You walk through the brush-covered hills under a vast blue sky. The only sounds are birds singing, insects buzzing and the oak leaves crunching beneath your feet. Warm sun and cool shade alternately embrace your skin as you walk slowly … slowly … conscious of each time your foot caresses the earth. You focus on the breath rising and falling in your chest as you silently follow a brown-cloaked monk along the path in a journey that pulls you completely into the present moment and fills you with peace.Walking Together in Peace, what the Buddhists call a walking meditation, is the title of the 18th annual Social Issues Conference at USD, which takes place from Oct. 1 to 5. The keynote speaker will be the world-renowned Buddhist monk and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh. The themes of the conference, inspired by Nhat Hanh’s work, are peace and reconciliation, contemplation and social action, and environment and climate crisis.
“We’re incredibly honored to have him as a speaker in this particular time in history when the world is punctuated by war in so many places,” says Sister Barbara Quinn, R.S.C.J., director of the Center for Christian Spirituality and co-chair of the Social Issues Committee. “His whole message is peace and mindfulness and dialogue; it couldn’t be more timely.” Chris Nayve, associate director of Community Service-Learning, which co-sponsors the conference, anticipates that his appearance will attract crowds of admirers. “In San Diego there is already a buzz. He’ll draw folks from L.A., Arizona. People from the entire Southwest region will jump at the chance to hear him.”
Nhat Hanh, 81, is a celebrated Zen master, poet, author and human rights activist who has promoted peace through decades of writings, political intervention and outreach to suffering people. In conjunction with the United Nations, he helped establish 2001 to 2010 as the “international decade for a culture of peace and non-violence for the children of the world.” His courageous protest of the U.S.-Vietnam war, which led to his exile from Vietnam, compelled Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1966, saying, “I know of no one more worthy … than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
Among the monasteries he has founded worldwide — which welcome people of all religious backgrounds — Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, has drawn a number of USD students and faculty to learn the art of “mindful living.” Quinn describes it this way: “If you’re praying, pray; if you’re eating, eat; if you’re walking, walk. Don’t try to walk and eat and pray and think about the world’s problems all at the same time. Stay focused and give yourself to whatever you’re doing.”
Plans for the week-long conference include a walking meditation across campus, a Mass for peace the evening of Oct. 3, and workshops all day Oct. 4, each conducted by a professor, a student and a community partner. “Every workshop has a way of enacting what I think USD, in part, wants to be about — an agent of change, a partner in fostering a better quality of life for all people,” explains Quinn.
Nhat Hanh’s presentation will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 2, in the Jenny Craig Pavilion, and expectations are that no seat will be vacant.
Overall, the hope of the Social Issues Committee is that Nhat Hanh’s very presence, along with his message, will inspire peace. Stacy Brake, student co-chair of the committee, says her introduction to mindful living has already made her more peaceful in her relationships with friends, within herself and with God, and she expects her fellow students will have the same reaction: “If they give it a try I have no doubt it will be a powerful experience for them.”
“The whole purpose of it,” says Quinn, “is to really enter the depths of our own true selves and to be unself-centered enough to pay attention to something greater than we are. In the Christian tradition, it’s the triune God. And the Buddhists in their own way are trying to do the same thing. Pay attention to this large, beautiful, powerful universe that is a pure gift to us. Let us relate to it and to each other with all the reverence that it deserves. By doing that every day, the world would be a much more peaceful place.”
For more information about the Social Issues Conference, go to www.sandiego.edu/socialissues or call (619) 260-4798.