By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — A Buddhist nun tapped a small brass prayer bowl with a striker to create the soft sound of a bell at the naming of each past recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award. Her prayerful gesture was one of several unique elements of the April 2 award ceremony that honored Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master, teacher, author and peace activist.
The honoree, called “Thay,” (which means teacher) is recovering from a stroke and could not attend the interfaith event at Christ the King Chapel on the St. Ambrose University campus in Davenport. His presence, however, was palpable for those in attendance, among them Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Buddhists.
Throughout his lifetime, Thay, 89, has worked to foster peace through contemplative Buddhist practices and compassionate action. As his peace efforts escalated during the Vietnam War, so did the political risks. An assassination attempt forced him to flee his homeland. He founded a Buddhist community in France where he became one of the fathers of “mindfulness,” which is the energy of being aware and awake in the present moment.
Thay began teaching in the United States where he joined American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to advocate for an end to the Vietnam War. King, inspired by Thay’s approach to peace, nominated him for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize.
For Thay, “the practice and skills of mindfulness are fully realized within a Sangha, a community of practitioners. Like a number of you — Humilities, Benedictines, Franciscans, Carmelites and Buddhists — his is a blending of contemplative practice with engaged action in our world of suffering,” observed Steve Spring. He gave a biographical reflection on Thay during the award ceremony.
“The energy of mindfulness, in Christian parlance the presence of grace, is necessary for transformation and peace to be possible,” Spring said. “In Thay’s experience, mindful awareness nourishes peace at a cellular level. Only with such transformation at the individual and community level can peace be present in the world.”
Spring and Joyce Singh, ordained followers of Thay, were present when Bishop Martin Amos presented the Pacem award to members of Thay’s community Oct. 31 during an international retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California.
“When the process began, we had no idea of the profound healing Bishop Amos’ presence would bring to the Buddhist community,” Spring said. “One Vietnamese woman, at the Deer Park retreat, told me that 50 years ago there were two gates into the city of Hue, one for the Catholics and one for the Buddhists. The Ngo Diem Regime was nominally Catholic and it imprisoned and exiled Buddhist monks and nuns.
“Bishop Amos’ visit was like a miracle for many at the retreat — the presence of a Catholic bishop, with a compassionate smile, healing the separation and strife of a war-torn past. For some Catholic retreatants, disaffected from the church, his kind and open-hearted presence stood in stark contrast to their perception of a patriarchal clergy. This community, in this chapel, celebrating the Pacem in Terris award, is a healing presence in a world hungry for spiritual nourishment,” Spring continued.
“Thay accepts this award for the whole Sangha, the community nourishing the spiritual roots of all traditions. This community, encompassing each of us, embraces the engaged practice of moment by moment mindfulness, and the presence of grace, to transform the great suffering within and around us ‘for the future to be possible.’”
Bishop Amos, speaking at the Davenport ceremony, reflected on what he described as a wonderful experience at the California ceremony. Katie Kiley, who serves on the Pacem in Terris planning committee, accompanied him on that trip. “It’s an experience I wish all of you could have had,” the bishop said. “I thought the two of us were rock stars!” The best alternative, he decided, was to host a local celebration during which a video of the California ceremony was shown.
Following the video, Singh gave an introduction to a short, meditative video featuring Thay in “The Great Bell Chant: End of Suffering.” She explained a breathing meditation, which provided for a quiet, reflective conclusion to the ceremony.
Afterwards, SuCo Lien Diep, abbess of the Kim Cang Buddhist Temple in Davenport, along with fellow nuns SuCo Tinh Tuyen and SuCo Lien Nghiem, invited Bishop Amos to visit their temple. The nuns especially appreciated that Thay is now among 45 peacemakers to have received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.
For Kiley, who was in high school during the Vietnam War and marched against the war, honoring Thay with this award “brought all of it back for me. It allowed me to view the war from an adult perspective, and to relive it from the Vietnamese experience.”
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