Anybody interested in Buddhism today knows about Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. His lectures, books and videos are wildly popular because he manages to translate the practice of Vietnamese style Buddhism into something that is relevant to our everyday lives.
For this occasion I checked out the top most popular of Thay’s books and downloaded them on my Kindle. I was looking for two things:
- What book by Thich Nhat Hanh would I most recommend to someone just starting out in Buddhism, Meditation or Zen.
- How much actual Buddhism is there in each of these books.
I already had two books by Thich Nhat Hanh in my library so I will review those as well. Unlike his more popular books, which are written for the lay reader, these are intimate looks into the literature of Vietnam and East-Asian Buddhism. As with my previous list of the best books by H.H. the Dalai Lama, I organized them by popularity: the ones with the most amazon reviews first. I have included meditation quotes to give a flavor of each book.
I hope you enjoy my list. The first three are best sellers. The others are more specialized.
I wonder, as I read the introduction paragraphs of this book, how anyone can stand the cheerfulness of it:
Of course, planning for the future is a part of life. But even planning can only take place in the present moment. This book is an invitation to come back to the present moment and find peace and joy. I offer some of my experience and a number of techniques that may be of help. But please do not wait until finishing this book to find peace. Peace and happiness are available in every moment. Peace is every step. We shall walk hand in hand. Bon voyage.
I am sure that is just me. My own teacher is often quite grumpy and I tend to see that as a sign that I can trust him. In fact, it makes me smile just thinking of it. I am sure that for most people Thich Nhat Hanh’s cheerfulness is just what they need: a reminder that smiling is an option. A reminder to be in the moment and relax and enjoy what is.
However, it is also a reminder that however accessible this book is, it is not for everybody. As the most popular of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, it is however a great introduction to his work.
Another quote – one that doesn’t rub me the wrong way (p. 72):
When we look at our parents with compassion, often we see that our parents are only victims who never had the chance to practice mindfulness. The could not transform the suffering in themselves. But if we see them with compassionate eyes, we can offer them joy, peace and forgiveness. In fact, when we look deeply, we discover that it is impossible to drop all identity with our parents.
In summary: Peace Is Every Step is a great Thich Nhat Hanh book to start with. It is not too Buddhist – in fact, I don’t think there is anything specifically Buddhist about it – but it is a great introduction to mindfulness.
This is the second most popular of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books and it is quite another story. It gives the basis of Buddha’s teachings for a lay audience. It also starts quite differently as this quote shows (p.3):
Please don’t think that because you are unhappy, because there is pain in your heart, that you cannot go to the Buddha. It is exactly because there is pain in your heart that communication is possible. Your suffering and my suffering are the basic condition for us to enter the Buddha’s heart, and for the Buddha to enter our hearts.
In fact, this may the essence of Thay’s approach to life (quote from p 3,4):
The seed of suffering may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy. When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to care for it. But don’t overlook all the healthy trees. Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life – the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees. To suffer is not enough. Please don’t be imprisoned by your suffering.
That is exactly the gift meditation gave me: the ability to be happy even when going through heartache (literally). I don’t quite know how it works, but I do know it is true. It is possible to find happiness in the middle of sorrow. That doesn’t deny the sorrow. In fact, like Thich Nhat Hanh says here: one has to tend that tree. However, it is not necessary to drown in your problems.
He shows himself a most excellent teacher in this book. He discusses the essence of Buddhism: traditionally presented in lists of lists. The 4 noble truths, the noble 8-fold path, the 4 establishments of mindfulness etc. However, he turns those lists into accessible prose as well as practical advice.
In summary: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching is popular for a reason. It is a great introduction to the Buddhist dimension of the Mindfulness tradition as well as a very inspiring book for your daily practice: whether you are just starting out, or simply need inspiration to keep going.
This book started out as a letter from Thay to his Vietnamese colleagues who had difficulties helping people in them middle of the Vietnam war. It turned out to be impossible to have it printed in Vietnam itself, so the book was translated into English and published abroad. It has been immensely popular since and was probably among the books that first propelled Thich Nhat Hanh into popularity.
On Amazon one Vietnam veteran with PTSD notes that it is ironic that this book helped him. But it is in fact nothing of the kind. Thich Nhat Hanh got into trouble in Vietnam precisely because he refused to take sides. He and the people he worked with had helping people as their primary objective. They were very conscious that there were people on both sides. Human beings with the same kinds of problems.
