Who is Thich Naht Hanh?


Two days ago I put up a piece here called “Thich Naht Hanh is Wrong.” It was a deliberately provocative title. I said in the comments to that piece that the title was meant to ask, “Who is Thich Naht Hanh?” Someone said that smelled like fresh bullshit to him. I’d like to ask that guy, “Then who is Thich Naht Hanh?”

Some folks got upset that I was being disrespectful to a man who has dedicated his life to bring peace to the world. But was I? If I had any reason at all to believe that Thich Naht Hanh would ever see what I wrote, then possibly. Although even then I’d say “disrespectful” was not the right word. But let’s get real here. Thich Naht Hanh will never see what I wrote about him.

So who was I being disrespectful to?

Who is Thich Naht Hanh?

A few people got bent out of shape that I said I believed that Thich Naht Hanh did not write his own Twitter posts. It turns out I was right. He doesn’t. His Twitter profile says, “My twitter account is managed by senior students, both monastic and non-monastic.” He probably didn’t even write that!

I’ve also been told by people who seem to know what they’re talking about that Thich Naht Hanh doesn’t write his own books. His talks are recorded and transcribed. Then senior students edit them into books, which Thich Naht Hanh approves before publication. Of course the covers of these books simply say “by Thich Naht Hanh.”

Ask anyone who writes for a living what they think of that sort of thing and I guarantee they’ll get a little wrankled by the idea. Writing is hard work. People who claim to be writers but don’t actually do the work annoy those of us who really write our own stuff. It’s not a big deal. But it irks me enough when I see this very common practice that I like to point it out. I would guess that about half of the “authors” whose books are shelved near mine at your local Book Barn “write” their books in pretty much the same way. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to say this. I think it’s truthful.

Who is Thich Naht Hanh?

One commenter said, “Brad is a wannabe Zen master who is envious of the big boys in the Buddhist world. It’s so obvious: His passive-aggressive sleight-of-hand barbs at Dalai and Thich betrays a desire to be the ‘bad boy of Buddhism’. Grow up, Brad.”

Envious of the “big boys in the Buddhist world?” Moi? Not really. Rather I am amused by the idea that there is a class of people we can call “big boys in the Buddhist world.” Zero Defex, the hardcore band I play bass for were not envious of the “big boys in the rock and roll world.” Rather, we found them boring and wanted to provide an alternative. While we might have wanted to be a bit more popular than we were, we certainly did not want to be among the “big boys.” That would have run completely counter to what we were trying to accomplish. Part of being an alternative to the big rock bands involved staying small. I feel pretty much the same way now about the “big boys in the Buddhist world.”

The idea that the “big boys in the Buddhist world” are somehow qualitatively better teachers than the less well-known ones is a very troubling notion to me. And I’m not talking about myself as an example of one of the less well-known teachers. I’m starting to fear that my growing popularity is making me ineffective as a teacher.

The rise of this new class of Mega Masters troubles me. Such teachers cannot possibly have direct contact with the massive numbers of students who claim them as their teachers. I met some people once who talked about feeling some kind of magic mojo when the Dalai Lama walked by them thirty feet away, deep in a crowd of fawning fans, surrounded by secret service guards. Such fantasies are extraordinarily damaging.

It’s precisely the same kind of thing a fan feels when he gets to be near a celebrity he admires. I know I felt it when I got to meet Gene Simmons of KISS in person. But I didn’t add to that feeling some kind of weird idea that my being in proximity to Gene Simmons conveyed some sort of spiritual shaktipat, or that I got a big ol’ ZAP of pure Zen energy or some such nonsense. When Genpo Roshi charges suckers $50,000 to have personal contact with him you’d better believe he’s implying that some of his supposed enlightenment will rub off when they’re close. I’m not sure I want any part of what rubs off of Genpo Roshi, though!

When I said in the comments that Thich Naht Hanh is no more a simple wandering monk than Bruce Springsteen is a blue-collar working man, some people pointed out that I have an image as well. Why Mr. Holmes, your powers of deductive reasoning are astonishing! Of course I have an image! So do you. So does everyone.

Who is Thich Naht Hanh?

Is it you? Is it your image of Thich Naht Hanh that I’ve disrespected? If so, why does that bug you? Is it you that I’ve disrespected? Who are you?

These are important questions.

Someone in the comments section seemed worried that maybe I had some inside dirt on Thich Naht Hanh. He asked, “Do you know of Thay’s actions that bring him into disrepute?” The answer is no. I do not. As far as I’m aware Thich Naht Hanh is a totally scandal-free guy. But I don’t know that much about him.

