A monk jumps and a child laughs at Plum Village in France. Paul Davis.
A child’s death leads to a new way of life
By Paul Davis
I have been a student of Thich Nhat Hanh since the early 1990s. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher and activist for peace and human rights. In 1967 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. .nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was Thich Nhat Hanh who helped King publicly come out against the U.S. war in Vietnam.
I first came in contact with Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings and philosophy after the death of my youngest son. Prior to his death, consideration of major life issues was largely an academic exercise. After his death I entered a period of reflection. I was searching, but not really expecting to find answers. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, I did not find canned answers. Rather, I found a life path that made sense and a belief system that did not ask me to accept anything I could not validate through my own experience.
My connection to Thich Nhat Hanh actually goes much further back. As a 19-year-old Marine, I went to Vietnam knowing little about life and nothing about the Vietnamese people and culture. The belief system I developed as a child growing up in rural Ohio in the 1950s sheltered me from seeing the reality of war. However, at a deeper level my experiences in Vietnam were being stored. My journey has been, and continues to be, a practice of letting go. Letting go of old beliefs has allowed new and deeper insights to emerge.
My first lesson on letting go came in 1967. It was a gift, but it didn’t feel like a gift when it arrived. It was a gift that initially created fear, the fear of moving rapidly into the unknown. About a year after returning to the United States, and while I was still in the Marine Corps, I had an opportunity to talk to a college class about Vietnam. The discussion was more about the culture than the war. At the end of the formal presentation, I was asked if I thought the people of Vietnam wanted us there. I gave a long answer, still not able to look deeply at my experience. After I spoke I was challenged by the person who asked the question: “You did not answer my question.” I had not. At that moment, the world as I knew it started to dissolve.
I started replaying my experiences in Vietnam. With the filters I had taken to war gone, a new reality began to emerge. I still feel the intensity of one encounter from 1966. It continues to be a reminder of how we can keep uncomfortable experiences from entering our consciousness. While sitting along the road in a rural area of Vietnam about 20 miles from the coastal city of DaNang, I had a conversation with a young girl. If she told me her name, I don’t remember it. I’ve given her the name An, which is Vietnamese for “peace.” An didn’t intend to change my life, but she did. Living in the middle of a war, as she was, I would not blame her for being angry, but she wasn’t. My memory of her is that she was wise, kind and strong. This was An as I knew her. I don’t know how she changed as she grew older and the war intensified. I don’t know if she survived the war. Much later, after college, raising a family, and connecting with Thich Nhat Hanh, I wrote this poem for An, and for me.
Marine, why are you in my country?
You tell me you are here to save me.
I don’t believe you.
Marine, you are not listening to me.
I don’t hate you and your eyes tell me
you don’t hate me.
Marine, why are you in my country?
Open your eyes. What keeps my words
from reaching your heart?
Why did you kill me?
Why did I kill you?
I died before you knew me.
You died before you understood.
Come to me – open your heart. I will hold you and you will know me
The original version of An referenced the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.” “Meet me at the wall. I will hold you and you will know me and understand.” The more I understood how we are all connected, the more I realized I had focused only on the American deaths. Over 5 million Vietnamese (in both the north and south) died during the war.
Thich Nhat Hanh and I both left Vietnam in 1966. My first trip back to Vietnam was in 2003. Nhat Hanh did not return until 2005. He returned to Vietnam in 2005 after a long and complicated negotiation with the Vietnamese government. At that time Vietnam wanted to show it was opening up on religious freedom so it was anxious for him to return. One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s requirements was that he would be allowed to travel with a group of nuns and monks and with 100 lay followers. I was fortunate to be a member of the lay delegation.
My second trip to Vietnam with Thich Nhat Hanh came in 2008. I was in Hanoi for a retreat and a United Nations conference on engaged Buddhism. While in Hanoi, I was ordained in the Order of Interbeing, a lay order that Thich Nhat Hanh started in 1966. I was in Vietnam in 1966 but knew nothing of his work. The order was created to provide support for “social workers” who were taking care of the casualties of war. Members of the Order of Interbeing navigated the difficult path of not taking sides. It is now a worldwide organization of lay Buddhists supporting the practice of engaged Buddhism and following the 14 precepts that were originally developed in 1966.
The precepts embody the core social teachings of engaged Buddhism (compassion and social justice). The first precept had a lot to do with my deciding to follow this tradition: “Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill or die for.” Although it took 14 years for me to be ordained, I felt connected to the Order of Interbeing the first time I read the precepts.
In June of this year 1,000 monastics and lay followers of Thich Nhat Hanh gathered in France for a three-week retreat on science and Buddhism and to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Plum Village, the Buddhist center he founded there. I was there as a student and as a photojournalist documenting a special marker on an amazing journey.
Paul Davis is a licensed social worker and a photojournalist. He leads Being Peace Sangha, a Cincinnati community that practices in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. More information on Thich Nhat Hanh and PlumVillage can be found at plumvillage.org. Information on Being Peace Sangha is at beingpeacesangha.com.