A recent report by Human Rights Watch has highlighted the persecution in Vietnam of followers of the Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Now in his eighties and author of books that have sold over a million copies, Thich Nhat Hanh is known as one of the founders of ‘engaged Buddhism’, which seeks to apply Buddhist ideas to help tackle social, economic and environmental injustice. He first came to public attention in the 1960s when nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King for his opposition to the Vietnam War. He has now been making headlines for criticising the Vietnamese government for its failure to ensure religious freedom.
One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s most important ideas is ‘interbeing’, which concerns the mutual interconnectedness of all living things. As he describes it in his book Being Peace: ‘I am, therefore you are. You are, therefore I am. That is the meaning of the word “interbeing”’.
Interbeing contains a very clear empathetic element, which is that we become more compassionate when we imagine ourselves in someone else’s place and understand their suffering. The challenge he raises is that we need to empathise with everybody – not just people we know and care about, but strangers and those who we might despise. This is nowhere better illustrated than in his extraordinary prayer-poem ‘Please Call Me By My True Names’.
He wrote this poem after receiving a letter telling of a young girl who, as a refugee crossing the Gulf of Siam in a small boat, was raped by a Thai sea pirate. She was only twelve years old, and jumped into the ocean and drowned herself.
We must show compassion even for the sea pirate, he says, because each one of us, growing up in his circumstances, may have become a sea pirate ourselves.
Nhat Hanh writes: ‘After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The title of the poem is “Please Call Me by My True Names,” because I have so many names. When I hear one of these names, I have to say, “Yes.”’
Please Call Me by My True Names
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
It is a poem that raises some difficult questions. Is Thich Nhat Hanh asking too much when he calls on us to empathise with a Thai sea pirate? More generally, should we be trying to step into the shoes of those whose beliefs or actions we object to – from a dinner guest who tells a racist joke to a suicide bomber? How far, ultimately, should we take our empathetic imaginations?