Suffice it to say, I am not trying to imply that Thich Naht Hanh is a disreputable teacher who should not be trusted. He seems like a decent guy. I like most of the quotes I see from his books. Even the quote I criticized last time might be fine in context. It might be fine as it is, too. But we all need to be careful how we take things.

Even when someone says something 100% true, sometimes you need to question it. Because your interpretation of what was said may not be correct. It’s not the fault of the speaker when his words are misconstrued. Everybody’s words are misconstrued. Misconstruing what we hear people say is what we human beings do. This is why we have to be careful.

Jeez, there was even a commenter on my previous blog posting who thought I said that Hitler and Charles Manson were enlightened beings! I never said that Hitler and Charles Manson were enlightened beings. But I can’t shut up forever just because some doofus might misconstrue the things I say. As Katagiri Roshi pointed out, “You have to say something.” And most of the time what you say will be completely misunderstood.

So I stand by what I said before. Thich Naht Hanh is wrong.

But who is Thich Naht Hanh?

380 Responses

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  1. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi March 16, 2012 at 7:38 pm | |

    Andy,

    Since I'm not a Zennie, I can try to answer your question without being cute.

    First, there's no such thing as Zen. There's just Buddhism. And Buddhism just means the Four Noble Truths, the first of which is..

    1. Life is unsatisfying (dukkha)

    Zen merely means taking this truth seriously. Nothing you do will ever be satisfying, and none of your questions will ever be satisfyingly answered. Sitting zazen just means accepting this. You merely sit in your dissatisfaction, And it naturally leads to the second noble truth.,

    2. There is a cause to dissatisfaction, and that is the craving (tanha) for satisfaction.

    This points to the fruitlessness of trying to do anything to relieve the feeling of dissatisfaction we have. Again, this points back to zazen, sitting and doing nothing, which leads to the insight of the third noble truth…

    3. The cure for suffering is to be found in the cessation of craving. Again, this points back to zazen, sitting and doing nothing, rather than craving a solution to our dissatisfaction. Since craving only produces dissatisfaction, the true path is not in problem·solving action, but in the cessation of all actions motivated by craving. So one merely sits, and this leads to the fourth noble truth…

    4. The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to bring about the cessation of craving. This too points back to sitting zazen as its fundament, which is doing nothing as a principle within all action. Thereˇs of course more to it than just that, but all the aspect of the NEP are about the cessation of craving, not engaging in some path that has as its goal the cessation of craving. It is all about immediately ceasing to live on the basis of craving, and is entirely unsatisfying.

    So, if you want satisfaction, try something other than Zen. If you can accept that there is no such thing as satisfaction, then try Buddhism, and you may end up practicing in the mode of Zen.

    Either way, you will not get any satisfactory answers, and if this answer has been satisfactory to you, you have missed the point.

  2. Andy
    Andy March 17, 2012 at 4:05 am | |

    @Broken Yogi: Thanks for your comment.

    My immediate response to "not craving" when I read it though is that it would take me some serious doing/intention/craving to sit in that posture and not crave for anything else. Simply because I'm (my brain is not) used to it, it's not my natural state right now. So isn't that just another kind of craving if I'd start practicing this and…why is that craving better than the ones I have now?

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 17, 2012 at 4:50 am | |

    Wankers.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 17, 2012 at 7:36 am | |

    201

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 17, 2012 at 9:19 am | |

    more than 350 comments!!
    I want to be Peter Pan UltraMachoMan too.
    To much fun!
    Don't read the comment "zen master need psicotherapy", it may wake you up from dreamNeverLand.
    Stop the monsters killing, let lady Gaga live!

  6. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 17, 2012 at 9:47 am | |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 17, 2012 at 9:53 am | |

    As Shunryu Suzuki said, "life is too important to take seriously".

    broken yogi, what about the further escape, and the happiness associated with the cessation of (the habitual activity of) perception and sensation?

    The four truths in my reading apply when suffering exists. You can read them that suffering always exists, but then you have taken an eternalist stance (have you not?). Why not apply the four truths when suffering exists, and let it go at that? And they apply toward a thing we are helpless about, the happiness associated with the further states, just as compelling as the pain in the legs sometimes.

    Ok, my opinion, cute or not.

  8. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 17, 2012 at 10:40 am | |

    very, very wise words!
    combining with ken wilber will be better

    thanks to ultramachoman warner for provoking people!

