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Remember the Names of the Children Print
Shambhala Sun | July 1998

Remember the Names of the Children

By: Today there's a war going on, a holocaust against children in the inner city.
Six children died in violence in just two weeks in our little neighborhood in Baltimore. Thirty-seven kids died violently in Baltimore just in the first two months of this year. This may happen in all cultures, but we African-Americans are doing it a lot, and we're doing it to ourselves.

Kids are dying violently, and it's the children who are killing each other.
I've lived in Baltimore almost all my life. I was born in my aunt and uncle's house down in St. Mary's County and stayed with them until I turned three. My mother, Helen C. Curtis, was sick in the hospital with TB. She got better and we moved to Baltimore City, where we lived in the Somerset Projects. My mother raised three girls and put all of us through Catholic school. Nineteen years ago I got married to a wonderful person, Derrich Jerome Willis. We have four children.
In 1987 I was asked by Pastor Ed Miller, of Augustana Lutheran Church, to work in the Discovery After-School Program. Since that time it's expanded into a summer camp for 200 children and teens, a basketball league, a community choir and a youth academy. Leaders of the church operate all these programs as volunteers.
On January 3, 1996, James Smith, a little boy three years old, was killed while he was sitting in a barbershop in Baltimore. I watched it on the TV news that night. After that I couldn't sleep. While I was lying in bed I tried to remember the name of the last child who was killed in Baltimore, and I couldn't. Then God woke me up. He said, "Baltimore needs something visible for people to see." He said, "Lola, we need a Children's Memorial Museum."
I talked to Pastor Miller. Then we went to Reverend Karen Brau and Michelle Stokes from Amazing Grace Lutheran Church; to Gary Gillespie, Lorrie Schoettler, and Paul Booker from American Friends Service Committee; to Kevin B. Johnson at the Johns Hopkins Department of Pediatrics, and to the Baltimore Zen Center. We started having meetings and planning events.
We saw the Children's Memorial Museum as a healing place, with pictures of all the children who - d been killed in violence in Baltimore. Their parents could come and help take care of the pictures and papers of their children. They could help other children, too. We envisioned a store selling peace items and a peace game that the young people could market.
We envisioned programs in the arts, and in meditation, so that the children would learn how to be quiet. There would be a peace mural on the outside of the building that the children would do, and an outside play area. We also envisioned a legal defense fund and a lawyers' referral system for children who get into trouble, to help mothers or fathers who don't want to see their children going to jail. We even found a building for the museum, what was once Holy Trinity Church at 4000 Sinclair Lane.
We talked to an architect. It will take about $55,000 to renovate it from the inside. So we started doing fundraising. We had a basketball game between our kids and the people from 92Q radio station, and 250 people came out on a rainy night. We're planning a fashion show for May. We went to talk to the mayor.
Wayne Martin Rabb was shot just a few weeks ago. There was a fight and he was shot in the back twice. I went to the funeral and wrote his parents a card that we were doing a vigil for him on Valentine's Day. As soon as I got home his father called me and said that they would like to be a part of the vigil. He gave me a T-shirt with his son's picture on it. I have been wearing it ever since. He wants to put his son's story in the Children's Memorial Museum.
The museum is just one part of our project; there are two others. We've started to give our children training in alternatives to violence. The American Friends Service Committee gives this training to our kids in different churches after school. We're also looking to start a Peace Community, where people with different skills will live communally and give of those skills to the community.
Last October my nephew got life plus 35 for manslaughter. He's 21 years old. I went with my sister-in-law to the courthouse every single day. At the end of the trial I went to the detective from homicide and said to him, "We're not all bad people," and he said, "I know that." Then I gave him the material on the Children's Memorial Museum and I challenged him to come to the community, talk to the children, and tell them, "I don't want to see your face in homicide."
He hasn't come yet. He said things will never change, and that got me to work even harder so that they will change.
Since I started to work on the museum I have been places where I never thought I would be. Last October I met the actor Kyle Secor. I talked to him about the Children's Memorial Museum, and he took me on the set of the television program, "Homicide: Life on the Streets," which takes place in Baltimore. They ended up writing a scene in one of their shows in which the detectives walk through a Children's Memorial Museum talking about how many children get killed in our cities. They also said that if children continue to die like they're doing now, the museum will need to be as big as a stadium.
I am not a hero or saint. I just wish all children could go to school with peace of mind, not worrying about someone shooting them or stabbing or beating up on them. I love children and respect them, listen to them and learn from them. I tell them that they are very special and that they can do anything they set out to do if they stay focused on their goal.
It's especially good when the children come and say they love what's going on. They've got big brown eyes and they're looking at you and thanking you all at the same time. Or they grow up and then they come up and say, "Hi, Miss Lola. I am doing this and that." That's the reward. I want this to be a model.
After we do the Children's Memorial Museum in Baltimore, with the training in alternatives to violence and the peace community, I want to take this to other cities around the country. I envision people learning to live together in peace. All my life I've been on a spiritual journey. This is where it's taking me now. If God wants them to turn this around, He might just start it with me. Let peace start with me.

Lola Willis is a member of the New Horizons Lutheran Church, director of its Discovery After-School Program, and the creator of the Children's Memorial Museum and the Peace Community of Baltimore. For more information on the Children's Memorial Museum, call 410-485-6644.

    Remember the Names of the Children, Lola Willis, Shambhala Sun, July 1998.

Natalie Goldberg Puts It All Into Words Print

Natalie Goldberg Puts It All Into Words

Natalie Goldberg writes, as she puts it, from the bottom of her mind and from her pelvis. Don't let your imagination turn the image into a lurid metaphor. She doesn't perform a bump-and-grind for the literati. Curb the verbs. Writing is Goldberg's spiritual practice.

"Writing is where I give everything. I know that when I'm doing sitting meditation, I hold back. Writing is where I put my ass on the line." Goldberg talks like a native New Yorker, which she is. I hear it in the self-assurance, the broad vowel sounds still distinct, despite her living in Taos, New Mexico, for 15 years.

"Writing practice is my fundamental practice," she says. "I sit. I love to sit. I hate to sit. I sit quite well. I can sit still. I've been sitting for twenty-five years. But, I've given everything to writing, so I know what it means to give everything to something. I don't do that with the sitting practice. I know the difference."

Goldberg's adobe-solar house is not in Taos. It's eight miles west of town on the treeless plateau between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Rio Grande Gorge, a deep gash in the semi-desert that appears suddenly, without warning. The vertiginous crack can be mistaken for a purple shadow until you're right on top of the slash, staring down at the muddy Rio Grande roiling toward Texas.

