Book Reviews

mb51-BookReviews1Peaceful Action, Open Heart
Lessons from the Lotus Sutra

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2008
Softcover, 287 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the strength of the Lotus Sutra is its ability to present deep teachings in a clear, easy-to-understand way that applies to all walks of life. Composed during the second century CE, this “King of Sutras” is known for its open arms. It moderates between what was the old Buddhist guard, the shravakas, and the newer schools of the Mahayana canon, and reconciles the two. It was the Mahayana School that claimed we are all Buddhas, and offered the bodhisattva path. The characters, or bodhisattvas, of this Dharma revolution each represented a paradigm. They are known by such colorful names as Never Disparaging, Medicine King, Earth Store, and King Fine Adornment.

To read this rare, reissued translation of the Lotus Sutra is to read ancient history and the daily news simultaneously. One bodhisattva who bridges past and present is Kshitigarbha, or Earth Store Bodhisattva, whose delight is to enter hell realms to rescue those in need. Although only briefly mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, this protector is considered by the author a role model for today’s world. It is Kshitigarbha’s energy of salvation and protection of the Earth that we need to save our wounded planet and offer balm in places like Rwanda, Iraq, Iran, Madagascar, Afghanistan, and the long-wounded Vietnam, not to mention the whole Western world. Earth Store Bodhisattva keeps a deep relationship with beings of the earth — humans — and with those below it — hungry ghosts and hell beings. He asks, “If I do not go to hell to help them, who else will go?” We well remember how Thay’s students in his School of Youth for Social Service walked the killing fields of Vietnam to help. Likewise, Kshitigarbha represents a realm of action very much needed here and now.

Similar to the language of the Pure Land Sutras, the Lotus Sutra’s metaphorical images, like poems and paintings, speak to the heart. Think of the thousand arms of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara. Imagine cosmic beings with eyes like “broad, great leaves of the green lotus” and bodies “the color of pure gold.” Hear bodhisattvas gifted with the ability to speak with “unobstructed eloquence.” And you have the saddharmapundarika, The Lotus Blossom of the Wonderful Dharma.

Presented as twenty-eight chapters in two parts, this sutra first focuses on the historical dimension, or what happened during the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the second division, the sutra deals with the ultimate dimension, “beyond our ordinary perception of space and time.”

In this selective re-telling of the Lotus Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a handbook for life. To help us on the bodhisattva path, he includes his explications of the Six Paramitas, that we may, together with all beings, pass over the sea of suffering to the shore of freedom. And he even gives us this encouragement, that it is possible for us to take only a few seconds to make the crossing!

mb51-BookReviews2Tuning In
Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning, A collection of essays for teachers by teachers

Irene McHenry and Richard Brady, Editors
Friends Council on Education (available from Parallax Press)
Softcover, 144 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

When I was seven years old, my parents bought our first television. I jumped up to hug my father and accidentally jabbed his chin with my fingernail, and he bled. This feels to me like a metaphor for what has happened since then with our cell phones, iPods, digital TVs, Internet, DVDs, video games and all the wonderful/terrible what-nots of our age. The world is bleeding. Yes, we can get Dharma talks online. Yes, we can call 9-1-1 immediately in an emergency.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that, despite all the electronics meant to promote togetherness, communication within families remains difficult. More sinister is the cyber-bullying and cell-phone pornography prevalent now among teens. More than ever now, we need to rediscover for ourselves and pass on to our children ways to calm them and ourselves. We need to listen to one another. This book of essays, gathered by OI senior Dharma teacher Richard Brady, a lifelong educator and co-founder of MIEN, the Mindfulness in Education Network, with Irene McHenry, Executive Director of the Friends Council on Education, offers methods from eighteen authors for K-12 teachers to bring mindfulness into the classroom.

In a text filled with both quirky and inventive exercises using raisins, beanie babies, spinning tops, micro-fiction, gardening, chanting, yoga, singing bowls, and talking pencils, this book is worth its weight in mindfulness to teachers. Alone worth the price of the book is Richard Brady’s tale of how he introduces mindfulness to youth with a five-minute exercise in silence. He follows with a group of questions about body, mind, and environmental awareness, the last of which is: “How many of your negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the present?”

“Ultimately I point out that what our minds do during this particular five-minute interval of our waking life is repeated about 70,000 times each year. If we multiply the number of negative thoughts and feelings we observed by 70,000, we might understand why the mind plays such a significant role in creating stress. However, if we are able to become more aware of the negative thoughts and feelings that enter our minds and develop ways to replace them with positive ones, we will be able to live happier, less stressful lives — in school and beyond. Meditation, I explain, is one way to help our minds respond to negative thinking in a healthy way.”

