By Jim Forest. Orbis Books, 2021. 160 pages. $20/paperback; $16.50/eBook.
Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh is a compelling tribute to the beloved Vietnamese Zen monk. There are many lessons that American author Jim Forest learned from his friendship with Thay (a term meaning “teacher,” pronounced “Tie”). One of the chief lessons was “to live attentively in the present moment, awake to suffering, awake to joy.” This slender book is filled with anecdotes that illustrate this Zen master’s cultivated gift for mindfulness imbued with loving kindness.
Forest, a Christian and a lifelong peace activist, has worked closely with Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel and Philip Berrigan. He first met Nhat Hanh in 1966. For years after, Forest helped the soft-spoken, courageous monk appeal to everyday Americans, peace workers, and politicians to strive for an end to the Vietnam War and to release the Vietnamese people from their suffering.
In his book, Forest often highlights Nhat Hanh’s sensitivity to the emotional needs of others. He shares a reminiscence written by his wife, Nancy, in which she describes her apprehension about meeting this man so revered for his holiness. Sensing her feelings, Nhat Hanh joined her in the kitchen to assist in preparing the evening meal, even showing her how to make Vietnamese rice balls. She relaxed in her spirit. “[He] immediately started helping me with the vegetables and talking to me in the most ordinary way,” she recalls. “We laughed a lot!”
Nhat Hanh is also shown in his vulnerable moments. The author recounts how during a speaking event at a church in St. Louis, an audience member verbally attacked the monk: “If you care so much about your people, Mister Hanh, why are you here? If you care so much for the people who are wounded, why don’t you spend your time with them?” After some moments, Nhat Hanh replied:
If you want a tree to grow, it does not help to water the leaves. You have to water the roots. Many of the roots of the war in my country are here, in your country. To help the people who are being bombed, to try to protect them from this suffering, it is necessary to come here.
I recall reading about this encounter in one of Nhat Hanh’s many books. But Forest adds a remarkable scene that occurred after the event. “Thay stood on the sidewalk at the edge of the church parking lot . . . struggling for air,” he writes. The questioner’s words had deeply upset the monk, tempting him to respond in anger. Only a time of slow and deep breathing enabled him to center himself and to offer his thoughtful, non-defensive response to the man.
“But why not be angry with him?” Forest asked his friend. “Even pacifists have a right to be angry.” He answered: “But I am here to represent the Vietnamese peasants. I have to show those who came here tonight what we can be at our best.”
The brief vignettes that make up Forest’s memoir are complemented by many black-and-white photographs. Some will be familiar to readers: haunting newspaper images that chronicle the Vietnam War and its aftermath and photos of Nhat Hanh with important spiritual leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton. Other photographs, mostly taken by the author, are charmingly intimate. They show the monk absorbed in his work or relaxing with coworkers and their young children. There is even a picture of him sitting on a kitchen counter washing his feet in the sink! Moreover, Forest has a flair for drawing. His book includes a number of sketches scanned from his personal journal; they capture spontaneous moments shared with his Vietnamese mentor.
Eyes of Compassion offers Friends much opportunity for reflection. Thich Nhat Hanh introduced the world to what is now known as “engaged Buddhism,” a fearless and loving, spiritually grounded response to the ills of our world. In a similar way, many Friends espouse what might be called “engaged Quakerism”—social activism nourished by mindfulness meditation and communal worship. Forest’s book would generate lively exchanges in any Quaker discussion group. A natural query would be: What can Thich Nhat Hanh’s form of Buddhism teach us about the active and the contemplative life? Interestingly, Forest, a member of the Orthodox Christian church since the 1980s, is careful to draw a sharp contrast between Buddhism and Christianity: “The historical Buddha died and his body was burned; Jesus died and many saints rose from the dead. These are not minor differences.” However, he is grateful for what Nhat Hanh and Buddhism have taught him, especially about the power of mindful breathing. “Breath itself!” Forest writes. “It was astonishing news that something as simple as attention to breathing could play a significant part in meditation and prayer.”
Bob Dixon-Kolar is an associate professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He and his family are members of Evanston (Ill.) Meeting.