Building a Community of Love: bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh

bell hooks meets with Thich Nhat Hanh to ask: how do we build a community of love?

bell hooks
24 March 2017
bell hooks thich nhat hanh
bell hooks (photo by Liza Matthews) and Thich Nhat Hanh (photo by Velcrow Ripper).

Thich Nhat Hanh has been a presence in my life, as a teacher and guide, for more than twenty years. In the last few years I began to doubt the heart connection I felt with him because we had never met or spoken to one another, yet his work was ever-present in my work. I began to feel the need to meet him face to face, even as my intuitive self kept saying that it would happen when the time was right. My work in love has been to trust that intuitive self kept saying that it would happen when the time was right. My work in love has been to trust that intuition knowledge.

Those who know me intimately know that I have been contemplating the place and meaning of love in our lives and culture for years. They know that when a subject attracts my intellectual and emotional imagination, I am long to observe it from all angles, to know it inside and out.

In keeping with the way my mind works, when I began to think deeply about the metaphysics of love I talked with everyone around me about it. I talked to large audiences and even had wee one-on-one conversations with children about the way they think about love. I talked about love in every state, everywhere I traveled.

Love is always the place where I begin and end.

To me, all the work I do is built on a foundation of loving-kindness. Love illuminates matters. And when I write provocative social and cultural criticism that causes readers to stretch their minds, to think beyond set paradigms, I think of that work as love in action. While it may challenge, disturb and at times even frighten or enrage readers, love is always the place where I begin and end.

A central theme of all about love is that from childhood into adulthood we are often taught misguided and false assumptions about the nature of love. Perhaps the most common false assumption about love is that love means we will not be challenged or changed. No doubt this is why people who read writing about racism, sexism, homophobia, religion, etc. that challenges their set assumptions tend to see that work as harsh rather than loving.

Of all the definitions of love that abound in our universe, a special favorite of mine is the one offered in The Road Less Traveled by psychoanalyst M. Scott Peck. Defining love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth,” he draws on the work of Erich Fromm to emphasize again and again that love is first and foremost exemplified by action—by practice—not solely by feeling.

Fromm’s The Art of Loving was published when I was four years old. It was the book I turned to in my late teens when I felt confused about the nature of love. His insistence that “love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love” made sense to me then and it still does. Peck expands this definition. Knowing that the world would be a paradise of peace and justice if global citizens shared a common definition of love which would guide our thoughts and action, I call for the embrace of such a common understanding in all about love: new visions. That common understanding might be articulated in different words carrying a shared meaning for diverse experiences and cultures.

Throughout the more than twenty years that I have written on the subject of ending domination in whatever form it appears (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism), I have continually sought those paths that would lead to the end of violence and injustice. Since so much of my thinking about love in my late teens revolved around familial and romantic love, it was not until I was in my early twenties writing feminist theory that I began to think deeply about love in relation to domination.

During my first years in college Martin Luther King’s message of love as the path to ending racism and healing the wounds of racial domination had been replaced by a black power movement stressing militant resistance. While King had called for non-violence and compassion, this new movement called on us to harden our hearts, to wage war against our enemies. Loving our enemies, militant leaders told us, made us weak and easy to subjugate, and many turned their backs on King’s message.

Just as the energy of a racially-based civil rights liberation struggle was moving away from a call for love, the women’s movement also launched a critique of love, calling on females to forget about love so that we might seize power. When I was nineteen participating in feminist consciousness-raising groups, love was dismissed as irrelevant. It was our “addiction to love” that kept us sleeping with the enemy (men). To be free, our militant feminist leaders told us, we needed to stop making love the center of our imaginations and yearnings. Love could be a good woman’s downfall.

These two movements for social justice that had captured the hearts and imagination of our nation—movements that began with a love ethic—were changed by leaders who were much more interested in questions of power. By the late seventies it was no longer necessary to silence discussions of love; the topic was no longer on any progressive agenda.

At Gary Snyder’s mountain home, I would meet my first Buddhist nun and walk mindfully with her, all the while wondering if my heart could ever know the sweet peace emanating from her like a perfume mist.

Those of us who still longed to hold on to love looked to religions as the site of redemption. We searched everywhere, all around the world, for the spiritual teachers who could help us return to love. My seeking led me to Buddhism, guided there by the Beat poets, by personal interaction with Gary Snyder. At his mountain home I would meet my first Buddhist nun and walk mindfully with her, all the while wondering if my heart could ever know the sweet peace emanating from her like a perfume mist.