Goldberg works in her studio, a solitary building about 200 yards from her house. When she looks out of the studio's front wall of windows, she can't see the gorge. It is several miles to her right. All she sees is the enormous high-desert sky as it bends over the horizon, a cloak on the shoulder of the earth.

As we talk, Goldberg stands hip deep in the earth, listening to the blueness of the sky. Her studio, partly buried, is made of tin cans, old tires and packed earth. It's one of Mike Reynolds' earthships - the low-cost, energy-efficient houses he started designing thirty years ago for people of Third World countries and for the poor, back-to-the-earth hippies who flocked to Taos in the sixties.

Watching billowy white clouds balancing on nothing, Goldberg says, "Writing practice lets out all my wild horses, all the stuff I've held in. Writing lets it all out. In Thunder and Lightning, (her new book she is rushing to finish before her upcoming trip to Japan in March), I'm talking about once you've let that energy out, how do you take control of it? How do you take up the reins of the wild horses and direct them someplace?"

Think of it this way, she tells me: in writing practice, you flood the whole state of Mississippi.That's a lot of energy. The next step is to learn to dig gullies and direct the water, the energy.

"I've got that energy I can direct. Let's say I'm really writing about my father and the writing is hot. And something keeps pulling me to a bologna sandwich. I go to the bologna sandwich. Not to follow that flow is to discriminate. Maybe the bologna sandwich will bring me deeper understanding of my father in some way I don't know."

Goldberg sits on the stillpoint of the present while doing her practice. The energy of the present can send her bounding from writing table to bookshelf and back, from the past to the now, faster than a fly on a sugar buzz. She lives the energy, allows it to come through her, and writes it all down with the speed of a kid stuffing her mouth with jelly beans.

"I'm in my pelvis and I'm alive when in the present," she says. "I'm grabbing thoughts as fast as they come with no attempt to sort them out. I'm grabbing them so fast that I learn nondiscrimination, non-judgment, acceptance of what comes through me, not to hold on."

Her writing practice is her spiritual practice.

"The deepest truth for me is that nothing does it like the writing practice," Goldberg says. "It kicks ass. It uses everything in me. I feel very tired after a good writing session, but also very relaxed and on the earth. Very grounded."

Sometimes, after a hot writing session, Goldberg relaxes in the big bathtub in the studio's bathroom. The studio is one room, perhaps 600 square feet, with a kitchen. There is a Zen saying: "Our room is an indication of our state of mind." The Zen state of mind is empty, clean, not cluttered. On this day, Goldberg's studio is messy.

"When my room is very neat, it usually means that I'm uptight and in a controlling mood," she admits, glancing around. "When I'm really creating, really honking, things are all over the place. I'm in a very fertile mind right now, and the studio reflects that."

The wastepaper baskets overflow with discarded sheets of paper on which her handwritten words are bent and folded into the creases. Music tapes lie scattered across the floor. The only bright spots of color are the pink blooming azalea and the huge rubber plant that threatens to engulf the couch against the wall. The walls are unpainted adobe, beige, which complements the light-brown ceiling of fitted planks. Three framed newspaper pictures of her Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi, are on the wall behind her. In the middle of the room is her L-shaped desk. One section of the L is covered by three of her latest paintings, in ink wash, of tables and chairs in a Parisian cafe. On the other section of the L is a framed photo of Katagiri Roshi and a blue notebook. The notebook is filled with her words, except for three blank pages. When those pages are completed, her new book Thunder and Lightning, Flash and Form in Writing, to be published by Bantam, will be finished. "Hopefully," she says. "I want it done before I go to Japan, so I can leave it for a while, then read it over and see what I have. I don't even know what I have right now. I've just kind of gone out there.She doesn't use a computer or a typewriter to write. Writing by hand is an important part of Goldberg's writing/spiritual practice.

"A writer must be awake, present and alive," Goldberg says. "The job of a writer, and the job in the writing practice, is to connect with that awake part. I become awake, alert, through the writing practice by moving the pen across the page. This physically connects my mind, thoughts, whole body, whole world. As a writer, I have to be in touch with the present, alert to that part of myself, that animal-sense part that looks, sees, and notices."

The animal sense, for Goldberg, is feline: a sensuous unfolding, like a cat stretching in a sunbeam, an alertness even in languid repose. A cat, when looking at a mouse, doesn't sit back and assess whether that mouse has a prettier color, or is plumper, than another mouse. A cat stays right on the moment, right on that mouse, then pounces.

"I move like an animal when I'm really present. I feel her, this animal, in my body," Goldberg tells me. "I'm writing in the place where I can come wild and unbridled. I'm incredibly loose in my body. Dynamic. Then I can make some really good leaps, say things I never thought I knew, and make connections that I never realized before. I remember things that I had forgotten a long time ago."

Recently, while writing, she remembered the goldfish she kept as a little girl. She would go with her mom or dad to the local Woolworth's and carry the goldfish home in a clear plastic bag half-filled with water.

"I'd be so excited that I'd overfeed them," she recalls. "I wanted them to eat well, but by the next day they were always dead. We'd have to throw them out and get more. This would go on for quite a while. Then, when I was writing the other day, it suddenly hit me. Those fish were dying while I was in bed as a little, innocent sleeping girl. It never hit me before, that those fish, living beings, were dying. And my heart broke."

As a kid, Goldberg admits, she was a "deeply lazy person. I ate Oreo cookies and watched TV all day. I didn't have any aspirations. I never thought about writing."

She didn't start writing until she was 24 and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She had quit George Washington University after her junior year to live in Ann Arbor with a boyfriend, whom she had met in Mexico. The relationship fizzled but she stayed on, eventually opening a restaurant, Naked Lunch. She did everything - the cooking, buying, you name it.

"I wrote some poems lying on my bed in Ann Arbor," Goldberg says while making room on her desk for her lunch. "I never felt so whole and complete as when I wrote those poems. I never felt like that before, so I just kept following the feeling. I didn't have any big thing, that this was my destiny or anything. I followed what I loved and it kept coming. It didn't come all at once. I didn't know that I was going to end up making a living as a writer. Now I'm working on my sixth book."

In 1976, she studied for six weeks with Allen Ginsberg at The Naropa Institute in Boulder.
"I first connected mind and writing through Allen," Goldberg says. "I took what Allen told me and decided that I would create and document writing as a legitimate spiritual path. Allen had a vision and I laid the bricks."

She pauses to peel the big, thick-skinned orange her mother had sent from Florida. It's a Honey Bell orange, she explains, that you can only get in Florida in January. Goldberg unwraps a slice of walnut bread and a bowl of ricotta cheese.

"I trusted in what I loved," she says around a bite. "This is really good bread. Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go."

"What do you trust within yourself now?" I ask.

