Thich Nhat Hanh, Gurus

1) Sept 25, 2018

I guess MLK nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize (or something like that). So, I’m sure he’s a very good man. I may have read (or tried to read?), one of his books, but if so, it either didn’t make a big impression on me, or I didn’t.

The woman I’ve done sacro-cranial with recommended Thai Plum Village (she hasn’t been, but know people who have), and also a video about TNH called, I think, ‘come walk with me.’ I found it and watched it. Quite simple/minimalistic, about Plum Village and TNH. It shows him leading a bunch of people on a slow walk around the grounds, and him leading, I think, an initiation ceremony for new monks.

Anyhow, I remember some years ago seeing him in two videos. In one, he’s talking about how “fresh” children are. I guess he was implying we should try to be “fresh” and not lose touch of our innocence/curiosity, like children. The other one was where he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in the US, and he conveyed a very simple homily about dealing with, I think, three different scenarios with “your beloved.” 

His Wikipedia entry says he’s published 100 books; 40 in English…that he speaks many languages. He’s founded several mindfulness centers….

Well, besides getting a kind of weird feeling about him via the times I’ve seen him on video, I guess I also get a weird feeling from people who seem to have made an ambitious career of becoming a public guru. 

The Dalai Lama is similar, in ways (I even happened to come across a video of him recently with Lady Gaga). but when I hear the DL talk, he seems to have a better command of English and sounds like he can have a sophisticated discussion of the deeper philosophical points of Buddhism. Maybe TNH can also do this; I don’t know. When I’ve heard him speak, he seems very simple/gentle.

As I guess you know, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist. Buddhism is a religion, and I dislike all religion. I dislike Buddhism less than any other religion I can think of. (Well, I also appreciate things about Unitarian Universalism; which some would argue is not a religion.) I do, however, think that much in Buddhism is  good. I think meditation is good. I think what in Buddhism is called the Four Noble Truths, is essentially correct. 

As you also know, my favorite book on meditation/Buddhism is Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. Actually, Suzuki didn’t write the book; it consists of transcriptions of talks he gave his students/followers in California. He had a lot of wisdom to share, but actually found the subject hard to talk about. He never felt the need to promote himself through  TV appearances or publishing a lot of books. 

When Nishijima Sensei in Tokyo welcomed me to Dogen Sanga in Motoyawata, he helped me find a cushion to sit on and gave me the following instruction: “Sit with your legs crossed. Keep your back straight. All of Buddhist philosophy comes out of this simple action.” Other than that, he mostly gave lectures on the Shobogenzo, which was written by Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen. 

In the sutras, it says our minds are like a glass of muddy water. My more modern metaphor is the kind of snow globes they have at Christmas. The snow flakes float around in our ‘monkey minds.’ The solution is simply to set the globe down and don’t do anything; just to LET the flakes float to the bottom. The goal is NOT to make the water ‘perfectly clear’ (“enlightenment”). As Suzuki says, ‘If you’re goal is enlightenment, you’re wasting your time on your black cushion.’

Buddhism and/or working on improving your mind/yourself is, ultimately a private, solitary endeavor. I get suspicious when I see people trying to make it appeal to the modern world. Good for them, I guess, for trying. But the modern world IS the problem, in a way. (Well, I’m sort of rambling, but I guess you see where I’m coming from.)

But maybe some time I’ll be back in Khoa Yai and try to go visit Plum Village. It’s very possible that if I do, all my reservations will disappear. Who knows?


2) Sept 29, 2018

An old habit from my English major days is to see what the ‘dictionary definition’ is for certain terms. Here are some that may relate to the current discussion. I grabbed just the main part of the definition. People (and other dictionaries), will agree/disagree/want to change/amend with these definitions.

(From my Mac dictionary)

Guru: a spiritual teacher, especially one who imparts initiation.

Teacher: a person who teaches, especially in a school. 

Monk: a member of a religious community of men typically living under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience

Religion: the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods

Philosophy: the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline

Person: a human being regarded as an individual

For me, a “guru” is usually fairly easily recognizable. Though you may disagree, I would say TNH and the Dalai Lama, though not gurus in the obvious way of a Sikh patriarch, personify my image of a guru in that 1) they wear robes, 2) they have followers, 3) many people see them as possessed of special knowledge that ordinary people don’t usually have access to. I can imagine someone saying, “I’m a follower of TNH/DL.” If they did, you’d know what they mean. Some would be more fanatical than others, of course. Others, in contrast, might choose say, “I’ve read some of the writings of TNH/DL, and I’ve gotten a lot out of them.” To these sorts of people, I think that instead of viewing TNH or DL as gurus, they just view them as men. And just like other men, some of the things they might say can be insightful/inspiring, and some things not.

