Sunday, February 17, 2013

Being Peace

Book Review: Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press 1987)

Thich Nhat Hanh writes some very good books. They are typically easy to read and deceptively simple yet subtly profound. I would highly recommend his books for those interested in Buddhism or contemplative practice. This book is about peace and cuts to the heart of the matter, that without cultivating inner peace and peaceful relationships with our inner circle of folk it is hard to practice peace in society. Thich Nhat Hanh became a monk at a young age. He suffered much along with his people during wartime  in his native Vietnam. He tried to remain neutral but was exiled and settled in France. His style of Zen Buddhism is interwoven with a soft style of activism known as “Engaged Buddhism.” This book is nicely illustrated with simple but elegant drawings (similar to the content) by Mayumi Oda.

Hahn says that mere suffering is not enough. We also need to be in touch with the wonders of life. He advocates mindfulness as a way to be in touch with all that life offers – the suffering and the wonders.

“Meditation is to be aware of what is going on – in the body, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world.”

He advocates (in several of his books) cultivating a gentle smile and enjoying things like meditation and breathing. We can practice with delight rather than struggle. We can remind ourselves through the formula that he suggests: inhale – think “calm”, exhale – think “smile”, inhale – think “present moment”, and exhale – think “wonderful moment”. This is simple and yet very concise and available. We can also remember that all beings have Buddha Nature which is simply the capacity to be awake or undeluded. This is also the capacity to love and to understand, to be compassionate and wise. So it is one’s own awakened nature that one relies on in the formula of taking refuge in the Buddha. The three refuges are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – teacher, teachings, and community of assistants. 

Hanh tells of a boy who encounters the Buddha in walking meditation after he (Buddha) went for a swim. He says he would like to give Buddha something and Buddha suggests a handful of grass. This is the kusha grass Buddha used for a seat on his final time/night before enlightenment. This boy was a tender of water buffaloes and during the first week or so of Buddha’s enlightenment he saw only the milk maid (who delivered yogurt to him) and the boy who tended water buffaloes. Earlier, the milk maid found Buddha starving and emaciated and feeling sorry for him offered him some yogurt. He took some and regained his health. The Sutta of Tending Buffaloes list the eleven skills of a buffalo boy as well as eleven skills of monks. It was only after this time that Buddha went back to visit his five ascetic friends who renounced him after they found out he was eating yogurt which helped him regain his bodily strength. When he found them he gave his first teaching on the four noble truths.

Dharma is the Buddha’s teaching. Dharmakaya is the body of the Buddha’s teaching. Hahn notes that we can recognize the Buddha’s teaching in any sight or sound or smell or thought that appears before us. Dharmakaya has come to mean something like “ontological ground of being,” he says. In a story echoing a similar Chinese/Japanese one there is the 13th century Vietnamese teacher Tue Trung being asked by a monk. “What is the pure, immaculate Dharmakaya?” The teacher pointed to the excrement of a horse. The import is that Dharmakaya is beyond words and adjectives so ideas like pure and immaculate cannot truly be distinguished from the impure and the messy and the sloppy. All can be recognized as the body of the Buddha’s teachings. We can potentially understand reality in any situation and from any source. The body of the Sangha, or community, is anything or anyone that supports our love and understanding. The first body of the sangha with Buddha were the Bodhi tree, the buffalo boy, the milk maiden, and his five ascetic friends. Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are really one and the same, he says.

In describing feelings and perceptions, two of the five aggregates (body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness), he notes that the Abhidharma teaching say that they may be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Which they are, he says, depends on one’s state of mind.

“If you practice awareness, you suddenly become very rich, very very happy. Practicing Buddhism is a clever way to enjoy life. Happiness is available. Help yourself to it. All of us have the capacity of transforming neutral feelings into pleasant feelings …”

Certainly, how we perceive things influences how we react to things. Hahn gives a rather simplistic version of dependent co-arising where my happiness depends on you and vice versa and taking care of oneself is one sure means of taking care of others since each is dependent on the other.

Thich Nhat Hanh notes that in order to understand the object of our perception we need to become one with that object. This is non-duality of perception, of perceiver and perceived. Similarly, in physics the observer has become the participant. The terms “non-dual” or “not two” are preferred over the term “one” since one implies its opposite, so two. Understanding what appears before us is important since it is this understanding that can transform destructive emotions such as anger into love and compassion.

In order to understand things as they are, he says, we must be ready to abandon our views about them. He tells a story the Buddha told regarding this: A man, a widower, was away on business and while he was away bandits came and burned down his whole village and took away his 5-year old son. He found a charred corpse nearby he thought was his son. The child escaped and returned home at night but the father would not open the door. He did not believe the boy to be his son. He shouted for the boy to go away and so he left. This is a simple story about clinging too hard to a belief. Letting go of knowledge and views is important in developing deeper understanding:

“Knowledge is solid; it blocks the way of understanding. Water [understanding] can flow, can penetrate.”

Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about interdependence. Here he says a sheet of paper is a cloud. The tree from which the paper came was dependent upon the cloud to make rain for the tree to grow. Other factors were sunshine, soil, the logger who cut the tree, the sustenance of the logger, the paper mill that made the paper, the delivery of the paper to the store that sold it, etc. Each thing has a long history dependent on many factors. So every thing is also other things that are not the thing. Similarly, when we meditate we do not seek to escape from society but to re-enter it with greater understanding. This, he says, is engaged Buddhism. We are dependent on everyone and everything around us. Our meditation is not for ourselves but for everyone.

He mentions that there is practice and non-practice but that we can train ourselves to practice in the non-practicing periods. One method he uses is to recite short “gathas” to himself as reminders. These are like affirmations, aspirations, or simply statements of reminder. They can also be mantras. He tells a story about a woman who endlessly recited “Namo Amitabha Buddha”. She was very frequent and serious about her practice periods. A friend wanted to test her so he called her name loudly just when she was beginning to practice. She ignored him for awhile but finally became annoyed and enraged. “She slammed the door, went out to the gate and said, “Why, why do you behave like that? Why do you call my name hundreds of times like that?” The gentleman smiled at her and said, “I just called your name for ten minutes, and you are so angry. You have been calling the Buddha’s name for ten years. Think how angry he must be by now!” The teaching here is that the quality of practice is more important than the quantity of practice.

In working for peace he notes that one should contemplate not only the bad conditions of the oppressed but also the factors that influenced the oppressors. He tells a few of his experiences being neutral in the Vietnam conflict. Both sides would suspect these monks to be working for the other. Many were killed. He stresses the importance of neutrality and not identifying exclusively with sides and ideologies. Being in touch with both sides in a conflict can be helpful for the situation. I noticed that in most of the political situations mentioned in the book, especially the ones where technology and arms buildups were causing problems (it was the 80’s) he uses “we” rather than “they” to refer to the makers of the problems. I think this is important in many current situations where an “us and them” mentality pervades.

Next he mentions a conflict resolution and reconciliation technique used by monks since the time of the Buddha and adopted in China, India, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. This consists of seven steps and is done in an assembled circle of monks. First is Face-to Face Sitting where the two monks face each other knowing that the assembly expects them to make peace. Second is Remembrance. This involves remembering the details of the story according to the view of each. The third principle is Non-stubbornness. The whole point of the conflict resolution is not really about the outcome but about the reconciliation process. Fourth is Covering Mud with Straw. This refers to making the path (to reconciliation) easier to walk just like covering mud with straw. (I did this just today with straw around the chicken house). This is done by two respected monks, each in favor of one of the monks and in such a way not to offend the other monk. Their views are respected. The mud is the dispute. The straw is the loving-kindness of the Dharma. Next is Voluntary Confession. Here each monk reveals his own shortcomings, usually minor ones. This is a method of de-escalation. Finally there is Decision by Consensus and Accepting the Verdict which are done in a ceremonial way. 

 Hahn notes the excessive frustration, anger, and misunderstandings prevalent in modern protest movements:

“… without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement.”

He notes optimism at the conjunction of Buddhism and so-called Western values. He also points out that Buddhism is altered when it meets with new cultures:

“When Buddhism enters one country, that country always acquires a new form of Buddhism.”  “[it] … must be suitable, appropriate to the psychology and the culture of the society it serves.”

His own order, the Tien Hiep Order, or Order of Interbeing is based on the Zen school of the lineage of Lin Chi from China. Tien means “to be in touch” and Hiep means “the present time”.  He translates this as “interbeing” from a word from the Avatamsaka Sutra.

He lists the 14 precepts of the order. These are a bit unusual as the order developed in Vietnam during a time of deep ideological conflict. The first few precepts are adamant about keeping an open mind and not falling into fixed views. I agree that this is very important for people. Compassionate dialogue is encouraged and keeping in contact with those who are suffering. Simplicity, generosity, letting go of animosity, promoting reconciliation, avoiding harming and killing, constructive use of the body, and working toward justice – are other key values.

He also includes pieces of his poetry here and there in the book. Here is an excerpt I liked:

You and I and everyone are flowing this morning
Into the marvelous stream of oneness.
Small pieces of imagination as we are,
We have come a long way to find ourselves,
And for ourselves in the dark,
The illusion of emancipation.

Great book. Makes sense. Good reminders.

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