OWhen the news of Thich Nhat Hanh’s death spread around the world, I saw many more people than I could have imagined saying how he had affected them, through a conference, a book, a retreat , an idea, an example. It was a reminder of the huge impact Buddhism has had in the West as a body of ideas that has gone far beyond the boundaries of who belongs to a Buddhist group or who has formal practice. You might think of Buddhism in this context as one of the tributaries of a wide new river of ideas flowing through the west, many of which have drunk without knowing exactly where the waters came from.
A Vietnamese monk who founded meditation centers on four continents and published dozens of books, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the great masters who came from Asia in the 20th century, alongside the Zen monks of Japan and the Tibetan rinpoches. He stood out because he came to the West as an explicitly political figure, arguing against the war in Vietnam (although the Dalai Lama’s opposition to the Chinese occupation of Tibet was certainly political too). His death seemed to me not an end, but a reminder that something far grander than this great teacher began in the last century and continues to unfold.
We are no longer what we were a very long time ago. Many new ideas have emerged from Buddhism and other traditions emphasizing kindness and compassion, equality and egalitarianism, non-violence, critical perspectives on materialism and capitalism, and what I once heard Zen priest Paul Haller of the San Francisco Zen Center call it “the practice of awareness”. in its incremental nature and in its concretization as personal beliefs and actions in daily life – sometimes in addition to more concrete changes in laws and institutions.
One must go back to how various forms of cruelty and domination were widely accepted half a century ago, from corporal punishment in public schools to domestic violence and systemic silencing and exclusion, to recognize how not everything has changed. Many of us have had the experience in recent years of going back to old novels and movies and even songs only to find that we no longer overlook or accept their occasional cruelty. Of course, new ideas are corruptible and charismatic leaders, including in Buddhist lineages, have abused their power – but I’ve been amused to find that corporate attempts to co-opt mindfulness sometimes backfire when ‘they make employees less tolerant of harmful policies.
This river of new ideas is a confluence of many other tributaries, of feminism, anti-racism and ecological ideas, and it has as one of its key principles a view that everything is connected. Of course, not everyone has changed; Bipoc people in the United States fall far short of equality by most measures; and many of these ideas exist more as aspirations than as daily practices. But none of this means that ideas and ideals don’t matter, and the right’s reaction is a reaction against something it sees as transformative and threatening.
I called contemporary conservative thought “the ideology of isolation, obsessed with control through separation and segregation, borders and anti-immigration rhetoric, racial and gender category policing, and marriage inequality both as a denial of marital rights to couples same sex and male dominance in heterosexual marriage. It’s anti-environmental, because the fundamental truth of ecological science is that the world is made up of ubiquitous, interconnected systems, not discrete objects. With this comes a mandate to act with responsibility for consequences that are at odds with conservative ideals of individual liberty and unfettered capitalism.
Hanh died on January 22. On January 25, the Save the Redwoods League announcement that he had transferred title to a 523-acre tract of redwood forest to the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a coalition of 10 tribal groups on California’s northwest coast. The place that had been dubbed Andersonia West “will again be known as Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ (pronounced tsih-ih-LEY-duhn), meaning “Fish Run Place” in the Sinkyone language,” the press release noted. The Save the Redwoods League was founded 104 years ago by wealthy men. whites both eugenicists and elitists to understand just how much of a transformation has taken place.
Much of this transformation has taken place over the past few decades. I remember reading an academic article about the slanderous past of the Save the Redwoods League in the mid-1990s, when the environmental movement tended to ignore or oppose indigenous presence on the lands they sought to keep and was complacent or unaware of his own past. The League was co-founded by Madison Grant, who headed the American Eugenics Society, was vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, and is known for the pseudoscientific book The Passing of the Great Race. The other founders had similar opinions.
Law professor Joyce Alene tweeted a few weeks ago on Martin Luther King Day: “The moral arc of the universe is not going to bend.” People – famous, powerful, unknown, humble – bend it, often in increments or in ways too small or subtle to measure. They add up. In the 1990s, I watched the environmental movement slowly move from its fantasies of “pristine wilderness” to the recognition that almost every place on Earth was or is an indigenous homeland and therefore environmental protection and human rights were not separate concerns (and that access to nature and clean air and water were also matters of racial justice).
The ideas that fueled change came from Indigenous struggles and Indigenous intellectuals and allied scholars and activists. These struggles are far from over, but the premises with which many of us operate are far different than they were. These usually begin with shifts in consciousness and new narratives. They end with changes in laws, policies, daily practices and such tangible things as land ownership. This year, that includes old-growth forest under native management, with trees over eight feet in diameter that “stand among Douglas fir, brown oaks and Pacific madrones on a vibrant understory of blueberry, manzanita and ceanothus”.