off the shelf | Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

brief reflections on books I haven’t read in a while

Mural in Puerto Vallarta. Photo by the author.

I first read Being Peace while I was in divinity school. Though the course focused on religious pluralism, we spent several weeks diving into particular religious traditions (which was particularly helpful since I’d just switched my concentration from historical theology to the comparative study of religion and had little background in anything beyond Christianity and Judaism). The professor, a renowned scholar in her field and among the first academics to talk seriously and systematically about religious pluralism, sidestepped the typical introduction to religious diversity. Instead of starting with ancient scripture, a detailed timeline, or idealized or decontextualized imagery, we approached each tradition as anyone ambling through a bookseller might — through popular, not academic, texts that might pop up among your Amazon recommendations if you query “books about religion” or “what is Islam?”

Too many introductions to the world’s religious traditions, whether academic or popular books, documentaries or depictions in films or on TV, push current popular practice to the side and prioritize sacred texts, obsessively compiled timelines, and reconstruction of ancient ideals and customs. Such forays might have aimed to be scientific or objective, but they reflect and project the priorities and worldviews of their authors. This includes a not-so-subtle preoccupation with scripture, a preoccupation that is rooted in the Protestant Christian belief in the authority and primacy of scripture. As a result, generations of scholars have been trained to assume the authority of text in all traditions and engage a fruitless compare-and-contrast that makes it easy to find the “good parts” (the parts that resonate with and affirm the wisdom of Christian scripture) among the religious ideas of others and even easier to excavate evidence to demonstrate their inferiority. By consciously or unconsciously projecting one’s biases onto other traditions, generations of students of religion have failed to meet other traditions on their terms, in their own lived contexts. They fail to meaningfully engage difference.

The result includes three effects. First, it leads to severely limited understanding that will require significant unlearning down the road — the “two steps forward, three steps backward” effect. Second, it bolsters the arrogance that typically accompanies Western academic approaches. The study of religion, like many disciplines of the academy, was (mixing metaphors…buckle up…) steeped in troubling waters (sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, all the isms that wreak social injustice and suffering) and bruised in the ivory tower’s echo chamber. Finally and, in my mind, most urgently, that approach relegates people’s lives to encyclopedia entries and museum exhibits. It traps them in the past and, by implication, condemns contemporary practice to ancient irrelevance.

As a student in the field and as a teacher, I’ve tried to follow my professor’s example — instead of relying on dry textbooks, written by academics for academics, I looked to sources that spark a dialogue between practitioners and open-minded others and that people actually encounter. This, too, presents a challenge, as most religious practitioners engaged in “outreach” efforts are motivated by their desire to proselytize or inculcate, not just to inform or educate. They’re also limited by the scope of their beliefs, which may mean incomplete understanding of sibling traditions (devout Shi’a and Sunni Muslims might offer considerably different accounts of Islamic history), clouded perspectives on sensitive topics (the experience of Catholic women and their role in their church would be treated in radically different terms by a feminist theologian and an Opus Dei priest), and a lens on the tradition filtered by any number of intersections (authors’ identities inform, impact, and potentially distort their perspectives). I don’t mean this as criticism of those practices or beliefs — while they are (more often than not) earnest, heartfelt, and sincere expressions of devotion and enthusiasm for their faith, they’re not particularly effective introductions to traditions.

Being Peace is an example of the few introductory texts that rest in the sweet spot between the swamps of proselytization and the academic desert. While he makes an appeal for a broader commitment to peace, Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t seem to be writing to recruit converts to Mahayana Buddhism (though the book has been the start for many who venture down that path), and, while it isn’t a “scholarly” text, it is deft in its reframing of concepts and practices that have either become too exclusive through their formalization (like meditation — not as an escape from society but as a preparation for navigating it), are broadly misunderstood (like Siddhartha, the first Buddha — being portrayed not as a god or unattainable exemplar but as a human with the same Buddha-potential as anyone else), or that promise new paths for integrating Buddhist practice into modern living (like “engaged Buddhism” that focuses on mindful practice toward social justice). Being Peace reads less as a treatise, more as an extended conversation with a wise old friend, and like the best chats with the best friends, certain words and insights remain alive and continue to reverberate years later. Also like those chats, you come away from the book learning more about yourself than about anything else.

Thich Nhat Hanh died recently. Aged 95, he was a prolific author, a widely impactful teacher, and a deeply impactful activist. He defied the image of a Zen monk who locked away to play with koans and meditate while facing walls and reoriented his practice, highlighting meditation and mindfulness not as a practice of separation and perfection but as a path toward integration with and impact on society. The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, may be the world’s most popular Buddhist, thanks to decades of activism on behalf of Tibet, but Thich Nhat Hanh, nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr., for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize, is probably the world’s most influential Buddhist. I’m grateful that I got to have a long conversation with him over the years that started with Being Peace, a conversation that continues to challenge me, encourage me, and guide me toward embodying one of his central teachings:

“Understanding and love aren’t two separate things, they’re just one.”

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Bill Hulseman

Bill Hulseman

Ritual designer & officiant, educator, facilitator | billhulseman.com