My seeking led me to the work of a Buddhist monk Martin Luther King had met and been touched by—Thich Nhat Hanh. The first work I read by this new teacher in my life was a conversation book between him and Daniel Berrigan, The Raft Is Not the Shore.

At last I had found a world where spirituality and politics could meet, where there was no separation. Indeed, in this world all efforts to end domination, to bring peace and justice, were spiritual practice. I was no longer torn between political struggle and spiritual practice. And here was the radical teacher—a Vietnamese monk living in exile—courageously declaring that “if you have to choose between Buddhism and peace, then you must choose peace.”

Unlike white friends and comrades who were often contemptuous of me because I had not traveled to the East or studied with important teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh was calmly stating: “Buddhism is in your heart. Even if you don’t have any temple or any monks, you can still be a Buddhist in your heart and life.” Reading his words I felt an inner rapture and could only repeat, “Be still my heart.” Like one wandering in the desert overcome by thirst. I had found water. My thirst was quenched and my spiritual hunger intensified.

For a period of more than ten years since leaving home for college I had felt pulled in all directions by anti-racist struggle, by the feminist movement, sexual liberation, by the fundamentalist Christianity of my upbringing. I wanted to embrace radical politics and still know god. I wanted to resist and be redeemed. The Raft Is Not the Shore helped strengthen my spiritual journey. Even though I had not met with Thich Nhat Hanh he was the teacher, along with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who were my chosen guides. Mixing the two was a fiery combination.

As all became well with my soul, I began to talk about the work of Thich Nhat Hanh in my books, quoting from his work. He helped me bring together theories of political recovery and spiritual recovery. For years I did not want to meet him face to face for fear I would be disappointed. Time and time again I planned to be where he was and the plan would be disrupted. Our paths were crossing but we were never meeting face to face.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s presence at last, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that not only was I given the blessing of meeting him, but that a pure spirit of love connected us.

Then suddenly, in a marvelous serendipitous way, we were meeting. In his presence at last, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that not only was I given the blessing of meeting him, but that a pure spirit of love connected us. I felt ecstatic. My heart jumped for joy—such union and reunion to be in the presence of one who has tutored your heart, who has been with you in spirit on your journey.

The journey is also to the teacher and beyond. It is always a path to the heart. And the heart of the matter is always our oneness with divine spirit—our union with all life. As early as 1975, Thich Nhat Hanh was sharing: “The way must be in you; the destination also must be in you and not somewhere else in space or time. If that kind of self-transformation is being realized in you, you will arrive.”

Walking on love’s path on a sunny day on my way to meet my teacher, I meet Sister Chan Khong. She too has taught me. She felt my heart’s readiness. Together we remembered the teacher who is everywhere awakening the heart. As she writes at the end of Learning True Love, “I am with you just as you have been with me, and we encourage each other to realize our deepest love, caring and generosity . . . together on the path of love.

bell hooks: I began writing a book on love because I felt that the United States is moving away from love. The civil rights movement was such a wonderful movement for social justice because the heart of it was love—loving everyone. It was believing, as you taught us yesterday, that we can always start anew; we can always practice forgiveness. I don’t have to hate any person because I can always start anew, I can always reconcile. What I’m trying to understand is why are we moving away from this idea of a community of love. What is your thinking about why people are moving away from love, and how we can be part of moving our society towards love.

Thich Nhat Hanh: In our own Buddhist sangha, community is the core of everything. The sangha is a community where there should be harmony and peace and understanding. That is something created by our daily life together. If love is there in the community, if we’ve been nourished by the harmony in the community, then we will never move away from love.

The reason we might lose this is because we are always looking outside of us, thinking that the object or action of love is out there. That is why we allow the love, the harmony, the mature understanding, to slip away from ourselves. This is, I think, the basic thing. That is why we have to go back to our community and renew it. Then love will grow back. Understanding and harmony will grow back. That’s the first thing.

Are we treating ourselves with enough joy and tenderness and peace? Or are we feeding ourselves with toxins that we get from the market—the spiritual, intellectual, entertainment market?

The second thing is that we ourselves need love; it’s not only society, the world outside, that needs love. But we can’t expect that love to come from outside of us. We should ask the question whether we are capable of loving ourselves as well as others. Are we treating our body kindly—by the way we eat, by the way we drink, by the way we work? Are we treating ourselves with enough joy and tenderness and peace? Or are we feeding ourselves with toxins that we get from the market—the spiritual, intellectual, entertainment market?

So the question is whether we are practicing loving ourselves? Because loving ourselves means loving our community. When we are capable of loving ourselves, nourishing ourselves properly, not intoxicating ourselves, we are already protecting and nourishing society. Because in the moment when we are able to smile, to look at ourselves with compassion, our world begins to change. We may not have done anything but when we are relaxed, when we are peaceful, when we are able to smile and not to be violent in the way we look at the system, at that moment there is a change already in the world.

