Stories are the medium through which wisdom is passed on from generation to generation, communicating lived experience rather than simple fact. They give us what we need to continue growing and bettering ourselves.
Zen, a school of Mahayana Buddhism, is a way of life that has been transmitted from master to disciple for nearly 2500 years, originating with Siddhārtha Gautama—the Buddha. One notable aspect of Zen is the habit of expressing the insights of Buddhism for the benefit of others—telling stories.
And few Zen storytellers match the prodigious and insightful output of Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh.
Ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1949, Thích Nhất Hạnh is a gentle giant in the peace movement, working eloquently to promote nonviolence throughout the world. Author of more than 100 books, he is currently the spiritual head of the Từ Hiếu Pagoda in Vietnam.
Nhất Hạnh studied comparative religion at Princeton University in 1960, and soon after, became a lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University in New York. By this time, his skill with language and words saw Nhất Hạnh become fluent in French, Chinese, Sanskrit, English, Japanese, and Pali.
In 1963, he returned to his native Vietnam to aid his fellow monks in peace efforts during the Vietnam War, and teaching psychology and prajnaparamita literature at Van Hanh Buddhist University. While there, he led efforts to stop the war and peacefully unite all Vietnamese.
When he returned to the US in 1966, Nhất Hạnh met with Martin Luther King Jr, urging him to publically denounce the Vietnam War. In 1967, King did just that, giving a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City—his first to question the war efforts.
King later nominated Nhất Hạnh for the 1967 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.”
When the Northern Vietnam army took control of South Vietnam in 1975, Nhất Hạnh was exiled from his homeland, and so from 1976 to 1977, he directed efforts to rescue Vietnamese boat people in the Gulf of Siam.
It wouldn’t be until 2005 that Nhất Hạnh would be allowed to reenter Vietnam. When he did, he was given permission to teach, published four of his books in Vietnamese, and traveled the country with his fellow monks, continuing to work for peace, interfaith dialogue, and religious tolerance.
Throughout his life, Nhất Hạnh’s approach to teaching has been to combine Zen insights with the research of Western psychology in order to bring ancient wisdom into the modern age.
In promoting peace, both inner and outer, it is remarkably effective.
In his latest book, “At Home in the World,” Nhất Hạnh simply tells stories.
For example, one of the many stories in his book is entitled, humorously, “The Joy of Having Toilets”. This tale begins with a question—“How can I possibly be happy cleaning the toilet?”
Nhất Hạnh goes on to explain that, when he was a novice monk in Vietnam, he and those around him did not have toilets at all. In fact, they were lucky to find a few dead leaves to use after their walk up the hill to use the bathroom, in fact!
Now, he feels that having a toilet to clean at all is a reason for joy.
Nhất Hạnh uses this funny, yet simple, story to illustrate a profound truth—we can be happy when we realize that we already have what we need for a good life.
In another tale, Nhất Hạnh delves into a bit of Western psychology by telling a story from his childhood.
Looking into a large, water-filled clay jar, he found a beautiful leaf of many colors. It rested at the bottom of the water, out of reach of his arm.
He found a stick, but no matter how he swirled the water, he could not make the leaf rise to the surface. Giving up, he walked away.
When he returned, a few moments later, the leaf lay upon the surface of the water, and he picked it up. The water had continued to swirl while he was away, bringing the leaf to the surface.
Nhất Hạnh continues the story by saying that this is how our unconscious minds work. When we have a problem to solve, struggling with our conscious mind becomes futile at a certain point. We must be able to stir the water and step away for a moment.
You might wonder: why not simply teach these lessons directly? Why not simply tell others that they already have the conditions for happiness? Why not tell them to plant question-seeds in their minds and let them be for a while, engaging our unconscious minds to aid in finding the answer?
Because people aren’t good at internalizing facts. They are, however, good at internalizing stories. They’ll remember the story of the toilet when next they feel their lives lack the conditions for happiness before they’ll remember a platitude.
That’s why Nhất Hạnh’s “At Home in the World” is so effective. It collates a lifetime of experiences from one of the most wise, peaceful men on the planet, condensing them into story after story, and giving them to us in small, elegant, and beautiful doses.
The tradition of teaching the Dharma—the teachings of the Buddha—connects us to the wisdom of the founder of Buddhism, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to appreciate the lessons therein. The insight and wisdom of Thích Nhất Hạnh is for everyone, and the path toward a life of peace, reflection, contemplation, and joy can truly be found in his stories.