Questions and Answers by Thich Nhat Hanh

Going Back to Our Religious Roots

Q:Thay, what do you mean when you say to go back to our religious roots?How can we do that and continue to study and practice Buddhism, which is so practical and helpful?

A: I think we have to look into our religious roots, because sometimes we are not capable of identifying our spiritual roots. If you are a Buddhist, then you know that Buddha is a root, but you are aware that before the Buddha there was already something -- the Buddha was somebody who also had roots. So your roots did not begin with the Buddha. To inquire about the Buddha and the ancestors of the Buddha is important.

When you are a Christian,of course Jesus Christ is your spiritual root, but before Christianity there were other things. Therefore it is interesting and even exciting to inquire about our roots. Our roots can be very old, and our roots can also be new. We inherit things like democracy and freedom. The people who made democracy and freedom possible for us to enjoy are our roots also, so to go back and search for our roots is a very joyful,very important thing. Of course, we will encounter negative aspects and elements, but that does not prevent us going back to our own source.Our roots are also the roots of many people around us. If we can go back to our roots and try to discover the real values, the jewels contained in that tradition, we will be able to benefit many people who have come from these roots. This morning a young person asked me what should she do if she is in love with a young man who belongs to another religious tradition, since she doesn't want to betray her roots. She is a Buddhist, and the other family might require that she abandon her Buddhism to become a Catholic.

I would like to tell you a story.Thirty five years ago I had a student who fell in love with a young man who was Catholic, and the family of that young man required that the young lady abandon the practice of Buddhism in order to be baptized as a Catholic. That was the basic condition for the marriage, and she suffered very much. Her family was also opposed to that. She cried and cried, and one day she came to me. I said that Buddhism is not there to make you unhappy. Buddhism is not an obstacle, so I think in the name of the Buddha I can tell you that you can become a Catholic and marry him, but I would like to make a recommendation. You have received The Five Mindfulness Trainings; you should continue to look on them as the guidelines of your life. You don't have to be called a Buddhist; you only have to be a true Buddhist within yourself. Live accordingly and practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and that would make me happy enough. She was so joyful that she was allowed to marry the person she loved. But she did not sleep during that night, and the next morning she came very early, and she said, "Thay, a tradition that is so embracing, so tolerant, so open, if I abandon it and turn my back to it, I am not a person of value. A tradition that is so strict, that has no tolerance, that is not able to understand, how could I formally identify myself with it?" So she just refused to get married to that person. I thought that I would help her get married to that young man,but I caused the opposite to happen. Today, thirty five years later, she is here somewhere in this Sangha.

When I was in Korea a few years ago, I participated in the first dialogue between Buddhists and Christians, and I said that many young people have suffered due to being caught in that kind of situation. So I proposed that we should be able to allow Buddhists and Christians to marry each other, with the condition that the young man would learn and also practice the tradition of the young woman, and the young woman would also learn and practice the tradition of the young man. Instead of having one root,you have two roots. Why not? If you love mangoes, you are free to continue to eat mangoes, but no one forbids you to eat pineapples or oranges. Your favorite fruit is the mango, yes, but you don't betray your mango when you eat pineapple. I think it's too narrow-minded, even stupid, to enjoy only mango, when there are so many different fruits around in the world. Spiritual traditions are like spiritual fruits,and you have the right to enjoy them. It is possible to enjoy two traditions, to take the best of two traditions and live with that. If you like to eat Italian food, you can still enjoy French and Chinese cooking. You cannot say, "I have to be faithful to my Italian cooking", that's too funny.

This year I would like to publish another book,as a continuation of my book Living Buddha, Living Christ. I would like to publish the book with the title: Buddha and Jesus as Brothers. In fact, they could have taken each other's hands and practiced walking meditation, so why not the two of you, one as a Buddhist and one as a Christian? You are the continuation of the Buddha, and you are the continuation of Jesus Christ. That is only beautiful, if you can share your wisdom, your insights, and you can learn from each other and enrich yourselves. That is what I envision for the future, that we remove the barriers between different spiritual traditions, and we behave as people do in the circle of psychotherapists. They enjoy and learn from all other traditions, and I think that each tradition of psychotherapy has something to offer. It's too narrow if we only want to be faithful to one school of psychotherapy.

You are welcome to continue your practice of Buddhist meditation, because you find it practical and helpful, transforming and healing. But you can think of other people who have come from the same tradition as you, and who have not encountered the practice. You can do it by sharing your Buddhist practice, and also proposing to them that you go back to your spiritual roots, and you might discover things that you have not seen. You might begin anew, so that your tradition will become very refreshing,something that can provide true answers to the questions of the new generations, and that will benefit many people. When I say that you have to go back to your roots, that does not mean that you have to abandon the Buddhist practice that you enjoy now. But the Buddhist practice will help you to understand more deeply, so that your work of transformation and renewing of your tradition will be possible; and especially so that your heart will open to embrace the people who do not seem to be open and understanding enough when they try to transmit their tradition and values to the new generations of people.