Thich Nhat Hanh, Please Call Me By My True Names

  • Introduced by Kate Rowley, Ecumenical Chaplain, Oxford Brookes University

    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 
    Uganda.

    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.

    I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
    hands,
    and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to, my
    people,
    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.

    Thich Nhat Hanh

    I’ve worked as Ecumenical Chaplain at Oxford Brookes University since December 2012. The Chaplaincy team is made up of members of faith communities who are available for pastoral or spiritual care and guidance to the University community.

    The poem I have chosen is called, ‘Please Call Me By My True Names’, and was written by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk and Zen Master who was born in Vietnam, and during the war with the United States of America he worked to support the wounded and dispossessed. His work is dedicated to individual transformation and creating peace in the minds of every person. He is a committed advocate of using the principles of mindfulness to calm the mind and soul, and his influence can be seen in the practice of mindfulness all over the world today.

    I first heard this poem at an inter-faith event, as part of a reading from Peace is Every Step. I was profoundly affected by hearing the line, ‘I am the pirate, / my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving’. When I heard that spoken aloud it is a reminder of the humanity of people who commit atrocities, and the latent atrocity in human nature. It is a call to compassion and mercy.

    In my time in ministry, I have worked with people who have suffered greatly at the hands of others. I have listened to the stories of LGBT people who have been tortured, homeless women fleeing abuse, children whose parents don’t want to know them. My Christian faith teaches that all people are made in God’s image – torturer and tortured alike – and the words of Thich Nhat Hanh are a reminder of the sacred in everyone. They remind me to pray for my enemies, and those who hurt the people I love, and to seek to love them in turn.

    I find that poetry can speak very profoundly to my faith and experiences. In poetry, I hear a lot said in few words; those words echo across languages and generations. Ancient psalms can move me to tears, or stir me to action in a very powerful way. People who understand God very differently to me can still move my spirit to prayer or praise through an expression of our common beliefs. Poetry spoken aloud as part of the liturgy of the Christian tradition binds us together. Set to music, poetry lifts us up or draws us inward. I can’t imagine my life and work without the poems of others, and I hope I will continue to discover new works and rediscover ancient truths. 

    The poem is reproduced with the permission of Random House USA. The Poetry Centre is grateful to Alicia Dercole.