The significance of Thich Nhat Hanh

By Jagdish Rattanani

The world bowed over the weekend to remember and thank Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) for his life of service, for his teachings that have transformed the lives of millions of people and for his messages that will continue to inspire and guide humanity long after his passing on Jan. 22, at age 95. The tributes and ceremonies, from Plum Village in France, where his movement centred around “Engaged Buddhism” is headquartered, to distant global corners, tell us not only of the deep respect for the Vietnamese monk of mindfulness but also the hunger in the world for a new leadership that can guide us to a new path of peace, interconnectedness and compassion. As Rahul Gandhi said in his tribute: “His gentle words on peace, gratitude and non-violence will ring true forever.”
These qualities that will ring “forever” mark the currency that India has traditionally minted and offered to the world. These are India’s true gold reserves, accumulated over a long tradition in a land that is special because it has inquired, critiqued and built models and ways of living and interacting that are unique and have proved to be timeless. They come from teachers, philosophers and mystics who have dwelt on the truth and have given us spiritual knowledge and practical advice, then and now. From the ancient Indian texts, the wanderings and insights of Gautama Buddha, the poetry of Kabir, the traditions of the Sikh gurus and more recently to the collection of ages of wisdom presented in the struggles and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, this is India at its best. Thich Nhat Hanh said it in these words: “Those who killed Mahatma Gandhi…they had a lot of anger, violence, ignorance and the wrong perception. Mahatma Gandhi is still alive and he is stronger than before.”
There is a story told by the Master about the time he was speaking to journalists in India in 2008. It merits recounting given the uncertain times we live in, times when force or violence appear to speak louder than peace and non-violence. This was a day news came in of a terrorist attack somewhere in India. How does a journalist report the bad news, the violence, the destruction that must find space on the front pages but constitutes material that can only feed into more anger and despair?
Writing in his book ‘The Art of Communicating’, Thay explains: “We should reflect and discuss events in a way that will not increase the despair and the anger in people. Instead, we can help them understand why things happen, so their insight and compassion increase. We can make a big difference with the practice of looking deeply. The solution isn’t to hide the truth.” He captured these and other thoughts in a message that can become the hallmark of all good journalism, and will help call out the hatred that is being spewed these days from many media outlets: “You have to report in such a way that we don’t water the seeds of fear, anger and vengeance in people.”
In essence, these are Indian messages that we need to rediscover and re-engage with because they have been lost in the land of their birth. The India of today is an India sliding down from the high standards that has made the nation standout and become known for its many gifts. We cannot deny the blemishes. But we cannot but be proud of the richness. Today, we can see the direction that the nation has been set on isn’t the one where moral standing is enhanced. This is certainly seen in the way the narrative of India has been changed in a lightning-fast timeframe but this slide to rancorous divisions, a readiness to tear down the neighbour, didn’t begin today or in recent times. We have been on the downhill journey for a while; recent events and narratives have only hastened the trajectory.
India’s fall is mirrored across many facets today: the growing inequality, the violence against the downtrodden and the minorities, the rise of the hate speech, the ugly spats force-created on television, the demonisation of dissent and a manner and way of speaking that has violence woven into it. It is not just the politics that is bad. Our television shows promote insults as comedy, making fun of others has become a ticket to stardom, running down others is equated with celebrating entrepreneurship. In general, space must be wrested, fisticuffs must be shown and shouting down others is a part of the game. The broad direction that began with ideas of liberalisation to deliver growth in service of all sections has been twisted, misinterpreted and reinvented, to make this a nation of the few by the few, while the majority look on flummoxed. The abortive attempt at pushing farm laws told us how policies are pushed without the buy-in of people.
What is the way out? How does Thay inspire India? As a report pointed out, “Engaged Buddhism arose as a Buddhist response to the widespread trauma—including colonialism, war, social and economic injustice, environmental degradation, genocide, totalitarian government, and the suppression of religion— that has accompanied the advent of modernity in some Asian Buddhist countries.” These are the very ills that have invaded India, as we moved away from our roots – non-violence, welfare of others and an inner quest, which is no different from the ideals of Engaged Buddhism or of Gandhi’s song (authored by Narsinh Mehta) vasihnava jana to.
We must note that while he has spoken often of India and has travelled across the land and visited India thrice, Thay’s influence and reach in popular perception has been limited here. The Ethics Committee of Parliament was set up in 1997 following talks between the then Vice President K R Narayanan, India’s first dalit Vice President and later President, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to oversee the moral and ethical conduct of the members and to examine the cases referred to it with reference to the ethical and other misconduct by members. We can see from the tributes, the respect and the outpourings of love that the path that the world respects and wants to follow is the path that India has traditionally owned and built, that masters like Thay have preached and the world has listened. This is the ‘superpowerdom’ of Thich Nhat Hanh. The ideas at their core are also Indian wealth that we seem willing to trade for pebbles and other castaways. This is the fate of India in the current times – from a leader for all ages to a nation that thinks it got powerful when all it did was barter its glory at the altar of a figurine of Superman.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (e-mail: [email protected])

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