Thich Nhat Hanh, known to his community in France as Thay, is an 88 year old Buddhist monk who has been an inspiration to me, since in the middle of the Vietnam war he went to the USA to make known the suffering of the Vietnamese people and to encourage peace. He met Martin Luther King and became his spiritual brother. In his later life he founded the Plum Village Community in France, where he has taught the truths of Buddhism from a Zen perspective. He is known throughout the world. Recently he suffered a severe stroke from which he is gradually recovering.
For me, although his personal example of humility, courage and integrity goes beyond all his other teaching, his exploration of what he calls “interbeing” has helped my understanding of the Christian doctrine of the “communion or partnership of the Holy Spirit.” (see my previous two blogs on this site)
Thay teaches that what we consider as our personal identity is “empty” – meaning that when we come try to determine its content – is it our body, our brain, our personality, our social position- ? we realise that it is none of these and cannot be all of them. What we are cannot be defined and is not fixed. We do not end at our finger tips: the molecules of our skin are contiguous and continuous with the molecules of the space in which we move or the molecules of the hand of the person we are greeting. Conventionally of course we see ourselves and other as discrete beings, and this convention is not harmful unless we take it too seriously, as for example when we think we can damage others and our fellow creatures without damaging ourselves. For Thay, nothing that exists has self- identity: the world is empty – of substantial selves, empty and marvellous. He means that we are not fixed, static, separate entities, but rather changeable, mobile, communal entities in a world of relationships. If we try to hang on to our individual identity and see everything from the perspective of our individual interests, we perpetuating an illusion and causing suffering to ourselves and others. By means of disciplined meditation we need to waken up to the shared life which is available to us NOW, in this present moment, as we walk along the street or sit at our desk or care for our cattle. This dimension of awareness he calls “interbeing” because in it we realise the life we share with all the elements of the universe. He sees this awakening to life, this enlightenment, as the aim of the Buddha’s teaching – and of Jesus’ teaching too!
It doesn’t sound much like Jesus, does it? But perhaps if we call to mind Jesus’ teaching about the self:
the one who tries to save his self will lose it
unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear fruit
deny self and take up your cross and follow me
not to mention his words on interbeing:
Abide in me and I will abide in you
– we may be able to see a point of contact.
I consider that there are real similarities between what Thay calls interbeing and what the Christian tradition calls the communion of the Holy Spirit. The Buddhist teaching works if you like, downwards, by denying the individual self to reach a world of relationships, whereas the Christian teaching works upwards, accepting the individual self but linking it to a world of relationships. The Buddhist teaching makes the individual self unreal; the Christian teaching insists that the communal identity, experienced in the assemblies of Jesus, is the true fulfilment of the individual. Both reject the conventional view of individual identity in ways that can seem alarming and painful. For the Buddhist interbeing is truth, for the Christian it is God’s Spirit; for the Buddhist it is the sangha: for the Christian, the church; for the Buddhist it involves an acceptance of personal death; for the Christian it is a rebellion against death and the hope of eternal life; the Christian teaching is more theological, the Buddhist more ecological. For both however, communion, interbeing, as opposed to the individual ego and all its desires, is a saving reality.
In the Plum Village this teaching and its accompanying disciplines are an every day matter. In many Christian churches the communion of the Holy Spirit has been relegated to special occasions or to the prayer meeting. A comparison with the assemblies of Jesus depicted in the Acts of the Apostles, in which the Spirit is a constant companion, shows what some contemporary churches have lost and what attracts people to Pentecostal fellowships. As I do not find Pentecostalism either honest or attractive I hope for a renewal of spiritual practice in my own church. The Buddhist teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh about interbeing suggests some ways forward.