Gary Slutkin was about to cry on the phone. An epidemiologist renowned for his work identifying violence as a contagious disease and efforts to curb it, Slutkin paused while talking about Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who died January 22 at age 95.
“He was so sweet, just so damn sweet,” said Slutkin from his home in Chicago. “He’ll go down in history as one of the world’s great teachers.”
The Zen master’s message? The usual top of the mountain stuff sought by people – typically Westerners, many, many thousands of them – lost in the trenches of modern life: Slow down, be still, let go, just be.
“People talk about entering nirvana, but we are already there,” said Hanh. Try that one out at your next board meeting.
He was known as Thay – pronounced “Tie,” Vietnamese for teacher. In his presence, say those who were, you felt the peace that comes with a lifetime of practicing those precepts. And wanted it for yourself.
Slutkin, the founder and CEO of Cure Violence Global, met Hanh in the early 1990s at Plum Village, a monastery the monk founded north of Bordeaux, France while in exile.
In 1965, a letter from Hanh to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., helped nudge the American civil rights leader to come out strongly against the war in Vietnam. In 1969, Hanh led a Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks to persuade Western leaders to end the war. Soon afterward, he was denied entry to Vietnam, an exile that lasted until 2018. He died at the Từ Hiếu Temple in Hue, where, at age 16, he took his vows as a novice.
And Slutkin, after a decade of battling epidemics in Africa with the World Health Organization, was a physician unable to heal himself. He returned to the United States, he said, “feeling isolated and lost. I was in crisis.”
Those closest to him noticed right away. In one week (it may have been the same day), two dear friends gave him copies of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.
The confluence launched Slutkin on a spiritual journey that eventually led to the “engaged Buddhism” of the poet and holy man Hanh who practiced a “gentler approach – simple, beautiful, immediate.”
Slutkin did not return to the States with the idea of studying the scourge of violence as a contagion. He simply came home, broken. While finding himself anew through meditation and deeper readings of Eastern spirituality, he began to appreciate that everything (and thus everyone) is interconnected.
“The idea that we exist as individuals is wrong and essentially why our [Western] culture is failing,” said Slutkin. “Thich Nhat Hanh knew the West was suffering because it was bombing his country.
“It’s why he took his message to Germany, England, France and the United States – all violent societies that need the teaching of interconnectedness.”
This dovetailed with Slutkin’s hunch that violence spreads like tuberculosis and cholera; from person to person. “We see violence all the time and everybody [seems to be] fine with it, that’s an exposure system.”
It became Slutkin’s life’s work: putting individuals predisposed to violence, particularly gun violence among young people, in touch with each other as well as once-violent elders who, by luck or decision, had aged out of the streets. The “old heads” – or peers – would function as prophylactic by counseling those about to hurt someone to take a moment, to be still if they could, that they weren’t alone. Or even unique.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, as experienced over the years in Baltimore via the Safe Streets program. But often it does work, shown by results posted by Slutkin on cvg.org/impact.
“There is no separation between yourself and others,” said Slutkin. “And our susceptibility to disease and passing it on is always where we have a sore.”
Like Slutkin, former machinist and retired Baltimore City school teacher Don O’Rourke also spent time at Plum Village in the early 1990s. At the time, O’Rourke had been sober about a decade (now 85, he hasn’t had a drink for 43 years) and, despite being off the sauce, he was lost.
Where Slutkin sees extreme individualism shredding society, O’Rourke comes from a healing movement that believes “self-will run riot” (as described in 12-step literature) drives the destruction of the alcoholic’s life and often those dearest to them.
While searching for a way to meditate (a foundation of 12-step recovery), someone told him “about this little Vietnamese guy giving a lecture in Washington,” said O’Rourke. “I was looking for a teacher, so I went.”
Valerie Wethered, a United Way of Central Maryland employee, went to DC with O’Rourke – “before [Hanh] was really popular here,” she said – and had a very corporeal experience that told her she had a long way to go.
“It was an old Quaker meeting house with hard benches, no air-conditioning, stuffed with people and felt like it was 110 degrees inside – awful,” said Wethered. “I’m dying in the heat and sweat and he was up there as peaceful as can be. I thought, ‘Good Lord, Valerie, this man has been through war and exile and you’re complaining because it’s too hot to meditate.”
For O’Rourke, after that first meeting, dominoes began to fall before him like stepping stones. He then attended a retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York where he first heard of Hanh’s Plum Village. Then he lost his job and made a call to France asking the person who answered the phone if they had room for him. They did.
“I was in my mid-50s and so messed up I could hardly make it across town, but I just took off,” O’Rourke said. At the monastery, “It was pretty much just me and Thay and about ten nuns.
“He was an absolute real teacher, the real thing. When I was there he was doing his first retreats for therapists from the U.S. After that it started becoming commercial, but not him. He’s way above all that.”
O’Rourke stayed at Plum Village for nearly four months and it was there – practicing exercises that included Hanh’s “walking meditation” while working as a handyman – ““that my head started to clear up,” he said.
It cleared up enough for O’Rourke to realize that he desired other forms of meditation, other teachings, different ways to peel the onion of self. And revealed a concept in direct
opposition to most Western thought.
“The school I’m in now teaches you to do the hard things in life to feel good about yourself,” he said. “Not to feel good.”
Rafael Alvarez is the author of Crabtown, USA, an anthology of feature stories. He can be reached at email@example.com