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A Walk in the Public Garden with Thich Nhat Hanh

By Tom Hallock

NhatHanhBostonLast week, in the midst of sorting out some business matters, I emailed one of the sisters in Thich Nhat Hanh’s community, Plum Village, and asked if we could have a quick call. She emailed back that the sangha (community of practice) had just landed in Boston and suggested I join them the following day. So, I found myself at the Park Plaza Hotel in downtown Boston with over a thousand people who had come to hear Thich Nhat Hanh (called Thây by his students) talk about “Healing the Heart with Mindfulness.” Afterwards, he led us on a silent walking meditation out of the hotel, down Hadassah Street, across Boylston Street, and into the Public Garden. We sat under trees near the swan boats on an exquisitely clear day and meditated. I was struck by how Thây kept his eyes open, and seemed to be drinking in the beauty of the trees and their gentle movement in the wind. It was powerful to sit peacefully in this familiar place and find serenity in the heart of the city. One of Thây’s great teachings is that the present moment is the only one we have.

At the event, the Harvard School of Medicine honored Thây for his great contributions to public health. One of the graphs in the program book showed that the number of publications that mentioned mindfulness grew from a handful in the early 1980s to almost 500 last year. Clearly a new idea has found its way deep into our culture.

HanhFakebookIn 1976 Beacon Press published the book in which these ideas were first fully articulated, The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation*. As part of its mission “to affirm and promote world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,”  Beacon was publishing other books on Buddhism at the time including Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen, as well as books that grew out of the anti-war movement on which Thây had such impact. These included Howard Zinn’s Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal and, of course, The Pentagon Papers. In this spirit, Beacon also published Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s’ Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

Thây had written and spoken to Dr. King about the war in Vietnam, asking him to lend his moral authority to the peace movement. He wrote, “I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s great humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent.” Dr. King did speak out against the war soon after in his famous Riverside Church address. Later Dr. King nominated Thây for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying in part:

“I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam. This would be a notably auspicious year for you to bestow your Prize on the Venerable Nhat Hanh. Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.”

Returning to Beacon from my walking meditation in the Public Garden, I somewhat unmindfully ate a hot dog and reflected on this history and the powerful web of people, ideas and social movements that have informed our publishing over the years.

The Miracle of Mindfulness sold 2,733 copies its first year—prophetic publishing not always leading directly to commercial success. It has now, however, sold over half a million copies. As Bob Giroux is quoted as saying in Hothouse, “The most sobering of all publishing lessons is that a great book is often ahead of its time, and the trick is often how to keep it afloat until the times catch up with it.” Here, at least, a book has been kept afloat and the times have indeed caught up to it.

About the Author

Tom Hallock is associate publisher at Beacon Press.

* Beacon was not, however, Thây’s first US publisher. That honor belongs to Hill & Wang, as far as I can tell, which published Viet Nam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire in the late 60s.Other early works were published in English by Unicorn, Doubleday, and Hoa Binh Press. Today, Parallax Press stands out among the many that are currently publishing his work. I picked up two of their new titles last week, Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day and Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society.