Joyfully Together

One of the recommendations I have given some of my students who want to move in the direction of a deeper commitment to social justice after university studies is:  Find and nurture a community. Without other people on a similar path to encourage and challenge you, it will be easier to forget the suffering of our city and our world, and it can be harder to resist the consumerism and complacency of middle-class American life.

Recently, I finished a small book by Thich Nhat Hanh that elaborates on this advice I have shared with recent graduates of Saint Louis University. Nhat Hanh, who was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King back in the mid-1960s for the Nobel Peace Prize, was an important influence on both Trappist monk Thomas Merton[1] and Jesuit peacemaker Daniel Berrigan[2]. He has lived in exile from his native Vietnam since 1966, and has inspired a large following in Western countries since the 1980s.[3] In addition to being a Zen Master, poet, and activist, he is a prolific author.  The book  I want to bring to your attention is entitled Joyfully Together: The Art of Building a Harmonious Community (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2003).

The Buddhists take the “three refuges”: in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  In his version of the third traditional refuge vow, Nhat Hanh states, “I take refuge in the sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness.”  An adaptation of this vow for Christians could read as follows: “I take refuge in the church, or ecclesia, the community that lives in justice and solidarity.”  Nhat Hanh contends that building and nurturing the community is the most important practice we can be about. It is not something to do when we have a lot of free time, because we can always find excuses for activities that seem more urgent.  For example, in a time of war, there can seem like so many more activities that take a higher priority than that of developing our bonds with a community.  Still, while Nhat Hanh wrote the book as a Buddhist with the Sangha in mind, I think some of the practices can be of use to us, whether our community and common life is that in our homes, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, classrooms, the Center for Theology and Social Analysis, or Karen Catholic Worker House.

One simple practice is that of mentoring. Nhat Hanh writes, “A mentor is someone who has practiced for a long time. Because of his or her experience, he or she is a refuge for younger sisters and brothers for whom the practice is still something new… In French, the word [for mentor], tuteur, refers to the stake we use to support a newly planted sapling … our younger Dharma sister is also like our daughter. When we take care of them, we are taking care of ourselves.”  [85] This insight makes me recall with gratitude the mentors I have had over the years. Immediately, I think of Jim Flynn, a Catholic priest I met when I was a senior at Bellarmine College and was seeking another path for my future than that of law school. After a couple of visits with him, he invited me to join him in living in an intentional Catholic peace community in urban Louisville, where we could do work in the then burgeoning peace movement (this was during Reagan’s big arms buildup, 1982). Over the next several years, he encouraged me on the path of Catholic solidarity, which led me to working on a Witness for Peace delegation in Nicaragua in 1984 and traveling to Guatemala in 1986. Another mentor was the Jewish theologian Marc Ellis[4] who, at the Maryknoll School of Theology in 1985, supported me in pursuing an intellectual vocation, which he later helped sustain by seeing that I was given a full scholarship to get my Master’s degree at Maryknoll. Both of these men, one an activist-priest, the other an intellectual-activist, spent a lot of time and energy being with me and challenging me, more, I must say, by their own prophetic practice than by their words. Their generosity is a matter—still—of great wonder for me.  Now, all these years later, I think of how as a teacher at two universities, I have the opportunity to share with others some of the mentoring I received when I was in my twenties and searching for a way to live a committed, engaged life.

A second practice is “watering flowers.” Nhat Hanh explains that this “means giving encouragement by showing someone who is close to us their good qualities and our appreciation of those qualities… It is always beneficial to remind our loved ones of our appreciation for them. They are precious treasures that will not always be with us.” [87] I think I learned how to practice this more deeply when I was married to Mev Puleo.[5]  We each “watered flowers” with each other; we did this before she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and we did it all the more after her surgery, radiation and chemotherapy treatments.  I try to do this, too, with my students, who are so accustomed to being graded, rated, ranked and critiqued. Sometimes, they are surprised to hear appreciation of their good qualities: their humor, their shining intelligence, their passion for justice, their ability to disarm people with their loving-kindness. “Watering flowers” reminds me of a story the Zen Jewish writer Natalie Goldberg tells about herself:  “We want honest support and encouragement. When we receive it, we don’t believe it, but are quick to accept criticism to reinforce our deepest beliefs that, in truth, we are no good and not really writers. My ex-husband used to say to me, ‘You look ugly. Ahh, now that I have your attention. . .’ He said when he complimented me, I never heard him, but as soon as he said something negative, I perked right up.[6]

