Folks old enough to remember the Vietnam War may recall that perhaps the single greatest factor (besides the thousands of body bags coming home) that really began to turn American public opinion against our military involvement in that country was the phenomenon of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire in protest. The images of these self-immolations in our newspapers and on our TV screens were too horrible to ignore. If people over there felt strongly enough to do this to themselves, we had to start questioning what our leaders were telling us about the moral rectitude of our country’s actions.
While he didn’t personally become tinder for the cause, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and scholar named Thích Nhat Hanh was one of the leaders of the passive resistance movement that ultimately helped awaken the consciences of millions of Americans in that dark time. Born in 1926, in the late 1950s he founded the Lá Boi Press, the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Saigon and the School of Youth for Social Service, a neutral corps of Buddhist peaceworkers who went into rural areas to establish schools, build health clinics and help rebuild villages. In 1960 he came to America to study Comparative Religion at Princeton University, but returned to his homeland in 1963 to join the antiwar movement.
Because Nhat Hanh refused to take sides with either the pro-US South Vietnamese government or the Vietcong in North Vietnam, he ended up mistrusted by both sides. But he managed to visit the US several more times during the course of the war to campaign for its end. On one of those trips, in 1966, he met with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and talked him into taking a public stance against the war. Dr. King returned the favor by nominating Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. (No Peace Prize was awarded that year, possibly because King had breached Nobel-laureate protocol by going public with the nomination.)
Nhat Hanh went on to become a member of the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the 1969 Paris Peace Talks, but after the war finally ended he was exiled from Vietnam until 2005 by the new Communist regime. So he stayed on in France, founding Plum Village in the Dordogne, the first of a series of monasteries around the world. Several of those are in the US, including one that keeps a low profile right in our neck of the woods: the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, established in 2007 to replace two monasteries in Vermont that were closed.
With a mission “to share the practice of mindful living,” the Blue Cliff Monastery was founded on an 80-acre site in the Shawangunks that formerly housed Jeronimo’s, a family-owned resort operating since 1939. It is now home to a year-round community of Buddhist monks and nuns practicing sitting meditation, walking meditation, mindful eating, deep relaxation meditation and “cultivating togetherness with one another.” They have done extensive renovations to the old resort to make it more “Earth-friendly,” as well as building a new Great Togetherness Meditation Hall that can accommodate hundreds of people.
The legally recognized governing body for Blue Cliff is the Unified Buddhist Church, established by Nhat Hanh in 1969. The founder, known among other things for having coined the term Engaged Buddhism to describe a religious path that embraces action for social change within the framework of acceptance associated with Zen, is still living and occasionally visits the US to conduct Peace Walks. The program of Mindfulness Trainings that he developed can be pursued even by laypersons at certain times of the year at Blue Cliff, and a couple of public events are coming up soon.
If your idea of something to be thankful for is a nice long weekend of peace and quiet, or if you have no family or friends nearby with whom to spend the holiday, you might want to attend Blue Cliff’s upcoming Thanksgiving Weekend meditation retreat. It runs from 3 p.m. on Thursday, November 28 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 1. “We are the heirs of priceless treasures,” says the description of the program. “In this retreat, we shall practice to recognize the treasures within and around us and to extend our happiness by learning ways to express gratitude in our daily interactions. With our mindful steps and mindful breathing, with silent sitting and eating, with guided total relaxation, we shall learn to care for and offer our ancestors and descendants wholesome foods that nourish, purify and transform.”
“Contributions” for the weekend retreat, including tuition, accommodations and meals, range in price from $60 for a child aged 6 to 11 sharing a dorm to $210 for an adult sharing a room with three to ten other people. Some need-based scholarships are available. To register, visit www.edulinkinc.com/bluecliffregistration/retreats.aspx.
A similar Holiday Retreat will be coming up from December 29 to January 2; and if you’re seriously ready to withdraw from the world for a while, you might want to look into the three-month Winter Retreat. For more details, call (845) 733-4959, extension 21, or visit https://bluecliffmonastery.org.
Thanksgiving Weekend Retreat, Thursday-Sunday, November 28-December 1, $60-$210, Blue Cliff Monastery, 3 Mindfulness Road, Pine Bush; (845) 733-4959, extension 21, https://bluecliffmonastery.org.