"I trust passion," she replies. "I trust when I really want to do something. I just go for it. I don't even question it. Sometimes maybe that's stupid. But it's not stupid if you stay with it after the initial wildness. I think Zen practice, and also writing practice, have taught me to trust my mind with what comes up and go with it.

"When you trust, it doesn't mean blind trust. You deal with whatever comes up moment by moment, but you've made a decision to walk a certain path. You continue under all circumstances, even if it is fearful. The fear rises out of the unknown, and the known. Often we're afraid of our path."

"And how do you come to that trust?"

"With writing practice." She takes a bite out of the juicy orange to wash down the walnut bread. "I just learned to have a relationship with my mind. With my whole mind. I trust when thoughts are coming from a deep place, from the bottom of my mind. Like for instance, three years ago I suddenly flashed really strongly that I wanted to build a zendo. I had no logic for it. It came from such a strong, deep place that I went with it. That was a big project. I had to raise money. It took a year to build. A few times I thought, "Nat, you're an idiot. What did you build a zendo for?' But basically I did it and I'm happy."

The zendo is adjacent to her studio. Every Wednesday evening she and a group of friends gather there for a "Thich Nhat Hanh-style practice. I don't have a Zen teacher currently. I study with different teachers, like George Bowmen. Mike Port and I work together. One reason I want to go to Japan is to visit some monasteries and to feel the place. My teacher was a Japanese Zen master. I've practiced Zen for twenty-five years but I've never seen the country from which it sprang."

"And what do you distrust?" I ask.

"I distrust being nice - as in social chit-chat - rather than coming to the heart of the matter, of being spontaneous with your feelings. I distrust trying to behave. I distrust people who haven't been angry. I distrust the word `compassion' as the New Age sometimes uses it. Like `compassion' meaning not to look at things directly and clearly, like glazing over your eyes and getting lovey-dovey. Being nice."

A writer has the responsibility to be alert to such things as sugar-coated niceness. Goldberg stays alert by listening to the sound of color; to the past, the present and the future. She also listens by being dumb, as in not making assumptions, not being manipulative or judgmental, not being so sophisticated as to miss simple details.

"Be submissive to everything. Open. Listening," Jack Kerouac wrote. Goldberg listens with her whole body. "Sometimes I feel that I'm a walking ear," she says with a laugh. "I become really receptive to everything around me, not only sounds. Being receptive melts my edges. Leonard Cohen has some lines, "There is a crack/a crack in everything/that's how the light gets in.' For me, listening is how the light gets in."

Goldberg listens with her belly, her nose, her eyes. "There is always a part of us that is awake, listening, even though we seem to be asleep, stumbling through things," she says. "I listen to details."

"Power is in the details. Details are reflections of everything," Goldberg has written. She quotes Nabokov: "Caress the divine details.' Sometimes I slow down enough to be really aware. Then my heart is open and I caress the details. The details are my darlings."

She also listens to her inertia, insecurities, self-hate, fears, and obsessions. That is part of her creative process.

"When I listen like that, I go to where I feel nervous. That's usually where the energy is, and I use it as my edge. Then I'm not avoiding anything. If I'm not willing to look at that stuff, then I'm averting something. The writing will always be a little off, a little smelly, because I'm not standing up in all of who I am. It gives me power to look at those things because I'm not twisting around. I'm standing up."

And her obsessions? For years her obsessions were about her Jewish family. Now painting has moved to the fore.

"Painting is fun for me," she says, looking at the three table-and-chair paintings spread on her desk. "It's my second art form. It feeds writing. Writing is where I put my ass on the line. Whatever comes up, I'll continue to write. Painting is more like a salami sandwich. I enjoy eating a salami sandwich, but I don't need to eat one every day."

She pauses, as if listening to the details in her words. "I don't know if it's an obsession, but I keep asking myself this question: "What have I learned from all those years of sitting zazen?' I've done 100-day trainings. I've sat a lot and still do. So what is it? I've taken everything I've learned and given it to writing. If I let go of writing, what is it that I know, just there, bald-face, in front of me?"

I read a passage from her book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, (Shambhala Publications, 1986): "Writing can teach us the dignity of speaking the truth, and it spreads out from the page into all our life. Otherwise, there is too much of a schism between who we are as writers and how we live our daily lives. That is the challenge: to let writing teach us about life and life teach us about writing. Let it flow back and forth."

Goldberg listens thoughtfully. "How are you doing with the challenge?" I ask.

She gathers up the orange peels and sweeps bread crumbs off her desk with the edge of her hand.

"What can I say?" she replies, dumping the orange peels into the overflowing wastepaper basket under the desk. "Everything I write about, I try to live all the way. What I learn in writing, I'm responsible to live. I can't write something and ignore it."

Natalie Goldberg Puts It All Into Words, Stephen Foehr, Shambhala Sun, May 1998.


Gods of Permanence and Gods of Change Print
Shambhala Sun | May 1998

Gods of Permanence and Gods of Change

Like Moloch, the god Free Market promises eternal life (growth) but delivers death and stultification. Instead, says Philip Grant, we could turn to a god like Shiva who encompasses the living cycle of birth and destruction, revolt and regeneration.