Both of these guys are internationally famous and have lived unusual lives. According to Wikipedia,

“The 14th Dalai Lama was born on a straw mat in a cowshed to a farmer’s family in a remote part of Tibet. According to most Western journalistic sources he was born into a humble family of farmers as one of 16 children. The 14th Dalai Lama had become the joint most popular world leader by 2013, (tied with Barack Obama)….

The Dalai Lama is also considered to be…an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, a Bodhisattva of Compassion. The name is a combination of the Mongolic word dalai meaning “ocean” or “big”… and the Tibetan word, “bla-ma,” meaning ‘master, guru.’ ”

I guess, when the previous Dalai Lama dies, some elite monks follow ancient procedures to identify the child who is to become to next Dalai Lama. Though I think the DL is a very good, kind and positive person, I’ll make no pretenses to believing such superstitious rituals are nothing more than that.

It’s interesting to imagine what Tenzin Gyatso would be up to if he hadn’t been chosen as the 14th DL. I think it’s also reasonable to assume that, if the dice had rolled differently, and some other boy had been chosen, that the same number of people who deem Gyatso just shy of a deity, would be as hypnotized by whoever they might have chosen in his stead. For whoever it was would have gone through the same cloistered, rigorous, cosseted training, upbringing, and grooming as Gyatso, with undoubtedly much the same result. It must be odd, as a child, to be told you are heir to the throne. The new Kind of Thailand, when asked in an interview many years ago, what it’s like to be prince, replied, “You might as well ask a fish what it’s like to live in the sea. It’s all I’ve ever known.” But what he’s known is very different from what most people know.

TNH’s Wiki says he became a monk at 16, but gives no further details. There must be a variety of reasons why people become monks/nuns. But I’m pretty sure common reasons are, 1) they come from poor families that have difficulty supporting all their children so, some are sent off to monasteries (I saw examples of this in temples in Khon Kaen), 2) they feel their lives are not going that well (similar to why some guys join the military; some of the monks and nuns at Suan Mokkh had this reason), 3) and, certainly, some ordain/take vows because they feel drawn to a spiritual life (of one sort or another).

Anyhow, once TNH (who’s nickname is Thay, by the way), became a monk, he most likely lived as a monk (unless he chose to live like a lot of Thai monks, for example, who smoke, drink, and play with their cell phones much of the time). 

Well, after reading a bit more of his Wiki, it says he “entered the monastery” in 1942 at age 16, then went to a Buddhist academy, and was ordained a monk in 1949. But it doesn’t say why he entered the monastery.

To go on a different tangent…

So, referring to the definitions, above…

1) We are all people

2) Some people are monks, gurus, teachers

3) Some teachers are gurus (?)

4) Some monks are teachers (I suppose)

5) Some teachers are religious; some are not

6) All monks are religious (I would say by definition)

Are all gurus religious? You could say most probably are. Hmm…what if someone admires a guy like Sam Harris? Well, admiring him (as I do), and considering him your guru (as I don’t), are two different states of mind. 

So, I think an important distinction is, for me, that I don’t want to call anyone “guru.” To me, that term implies that I think the person is “godlike” or “beyond human.” 

It’s also interesting to consider that there are, 1) people who are not only happy to be called “guru” by others, but who actively try to promote themselves as a guru, 2) those who may be called “guru” by their followers, but who would rather not be called as such, and perhaps other categories, like 3) people who would rather be called  something without religious overtones, like “teacher.”

I don’t know if I’ve told you this before but, I remember when I read “Autobiography of a Yogi,” that Yogananda mentioned the ancient “avatar,” Babaji. I could be wrong, but what I remember was that Babaji was “just a normal guy,” who had a normal job, like accountant; a wife, etc. But he had a special presence that drew people to him. I’m probably not remembering this correctly. Anyhow, what I liked was the idea that people could be inspired by some guy, even though he didn’t wear special robes or come from some special tradition that one customarily associates with “where one turns” when one is interested in looking beyond the superficial elements of life. 

[Here’s where I got tired 😉 ]


3) Oct 2, 2018

– I think it’s usually better to sometimes: 1) picture the most ordinary person talking to you in robes and turban (e.g., looking like a guru), and, 2) picture a guru talking to you dressed like a golfer/business man/street seller/maid…. In other words, it’s not so much the image/clothing/style of talking, but the actual text of a message that one should listen to, then decide what, if anything, to accept, what to feel dubious about, etc. Valuable information can come from all sorts of people and places, as can banality and BS.

– I think there’s an obvious danger in people being attracted to a “guru” (whether a Sikh Indian, motivational speaker, flamboyant professor, evangelical pastor, biggest mouth in the bar, etc.), and getting to a point where they think, ‘Wow, this guy is impressive/seems so confident/everyone around him looks up to him, etc.,’ then turning off the part of their brains that judges whether things make sense or not (i.e., stop thinking for themselves).