The book is divided into two parts: Teaching Mindfulness, and Quaker Practices that Center in Mindfulness. In Part II, Hope Blosser brings us the message of St. Francis, “that which is within you will save you,” and Denise Aldridge writes lyrically about “Nurturing the Inner Garden.” Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this a lovely compilation of stories, ideas and suggestions that reflect delight in both learning and teaching.

Indeed, this book offers medicine for a wounded world.

mb51-BookReviews3Be Like A Tree
Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh

Edited and Illustrated by Karen Hilsberg
Jasmine Roots Press, 2008
Paperback, 218 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Karen Hilsberg has collected eleven talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh, spiritual elder of Deer Park Monastery, known to his students as the Venerable. With these teachings, she has interspersed her gentle brush paintings in the Asian style. Hilsberg’s relationship with Phuoc Tinh runs deep. It was he who helped carry her — even joyfully — through the death of her husband. In the preface, after describing how the Venerable helped her clearly see death just as it was in the moment, she explains the book’s title: “What it means to me … to be like a tree is to be myself, to be grounded, to bend with the weather but not to break, and to be a home and safe haven for others.”

In Chapter Seven, “Gratitude,” the teacher’s talk begins: “I offer you a handful of diamonds. Your house, your children, the water, your shoes, your breath, each is a diamond. I have given you a handful of diamonds. May you reflect on how they sparkle day and night.”

This message is the heart of the book and the heart of Thich Phuoc Tinh. Its arteries are the Dharma, its muscle is love, its blood is the body of the Buddha. In Phuoc Tinh’s voice, one hears the voice of Thich Nhat Hanh reflecting the voice of the Buddha. He recounts a touching memory of his mother during the chaos of 1975 when the North had taken over the South in Vietnam. The Venerable is traveling on foot toward his mother’s village among lost and displaced people, bombed-out villages and dead bodies. She sees him coming and runs toward him, falling and running and falling again, so happy to see her son alive. When he arrives, she dares not hug him because he is a monk. They stand close. “I did not know about hugging meditation then,” he says.

Thich Phuoc Tinh’s message to America is: “… if you don’t suffer from a lack of material comforts, then you suffer from a lack of spirituality. In other words, if you don’t suffer from lack of food then you suffer from the fact that your mind is always looking for something else outside of itself and in the future. When you can come back to yourself and recognize the energies within you and be mindful, then you can release yourself from suffering.”

Be Like A Tree offers generous appendices following the teacher’s talks, transcribed and edited by Hilsberg: a biography of Thay Giac Thanh, the beloved former abbot of Deer Park Monastery; a letter from the Venerable to the Hilsbergs when Karen’s husband was dying; a questionand-answer session with the Venerable; and Tea with the Venerable, Parts I and II.

mb51-BookReviews4The Best Buddhist Writing 2007

Edited by Melvin McLeod and the Editors of the Shambhala Sun
Shambhala  Publications, 2007
Softcover, 334 pages

Reviewed by Janelle Combelic

Reading a Dharma book is not my favorite way to spend an evening, I confess. I will read one selected by my OI study group and enjoy it fully, but left to my own desires, I will pick up a novel or biography any day. I love stories! I also enjoy reading magazines because the pieces are shorter and I can jump around. The Best Buddhist Writing anthologies satisfy all my wishes, while providing profound insight and food for thought.

As always, Thich Nhat Hanh features prominently in this edition, with both an interview by Melvin McLeod and the essay, “Love Without Limit.” “I think the twentieth century was characterized by individualism, and more than 100 million people perished because of wars,” Thay told McLeod. “If we want the twenty-first century to be different, if we want healing and transformation, the realization is crucial that we are all one organism, that the well-being of others, the safety of others, is our own safety, our own security.”

The interview is one of thirty-three essays in this anthology. Other authors include well-known Buddhists like the Dalai Lama, Matthieu Ricard, Ajahn Amaro, and Pema Chödrön, as well as some surprising voices like author Alice Walker and feminist critic bell hooks. In “Creating a Culture of Love,” hooks writes: “Dominator thinking and practice relies for its maintenance on the constant production of a feeling of lack, the need to grasp. Giving love offers us a way to end this suffering — loving ourselves, extending that love to everything beyond the self, we experience wholeness. We are healed.” She quotes Thich Nhat Hanh from his recent book True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart: “to love, in the context of Buddhism, is above all to be there.”

In “Through the Lens of Attention,” physician Michael Krasner expands on this theme. “Thich Nhat Hanh has stated that one of the reasons to practice mindfulness is that we are actually practicing its opposite most of the time, and therefore becoming quite adept at it. The cultivation of a nonjudgmental awareness of the unfolding of experience from moment to moment balances out these human tendencies to be unaware and inattentive.” I find it heartening to read about his work teaching future doctors to practice mindfulness in their dealings with patients.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, in “Hardwired for Altruism,” describes fascinating research into the physiology of the brain. “Scientific observations point to a response system that is hardwired in the human brain — no doubt involving mirror neurons — that acts when we see someone else suffering, making us instantly feel with them. The more we feel with them, the more we want to help them…. Our brain has been preset for kindness.”

