This is a blog site of my book reviews. I like to give detailed reviews so that those who are too busy to read can get the finer points of the books. Making these reviews also helps me to keep the conceptual info handy and to work with it more intently. Typical subjects are Yoga, Tantra, Magick, Dharma, Meditation, Shamanism, Mythology, Folklore, Ancient History and Religions, Holistic Health, Environmental Topics, Paleo-astronomy, Mysteries, Cutting Edge Science, and Transformative Philosophy
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
wartimein 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
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
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.