Great Souls

The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh (called Thay), died last Friday, aged 95; his thinking, writing, teaching influenced me. Since a stroke in 2014, Thay was unable to walk or talk – but, we’re told, he remained an ‘attentive and inspiring’ presence. In 2018, he returned home to Vietnam, to die among friends at the Tu Hieu monastic community which he joined aged 16.

I grew up a Roman Catholic which, in time, I found too constraining; my eventual ‘escape’ left an instinctive rejection of any ‘closed’ belief system. Thay’s gift to me was a Buddhism open to everyone; no references to ‘divine revelation’ or ‘articles of faith’; an entirely rational bridge between ancient wisdom and modern disciplines, like psychology and neuroscience. Thay is my go-to-guy for Buddhist insight into any moral issues; his 100-odd books inform most aspects of global ethics.

In 2003, Thay spent a few days in Edinburgh, and I went to hear him speak; On 27th June, I wrote in the Senscot Bulletin:” He has a deep calm and an extraordinary absence of ego…I believed myself immune to gurus, but this is a rare spiritual leader”. Since that encounter, I’ve known, that for all his secular learning and writing, you can only understand this man as a monk.

Unable to walk and talk (and whatever else) sounds grim – but I’ve never assumed that Thay’s final years were miserable. Buddhist practice is about recognising ‘in the present’, the beautiful world all around us. Thich Nhat Hanh will always be a smiling reminder, that alongside external achievements, some people nurture great souls.

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“The obituary, already being written for Boris Johnson, is about one man, beset by monstrous flaws in character, who presided over a rotten, insensate culture in Downing Street. Scarcely a word is said about how a rotten political culture chose this cracked actor to be PM in the first place”. This is from Aditya Chakrabortty’s opinion piece in the Guardian which, in my opinion, ‘nails it’: Britain urgently needs an era of serious leaders. As Rory Stewart, a former Cabinet minister, wrote in Saturday’s FT: “We don’t just deserve better than Johnson; we deserve better than the culture and system that produced him”.

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It was around 2010 when Ronald Cohen was spouting his ‘vision’ about the third sector becoming an ‘asset class’ for market investors – wilfully conflating profit with charitable activity; how could those bankers (and Gordon Brown) imagine that that would work. Announcement last week that Clearly So, Europe’s leading ‘social investment bank’ has gone into administration.

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In the Guardian, psychologist Paul Bloom discusses his latest book – The Sweet Spot: Suffering, Pleasure and the Key to a Good Life. His basic message is that people don’t only seek pleasure; we also want to live ‘meaningful’ lives and, at times, this will involve willingly suffering pain, anxiety and struggle. We are certainly complex beings; article has some good references

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Last week, 102 of the world’s richest people, jointly declared that it was time for governments to take more of their money in tax. In this Conversation piece, Professor Peter Bloom challenges this apparently generous offer, asking if a vibrant democracy with shared prosperity and ecological sustainability, could afford billionaires. Do they signify a successful or a failed economic system.

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This openDemocracy article warns that Boris Johnson’s departure would give even more power to the Right of the Tory Party, which opposes most of what Govt stands for; they would minimise the role of the state in favour of corporate profit. Perhaps we should beware of what we wish for but I still want him off the table. Then we’ll deal with the next chancer they select.

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This is from Thay’s book ‘No Death, No Fear’—one of his more ‘difficult’ understandings.

“This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies All manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free. Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So, smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source, Always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.”