There is a famous story in Buddhist lore of how Gautama taught a mother who refused to accept the death of her only child. When, half-mad with grief, the woman begged the sage to resurrect the tiny corpse placed before him, he replied: "Find me a mustard seed from a house that has not known death and I will do as you ask." In desperation the poor wretch picked up her dead infant and rushed off in the direction of the nearest house. Several days later, haggard but now sane, the woman returned and asked forgiveness for having forgotten that no living thing can escape death. As the Buddha explained to her the four noble truths, tradition records she experienced a kind of epiphany and entered the path.
Today's world is in sore need of this kind of wisdom, irrespective of the tradition from which it comes. Without it we seem doomed to perpetuate the denial of death that lies at the core of our current economic and social thinking. This denial, however, is not of the death of individuals. It consists of a refusal to admit that our social institutions are governed by the inevitable cycle of birth, growth and death that govern every other phenomena of which we have knowledge. Nowhere is this kind of thinking more apparent than in the way we have imbued the market economy with an aura of invulnerability and immortality.
Once sorely challenged by Marxism's vision of the market as a relative, historical and eventually obsolete social institution, capitalism has responded to the collapse of communism by proclaiming, in an almost evangelical fashion, that it is the one and true deity who will suffer no other gods before it. It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to claim, as I will, that since 1989 the world has returned to a worship of the old Carthaginian god: Moloch-Mammon-Market.
Moloch reigns supreme by promising eternal life (never-ending growth), while actually delivering death to all forms of life that stand in its way. As economic globalization proceeds with unrelenting ferocity across the length and breadth of our planet, bringing in its train the destruction of the global ecosystem, indigenous communities, traditional societies, and indeed everything not underwritten by the mechanisms of finance capitalism, Moloch proclaims, like Shelley's Ozymandias, "Look on my works O ye mighty, and despair!" And so the peasants in the Philippines who paste pictures of refrigerators next to those of the Madonna are often the very ones driven into debt and disease by the practices of global companies that destroy communal land, air and water as the price of the development needed to provide the desired goods.
Moloch-market economics simply ignores this kind of destruction. The only things considered measurable by the latter-day priests of Moloch are functions of privatized production and use. The massive pollution of the environment caused by industrial production, the decay and disposal of the products it creates, the exhaustion of natural resources, the takeover of local and regional economies by multinationals, the disappearance of self-reliance, and with it the self-respect necessary for a vital communal life, are just a few of the casualties that cannot be recorded in the hieroglyphics used by the high priests of supply and demand. As a result, the pleas of the victims of globalization are not so much ignored as simply not heard.
Given that all social and political ideals must today be expressed in the language of the market, is meaningful change conceivable? Without the impetus of man-made and natural catastrophes, have human beings ever voluntarily pulled back from the abyss and adopted modes of thinking and living based on considerations of fairness, equality and compassion?
The Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once said that a close study of history reveals two contradictory trends. There are eras when people will put up with the most cruel and inhumane living conditions imaginable. Even worse, they will compound their plight by thinking up the most clever and ingenious ways of justifying the miserable systems under which they live.
But that is only one-half of the human cycle. There are other epochs when people will undergo the most brutal and violent persecution in order to change their systems. Almost nothing, even death, will deter them from attempting to fulfill their appointed work. Solzhenitsyn thought that historical periods alternated between these two poles of moral contraction and expansion, social stagnation and reform. He believed there was no reliable way of predicting when the wheel would turn, prompting darkness to give way to light, or vice versa.
I would add to Solzhenitsyn's observation the comment by Tom Paine, the great proponent of global revolution, who wrote that his own considerable study of history had convinced him that there is always enough wisdom and common sense in the world to reveal a way out of even the deepest of life's predicaments. The tragic problem of social life was that the individuals with this knowledge are not listened to when their counsel is most needed.
Yet in every age, in even the darkest moments, a sensitive student of history can detect the attempts of philanthropists in every center of civilization to remedy the most intractable problems and set their respective civilizations on the proper course. While the effectiveness of their efforts is a function of their community's willingness to learn from them, sometimes messages ignored when they are first given are resurrected by future generations and used to initiate subsequent cultural renaissances and reforms.
There is some evidence, for example, that a great global reform was attempted about seven centuries ago in four of the major centers of civilization that existed at the time. At the end of the fourteenth century, Central Asia, China, India and Western Europe were either in or about to enter a state of extreme social paralysis. What the Spanish philosopher, Ortega Y Gasset, wrote about Europe holds true for the other civilizations as well: "In the fourteenth century man disappeared beneath his social role. Everything was syndicates, guilds, corporations, states. Everybody wore the uniform of his office, even to the cut of his clothing. Everything was conventional form, preordained and settled; everything was ritual, and infinitely complicated. "
In a similar vein, Amaury de Riencort writes in The Soul of China, the colossal splendor of the Ming dynasty had provoked a social reaction in which: "Real cultural growth was out of the question...original thought could no longer emerge. Basic energy and vitality ebbed...." To the west of China, Tibetan society also had become extremely rigid, with almost the entire religious establishment of Central Asia having degenerated into a money-making machine for providing spells, potions and incantations to propitiate the dead. An analogous condition prevailed across the Himalayas in India, where a hardening caste system strangled any attempt to deviate from the detailed rituals and ceremonies prescribed by the Brahmins for their own enrichment.
In response to this social ice age, a thaw was attempted by four very different and, as far as we know, unconnected individuals. Each attempted to introduce into his society some element of the creativity, autonomy and responsibility that we today associate with the individuality of modernism.
In Central Asia, Tsong-kapa was the most triumphant. Against fantastic odds, his Buddhist reform movement, later institutionalized as the Gelugpa monastic order, successfully exiled the rich and powerful class of sorcerers and necromancers to the furthermost borders of Tibet. In its place he introduced monastic reforms that lasted over five centuries and put again at the heart of Buddhist discipline the last words of Gautama: "All conditioned things are perishable. Work out your own salvation with diligence." Tsong-kapa's system of spiritual emancipation started with a strict textual analysis in which the monks collectively participated, but ended in a tantra yoga practice that was uniquely individualized for each practitioner.
Similarly, in Ming China, Wang Yang-ming challenged the state ideology of Neo-Confucianism with his version of individuality, later known as the mad Ch'an school. In an almost secular counterpart to the Gelugpa Annuttara tantra yoga, Wang counseled his followers to find the true principles of things as existing within their own minds, and then, once intuitively grasped, to test this knowledge by immediate translation into practice. While his profound and very modern understanding of the relationship between thought and action was ultimately rejected by the Mandarin establishment, Wang, called Oyomei in Japan, eventually inspired the architects of the Meiji reform several centuries later.
Similar assertions of the moral and rational autonomy of the individual were attempted in Europe and India. In the late fifteenth century, about the time of Wang, Pico della Mirandola put forth his great restatement of the medieval idea of the "great chain of being" in his Oration to the Dignity of Man. Here, for the first time, was the claim that humanity was a species essentially unfinished, and that through the exercise of will, the individual could connect himself with the entire universe and rise above any limited conception of god. The key to this self-transformation, Pico believed, lay in finding the common thread that linked Judaism, Islam and Christianity, a kind of oral tradition, or Kabbalah, that had been transmitted by the wisest practitioners of each faith, including Moses, Jesus and the Prophet.
The Mughul emperor, Akbar, attempted an analogous reform in early sixteenth-century India. From his new capital of Fatepuhr-sikri, outside of Agra, Akbar tried for more than half a century to transform the opposing faiths of his kingdom and break the stranglehold of the caste system by introducing a new religion based on the best in all the world's religious traditions. As might have been expected, both Pico and Akbar were fanatically opposed by the religious establishments in their home countries. But, while Brahmin opposition doomed to failure most of Akbar's efforts, the Vatican suppression of Pico's ideas actually stimulated their study by most of the Renaissance humanists, including Erasmus and More.
The fourteenth-century attempt at global reform presupposed that once any limited set of ideas, no matter how noble or progressive, becomes accepted as the totality of truth, such a faith or ideology will predispose most people to cling to it long after it has ceased to be useful in confronting social problems. The result of such a divergence between thought and life, if not corrected, would then produce grotesque exaggerations in our social practices, assuring the inevitability of great collective suffering and eventual social collapse.
If we exclude the great success of Tibet (which eventually failed, as the Dalai Lama has admitted, after half a millennium - still a pretty good run), we can see that this kind of ideological thinking reasserted itself throughout the world in the seventeenth century, causing the rapid decline of India, China, Persia and Turkey. In Western Europe the great religious wars almost destroyed that civilization and it only survived by transferring its faith-ridden ideologies to first the political and then the economic spheres of life. This transformed economics, which used to be thought of as only part of an integrated science of humanity, into what I have been calling the religion of Moloch.
The chief victim of the spread of this ideological influenza in the West was the concept of individuality itself. Originally conceived as a means of transcending all intellectual and social systems that arbitrarily limited human growth and aspiration, Pico's idea of human beings as "divine chameleons," capable of ceaseless self-transformation, was replaced by an ideal of individuality that resembled the Old Testament tyrant named Jehovah, a close cousin in the history of religions to his Carthaginian neighbor, Moloch-Mammon.
The results of this curse on the thinking of the entire Western world was succinctly expressed by the social prophet, Henri Saint-Simon, in the eighteenth century: "Every man, every grouping of men, whatever its character, tends toward the increase of power. The warrior with the saber, the diplomat with his wiles, the geometer with his compass, the chemist with his retorts, the physiologist with his scalpel, the hero by his deeds, the philosopher by his combinations, all struggle to achieve command. From different sides they scale the plateau on whose height stands the fantastic being who rules all of nature and whom every man who has a strong constitution tries to replace." (My italics)
That Freud took this idea and used it to formulate his theory of the super-ego only supports its central insight. We can rise no higher than the highest being we can imagine, and in the case of the West this supreme role model has turned out to be a jealous, vindictive, authoritarian patriarch (Blake's Nobodaddy) who can do whatever he damn well pleases.
