In the most well-known dharma talk by beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, he contemplates drinking a cloud in a cup of tea. The cloud never dies–it transitions to a raindrop, to a river, to the tea in his cup. Yesterday, we learned of the peaceful transition at age 95 of Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (“teacher”), as he was known to those who followed his mindfulness practice. We must now look for him in the clouds, in the rain, in the steam rising from our tea.
Thich Nhat Hanh was an author of many influential books, and a peace activist nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King Jr. His teachings were the primary inspiration for Engaged Buddhism. And his practice had particular significance for many interfaith families, and multiple religious practitioners including Buddhist Jews, and Buddhist Christians.
My interfaith children have been known to describe their identities as Jewish and Christian swirl with a ribbon of Buddhism. Their formative introduction to the teachings of Thay came through three family friends and teachers: Paul Wapner, Sharron Mendel Swain, and Reverend Julia Jarvis. Julia was our longtime Spiritual Leader at the Interfaith Families Project. She came to us as a Christian minister, but she also infused our gatherings with Buddhist meditation and teachings, and brought us Buddhist teachers including Mitchell Ratner, and Kaira Jewel Lingo. So my interfaith children grew up listening to the ringing of bowls, and the silence that follows.
In 2011, I was lucky when Julia invited me to the Warner Theater in Washington DC to see and hear Thay. Arriving, I was slightly skeptical about spending an entire evening listening to a diminutive elderly monk seated on a stage. But then, I was riveted by Thay’s quiet presence, the depth of his words, his compassion, and his humor as he described that cloud in his cup of tea. May his memory be for a blessing!
Buddhism has long had a following among adult interfaith children and interfaith families. Our friend Sharron was raised by one Jewish and one Christian parent. She found a spiritual home in Buddhism in her 20s, and spent time in Plum Village, the Buddhist community created by Thay in France. She went on to teach in our interfaith families community, worked in UU religious education, and eventually converted to Judaism.
Years ago, I asked Sharron about the appeal of Buddhism for her, as someone born into an interfaith family. Today, I reprint our Q&A here, in memory of Thay.
Susan: Why does Buddhism seem to have particular appeal for some interfaith families and interfaith people?
Sharron: The beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it never, in my experience, asks someone to choose. For example, in the Plum Village tradition in which I practice, it would be unthinkable to ask someone of mixed race parentage, “are you Black or are you White”? Same with asking someone with Vietnamese parents who was raised in the US: “are you Vietnamese or are you American?” Anyone who’s been around for any time would get it that you’re both! It would be like asking a child “are you your father’s child or your mother’s child”? Of course you are the child of both. . .
One of the central tenets, if you can call it that, of this practice is the notion of “interbeing.” Interbeing is a deep recognition of how intricately interconnected our world is, from the subatomic level to the level of the cosmos. Looking deeply, it is possible to see that Christianity cannot exist without Judaism, and Judaism as it is today cannot exist independently of Christianity.
For me, it is as if Christianity and Judaism are two rivers of my family’s experience flowing into the ocean of my life and experience. Buddhism is the one place I have found that is big enough to embrace the whole ocean, never asking me to choose.
Susan: Do you see Buddhism as having particular benefits for interfaith people/families?
Sharron: Buddhism doesn’t concern itself with the same questions, and is therefore focused on something other than the arguments that have been plaguing Christians and Jews for centuries, if not millennia. The Buddha himself said he was not interested in the question of whether or not there was a God, and therefore focused his efforts and attention in a whole different direction. Buddhism (when not practiced in a rote or devotional way, like anything else) is deeply experiential by nature. It has a built-in “out” in that the Buddha basically said “look, try this, and decide based on your experience, not what I say.” This is extraordinarily appealing to folks who have probably already broken a number of rules by venturing far enough outside their birth faith to marry someone raised in another faith. Buddhism has countless practices that, if applied skillfully, can significantly assist in the process of transforming suffering, no matter what someone’s “religious” orientation may be.
And, an ironic thing about Buddhist practice is that it almost invariably leads the practitioner into a much closer examination of, and often deeper appreciation of, the religion (family, etc.) with which they were raised. This often helps people arrive at a much more mature appreciation of the treasures buried in their birth traditions, and an ability to see the “garbage” for what it is.
Susan: Why do you think it seems to be easier for some people to practice Buddhism with Judaism, or Buddhism with Christianity (as theologian Paul Knitter does), than it is to practice Judaism and Christianity?
Sharron: The Buddha is completely innocent when it comes to the question of Christ’s death. Jews have been burdened for centuries with false allegations around this event, and all manner of prejudice and discrimination that flows from that. Neither the Buddha, nor Buddhists, to my knowledge, participated in Crusades, or Inquisitions, or other bloody ways of spreading their faith. Jews also, in many cases, have developed a strong (and justified) “fortress mentality” in the face of centuries of persecution. The fact that the Holocaust was the experience of the older generation of Jews that is still living has undoubtedly created cultural and generational wounds that may take centuries to heal.
Nonviolence and nonharm are central to Buddhism. People come into Buddhism with all kinds of wounds and baggage, but if they stick with it long enough, it helps transform all that. There’s a recognition, perhaps like the Christian acknowledgement of sin, that we all suffer, but there’s no judgement with that. It’s more like “we are alive, and so we suffer, we feel rage, we discriminate, etc. And we have the power to transform that suffering. We’ve got all the ‘wholesome seeds’ within us, too. This means that no matter how much anger or hatred is in us, we can shift the focus and nurture the altruism, the forgiveness, the kindness, and so on.”
This is a profoundly healing perspective, and when it is combined with skillful teachers and real practice, it changes lives.
1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness
Why: Could you expand on the idea of Interbeing, a concept that sounds very relevant to interfaith families?
The first three mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing (at least in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition) may give some insight into what Buddhism offers:
Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.
2. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment from Views
Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.
3. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought
Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.
Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.