So the second help, the second insight, is that between self or no-self there is no real separation. Anything you do for yourself you do for the society at the same time. And anything you do for society you do for yourself also. That insight is very powerfully made in the practice of no-self.

bell hooks: I think one of the most wonderful books that Martin Luther King wrote was Strength to Love. I always liked it because of the word “strength,” which counters the Western notion of love as easy. Instead, Martin Luther King said that you must have courage to love, that you have to have a profound will to do what is right to love, that it does not come easy.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Martin Luther King was among us as a brother, as a friend, as a leader. He was able to maintain that love alive. When you touch him, you touch a bodhisattva, for his understanding and love was enough to hold everything to him. He tried to transmit his insight and his love to the community, but maybe we have not received it enough. He was trying to transmit the best things to us—his goodness, his love, his nonduality. But because we had clung so much to him as a person, we did not bring the essence of what he was teaching into our community. So now that he’s no longer here, we are at a loss. We have to be aware that crucial transmission he was making was not the transmission of power, of authority, of position, but the transmission of the dharma. It means love.

bell hooks: Exactly. It was not a transmission of personality. Part of why I have started writing about love is feeling, as you say, that our culture is forgetting what he taught. We name more and more streets and schools after him but that’s almost irrelevant, because what is to be remembered is that strength to love.

That’s what we have to draw courage from—the spirit of love, not the image of Martin Luther King. This is so hard in the West because we are such an image- and personality-driven culture. For instance, because I have learned so much from you for so many years of my life, people kept asking me whether I had met you in person.

Thich Nhat Hanh: [Laughter] Yes, I understand.

bell hooks: And I said yes, I have met him, because he has given his love to me through his teachings, through mindfulness practice. I kept trying to share with people that, yes, I would like to meet you some day, but the point is that I am living and learning from his teaching.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes, that’s right. And that is the essence of interbeing. We had met already in the very non-beginning [Laughter]. Beginning with longing, beginning with blessings.

bell hooks: Except that you have also taught that to be in the presence of your teacher can also be a moment of transformation. So people say, is it enough that you’ve learned from books by him, or must you meet him, must there be an encounter?

Thich Nhat Hanh: In fact, the true teacher is within us. A good teacher is someone who can help you to go back and touch the true teacher within, because you already have the insight within you. In Buddhism we call it buddhanature. You don’t need someone to transfer buddhanature to you, but maybe you need a friend who can help you touch that nature of awakening and understanding working in you.

So a good teacher is someone who can help you to get back to a teacher within. The teacher can do that in many different ways; she or he does not have to meet you physically. I feel that I have many real students whom I have not met. Many are in cloisters and they never get out. Others are in prison. But in many cases they practice the teachings much better than those who meet me every day. That is true. When they read a book by me or hear a tape and they touch the insight within them, then they have met me in a real way. That is the real meeting.

bell hooks: I want to know your thoughts on how we learn to love a world full of justice, more than coming together with someone just because they share the same skin or the same language as we do. I ask this question of you because I first learned about you through Martin Luther King’s homage to your compassion towards those who had hurt your country.

Thich Nhat Hanh: This is a very interesting topic. It was a very important issue for the Buddha. How we view justice depends on our practice of looking deeply. We may think that justice is everyone being equal, having the same rights, sharing the same kind of advantages, but maybe we have not had the chance to look at the nature of justice in terms of no-self. That kind of justice is based on the idea of self, but it may be very interesting to explore justice in terms of no-self.

bell hooks: I think that’s exactly the kind of justice Martin Luther King spoke about—a justice that was for everyone whether they’re equal or not. Sometimes in life all things are not equal, so what does it mean to have justice when there is no equality? A parent can be just towards a child, even though they’re not equal. I think this is often misunderstood in the West, where people feel that there can be no justice unless everything is the same. This is part of why I feel we have to relearn how we think about love, because we think about love so much in terms of the self.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Is justice possible without equality?

bell hooks: Justice is possible without equality, I believe, because of compassion and understanding. If I have compassion, then if I have more than you, which is unequal, I will still do the just thing by you.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Right. And who has created inequality?

bell hooks: Well, I think inequality is in our minds. I think this is what we learn through practice. One of the concepts that you and Daniel Berrigan spoke about in The Raft Is Not the Shore is that the bridge of illusion must be shattered in order for a real bridge to be constructed. One of the things we learn is that inequality is an illusion.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Makes sense [Laughter].

