Monthly Archives: February 2022

Two Old Favorites Remembered

Thoughts and memories about two old favorites of mine.  Recently I heard about the death of Thich Nhat Hanh, and I was jarred into an awareness that I had forgotten how much I was inspired by him when I was a young man.  He and D. T. Suzuki and a few others made a home for me in Zen.  That was before I had discovered the Chinese masters and made new friends.

Thich Nhat Hanh was a monk in the Vietnamese Zen tradition, otherwise called  Vietnamese Thien—equivalent to Chinese Chan, and then Japanese Zen.  And this is how we usually term it in the West.  The Vietnamese received this tradition directly from the Chinese, without any Japanese influence, so it has that kind of “softer” feel to it.

Thich Nhat Hanh was not welcome either in North Vietnam or South Vietnam during the war years because of his  nonviolence teaching.  In fact he had to live in France for several decades before he was allowed to return home about 2005.

Here’s a few quotes from him:

“There is no need to run, strive, search or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation. Most people cannot believe that just walking as if you have nowhere to go is enough.”

“The Buddha said, ‘My practice is the practice of nonpractice.’ That means a lot. Give up all struggle. Allow yourself to be, to rest.”

“People talk about entering nirvana, but we are already there. Aimlessness and nirvana are one.”

“Many of us have been running all our lives. Practice stopping.”

“So please, when you practice meditation or walking meditation, don’t make any effort. Allow yourself to be like that pebble at rest. The pebble is resting at the bottom of the river and the pebble does not have to do anything. While you are walking, you are resting. While you are sitting, you are resting.”

“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.”

“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.”

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”


Deceptively simple words, and very vulnerable to misinterpretation.  Also, remember the context of these words and  the audience they are meant for: the modern West.  We are folks who are, in his words, “rushing toward the future.”  We practice idolatry with our so-called achievements which have the substantiality of mist, vanishing in a “breeze.”  Thus the anxiety, the fear of loss; in the face of which, the intensification of effort to “roll that boulder up that hill” which seems to be the icon of modern life. .   And when we become religious/spiritual we tend to succumb to that same dynamic (and that’s true for all religious traditions).   But Thich Nhat Hanh is here pointing us toward the “treasure” that rust cannot destroy, moth cannot eat, thief cannot take.  

But there is another still deeper aspect to Nhat Hanh’s words.  We find ourselves with a profound dilemma, an unresolvable paradox.  There are a few Zen stories and koans that illustrate the matter…like this one:

 A martial arts student went to his teacher and said earnestly, “I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it.”

The teacher’s reply was casual, “Ten years.” Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher thought for a moment, “20 years.”

So we are to act without acting; to do without doing; to seek without seeking; to want without wanting; to grasp by…….letting go.  The spiritual life begins here.

Another quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: 

“Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a life span beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die. We believe that we are born from nothing and when we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with fear of annihilation.

“The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.”

A very challenging quote; also a deep summary of what is at the heart of all Buddhism.  And also very vulnerable to being misunderstood and misinterpreted.   More words here would not help.  It is not at the level of concepts or notions that one begins to get a sense of what Nhat Hanh is pointing to.  Here we are in the presence of a truth that either one realizes or not.  

The other person I found myself pondering is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor.  Intelligent, charismatic, he saw the staleness of Christianity in modern Germany, the social, conventional stance of a “nationalist Christianity.”  He touched the hearts of many young Germans with a vision of radical discipleship.  He resisted the Nazi regime from the very beginning.  He was a dedicated pacifist, until things got really bad when he tried to help the men who set out to kill Hitler.  Bonhoeffer was caught and executed.

  Now this was a strange occurrence.  Bonhoeffer had been one of my favorites about 40 years ago when, as a young monk, I was studying theology.  I wrote a paper about Bonhoeffer’s Christology for one of my classes and got an A, but that’s not what drew me to him!  In any case, years later I kind of lost track of his writings, and I honestly had not one thought about him or his writings for at least the last 20 years or so….until out of the clear blue his name popped up, out of nowhere, with no provocation, in the midst of some ruminations.  I could not resist revisiting some of my favorite quotes of his that still cause me to “wake up.”

And here’s a few of them:

“In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. . . . The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought that takes success for its standard.”

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

“The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.”

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our important daily tasks, just as the priest-perhaps reading the Bible-passed by the man who had fallen among robbers. When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised in our lives to show us that God’s way, and not our own, is what counts.”

“Do not worry! Earthly goods deceive the human heart into believing that they give it security and freedom from worry. But in truth, they are what cause anxiety. The heart which clings to goods receives with them the choking burden of worry. Worry collects treasures, and treasures produce more worries. We desire to secure our lives with earthly goods; we want our worrying to make us worry-free, but the truth is the opposite. The chains which bind us to earthly goods, the clutches which hold the goods tight, are themselves worries.”

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.  Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.”

“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”

“Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.”

“The gift of Christ is not the Christian religion, but the grace and love of God which culminate in the cross.” 

Two very interesting and profound human beings.  How do you compare them?  Well, you don’t.  Words can lead you to appreciate the gift you receive in their lives, but also the same words can get in the way of your own realization of the Truth they bear.  Suffice it to say that both lives give authentic witness to the Truth within us.