Jarvis Jay Masters practices love and kindness in the hell realm of San Quentin Penitentiary — and not always in the obvious way. With gripping immediacy he writes about an encounter with a crazed homicidal inmate nicknamed “Pitbull.” Here, skillful means involved the use of brute force but Jarvis managed to save Pitbull from the other inmates — and from himself.

As a student of Thay’s I find it gratifying and insightful that Thich Nhat Hanh is referenced so often in these essays. It is clear that Thay has touched many people, including Buddhists from many lineages. But you don’t even have to call yourself a Buddhist (I don’t) — this anthology contains wisdom, insight, and joy for everyone. And lots of great stories!

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Dharma Talk: Living Practice

Question and Answer Session
with Thich Nhat Hanh and Monastic Brothers and Sisters

European Institute of Applied Buddhism
Waldbrol, Germany
May 20, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh: Today we have a session of questions and answers. We know that a good question can benefit many people. So please ask a question from your heart, a question that has to do with our practice, our suffering, our happiness. We know that a good question does not have to be very long. Young adults are encouraged to come and ask questions.

Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I’ve been in a youth Sangha for almost two years. There are many Sanghas of young people growing in Holland and Germany, and it’s great to feel the brother­hood and sisterhood, and also the youth retreats that we have here in the EIAB [European Institute of Applied Buddhism]. I would also like to thank the EIAB for their support and their flexibility and trust in the wake-up group. As young people, we have this dream to create wake-up, living communities, but I wonder, how do we know that we have enough practice to make this really hap­pen? Do we need to have Dharma teachers as a foundation? Do we need to have laypeople finish the five-year [monastic] program to be the foundation? How do we create successful wake-up, living communities?

Thay: I remember one time we had a retreat in Montreal, Canada, and after the first session of walking meditation, one lady came up and said, “Thay, walking meditation is so wonderful, I enjoy it so much! May I share this practice of walking meditation with other people?” And I said, “Yes, you can share the teaching and the practice if you feel happy with the practice.” So if a group of young people are able to live happily and in harmony, connecting with the practice, they can begin to share the practice with other young people, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time learning and practicing Buddhism.

Maybe Brother Phap Linh can say a few words on this, on how to expand our movement and help more young people.

Brother Phap Linh: I know that the wake-up movement is very strong; we already feel like brothers and sisters on the path. Two years ago, Thay told us we need to have a wake-up tour of Europe, to spend ten days in each country. At the time we thought that was impossible, but already this year we’ve been able to do it in England and in Italy. We went to six different universities in the United Kingdom in March, a group of seven brothers and sisters and five young laypeople. Next year we want to make that dream come true by planning events in Holland, Germany, and Belgium.

Thay has encouraged us to invite people to practice as mo­nastics for five years. Now we will also have a two-year master’s program, for a Master of Applied Buddhism. So there are many ways that young people can come and train to become solid practitioners and to have the experience of serving others and sharing the practice.

The dream of living together as young people, sharing the practice, is already coming true. There’s a wake-up house in Aus­tin, Texas, and the core of their practice is agreeing to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the house, and that way they maintain harmony. So I think we already know the way. We just need to continue.

Bell

Retreatant: Dear Thay, I would like to ask how to create a peaceful and friendly relationship with a person who hates you and wants you out of their life.

Thay: There are at least two things to do. The first thing is to be­come lovable, pleasant. Sooner or later the other person will notice that you have become more pleasant to be with. The second thing is that you may know people who are friends with the other person, who can help the other person notice that you are a lovely person, are pleasant to be with, so that he will adjust his first impression and recognize the reality that is now. So the first thing is, a flower should be a true flower. The second thing is that someone should remind us that the flower is there.

Bell

Retreatant: I have a habit to be offensive against other people in my thoughts. I want to change that, but I don’t know how. For example, when I walk down the street and see people doing things, I think to myself, “Oh, what an idiot!” Things like that.

Thay: When you see something, it might be only one aspect of that thing, the aspect that does not please you. Next time you see someone or something, do not allow just one aspect of it to seize you, but allow yourself to see the other aspects as well.

In the chanting book there is a sutra talk by Shariputra [Dis­course on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger]. He said that when you have anger, you have to look deeply in order to trans­form your anger. With a person whose way of doing things may not please you, but whose way of speaking can be very pleasant, you should pay attention more to his way of speaking, not to his way of doing. That way you can transform your anger. Even if you notice that his behavior is not pleasant and his speech is not pleasant, maybe his way of thinking is very pleasant. You can see the goodness in his heart, so you accept what is not so good in his way of speaking or acting.