Because this book was written as a (very long) letter, it is very different in style from the other books I have mentioned here. They all address the reader directly and come across as very personal, but this book goes further as this quote shows (p. 22):
It is autumn here and the golden leaves falling one by one are truly beautiful. Taking a 10-minute walk in the woods, watching my breath and maintaining mindfulness, I feel refreshed and restored. Like that, I can really enter into a communion with each leaf.
Of course, walking alone on a country path, it is easier to maintain mindfulness. If there’s a friend by your side, not talking but also watching his breath, then you can continue to maintain mindfulness without difficulty. But if the friend at your side begins to talk, it becomes a little more difficult.
If, in your mind, you think, “I wish this fellow would quit talking, so I could concentrate,” you have already lost your mindfulness. But if you think, instead, “If he wishes to talk, I will answer, but I will continue in mindfulness, aware of the fact that we are walking along this path together, aware of what we say, I can continue to watch my breath as well.”
In addition to the letter itself, the book contains a number of mindfulness exercises as well as the full text of a few short sutras, including the famous Satipatthana Sutta.
In conclusion: The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation is really much more than merely an introduction. I would recommend this book to advanced practitioners and teachers as well as to people who are beginners, but capable of looking beyond their own backyard. I am sure that I will be going back to it again and again myself.
This is not really a Buddhist book. Nor is it a mindfulness book. It is a book of short stories by Thich Nhat Hanh in which he uses inspiration from his life as well as Vietnamese literature and folklore. Reading it you will get a flavor of Vietnamese culture and the way Buddhism permeates it’s soil.
There are stories of peasant boys and girls, monks and bodhisattvas. In it Thay evokes the terror of boat refuges, exile, the compassion of the bodhisattva and the essential place of mindfulness in finding anything of true worth.
Conclusion: in most of his books Thich Nhat Hanh bridges the gap between cultures with an ease that makes you forget that there is a gap to bridge at all. In these stories we are the ones crossing over to another world. As usual, Thich Nhat Hanh makes it an easy crossing.
Reading this book helped me understand Thich Nhat Hanh in his cultural context of Vietnamese Buddhism. Yes, he is a Zen Buddhist (as in, from the Chinese Chan lineage), but he is of a different flavor of Zen than what has been imported in the West through Japan.
Thich Nhat Hanh has rooted himself in a Mahayana Buddhism that savors the essence of Theravada Buddhism as well. Sure, all Mahayana Buddhists talk about respecting the Pali Canon. However, they usually don’t read or practice from those early texts. Thich Nhat Hanh is different and Master Tang Hoi seems to be the pattern he has emulated.
This book is then mostly of historical and cultural interest, though written in as accessible a style as any of his books. It starts with an introduction into the life of Tang Hoi, goes on with meditations he taught, the theology of arhats and bodhisattvas, the path to enlightenment, Tang Hoi’s introduction to the Anapananusmriti sutra and explanations on his psychology.
In conclusion: Master Tang Hoi: First Zen Teacher in Vietnam and China is a book that will help the more advanced student of Buddhism understand Thich Nhat Hanh in his context. The scholar will note how he interprets Tang Hoi to suit his own purposes, which after all transform Buddhism into something few Vietnamese Buddhists would recognize.
Don’t get me wrong: Transforming Buddhism into something new is an age-old practice. Buddhism changed to be suitable in China, again when it came to Japan and even in India and Tibet Buddhism transformed itself again and again. The challenge of 20th and 21st century Buddhism is greater than any it has faced. It is the challenge of modernity. No generation before mine grew up with as much knowledge of the world as I did and I grew up before the internet. Imagine how different it is for the current generation. Contrast that with the life in any village 200 years ago and you can start to see just how much of a difference technology has made.
We are seeing the birth of a culture that takes those riches into account as well as the limitations of the earth that still feeds us. Buddhism is probably going to help deal with those challenges. And Thich Nhat Hanh has been a major force in the transformation of Buddhism in the 20th century. These books collectively show just how multi-stranded and nuanced his approach has been.
I write this knowing that at 88 he can hardly be expected to last much longer. From wikipedia January 2015:
On 11 November 2014, Nhất Hạnh experienced a severe brain hemorrhage and was brought to a hospital. On 3 January 2015 the doctors officially said that he is no longer in a coma and able to recognize familiar faces.