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?