August 15, 2007

Two Takes on Thich Nhat Hanh

thay2.jpgThe 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.]

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Deep Awakening of the Heart's picture

Arnie's observations are visible to the casual retreat goer now...Sister Kong taking the mike away from Thay, endless fundraising, Thay's participation lessening while Kong's influence increasing, money money money. Milking the retreatant to support Vietnamese monks, schools, orphans, endless "Vietnamese" projects. The international flavor is gone.

Marion & Allan Hunt Badiner's picture

We read with interest Arnie Kotler's account of his inner experience during his transition from Parallax Press and the Community of Mindful Living. We were often present with Arnie (and Therese) and Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) through these years-- and they were wonderful years. We frequently traveled together with Thay and his retinue of monastic and lay followers, to India, Japan, China, Vietnam, and across the U.S. We always felt as though we were walking in the footsteps of a living Buddha.

Arnie played a very important role in the rise of Thay's career as a teacher in the West, and the ever-growing "international floating sangha." His book edits were skillfully simple yet they retained the profundity and thunder of Thay's oral teachings. Always dignified and diligent, Arnie performed his role of #1 disciple with appropriate humility.

It was courageous of Arnie to reveal how he was caught in his issues with his father. But Arnie's statement that Thay emphasized "the lay community's being as important as the monastic community" is at odds with our experience. Arnie's vision of a lay sangha that was equal to and as powerful as the monastic sangha was never realized, nor did we ever see any indication that it would be.

Thay, Chang Khong, Arnie, and Therese, and others of the Tiep Hien Order including Wendy Johnson, worked hard at Thay's urging to build a flourishing lay sangha, and Thay devoted more time than most people half his age could to achieving it. But to us, it was clear that Thay was as Vietnamese as he was Buddhist; that while he could express Buddhism so clearly outside the cultural envelope, he was personally very much inside it-- both in his behavior and his philosophy. Thay made no secret about his slow but sure shift in priorities toward his burgeoning monastic community. Ever since he became a novice monk at age sixteen, Thay's world has always been foremost about monastic life.

We were concerned that Arnie's account unintentionally paints Chang Khong as overly ambitious. While her direct style may feel brusque at times, she is a formidable figure of compassion in action, and an admirable champion of the homeless and poor in her native Vietnam. During the war, Chang Khong worked at Thay's side rescuing children, and healing the injured in body and mind.

Arnie Kotler has made an extraordinary contribution toward building the foundation for the Community of Mindful Living and Parallax Press, and indeed for Buddhism in America. We hope that Arnie will take great pride that these organizations have grown bigger than he is-- bigger than his unresolved issues with his father, and bigger even than Thich Nhat Hanh himself.