“Alfred Hassler was one of our dearest friends, supporters and brothers and that is one of the many reasons why we call him by his true name "Thich Alfred Hassler".
Alfred stood by us during some of the most difficult times of our lives, during the war in Vietnam. He was a deep listener who "always stuck to the spirit of non-duality and reconciliation." We were with Alfred during his last day in the hospital.
When we arrived Alfred was asleep, he was dying of cancer and was heavily sedated. We sang to him, massaged his feet and spoke to him recalling many of our adventures together when suddenly Alfred opened his eyes for a brief moment and said "Wonderful, Wonderful," then fell back to sleep.
Collectively, the film team "Sangha" of Gregory, Stuart, Katharina, Jennifer, Eric, Uli and Amelie have worked for a number of years to bring this story to the world and it would be "Wonderful, Wonderful," if those of you who know us to support their IndieGOGO fundraising campaign to produce and finish the film which we would like to premiere during Plum Village's 30th Anniversary in June or July of 2012.
Our brother Alfred was one of the most important peacemakers in the last century and his story, which is interconnected with ours, should be told and is truly worthy of your support”
- Thich Nhat Hanh & Sister Chan Khong, July 2011, Plum Village, France
Peace is the Way film update “A Chair that is Unbreakable” letter written by Thich Nhat Hanh about Alfred Hassler.
Years ago, when the office of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation was still located at 11 rue de la Goutte d’Or in Paris, we practiced a somewhat “discriminating” policy in receiving guests. We only received out intimate friends there. Guests we did not know well were received at Dr. Dug’s cozy apartment, adorned with Vietnamese art crafts and paintings.
The reason for this discrimination was that our office at rue de la Goutte d’Or was so poor and so small. A Dutch journalist, after a three-hour interview with Phuong there, told her we should move to a better looking place or people would not take our work seriously. We felt a little hurt by the revelation; afterward we received guests at Dung’s apartment. (Now we both live and work in a better-looking place at 69 blvd. Desgranges in Sceaux on the southern edge of Paris.)
One of the friends we received in our years at rue de la Goutte d’Or was Alfred Hassler. He did not mind the poverty of our place. The first time he came up the narrow stairs to that fifth-floor office, we offered him one of the little chairs we had. He took the seat wholeheartedly, but before our conversation began the chair broke and he fell to the floor. It was not that Alfred was too heavy. The chair was in poor condition. The landlord had given it to us for free.
I came over to help Alfred and asked whether he was hurt. He smiled and said that he was all right. We offered him another chair, one that didn’t break this time. We sat and talked, enjoying the warmth of a heater friends in the Mouvement Chretien Pour la Paix had given us a few days before.
I first met Alfred in July, 1965, when he visited Vietnam with a group of American pacifists. I did not know anything about the Fellowship of Reconciliation at that time. It was a great relief to meet with such individuals. We were encouraged by that visit and immediately set up ties with these people. Alfred gave me his address.
A year later, two friends of mine, Prof. George McKahin of Cornell University and Prof. Robert Browne of the International Committee for the Debate of Foreign Policy, invited me to give a series of lectures at Cornell on Buddhism in Southeast Asia. I thought it would be a good opportunity to speak in the United States about the war in Vietnam so I accepted. After arriving in America, I contacted Alfred. Robert Browne and I were both invited to the FOR offices at Shadowcliff in Nyack. We sat in Al’s office and began arranging for a speaking trip after the Cornell lectures. It was the first time we really worked together.
Alfred accompanied me on some of the trips, especially in Europe where he was working to establish (with others in the International FOR) the International Committee of Conscience on Vietnam. I was glad that he could come with me.
During that trip, our relationship and understanding of each other deepened. It was hard for me to be traveling almost every day, speaking with people who were so different, and sleeping each night in different places. The speed, sound and colors of Western life gave me the impression of being in a dream. I remember one night in Sweden, after having slept for an hour, I woke up to the singing of birds. I looked out the window; it was morning. Nobody was up yet. I looked at a clock. It was only 2 in the morning. I remembered that, at this time of year, the sun did not sleep much in Northern Sweden. I tried to go back to sleep. But that is hard when birds are singing. Fortunately, Alfred was used to travel and rested without problems.
I made efforts to act a little bit in the Western way, but my monastic manner seemed too dominant. I tried to walk quickly to keep up with other friends, but I felt that it was not me who walked. Yet I knew that if I didn’t walk quickly, then my friends would have to walk slowly, which would make them feel as if they were not themselves. But after trying to walk more quickly for several days, I could not do it anymore.
During interviews, there were sometimes questions which I did not want to answer, so I just kept silent. This occasionally created a bizarre atmosphere.
But Alfred seemed to understand. He would say something in order to fill the silence. He would slow down his walking so that I – and others – did not need to hurry.
It was through Alfred that I learned many things about the West, and about Christianity in the West. Thanks to him, I have made many friends who represent the best of Christianity and Judaism in the West. That encounter has generated changes in me and given me a broader view on several aspects of life.
