Amos Oz and Thich Nhat Hanh and why People should stop trying to help

Redon: Ophelia

A few weeks back, I was thinking about Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Budhhist monk whose writings my mother introduced me to some time in the early 90s. I had wanted to mention something about him here but had not had the chance. Nevertheless, I have just finished Amos Oz’s fascinating novel Black Box (which for reasons I have yet to explore reminds me of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace), recommended to me by my friend Joaquín. I read the following lines in the story:

A man minds his own private business as long as he has business and as long as he has privacy. In their absence, for fear of the emptiness of his life, he turns feverishly to other people’s business. To straighten them out. To chastise them. To enlighten every fool and crush every deviant. To bestow favors on others or to persecute them savagely. Between the altruistic zealot and the murderous zealot there is of course a difference of moral degree, but there is no difference in kind. Murderousness and self-sacrifice are simply two sides of the same coin. Domination and benevolence, agression and devotion, repression and self-repression, saving the souls of those who are different from you and annihilating them: these are not pairs of opposites but merely different expressions of man’s emptiness and worthlessness. “His insufficiency to himself,” in the phrase of Pascal (who was infected himself).

and was immediately reminded of what I had wanted to write in reference to Thich Nhat Hahn. Here is what I was thinking:

What I wanted to write was about how people join causes, go to political rallies and protests, make big proclamations about the inequities of the world. Maybe they should just shut up for a second, or as Dennis Leary recommends to solve their problems instead of going through some 12 steps program: they should simply “shut the f— up”. Well, I don’t think those would be the words used by Thich Nhat Hanh. According to Hanh, like Oz, people’s desires to join a cause and to change the world are not based on their altruism but based on their loniless and unhappiness. They take their negative energy and try to turn it to a cause. Thus, things like peace protests do not lead to peace, for those who protest are not really at peace with themselves. Hahn suggests that the only way towards a better world is for people to improve their own daily lives:

If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic type of peace work.

I wonder if the Bill Clintons, Jimmy Carters, George W. Bushes, ZPs, Hugo Chavez’ of the world (and everyone out there who has ever criticized them) would have done much better to make their own families happy before trying to save the rest of us. Imagine an unhappy couple who thinks that marriage will solve their relationship problems. The tree will whither because of the poisoned fruit. So, everytime I see another group on TV protesting something, or a read about someone’s solution to the world’s problem or their critique of some policy, I just wish they would go home, become a RastaFonero, and, instead of trying to save the world, to ask whether they are faithful to the ones around them, to themselves.

If not, well, I guess it is a free world, and they can do what I do: bore the hell out of the everyone with a blog that no one reads.


Filed under Digressions, Essays, Literature

7 responses to “Amos Oz and Thich Nhat Hanh and why People should stop trying to help

  1. eric


    In response to your comment (which you published under the “RastaFonero” post), I guess that is why Catholic priests are not supposed to marry in theory. You know Christ preaches to leave the family behind to follow him. Nevertheless, I am not so convinced by the idea that priest do not marry either. My understanding of Hahn’s argument is simply that people would be better off improving their own lives and find peace within than trying to improve the lives of ours, especially if that which directs them towards such an agenda is based on negative energy. That’s all.

    Your comment:
    “That is both really funny and a profound question. When i read the autobiographies of Mandela, Gandhi and even Malcolm X and the biography (by Jon Lee Anderson) of Che, this is a question/dilemma that was either raised in the books or i naturally started thinking about the sacrifices their families had to make.

    These men all sacrificed their families for their cause. I think Mandela addresses this issue more directly than the others.

    anyway, i am going to stop writing now.”

  2. Eric's brother- the comment killer

    okay woops. i saw only the posting in the rastafonero thing and thought it was from el granula (or whatever his name is) and thought it was a joke. I hadn’t read your most recent blog…. i skimmed the first paragraph and thought and figured it was about some silly book and saw a long quote and stopped reading.

    But i just read your latest posting in its entirety and think that it is over simplified. While the world would be much better w/out Bush’s, Clintons, etc. on the one hand and the religous folks on the other (and i am not even certain they are that different- which the quote says); i do think that we have a certain responsibility (and Mandela really talks about this in his book) to others.

    My question to TNH would be should we turn our heads away from injustice? Should we bury our heads in the sand? I think TNH is correct when it comes to the leaders of the world and religous groups as are out for selfish reasons. Both inherently want exclusively to be #1 and either want to change people to be like them, take what they can from that person or eliminate them.

    But I don’t believe that TNH contemplates those that fight for social injustice… those that fight to stop the leaders and religious groups above.

    I think another question is that posed by Rawls: “behind the veil of ignorance” where would we stand? From our place in the world it is easy to say, i am going to take care of me and to hell with everyone else. But if you were Hamdi, a slave, a neighbor of Eric’s, homeless, unjustly in prison, sick, etc… on the one hand, yes you would want your oppressors to go way, but certainly Hamdi was delighted when his lawyer helped free him, etc.

    To take TNH’s quote to the extreme… should we leave sick people to die? Of course, not. The same should go for all injustice that exists. To me it is the same theory. Just a doctor would have trouble walking away from a sick person that he could help, each of us should not walk away from injustice and wrongdoing. But most of that injustice comes at the hands of gov’t, corporations and religion.

    In my reply yesterday, i identified what i believe is the greater dilemma… how much should we or are we willing to sacrifice to fight injustice? Those autobiographies speak to the great sacrifices these men and/or their families gave for their causes. Mandela speaks candidly about his children and how he never got to know them and how terrible there lives were. He blames himself for his mother’s early death. He talks about how his tribe was actually disappointed in him b/c he was supposed to be taking care of them and leading them, not sitting in prison and they felt abandoned by him. And how his work destroyed his first marriage, etc.

    I just don’t believe that Mandela did what he did out of “fear of the emptiness of his life.” He did what he did b/c of what he saw and experienced.

    But maybe i am just in denial.

  3. I’m called “el granuja” not granola….one the name given to an indivdual that obtains anything he wants via foul play. The other is a breakfast food and snack food consisting of rolled oats, nuts, and mixed with honey, or other ingredients.

  4. And I think eric means that there would be no injustice if everyone minded their own business.
    once there is injustice then the solution is much different.

  5. Eric

    I am saying that according to what I understand from Oz and Hanh is that if people just tried to be happy in their daily lives, we would have less problems. Instead people complain and protest. They don’t even enjoy the granola they eat in protest to meat.

  6. Eric's brother- the comment killer

    sorry about the name thing… i was just writing and didn’t feel like looking up your name.

    I like el Granuja’s understanding of Eric’s posting… that makes more sense to me.

  7. eric

    I think that if you put granola and raisins inside of Granuja’s fabada or around one of the suckling pigs that are roasting in his oven, you might find that rather tasty. My question for Granuja is whether he can find granola (as opposed to rice) filled morcia somewhere in the Villiage.

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