With the advent of secularization and mass society the pervasiveness of this conception has proved lethal. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the U.S.A., where the delusion that everybody can be Number One has assumed the dimensions of a national psychosis. It is no help to justify the hallucination by restating it to claim that everyone can be Number One in her or his own way. A world of seven billion Jehovahs is only another way of describing hell.
Yet this is precisely the image that the priests of Moloch are trying to push on the underdeveloped world with their media-generated vision of the Earth as Planet Hollywood. The package of advanced technology used to perpetuate this fraud does not, however, disguise the fact that humanity has once again returned to the ritualism characteristic of the fourteenth century. Only this time it is not uniforms and banners that separate portions of humanity from each other in ritualistic ways, but credit lines, consumption patterns, urban life-styles and possession of financial instruments.
But while these are promised to all by the priests of Moloch, there is simply no way, under even the most optimistic scenarios of global development, that they can be enjoyed except by the wealthy (by world standards) few. The collapse of communism has provided the religion of Moloch with billions of new converts, most of whom will end up living in the soul-destroying slums ringing the soaring glass towers that serve as the market's main centers of worship. Meanwhile the media's self-celebration of its "star-making machinery" grinds on, condemning much of the world's population to endure by living vicariously the lives of celebrities.
Acceptance of the religion of the global marketplace commits its adherents to the assumption that its laws are unerring and its institutions immortal. We have endowed the system that produces capital with the omnipotence, supreme intelligence and invulnerability previously allowed only to Jehovah. This is why the most fervent proponents of globalization are also the ones who blame the weak, the poor and the disadvantaged for not being able to take advantage of the great opportunity the market offers them.
Under this system of economic predestination, the perfect justice of Jehovah-Moloch-Market dictates that only those who deserve to could possibly fail. Failure to own financial instruments has thus become the global system's scarlet letter, a sure sign of sin.
Any religion based on faith in omnipotent idols is sure to fail. Its most vulnerable point is its own logic of irresponsibility. Salvation can only be guaranteed to individuals, not systems.
Hence there is no inducement in Moloch's universe to provide an equitable distribution of the wealth it produces. In fact, most of the key players look for ways they can accumulate more and more, and thus become, in terms of the system, invulnerable and immortal. Once in such a position they can violate the laws of the market at will, even to the point of endangering the system which allowed them to accumulate their wealth. Like Jehovah, who has no reason to obey the laws he has created, there is always the overwhelming temptation in this religion for the big winners to take the money and run.
(Masters of the market, however, sometimes take great pains to conceal this logic of irresponsibility. The billionaire Henry Kravis was recently reported as telling his ex-wife that the megarich must make a well-publicized show of contributing to well-known charities in order to avoid unsettling the minds of the masses who have little or nothing, and always will.)
Fortunately, some of the wealth of Moloch that is ever concentrating itself in the most industrialized countries has funded an increasing number of converts to a counter-religion that bases its worship not on faith but on direct, personal experience of the dominant system. This is the vanguard of what I think represents a new attempt at global reform, a movement that can only grow in numbers and influence. Its adherents include all those who want to move towards a society more in keeping with a community of creativity and responsibility, autonomy and interdependence, individuality and the recognition that the human species must act as a custodian to all the forms of life that support it.
The symbols of this new movement are many, but foremost among them must be placed the mythological figures of Shiva and Hermes. Classical Indian iconography always represented Shiva, the god of death and regeneration, as a graceful youth. Alternatively, in the Mediterranean mythologies, Hermes was a winged youth bearing in his hands the caduceus, symbol of the power to create and destroy.
In these images is contained a great truth about the importance of the idea of generations in understanding how civilizations are to be renewed. As Ortega explained in his forgotten classic, Man and Crisis: "Culture, the purest product of the live and genuine, since it comes out of the fact that man feels with an awful anguish and a burning enthusiasm the relentless needs of which his life is made up, ends by becoming a falsification of that life. Man's genuine self is swallowed up by his cultured, conventional, social self."
It is the natural task of the young, Ortega claims, those who feel the "awful anguish" and the "burning enthusiasm" of life's problems most keenly, to correct the tendency towards unthinking ritualism and restore to their culture the vitality that is always lost when institutions, however enlightened, become well established.
Conversely, if the young are not given the chance to perform their allotted role in life, the results can be socially suicidal. What makes the alienation of the young a natural and unfortunate part of the process of socialization is that only rarely are they allowed to take an active role in creating their own identities. Moreover, the problem increases almost proportionately to the success of the social institutions they inherit. In any culture in which the immediate problems of life have been met, the complex of rules, roles and relationships into which the young are socialized becomes almost irresistibly seductive. The smoothly lubricated machinery of life makes it too easy to accept the sense of self that the culture thrusts upon them, without thinking any of it through. And by abdicating responsibility for fashioning their own identities, undeniably the most creative act any human being can undertake, it is just another short step to the observation of Thoreau that "most people live lives of quiet desperation."
The most famous representation of Shiva in Indian art shows the youth dancing within a ring of fire upon the body of an ugly dwarf, who could very well represent the constricted sense of identity that socialization into any highly defined culture conditions us to take for granted. This symbol might also mean that the flourishing of any civilization depends on the ability of the young of each generation to mirror the heroic cycle of withdrawal, assimilation and return to which Joseph Campbell so tirelessly worked at drawing our attention. Ortega also believed that a society remains flexible, versatile and creative when social conditions allow the young to complete this cycle of withdrawal and return.
Young people who have as yet no stake in the existing system of social relations are more likely to see through its failures and betrayals. They are driven by a real desire to act authentically and discover who they really are. Youth does not like compromise and tries to live life on its own terms. It often looks with contempt on older generations who take society so much for granted that they will compromise almost any ideal to avoid disrupting their habitual routine.
Since the middle generations, on average, continually counsel young people to grow up, accept the system and enjoy its fruits, often the only allies of youth are the very old who have passed beyond the spell society once cast over them and gained a detachment not attainable by those who take the current system of rules, roles and social relationships too seriously. This natural alliance between those who are just entering life and those who are getting ready to leave it is one more meaning of the iconography of depicting the god of death as a dancing youth.
An associated meaning was also contained in the symbol of Hermes' caduceus, now familiar to us as the physician's staff: a pair of intertwined cobras gliding up a central wooden pole or axis. The two serpents represented life and death, with the axis emblematic of stability or stasis. At the top of the pole is a circular ornament suggestive of the perfection towards which the two reptiles are climbing but will never reach - an ever-receding goal.
Try to separate the two serpents, the ancient Greeks believed, and they will both bite you. Life will become a kind of perpetual fever which we can never shake; death will assume the form of a vast negation, a darkness from which we must continually flee, while the staff of life, the great tree of knowledge itself, will wither and die. When the three elements are in balance, however, upward movement is assured through a spiral-like process that is simultaneously steady and dynamic, expanding and contracting, living and dying.
While originally conceived as an image representing perfectly balanced physical and moral health, the idea can also be fruitfully applied to social and environmental health, and the relationship between generations as well.
Can we imagine social structures, economic systems, and political institutions that reflect these profound ideas of the proper relationship between creation, preservation, death and regeneration? Can we design schools that teach versatility and self-education; work that allows periods of daily withdrawal and contemplation as well as longer periods of travel, study and retraining; pricing systems that recognize disposal as part of the cost of production; health care systems that give equal attention to promoting health as well as treating illness; flexible leadership that provides guidance but also empowers the led?
More immediately, can our knowledge that life and death are inseparable reveal ways of living based on a sense of the sacredness of the sphere, Gaia, that supports us all? And most important of all, can we allow the young to ask questions that we cannot, at present, even remotely conceive?
What the young require most is the conviction that a substantial part of the world they are about to inherit will remain plastic to the impress of their touch.
Tom Paine recognized this when he proposed to the U.S. Congress that upon reaching the age of adulthood, every adolescent should be given a portion of the national wealth equivalent to the value of the natural resources that had been consumed by an average member of the preceding generations. Paine, whose motto, "My country is the world, my religion is to do good" inspired the young of his day, felt keenly that the great promise of the American revolution was also the promise of the whole world.
For this global revolution to succeed, he wrote, every youth must be made to feel that he or she will enter life on equal terms with those who went before. Any social system that allows its members to squander what properly belongs to future generations should therefore be torn down and replaced. This idea so impressed Jefferson that he proposed in turn that each generation should create its own Constitution to ensure the social system would reflect its own vital needs.
All of these ideas reflect the importance of providing the young with a living matrix of possibility within which they can dream and experiment with their own lives. This cannot be done if the very vehicle that supports life, the global ecosystem, is irreparably damaged through the irresponsible acts of the proponents of economic globalization. The destruction of the environment represents the death of all of youth's dreams. More than that, it robs youth of the very ability to dream by depriving them of hope. Much like the nuclear threat of the cold war was shown to have a devastating effect on the moral lives of children, so the looming specter of ecological collapse works in countless ways to poison the imaginations of those who are born "trailing clouds of glory."
Adults can only respond to this crisis in creativity by working to replace the religion of Moloch, which in ancient Carthage was practiced through the mass sacrifice of children, with the new religions of responsibility that celebrate the logic of possibility. As the current series of international conferences on global warming was designed to apply the best knowledge we have available of the effects of our patterns of living on the biosphere, so must the nations of the world hold similar conclaves on the consequences of all aspects of economic globalization for increasing opportunities for the young. These meetings might slowly push us into recognizing that the young can act responsibly if they are convinced that what they do will make a difference.
For the youth of the world to be socially reborn we must allow them to play their appointed role in helping the current system to die a natural death. Then perhaps we can answer with some sincerity the question posed by that now forgotten New Age pioneer and spokesman for the young, Cat Stevens, when he sang: "We've come a long way, we're changing day to day, but tell me, where do the children play?"

