In chapter 3 of his book Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995) Thich Nhat Hanh (‘Thay’) describes how a Protestant minister had accused him of ingratitude because he did not believe in God, the creator of all things. Thay was upset by this accusation, because he thought that he is very grateful for everything. He writes ‘Every time I touch food, whenever I see a flower, when I breathe fresh air, I always feel grateful’. He refers to the incident later in the chapter when he writes that for the Protestant minister love could only be symbolized by a person, and that in Judeo-Christianity God is always presented as in the image of a person.
Thay points out that Buddhists sometimes personify traits they aspire to, such as mindfulness, understanding, and love in the form of bodhisattvas or the Buddha himself but do not create narratives around these figures concerning actual bodily resurrection.
For Thich Nhat Hanh, the living Christ is not a physical body which is living in the flesh now but ‘the Christ of Love who is always generating love, moment after moment’.
He goes on to say that Christians have to help Jesus Christ be manifested by their way of life, showing those around them that love, understanding and tolerance are possible. This will not be accomplished just by books and sermons. It has to be realised by the way we live. Thanks to the practice of many generations of Buddhists and Christians, the energy of the Buddha and the energy of Jesus Christ have come to us. We can touch the living Buddha and we can touch the living Christ. We have a wonderful opportunity to help the Buddha and Jesus Christ continue. He goes on to say that, thanks to our bodies and our lives, such practice is possible. If you hate your body and think that it is a source of affliction, that it contains only the roots of anger, hatred and craving, you do not understand that your body is the body of the Buddha, your body is a member of the body of Christ.
Thay’s words remind me of Buddhist warnings about attachments to negative feelings and the Christian prayer of St Teresa of Avila about how we should think of ourselves as embodying Christ in the here and now.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion
is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
And yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.
I must confess to an occasional repulsion by St Teresa’s prayer and the very idea of imagining myself as embodying Christ or the Buddha. In my moments of cynical atheism I see such practices as the worst sort of insincere and pretentious evangelical posturing. In these unholy moments I need to remind myself that the saint's prayer and Thay’s words are not scientific claims but aids to mind-training.
Spiritual practice is not about a point of view, a philosophy or about statements of how the world may be in objective, scientific or material terms, just as prayer is not properly about getting God to perform miracles on one’s behalf. Prayer, meditation, religious and spiritual activity generally are not about conceptualising but about being creative and imaginative, inducing deep wisdom and positive feelings through self-treatment and fellowship, using great narratives and metaphors and other cultural artefacts, such as music, or the beauty of the natural world, to damp down the ego and put one in right ordering with one’s fellows and the rest of the world. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the mark of good spiritual practice is not rightness or wrongness judged intellectually but about feelings, virtuous behaviour and emotional well-being.