Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem “Call Me By My True Names” feels like an old buddy; a dear sage in whom I can take refuge. Indeed, “True Names” makes some vital teachings of the Buddha viable to me, with vivid, precise particularity, panorama of vision and penetrative force. For a few decades now, it has been a cornerstone of my own practice. I’d like to shine light on the poem’s Dharma: how the healing justice of compassion comes naturally through learning our true names.
To begin, a bit of history might be in order. The poem was written in 1978 by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, also known as Thây, pronounced “tay” or “tie,” meaning “teacher”. A pacifist and nonpartisan, he was forced into exile for not taking sides during the horror we call the Vietnam War. (How relative names are! The Vietnamese call it the American War.)
In that tragic saga, 1975 was a crucial moment. America’s military gave up and withdrew. North Vietnam then took control of the entire country. Five million Vietnamese people had been slain. But wars don’t begin with a declaration or end with a treaty. Up to three million citizens then fled Vietnam. Many risked passage on the perilous ocean, huddled on small, open boats. Anywhere from a quarter to half of them perished.
Meanwhile, Thây had made France his base. A hundred or so letters would arrive weekly, from Vietnamese brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, now refugees in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. He and his sangha would read each letter. Not easy.
One letter hit a nerve. The day’s news: a twelve-year-old “boat person,” raped by a sea pirate, threw herself into the ocean and drowned. Please try to imagine how you’d feel reading this. It’s natural to side with the girl. Then it would be easy to imagine punishing the sea pirate. But Thây writes:
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
Looking deeply, we can see not two, but three people here: boat person, pirate . . . and ourselves. Each is interconnected by suffering, and by the possibility of transformation, one in our common pain and joy.
The poem awakens us from our given names, our illusion of separateness, in subtle, careful stages. At the outset, it grounds human experience as but one of myriad events embedded in nature . . . bud on a Spring branch . . . a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings . . . a caterpillar in the heart of a flower . . . a jewel hiding itself in a stone. In each image we can sense life’s impermanence and interdependence. A bug lives in a flower. A bird needs a nest before it can fly. A bud depends on its branch, yet also feeds it. And within a lump of rock, there is latent jewel essence.
As the Sanskrit saying goes, Tat tvam asi: Thou art That. Envisioning this vivid sequence of images in our mind’s eye, we are told that we too express the universal rhythm, pulsing with “the birth and death of all that is alive.” As part of it, we can take the point of view of life itself.
The next sequence of images grows out of this point of view, adding now a theme which the poet Tennyson called “Nature red in tooth and claw.” A bug is swallowed by a bird; a frog is swallowed by a snake. As in the realm of nature, so too in the realm of human nature:
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 Uganda.
Then, “I am the . . . girl raped by a sea pirate” and “I am the pirate,” followed by “I am a member of the Politburo” and the man “dying slowly in the forced labor camp.” The poem is now foregrounding its core theme of interpenetration, inherent in metamorphosis. We are each part of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “an inextricable web of mutuality.” Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck called it the ABC of practice: A Bigger Container. In a word, Thây calls it “interbeing.”
As with any poem, “True Names” is to be read aloud, to be listened to and experienced, not unlike a guided meditation. You’ll find yourself listening with compassion, but also listening to compassion. Emotion need not be a separate, individual affair. Whenever feeling arises in us, we can open our heart to it by calling it by its true name, and offer it the presence of compassion.
Here too is a key to the Buddhist practice of recitation, chanting and singing. Just by knowing the bodhisattvas’ names, we can call upon their attributes, summon their cosmic traits we wish to instill in ourselves. Avalokiteshvara, for example, is the embodiment of universal compassion, who heals the suffering of the world by hearing. Have you ever felt your burden lifted when you feel you’ve been heard?
So please, sound the poem with your own life-breath. You can find it online, in anthologies, in books on pacifism and social justice, in a collection of poems of the same title—as well as on refrigerators of many a home (it is nourishment). Like Thich Nhat Hanh’s way of teaching, the poem is as light as a butterfly, as powerful as a plow.