One of my second-year courses in school was called “Philosophy of Peace” and Thich Nhat Hanh‘s book, Peace is Every Step, was part of the reading material. I’d poked around with bits of Buddhism before, but that book was my first real and meaningful introduction.
When Shannon recently became interested in Buddhism I dug out my copy of Peace is Every Step for her. Almost every other month now, a new book by Nhat Hanh has been either added to our bookshelf or appeared by the bedside lamp. For this book review I will be looking at his book Touching Peace, with some asides about the author himself.
We can always get a smile from his picture on the back of his books. Shannon once said, “He’s over 80, but look at him! He’s like a 10-year-old kid!”
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamse Buddhist Monk now living in the Plum Village Meditation Centre in France. He has published over 100 books and has been a prominent spokesperson recognized around the world for promoting peace and religious dialogue.
One of my favourite descriptions of the man comes from Richard Baker-roshi: “a cross between a cloud, a snail, and a piece of heavy machinery — a true religious presence.”
This description is very close to the feeling you can get when reading much of his work.
Like many of his books, Touching Peace is quite concise and easy to read. It is about 130 pages in length, each filled with short sentences and quiet, calm words. Touching Peace has been around for more than 10 years now but it is a good example of Nhat Hanh’s style and purpose. Nhat Hanh is a conversationalist and seems to be seeking ways to make connections between people and between ideas. He doesn’t equate traditions necessarily, but he focuses on overlapping practices and places of dialogue. The book begins with a connection he sees between Buddhist bells and the Christian church bells of Sunday morning:
When I was a young monk in Vietnam, each village temple had a big bell, like those in Christian churches in Europe and the U.S. Whenever the bell was invited to sound, all the villagers would stop what they were doing and pause for a few moments to breathe in and out in mindfulness. At Plum Village, the community where I live in France, we do the same. Every time we hear the bell, we go back to ourselves and enjoy our breathing. When we breathe in, we say, silently, “Listen, listen,” and when we breathe out, we say, “This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.”
. Our true home is in the present moment. To live in the present moment is a miracle.
Being the devout monk that he is, Nhat Hanh does dip gracefully into some of his traditions’ sacred writings. But it is more in passing, part of the illustration he is making rather than justifying its truth or authority. He makes mention of the Avatamsaka Sutra and then explains the idea of interbeing by talking about how the many are in the one and how the one is in the many. By seeing things in transition rather than in particular, isolated moments of their existence, we can start to understand interbeing. He mentions the Maharatnakuta Sutra but then illustrates how we are all teachers and bodhisattvas , even with our anger, our frustration and our desire to make the world right.
He uses “we” and “us” a lot in his sentences. “We must stop destroying our body and soul for the idea of happiness in the future.” (p.20) “When someone in a community is unhappy, the whole community is unhappy. For us to stop suffering, we have to help the other person stop suffering.” (p.67) “If we want a better government, we have to begin by changing our own consciousness and our own way of life.” (p. 75) As a result, the reader is drawn in to the conversational advice from the voice of a caring, calm Uncle Monk (a name given to Nhat Hanh discussed in another book).
Nhat Hanh’s message is fairly uncomplicated and as a result many of his books share similar ideas and teachings. For the most part he is updating his illustrations while maintaining his message, which is fine. That’s how the publishing world works sometimes. But since my theme for this group of book reviews has been Change, I want to pick out three things that shine as useful changes in how we do religion in the world.
1. On page 47, Nhat Hanh talks about a one-year course called “Looking Deeply” for young couples. After completing this course each individual would have some practice thinking about themselves, their ancestors and society. Most important of all, the person would recognize the positive and negative aspects about his or her own character. Only at that point would each individual be qualified to get married and embark on that journey of mutual discovery at the heart of marriage.
I like this idea. The period of time is potentially long enough to get over the infatuation phase in relationships. It levels out the fairy-tale crap and introduces an element of realism to marriage. It reminds me of the long ago good ol’ days when you had to work for something if you wanted it (even citizenship had to be earned at one point in time…). And finally, although I have no evidence of this, I suspect the divorce rate would decrease.
What do you think? Is it worth thinking a bit before getting married?
2. Nhat Hanh spends a part of his book explaining a mental Diet for a Mindful Society (chapter 8). He goes through Five Mindfulness Trainings which are all part of the Buddhist teachings, but what caught my interest was his explanation of a translation issue. He used to use the word “precepts” (shila in the original texts), but he has since learned that the word “precepts” has strong feelings attached to it. Breaking a precept is shameful, bad. However, the word “trainings” (shiksha in the original texts) was commonly used as well and isn’t so emotionally charged. Haven’t got it down pat yet? That’s fine, just do some more reps, do some more training. So he uses “trainings” now.
If the point is to be better people, and if the original texts may not have the exact right word in every right place, we can look mindfully at the literature and change our translations into today.
What do you think? Is it worth thinking a bit about the consequences of word-choice?
3. While saying good-bye in an airport, a friend of Nhat Hanh’s asked if she could get a hug. Such public affection was not what he had grown up with and he realized he was a little uncomfortable in the hug — a curious experience for a Zen teacher. Later, he decided that if he was going to work with people in the West, he would have to understand the culture better. So his answer? He invented something called hugging meditation.
Hugging meditation is a combination of East and West. According to the practice, you have to really hug the person you are hugging. You have to make him or her very real in your arms. You don’t just do it for the sake of appearance, patting him on the back two or three times to pretend you are there. You are really there, so you do not have to do that. You breathe consciously while hugging, and you hug with all your body, spirit and heart. “Breathing in, I know my dear one is in my arms, alive. Breathing out, he is so precious to me.” While you hold him and breathe in and out three times, the person in your arms becomes real, and you become very real also. When you love someone, you want him to be happy. If he is not happy, there is no way you can be happy. Happiness is not an individual matter. [my emphasis] True love requires deep understanding. If you do not understand, you cannot love properly. Without understanding, your love will only cause the other person to suffer. (p.57,)
What do you think? Is it worth looking at a hug as a meditation?
I will continue with Touching Peace later this week with some quotations, recommendations and final thoughts.