leave aside), the point is that, while journalism deals with facts, it does not deal with truth, at least in any substantive sense. That is to say, one uses facts to assemble a coherent and meaningful narrative, a story about how things are. If you are good and if you act in good faith, the narrative will be broad, inclusive, and challenging. If you’re really good, you may push the reader—and even yourself—to see the world in a new way.
One of the difficulties of doing Buddhist journalism is that we are advocates for the very thing we are writing about. We seek to promote Buddhism even as we try to write discerningly, and sometimes critically, about it. Sometimes it’s easy as pie; sometimes the contradictions are absolutely maddening. Like the Shambhala Sun and Inquiring Mind, Tricycle is always in the process of experimenting and evaluating how best to regard those who represent Buddhist traditions with the respect of religious practitioners and the critical eye of journalists.
Not having been a party to the events Kotler recounts, I can’t comment on their veracity. And how partial and one-sided the overall story is, I can’t say. The Shambhala Sun’s accounts, on the other hand, tend to jibe more with the picture of Nhat Hanh thousands of Buddhists in the West have come to expect. (Ironically, probably no one did more than Kotler to promote this image of Nhat Hanh.) Having had time to digest both takes, I like the sense that I am now considering a genuinely complex individual, one capable, yes, of greatness, as we’ve often been told, but one who also has to struggle with the same afflictions that beset us all.
Criticism of persons, rather than just ideas or practices, can be a slippery slope. But an overabundance of reverence can be no less a problem, and when that leads to a narrowly controlled field of narrative possibilities, the problem is severe.
Buddhist journalism needs devotion; without it, we’ll lose the Buddhism. Criticism is necessary as well; without that, we have no journalism. For both, discernment is essential.
- James Shaheen, Editor
[Image from the Plum Village site.]