Alfred shared my anxieties and hopes with me. I found in him the most attentive listener I had ever found in the West. He listens with a broad and open mind, without resistance to ideas which seem strange to him and which contradict his beliefs and habits of thinking. He never fears losing his identity,, but his identity stands out in quite an original way. One often feels grateful to such a friend who understands you and is able to appreciate suggestions.
During the years we have worked together, trying to bring pressure to stop the killing in Vietnam, I made a number of suggestions which he fully appreciated; one result was the FOR sending, in 1969, a fact-finding team to Vietnam to find out about the prisons and prisoners under the regime of Thieu. The members of the team first visited with the Delegation in Paris where we were able to provide them with detailed information, including facts about torture and the use of tiger-cage cells at Con Son Island.
Another suggestion to Alfred resulted in the international “Stop the Killing” campaign that had great effect and won support in Vietnam as well as in other countries.
Alfred brought to each suggestion a great deal of imaginative thinking and effective planning. He worked untiringly, day and night, for the realization of projects. He always maintained the pacifist, nonviolent stand.
I remember one time he told me about some difficulties he was having with staff members who did not approve the “third way” stand a stand in which a cease-fire was more important than any other accomplishment in Vietnam. I said to him, “I never had difficulties with my staff in the School of Youth for Social Service. Do you know why? I came to my office only once or twice a week, and never reproached staff members. It was my assistant Thay Thanh Van, who did all the work! So every time I came to the office, everybody was delighted to see me. I signed some papers, and patted everyone’s shoulders. From time to time, I brought a cake or cookies.” I told Alfred all this, knowing of course that he could not do the same. I am a monk and don’t need a salary to live’ my meals at the pagoda were free. But although Alfred is a Thich himself (a title I confer on him because The New York Times always maintains, despite contradiction from Vietnamese monks, that Thich means “Venerable”), Thich Alfred Hassler had to earn a salary, however meager, in order for his family to live.
We spent much time together meditating on the Dai Dong project. Seven members of the Dai Dong steering committee (including myself) depended on him to raise enough money so that we could organize such projects as the Independent Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972.
I recall one day going with him to ask the help of a millionaire for Dai Dong. During the conversation, I completely forgot we had any special interests and I said something that did not please the millionaire. No contribution was given. Poor Alfred – this was no isolated event. I committed the same mistake on other occasions. But the best thing is that Alfred did not mind at all. He later mentioned these events – these “gaps” – to others as being particularly cherished moments in our friendship.
As a friend of his who comes from the East, I have brought him something of Easter life, and I believe this has effectuated change in him as well as in me. There are great many memories between us. But I cannot tell more here. I will only say that I see in his person a mixture of idealism, realism and courage.
After the Ceasefire was declared on January 27, 1973, I received a telegram of congratulations from Alfred. Soon after that, he came to visit. We tried not to be too optimistic, but we could not help being encouraged. I motioned that the An Quang pagoda, which is the headquarters of the Unifed Buddhist Church, had filed an application for a return visa for me. I promised I would visit him and other friends in America before going home. But the visa never came. We started a small campaign to press for the visa. In Europe, several wellknown religious and political figures wrote to the Saigon government on our behalf.
I asked Alfred to help. He felt deeply reluctant to do so. He was worried for our lives, and felt our overseas work might be more important than what we could do in Vietnam. I told him that I did not think in terms of work. I said, “I have been away for a long time’ I want to go home. As a friend, please help.” He consented. Other friends in the FOR (Laura Hassler, Jim Forest and Richard Deats) also helped. Together they got a number of people, including religious leaders and a few senators, to write Saigon. But the visa still refuses to come.
Early in the year, when I learned of Al’s retirement, I wrote to him, “Alfred, we have moved here to a more spacious place. And we now have three chairs uniquely made of foam rubber covered with linen. Chairs like that never break. Please come. We will serve you jasmine tea and we shall speak about the Dai Dong, Northern Ireland, Indochina, and other matters of common concern.” Deep in my heart, I knew that if I invited him over just to relax that he would be reluctant to come. I had to mention the work. Even now, although it is his last week before retirement, he continues to work. We have just received another full report from him about his work to liberate prisoners in Vietnam. I very much want to tell our friends in the Fellowship, “I know that Alfred Hassler will certainly continue the work of the FOR after he leaves his office at Shadowcliff…so please don’t worry.”
From my window, I can see clearly the poplar tree in our yard. The tree is always there, very green in this season but I do not always look out, so I do not see it all the time. Yesterday afternoon, I looked out and saw it in a very real sort of way and I murmured in French, “Tue s la, je le sais.”
“You are there, I know it.” Today, thinking of Alfred, I want to tell him, “Alfred, you are there, and I know it.” And it is a comfort.
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Last Updated (Monday, 19 September 2011 19:04)