But I suppose one could say we all need to rely on “experts” in various fields (since no person can “know it all”). If your taxes are complicated, you seek out a professional accountant…maybe get references to hopefully find someone capable and trustworthy. Same if you need your car worked on, etc. But I think the quest for ‘personal advisors’ need to be carried out carefully. Unfortunately, it’s often when we’re feeling most vulnerable that we go on this search. At least with psychotherapists, you can usually be assured the person has a masters in counseling and has undergone academic training in standard practices. They are usually not going to try to get you to ante up a tenth of your personal worth to join their fan club. As we saw with the Bagwan, many people committed their lives entirely to his community. Some even to this day think he was the best thing that happened to them. As usual, I say as long as they don’t hurt anyone in the process, then why should I care. But in the long documentary about the phenomenon, it was clear than many people did get hurt and that the guy and his executives were dancing on the edge of accepted sanity. Of course, it was a complicated thing, with local forces also to blame in many ways.

Many people feel dissatisfied, or like their lives aren’t as good/joyful/fulfilling as they wished. They may browse the self-help titles (is it in this section of the book store where some of TNH’s books get shelved?, or maybe under “religion?”….). 

But some find gurus. Obviously, the various kinds of gurus are of various levels of quality, sincerity and level-headedness. Maybe you and I have already shared videos of the huckster, Sai Baba “materializing” necklaces for his followers?

One might object, ‘So what, he’s not hurting anyone?’ But I think this is certainly not the behavior of one who claims to be a ‘dispeller of darkness.’ His followers are so merrily entertained and “uplifted” by the whole gathering, that the magician easily hoodwinks them. Many people desperately want to believe in something.

One image from the “Walk With Me” film about TNH stuck with me and it was, as the title suggests, of TNH leading a pretty large group of others, dressed in the same brown robes as he, on a slow walk around the grounds of PV (can’t recall if it was in France or Thailand). One the face of it, of course, it looks peaceful, beautiful. And I don’t object to it, assuming those involved wanted to do it. It’s just that it seemed symbolic of a teacher going beyond the duties of a teacher and becoming a guru.

When I did the 10-day retreat at Suan Mokkh, we did walking meditation. We were instructed during the sitting/lecture sessions in the big outdoor sala in the method of walking, as it was done there. But then we were told to go find some quiet area of the former coconut plantation to practice it. Well, actually, now that I think of it, at the end of some days, we would all walk in a single file line around the little man-made ponds they had there. But I don’t recall that we all followed the abbot of the monastery. I think we may have followed on of the monks. And we certainly didn’t hold up whoever lead the walk as someone other than an ordinary monk.

But again, any objections I may have about TNH are simply a feeling. But it did seem like the people that came to PV in the video were something like star-struck by him. Not his fault, probably. But a scene that I don’t think I’d enjoy.


I believe in something. I believe that we have auras. Actually, I saw a photograph once of the aura around a person’s hand. It was picked up by a special technique called Kirlian photography:

So, those it’s normally invisible, I believe it, based on the *evidence* of this photographic technique. Similarly with electricity. I’ve never seen it, but I believe it exists, because of all the conveniences we enjoy that scientists say would be impossible without it.

But some people would object, ‘But you don’t have to really *believe* those things. No sane person would argue that those things don’t exist. To really *believe*, you have to say something exists that there is no evidence for.’

Why would I want to do that? 

‘Spirit’ exists, they might say. Well, that’s a kind of philosophical discussion. It all depends on how you define it. If you say people have souls that live on after their body dies, then I’d have to ask, ‘What evidence do you have for thinking this?’ If they said they just feel it, or that they’ve had conversations with departed people, then fine. If they like believing that, it certainly doesn’t hurt me.

But if they somehow manage to convince a bunch of other people to believe that the soul of a certain person has risen up to heaven, and that they can still talk to them and pass messages to god. And if this group of people now thinks they are very special indeed and anyone who disagrees with them either needs to be shunned or convinced that they should also believe, then I have a problem with that. (And that’s just the beginning of the problems that can occur when people are gullible.)

Well, I think I’m burning out again…but another thing I could ramble on about, later perhaps, is “god.”

Here’s my Mac’s definition:


1 (in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being. 

2 (in certain other religions) a superhuman being or spirit worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity: a moon god | an incarnation of the god Vishnu. 

• an image, idol, animal, or other object worshiped as divine or symbolizing a god. 

• used as a conventional personification of fate: he dialed the number and, the gods relenting, got through at once. 

I guess you’ve heard of Jordan Peterson? (The flavor of the month.) Briefly, there are things he says that I totally agree with, then things I find rather suspect/troubling. What pertains about him presently is his definition of god. Well, maybe next time I’ll go dig it up from the web. But suffice to say his definition bears almost no resemblance to the one above.

So, I think if you’re going to bother to use the word, “god,” that it ought to at least resemble the above definition. If, on the other hand, one were to say, “When I meditate, I sometimes feel at one with everything and, to me, that’s god,” then I think it would be far preferable for that person to simply say, “When I meditate, I sometimes feel at one with everything.” 

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