    11:39 AM Broken Yogi said… Andy, Since I'm not a Zennie, I can try to answer your question without being cute First, there's no such thing as Zen. There's just Buddhism. And Buddhism just means the Four Noble Truths, the first of which is.. 1. Life is unsatisfying (dukkha) Zen merely means taking

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 17, 2012 at 10:42 am | |

    Jefferson, Lucretius, Epicurus; Declaration of Independence; Pursuit of Happiness

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DOv4KPkUDY

  10. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi March 17, 2012 at 10:53 am | |

    Andy,

    The whole point of sitting, or practicing any of the outer forms of Buddhism, isn't to "not crave" but merely to observe and feel our cravings without continuing to feed them. You can't stop yourself from craving, but you can stop feeding the monster, and let it just go into starvation mode. Which is what the mind does when you just sit. And of course one of the things you will do is crave the end of craving, because of course you are addicted to craving. Just something more to observe and not feed into. Sitting isn't in itself some grand plan to end craving. It's just sitting. But it's rather amazing what we can make of that in our craving mode. So that's good to observe also. Sitting is a good way to reflect on these noble truths in real time when our minds are telling us all their sad stories. Listen sympathetically, but don't believe their lies.

  11. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi March 17, 2012 at 11:06 am | |

    Mark,

    The four truths say that whenever we are craving, we are also suffering as a result. It is important to note that to the extent that we are not craving, we are not suffering. The problem is that much of our craving and consequent suffering is unconscious in us, and limits us below the surface of our ordinary awareness. Unconsciousness is itself the suffering that results from our craving. So a good part of Buddhist practice is learning to observe ourselves more deeply rather than just superficially, to see that the limits we encounter are due to unconscious cravings.

    If we only apply the four truths when we encounter some obvious disturbance, we will remain rather superficial and even feel "satisfied" with our lives, which means we are living in an illusion of some kind, since satisfaction is always an illusion. That why it can be good to sit, doing nothing, and notice that incipient dissatisfaction that is always just beneath the surface of our minds. Activity tends to distract us from this, which is why we are so addicted to activity. Doing nothing leaves us no distractions other than the mind itself, and this allows us to see what is really going on with us beneath the surface activities we use to keep ourselves distracted from our basic sense of dissatisfaction and craving.

    In other words, the cessation of habitual activity will simply reveal to us the dissatisfaction and craving that underlies and motivates these activities. This can lead to the spontaneous abandonment of that mode of life and mind, if we persist in seeing it clearly for what it is.

  12. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm | |

    macho, machozen
    I wanna be a ultramachozen…

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm | |

    201

  14. Harry
    Harry March 17, 2012 at 2:31 pm | |

    A-Bob,

    'So I see some irony in your criticism of Brad's criticisms like you see in his. I am also aware that I am criticizing you now..'

    Hee hee, yep, if we renounce the notion that we're 'right' at least it leaves quite a bit of room for us all to be wrong in our wonderful mulitudinous ways. 'Irony' is an interesting word. I wonder, what is the real basis for the irony you experienced there?

    At the same time, there are certain things we should be very clear about I suppose, and 'sitting down and shutting up' is really only part of a response, the relatively uncomplicated bit.

    Regards,

    H.

  15. Fred
    Fred March 17, 2012 at 3:09 pm | |

    Andy said:

    "Simply because I'm (my brain is not) used to it, it's not my natural state right now. So isn't that just another kind of craving if I'd start practicing this and…why is that craving better than the ones I have now?"

    Actually it is your natural state.
    Your current state is your
    conditioned state shaped by your
    family, your culture, your
    education and your life experience.

    Being witness to reality as it is
    right now without judgment, is a
    better state.

    Not clinging to anything including
    a self, a religion or a
    spiritual ideology is a better state.

    Not being attached to any state is
    not being attached to any state.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 17, 2012 at 3:18 pm | |

    Yeah, like Arkansas. I could take it or leave it. Nothing special.

    183

  17. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 17, 2012 at 9:06 pm | |

    Happy St. Petersburg Day, fellow Russians!

    What?

    It is?

    Oh, my bad.

    Happy St. Mysterion Day!

  18. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 17, 2012 at 9:53 pm | |

    Why is that craving better, indeed!

    Didn't say anything about applying the four truths, said the four truths only apply when suffering exists.

    Just to be where I am as a practice draws me, there's really nothing I can do about it. I knew I needed something, I found being where I am as a practice, and the half-lotus or lotus has been my teacher.

    The cessation of habitual activity is gradual, so say those who repeat the four truths. In the first meditation, marked by thought applied and sustained, the habitual activity of speech ceases; in the fourth meditation, marked by a purified equanimity, the habitual activity of inhalation and exhalation ceases (this I think is what broken yogi refers to when he talks about unconscious habitual activity); in the cessation of the habitual activity of perception and sensation, the signless concentration, the habitual activity of perception and sensation ceases.

    Waking up is sudden, falling asleep is usually more gradual.

    "The essential thing in studying the Way is to make the roots deep and the stem strong. Be aware of where you really are, twenty-four hours a day. You must be most attentive. When nothing at all gets on your mind, it all merges harmoniously, without hindrance– the whole thing is empty and still, and there is no more doubt or hesitation in anything you do. This is called the fundamental matter appearing ready-made."