Gods of Permanence and Gods of Change, Phillip Grant, Shambhala Sun, May 1998.


Feet to the Fire Print

Feet to the Fire

 bares his sole at a traditional Japanese firewalk.

Chanting flows down the mountainside to meet us as we walk up the steep stone steps outside Nyoirin Temple, hidden among the giant cypress trees on Nakatsumine Mountain in rural Shikoku, Japan. On a small, jury-rigged platform just inside the temple's wooden gate stands Tenkoken Mangetsu, a well-known singer in the area, singing kukai songs in praise of Kobo Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism.

Dressed in bright reddish-orange robes, the chief priest, Kaijyo Yamada, strides across the courtyard of the temple that has been his family's home for ages, welcoming visitors and asking them to join in a shijo meal in the temple hall. He's a bundle of nerves because today he must prepare for the temple's annual firewalk, a tradition with roots in Japan's distant past.

Reverend Yamada can't put a precise date on when the firewalks began in Japan, but he thinks the ritual dates back to the early days of Buddhism, at least six centuries. As Japan's Shinto believers also use the firewalk as a method of spiritual awakening, Yamada suspects the first Buddhist firewalks probably sprang from the Shinto faith, which had much influence on Japanese Buddhism in its early days.

We walk around to a roped-off enclosure just to the left of the temple, where several monks are wrapping a huge set of wooden prayer beads around the top layer of a meter-high pile of logs draped with cypress boughs. A small, makeshift altar holding an offering of fruit, salt and biscuits stands directly behind the stacked logs.