bell hooks: Before I came here I had been struggling with the question of anger toward my ex-boyfriend. I have taken my vows as a bodhisattva, and so I always feel very depressed when I have anger. I had come to a point of despair because I had so much difficulty with my anger in relation to this man. So yesterday’s dharma talk about embracing our anger, and using it, and letting it go, was very essential for me at this moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh: You want to be human. Be angry, it’s okay. But not to practice is not okay. To be angry, that is very human. And to learn how to smile at your anger and make peace with your anger is very nice. That is the whole thing—the meaning of the practice, of the learning. By taking a look at your anger it can be transformed into the kind of energy that you need—understanding and compassion. It is with negative energy that you can make the positive energy. A flower, although beautiful, will become compost someday, but if you know how to transform the compost back into the flower, then you don’t have to worry. You don’t have to worry about your anger because you know how to handle it—to embrace, to recognize, and to transform it. So this is what is possible.

bell hooks: I think this is what people misunderstand about Martin Luther King saying to love your enemies. They think he was just using this silly little phrase, but what he meant was that as Black Americans we need to let our anger go, because holding on to it we hold ourselves down. We oppress ourselves by holding on to anger. My students tell me, we don’t want to love! We’re tired of being loving! And I say to them, if you’re tired of being loving, then you haven’t really been loving, because when you are loving you have more strength. As you were telling us yesterday, we grow stronger in the act of loving. This has been, I think, a very hurting thing for Black Americans—to feel that we can’t love our enemies. People forget what a great tradition we have as African-Americans in the practice of forgiveness and compassion. And if we neglect that tradition, we suffer.

Thich Nhat Hanh: When we have anger in us, we suffer. When we have discrimination in us, we suffer. When we have the complex of superiority, we suffer. When we have the complex of inferiority, we suffer also. So when we are capable of transforming these negative things in us, we are free and happiness is possible.

The only answer to fear is more understanding. And there is no understanding if there is no effort to look more deeply to see what is there in our heart and in the heart of the other person.

If the people who hurt us have that kind of energy within them, like anger or desperation, then they suffer. When you see that someone suffers, you might be motivated by a desire to help him not to suffer anymore. That is love also, and love doesn’t have any color. Other people may discriminate against us, but what is more important is whether we discriminate against them. If we don’t do that, we are a happier person, and as a happier person, we are in a position to help. And anger, this is not a help.

bell hooks: And lastly, what about fear? Because I think that many white people approach black people or Asian people not with hatred or anger but with fear. What can love do for that fear?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Fear is born from ignorance. We think that the other person is trying to take away something from us. But if we look deeply, we see that the desire of the other person is exactly our own desire—to have peace, to be able to have a chance to live. So if you realize that the other person is a human being too, and you have exactly the same kind of spiritual path, and then the two can become good practitioners. This appears to be practical for both.

The only answer to fear is more understanding. And there is no understanding if there is no effort to look more deeply to see what is there in our heart and in the heart of the other person. The Buddha always reminds us that our afflictions, including our fear and our desiring, are born from our ignorance. That is why in order to dissipate fear, we have to remove wrong perception.

bell hooks: And what if people perceive rightly and still act unjustly?

Thich Nhat Hanh: They are not able yet to apply their insight in their daily life. They need community to remind them. Sometimes you have a flash of insight, but it’s not strong enough to survive. Therefore in the practice of Buddhism, samadhi is the power to maintain insight alive in every moment, so that every speech, every word, every act will bear the nature of that insight. It is a question of cleaning. And you clean better if you are surrounded by sangha—those who are practicing exactly the same.

bell hooks: I think that we best realize love in community. This is something I have had to work with myself, because the intellectual tradition of the West is very individualistic. It’s not community-based. The intellectual is often thought of as a person who is alone and cut off from the world. So I have had to practice being willing to leave the space of my study to be in community, to work in community, and to be changed by community.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Right, and then we learn to operate as a community and not as individuals. In Plum Village, that is exactly what we try to do. We are brothers and sisters living together. We try to operate like cells in one body.

bell hooks: I think this is the love that we seek in the new millennium, which is the love experienced in community, beyond self.

Thich Nhat Hanh: So please, live that truth and disseminate that truth with your writing, with your speaking. It will be helpful to maintain that kind of view and action.

bell hooks: Thank you for your open-hearted example.

Thich Nhat Hanh: You’re welcome. Thank you.

bell hooks

bell hooks (1952-2021) described herself as a “Black woman intellectual, revolutionary activist.” A leading cultural critic and thinker about such issues as feminism and race, bell hooks published more than 30 books, including All About Love: New Visions.