    ("Zen Letters, Teachings of Yuanwu", translated by J.C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary, pg 53. Yuanwu authored "The Blue Cliff Record", a collection of koans and commentaries, in about the 12th century C.E. in China)

  19. 369
    369 March 18, 2012 at 9:45 am | |

    3 6 9

    12 15 18

    21 24 27

    30

  20. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi March 18, 2012 at 12:07 pm | |

    "Why is that craving better, indeed!"

    It is not better, but it offers the possibility of ending craving by turning the craving upon itself. Craving requires an object we crave, and we imagine that if we attain that object, our craving will be satisfied. This never actually happens, however. We just spawn new cravings for new objects. By turning craving upon itself, we deny craving an object, and it withers and dies on the vine. This is why meditation can seem like a death process. It is, so long as we do not become fixated on an object, but turn upon the subject. As the Buddha's final instructions state, "Be a refuge unto yourself."

    As for the four noble truths applying only when suffering is present, when is suffer not present? Only in the final cessation of suffering, called nirvana. Before that, there is always an element of suffering in our mind and life, no matter how good things might get. Haven't you noticed? I certainly have, but your mileage may vary.

  21. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 19, 2012 at 8:26 am | |

    @broken yogi,

    Your practice is likely the same as mine, although I look to experience the substance of what I feel as consciousness takes place in the place of occurrence of consciousness, that is to say as a part of the place of occurrence of consciousness. In the end, it's just consciousness taking place, but the experience has a way of balancing pain, I would assume for as long as we have being (although I don't plan to press it anytime soon!).

    I believe it was Thich Nhat Hanh who said, "the pain is mandatory, the suffering is optional"- yer right, the cessation of the desire for again-becoming is cessation of the asavas, but we sleep and we wake and the buddha by the back door is the one that counts. IMHO! :)

    Mark

  22. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi March 19, 2012 at 6:06 pm | |

    Mark, I don't think we have the same practice. My practice is to never have the same practice from one moment to the next. The only consistency I have is a daily meditation which never takes the same form twice, feeling everything including myself feeling the feeling of feeling feeling, and nearly constant gratitude in the form of feeling·thinking·breathing·saying "thank you" no matter what occurs.

    What's yours?

  23. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 20, 2012 at 7:53 am | |

    thanks for the description, I appreciate that- about the same, here, the Burma shave signs end but the road goes on. I guess that's the good part.

  24. Moni
    Moni March 20, 2012 at 11:30 am | |

    @Anonymus yes, I agree about Leonard Cohen, he is an artist interested in zen and nor reverse :).

  25. Moni
    Moni March 20, 2012 at 11:31 am | |

    *not reverse

  26. Sherman Chin
    Sherman Chin March 25, 2012 at 4:04 pm | |

    Love your quote, "Even when someone says something 100% true, sometimes you need to question it. Because your interpretation of what was said may not be correct. It's not the fault of the speaker when his words are misconstrued. Everybody's words are misconstrued. Misconstruing what we hear people say is what we human beings do. This is why we have to be careful."

    Posted it at http://www.facebook.com/GreatDoubt

  27. Doba
    Doba March 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm | |

    Nice deconstruction of hagiographical tendencies: who is the real person? As opposed to our image of who they are, which may very likely be idealized, sanitized, or simply based on our own projections.

  28. Adam
    Adam March 28, 2012 at 4:35 pm | |

    Well, the guy in the photo is Thich Nhat Hanh. I don't know who Thich Naht Hanh is, though.

  29. big_buddha
    big_buddha March 30, 2012 at 5:26 pm | |

    Thanks for sharing, Brad. In Sex, Sin & Zen you stated 'He must've read that in a Thich Nhat Hanh book!' while ranting about spiritual masters. It was unclear if you were supressing anger towards Thatch. I recall digging up dirt on Thich Nhat Hanh on google. Nothing made sense about your statement until I read your blog post. It clears the consciencessness knowing who the REAL Thatch is. Recently finished a TNH book, I'm dissapointed it wasn't TNH talking to the reader, it was uncreditted followers of TNH. Disturbing. Their book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames touches on good topics like non-self and mindfulness. Good Read. Be well.

  30. Anonymous
    Anonymous April 4, 2012 at 3:54 pm | |

    I hate all this enlightenment shit and I wouldn't pay any attention to it at all if I wasn't trying so hard to stay clean and sober. But it does give me something to think about besides booze.

    As to all the consternation I see here in this blog and it's comments, I think people should just try to be nicer to each other… at least that's a good start. I haven't met anybody in this life yet who isn't stuck in something.

    Easy to say, hard to do.

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