As I circle the enclosure, stopping to say a silent prayer at the granite statues that hug the hill, a nagging worry that has been bothering me for a few days worms its way back into my mind: should I walk today or not? Does it make sense to try a second firewalk after my last experience? A few weeks earlier I had walked at another firewalk-not a Buddhist or a Shinto ritual but a New Age seminar-and managed to get across the coals. But I did get burned, and any illusions I had about walking across the coals unscathed had been shattered. My aching feet were living proof to that; the blisters on the bottom of my feet were still healing.

Temperatures vary, but the coals in an average firewalk are about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 650 degrees Celsius. Since human skin chars at 160 Celsius, it's fortunate that I walked away-hopped away is probably more accurate-without serious damage to my soles. I did need a generous lathering of aloe vera lotion on my feet later that evening.

So it was with some ambivalence that I gazed at this meter-high stack of logs inside that roped ground and tried to suppress the anxiety I had felt a few weeks earlier from flooding back.
The previous firewalk hadn't been a complete failure. I had managed to walk across four meters of blazing hot coals without needing hospitalization. In fact, most of the other participants in that firewalk had walked with almost no sign of pain. Several had walked across the fire several times and the seminar leader, a Canadian teacher with years of firewalking experience, had walked four or five times that night alone. But my own concentration had been broken that evening during a crucial part of the preparation seminar, a guided visual meditation. I had attributed my blisters to this lack of preparation, and was now willing to make a second try.

This time, my Japanese friend Sawako reassured me, the coals wouldn't be so hot. I wondered why these particular coals would be any cooler than those at my first firewalk but hoped her optimism was well-founded. Since Japanese Buddhists have been walking on coals for centuries, I figured I had to put some trust in their tradition.

After a meal of tofu-spinach salad, miso soup, mandarin oranges and rice in the tatami-mat living quarters of the temple, the participants filed outside to the ceremony area. In a few minutes, we could hear the sound of a conch-shell horn and the distant chanting of the priests from the temple buildings high above us.

Rev. Yamada explained later that the procession starts at the gomado, a small smoky shrine next to the main hall where the sacred fire is prepared in an ancient round hearth. Cypress wood is burned and the flame is used to light the tip of a three-meter-long bamboo pole. Then the dozen priests who will officiate at the ritual file down the 108 steep stone steps leading from the main temple buildings to the sacred firewalk enclosure.

The priests carry staffs, scrolls of scriptures, and a sacred statue of Fudo Myo-o, the god of mercy and anger. The statue stands inside a wooden box, called an ozushi, brandishing a rope in one hand and a sword in the other, with fire burning around its head. He is black, the combination of all colors, to signify that anyone can be saved by him.

Fudo Myo-o is the focus of the firewalk ceremony in the Shingon tradition, which is an offspring of tantric Tibetan Buddhism. Fudo Myo-o represents fire, which Rev. Yamada explains is one of the six sacred roots, or rokon shojo, in the Shingon system. The other five are earth, water, wind, sky and mind. It is meditation on the nature of Fudo Myo-o-and how this element fits into dainichi nurai, or the Cosmos-that is the essential focus of the firewalk ritual.

The ozushi is placed on the altar behind the firelogs and Rev. Yamada sits on a large cushion directly in front of the unlit bonfire. A tall, bald monk with a sonorous voice takes a scroll of Buddhist scriptures and starts the ceremony by chanting in Sanskrit. He then takes a long bow and fires several arrows into the air in different directions, as the onlookers scramble to retrieve them. The arrows chase away any unwanted demons or evil spirits and, along with the sprinkling of salt on the ground around the firewalking pit, symbolically purify the area.

Finally, as a conch shell horn wails in the background, two monks use bamboo poles to light the bonfire with the flame that was brought from the gomado. The fire crackles and thick, acrid smoke slowly creeps from the pile of logs. As the smoke begins to billow out, the onlookers cough and sputter as the fire comes to life and the smoke drifts high above the mountain top.

Before the firewalk begins, supplicants prepare prayer sticks of plain light wood, called gomaki, to send wishes to Buddha. These sticks will be tossed into the fire by the monks during the firewalk ceremony. My friend Sawako asks for success for her son Yoshi in his elementary school examinations. Rev. Yamada says these wishes are really petty annoyances that bother us in our daily life; throwing the gomaki in the fire represents the destruction of these small earthly desires and their transformation into a more profound love. Of course, Rev. Yamada adds, even though people realize that only by denial of these worldly desires can they reach true spiritual understanding, they may still want their wishes to come true as quickly as possible.

The giant wooden prayer beads, which the monks have taken off the bonfire before lighting it, are handed from one person to another as the onlookers chant and gaze at the flames. The beads, as long as a boa constrictor and just as animated, snake their way around the fire again and again, accompanied by the singing of sacred Buddhist scriptures. An older woman presses the beads against her shoulder and neck, rubbing the beads for extra effect. The priests circle the fire, chanting prayers and simultaneously grabbing dozens of prayer sticks and tossing them into the fire. The people standing outside the roped area watch as the sticks fly in arcs toward the flame and disappear. As the fire grows in intensity, the monks edge away from the fire, dashing close once in a while to rescue any errant sticks that have dropped short of their mark.

As the fire dies down a little, several monks use long-handled bamboo sticks with metal claws on the end to tear apart the smoldering log-frame and the glowing coals are spread out to form a path. Two monks beat the coals with such intensity that one bamboo pole snaps in two. The coals gradually die down and form the hot, powdery base that people will walk across.

All this happens quickly and with precision as the crowd presses around the roped enclosure. One monk takes his position at one corner, pounding a steady beat on a brown, half-meter diameter drum and another lowers the rope to let the firewalkers inside. The remaining monks take a twenty-kilogram bag of salt and pour the contents along the pathway. The salt serves two purposes: blessing the fire and covering the coals so the fire is not so intense.

The crowd surges forward through the opening and forms a line behind Rev. Yamada, who is now at the head of the firewalk pit. Meditating for half an hour in front of the fire, he has tried to become one with the fire by allowing the small cosmos, represented by the fire, to expand and join with the huge cosmos. This meditation, he explains later, is a renunciation of worldly desire in an attempt to attain a higher consciousness. He doesn't expect all the people at the firewalk to meditate in this way, but those who understand Buddhist concepts will feel something spiritual when they walk across the fire. Many walk because they believe it will help their requests to Buddha to come true, others because they believe it will help them remain healthy during the cold winter-sort of a spiritual booster shot.

Rev. Yamada admits he feels anxious himself before each firewalk. But as he stands at the head of the firepit, he simply gives himself up to Fudo Myo-o and when he feels ready, he walks. He has been burned in the past, so he doesn't walk slowly to show off his spiritual superiority. He folds his hands together in prayer, chanting loudly with his prayer beads in hand; he takes a few steady strides and walks across the two-meter stretch of coals.