A third exercise Nhat Hanh recommends is cultivating awareness to avoid triangling with people. He describes it this way, “The triangle is created when one person in the Sangha is suffering, irritated, and upset at a second person and goes to a third person to complain … But if our brother or sister takes our side and joins us in blaming the third person, even though we may feel better, we will be forming a triangle … By not taking sides, we can also try to understand the person who helped cause our friend’s suffering.” [82]  How many times when I have been in a community have I experienced this and seen it sow seeds of dissension with the consequence of strengthening an “us versus them” mentality, rather than solidarity! One of Nhat Hanh’s most fundamental teachings is, “Blaming never helps.” Though I may be tempted to go off on a person who has bothered me to someone else, I need to remember to work out the difficulty with the person directly, and not go kvetching to blow off steam.

A fourth training is “Shining Light.” The Vietnamese Zen monk observes, “The collective eyes of the whole Sangha, which can see the truth more clearly and more deeply than the eyes of a single brother or sister and can shine light on the practice of each brother and sister. . .They not only point out our shortcomings but tell us first of all what we have excelled in. Then, they offer us concrete practices to maintain and increase our good qualities while transforming what is unwholesome. We also receive a letter that we can read to encourage us in our practice and to remind us of what we need to transform.” [85] So often, we may be accustomed to offering criticism, which lacks, however, the crucial adjective “constructive,” as well as an accounting of a person’s admirable habits.  When I worked with the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah, our team – three U.S. Americans, one Swede, one Canadian—tried to practice in this spirit. Given the stress we faced, it was so helpful to receive affirmation as well as critical feedback, since we were all relative novices in confronting the harsh aspects and effects of the Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip. One of my teammates helped me see how I need to be more attentive to all the team members and not prematurely close down a discussion when I was facilitating our meeting.

A final exercise is that of being inclusive. Nhat Hanh freely admits, “We have to experience life in the Sangha, which means interacting with members of the Sangha whether that interaction is pleasant or unpleasant.” [10]  Practicing inclusivity is well expressed in the form of a Tibetan Buddhist slogan: “Train without bias in all areas. It is crucial always to do this pervasively and wholeheartedly.”[7] Obviously, in any group, family, classroom or community, there will be people to whom we are immediately drawn. To be inclusive, to train without bias would entail being able to approach, converse with and befriend the people we aren’t drawn to. In fact, it is these people who may irritate us: those who back a different candidate for President, those who never seem to pick up after themselves, those who typically seem bored and noncommittal. Another way of getting at this practice is to refuse to boycott anyone.

Reading Thich Nhat Hanh is always inspiring and I am encouraged to practice each of these five teachings. There are several other practices that Nhat Hanh explains in Joyfully Together. We don’t have to be “Buddhists” to practice these, we can start today, wherever we are: it doesn’t matter if our community is devoted to social change, academic learning, or familial growth. Nhat Hanh’s words are simple but the work is exacting: “We need is to practice mindfulness diligently every day to recognize what is happening in our own mind.” [12-13] And, I’d like to add, in our world.

[1] See Thomas Merton, “Nhat Hanh is My Brother,” in Thomas Merton, The Nonviolent Alternative, ed. Gordon Zahn (NEw York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980), 263-264.

[2] See Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh, The Raft is Not The Shore:Conversations Toward a Buddhist-Christian Awareness (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001).

[3] For a directory of Buddhist sanghas following Nhat Hanh’s teachings, see

[4] I later became Ellis’s research assistant for his book, Marc H. Ellis, Beyond Innocence and Redemption:  Confronting the Holocaust and Israeli Power — Creating a Moral Future for the Jewish People (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 1990).

[5] See my forthcoming work (December 2004), Mark Chmiel, The Book of Mev (Xlibris, 2004).

[6] Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala, 1986), 58.

[7] See Pema Chödrön’s commentaries on 59 mind-training slogans in her book, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.

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