The participants roll up their pant legs and take off their socks. Except for the uninitiated and the very young, fear doesn't seem to be a factor now. Young and old stand in line, waiting to go. A priest takes a wooden stick with a colorful flag on it and hands it to the first lay firewalker -and he walks across. Dozens and dozens follow, some praying, some walking slowly, and others quickly. No one cries or shows any sign of pain, or even discomfort. The air is filled with chanting and an atmosphere of mutual support and trust adds to the sense of security around the fire. The line of priests at the side of the firepit is not only for spiritual but physical assistance: if anyone stumbles or is getting burned, they are there to help out. If there are any burns, Rev. Yamada calls them "scolding" from Buddha.

Finally I arrive at the head of the line with my six-year-old daughter. I intend to walk with her hand-in-hand but the monk says: "No, only one person at a time." I take the stick he offers me and, looking straight ahead, I step onto the coals. There is no heat, no searing pain. I don't really have time to think about anything and before I realize it, I am on the other side, watching my daughter walk towards me.

She cries: "It's hot!" and scampers across the fire shouting, but with a smile on her face. Once she reaches the other side, she's fine. We check her feet and find one small black spot where she has stepped on a live coal. My feet are unscathed; the only scars are from that previous firewalk. Two young boys of five and eight, Sawako's sons, also walk across and find it hot, but not painful.

The long, involved preparation for the New Age-style firewalk was intense, but somehow this traditional-and salt-cooled-Buddhist firewalk was more successful for me. The Buddhist ceremony didn't directly address questions of fear or the heat of the fire. Presumably the faithful were so involved in the ritual that the more mundane question of burning flesh was abandoned. As their minds concentrated on matters of the mind and spirit, their feet glided across the coals relatively unscathed.

As for me, the shortness of the walk and the copious amount of salt did wonders for my courage. I was also relieved to hear that they also dig up and prepare the soil in the firewalk bed, removing any small stones, to prevent burns. Apparently in the past some priests were burned by small stones, and they didn't want this to happen again.

Strangely, my feet didn't even get black from the cinders. And the blisters and scars from the earlier firewalk feel much better after my trot across these coals. Maybe a third firewalk is worth considering.

Feet to the Fire, Eric Simpson, Shambhala Sun, May 1998.


The Life of a "Lazy Monk" Print

The Life of a "Lazy Monk"


During the Han dynasty, at about the beginning of the Christian era, many Indian and central Asian Buddhist monks traveled to China to share the dharma. Many of those who went by sea landed first in Vietnam, and there they started the prominent Luy Lau Center of Buddhist Studies, where traveling monks could rest, teach meditation and study Chinese before going on to China. The first treatise on Buddhism in Chinese ("Dissipating Doubts about Buddhism") was written in Vietnam in the first century C.E. by the Chinese expatriate Mou Tzu.

The dhyana (meditation) school of Buddhism (Thien in Vietnamese, Chan in Chinese, Zen in Japanese) was introduced to Vietnam in the third century by Tang Hoi, a Buddhist monk of central Asian descent who taught meditation and translated many sutras into Chinese before going on to southern China in 255 C.E. According to the Kao Seng Chuan, the first Buddhist temple in the Kingdom of Wu was built for Tang Hoi, and the first monastic ordination in Wu was conducted by him. The text concludes, "After the arrival of Tang Hoi, the dharma began to prosper south of the Yangtse River."

Two hundred years later, before Bodhidharma arrived in China, an Indian monk named Dharmadeva came to Vietnam to teach dhyana Buddhism. Beginning in the sixth century, six important schools of dhyana Buddhism were founded in Vietnam. Today the dhyana and pure land schools are the most important in Vietnam; in addition, because of contact with Laos and Cambodia, there are also Theravadin Buddhists.

Dhyana master Thich Nhat Hanh was born in central Vietnam in the mid-1920's during the period of French colonialism. He became a monk at the beautiful Tu Hieu pagoda in Hue at the age of 16. As a young monk, he wrote many books, including a collection of poems, The Autumn Flute (1949); The Family in the Practice (1952); How to Practice Buddhism (1952); and Buddhist Logic (1952). He also wrote many newspaper articles, edited two journals, coined the term "engaged Buddhism," and helped found what was to become the foremost center of Buddhist studies in South Vietnam, the An Quang Buddhist Institute, all before he reached the age of 30.

In 1960, Thich Nhat Hanh came to the U.S. to study comparative religion at Princeton University, and he was subsequently appointed lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia. In 1963, he returned to Vietnam to join his fellow monks in their nonviolent efforts to stop the war. That year, all mahayana and Theravadin Buddhists in the country came together to form the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.

In 1964-65, Thich Nhat Hanh founded the School of Youth for Social Service, teaching young monks, nuns, and lay students to go into the countryside to set up schools and health clinics, and later to rebuild bombed villages; La Boi Press, a prestigious Buddhist publishing house; Van Hanh Buddhist University; and the Order of Interbeing, guided by fourteen mindfulness trainings (precepts) of engaged Buddhism. He continued his prolific writing and served as editor-in-chief of the official journal of the Unified Buddhist Church.

In 1966, Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to the U.S. to lead a symposium on Vietnamese Buddhism at Cornell University and also to convey to Americans the suffering of the Vietnamese peasants caused by the war. When he called for a unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal of U.S. troops, he was denounced by the South Vietnamese government and was unable to return home.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying, "I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity." Thich Nhat Hanh was granted asylum in France, and during the Paris Peace Talks he served as chair of the Buddhist Peace Delegation.

In 1982, Thich Nhat Hanh and his long-time colleague, Sister Chan Khong, founded Plum Village, a monastic retreat in southwestern France. When asked to describe himself, Thich Nhat Hanh usually says, "I am a lazy monk."

Today hundreds of communities and small groups worldwide follow the way of mindful living taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. In November, 1997, Thich Nhat Hanh founded Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont, and his students are looking for land to begin other retreat and practice centers in the U.S. His books have sold more than 1.5 million copies and his retreats and lectures attract thousands of followers. His presence, many feel, conveys the essence of Buddhadharma, and his words, simple and direct, communicate the teachings of the Buddha in ways anyone can understand.

Arnie Kotler is a dharma teacher and the founding editor of Parallax Press. To receive a complete catalog of books and tapes by Thich Nhat Hanh, a list of groups practicing in his tradition, and a schedule of mindfulness retreats led by him and his students, you can write to Parallax Press/Community of Mindful Living, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707. Website:

The Life of A "Lazy Monk", Arnie Kotler, Shambhala Sun, March 1998

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