Shariputra went on to say that even if his behavior is not pleasant, if his speech is not pleasant, and if his thinking is not pleasant, you can still feel compassion and transform your anger. You look deeply to understand that such a bad person must be someone who suffers very much, and you might be able to help him suffer less. If you think like that, you will accept him as he is, and the anger in you will be transformed. This sutra is very beautiful. I recommend that you read it.

Shariputra used the image of water to illustrate his teaching. First, he described a lake covered with straw and algae. If a person who is very thirsty and hot takes off his clothes and gets into the water using his arm to remove what is floating on the surface, he can enjoy the cool water. If he can see underneath the straw and algae, the water is deep and fresh.

Shariputra gave a second image of a person who is traveling and is so thirsty he is about to die, but he knows there is some water left in the footprint of a buffalo. He knows that it is a very small quantity of water, and if he uses his hands to gather the water, it might become muddy. So he kneels down and drinks the water directly and is able to survive. It means that even if the situation is difficult, if the person is not very pleasant in his way of speak­ing and acting, you can recognize the goodness in him and try to enjoy that. That is one way to transform your anger, your disap­pointment. The sutra is about five ways to put down your anger and is available in the Plum Village chanting book. If you read the sutra, next time you go out on the street, you will look at them and smile and accept them as they are. Thank you. Good question.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, yesterday you talked about nirvana and states of being and non-being, the here and now, and the true self. Lately I feel that my true self is like a drop that has been taken out of the collective consciousness, something like a cloud. And I feel, as I’m aging, that this drop has been separated, and I have this longing to reunite with the ocean. I would like to know whether you notice a longing to be reunited to the true self, and how I can live in the here and now in the face of this longing.

Thay: If the wave remembers that she is at the same time water, there is no need for the wave to go and search for water. You have the impression that you are separated from your true self, from your true nature. That is only a feeling, a wrong perception. You feel that you are away from the ultimate dimension; you do not have a connection with God. That is also a feeling born from wrong perception. We know that the ultimate dimension and the historical dimension are not two separate dimensions, they are just one. So if we say that the flower belongs to the Kingdom of God, then if we get in touch deeply enough with the flower, we get in touch with the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not something outside the flower. The feeling of separation is born from the fact that you do not live your life deeply enough in each moment. If we learn how to live in mindfulness and concentration, then the Kingdom of God, the ultimate dimension, is always available to us.

So we need to train ourselves to live more deeply. If we have enough mindfulness and concentration, we can touch the ultimate with every breath, every step. Nirvana, or the Kingdom of God, can be experienced in every moment of our daily life. In fact, you can touch nirvana with your feet. You can be in the presence of God twenty-four hours a day. How? Learn to breathe mindfully, walk mindfully, eat mindfully, drive mindfully.

Bell

A written question: Dear Thay, following the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I try not to kill. So for the past two years when I saw a few little bugs in the kitchen, I left them in peace. But this summer there were so many that I began to kill them, always trying to keep a peaceful mind and friendliness, wishing a good rebirth in the next life. I remembered you saying that when we followed the North Star, it didn’t mean that we had to reach it. But to perform the act of killing again and again, doesn’t this create karmic imprints in my stream of consciousness? Or do I have to decide not to kill at all in spite of some disadvantages? Thank you.

Sister Jina: We say the Five Mindfulness Trainings are like the North Star. They give us a direction in life, the direction of non- violence. And we do our best. One of the main things is to keep our mind open, not to think we have to do it this way or that way. Every time I am confronted with a situation, I look again and say, “What is the wisest thing to do?” If you do that, then you may learn to focus on prevention. In this case, we can see what we do that brings the little beings into our kitchen. Then we can determine what we can do to prevent them from coming in. This goes for all aspects of our daily life. If we did kill the insects, then we have to know we may not choose to do the same thing next time. In the meantime, practice being mindful in your daily life. Then you will have more concentration and more insight about how to protect life and how to go in the direction of nonviolence.

If we start to feel guilty, then we may get to a state where we cannot do anything anymore because guilt overtakes us. It is better to look and to say, “I regret that I did this. What can I do now?” Then we have learned something from the situation, and this will benefit many people and many beings.

Thay: When we went to Hong Kong, we had to use a mosquito net in order to sleep during the night because there were a lot of mosquitoes. It is impossible for you to kill all the mosquitoes! So using a mosquito net is a good prevention technique.

In Plum Village our brothers and sisters used to pick up the insects in the garden and release them outside instead of using pesticides. If we allowed the insects to share our vegetables, there would not be enough vegetables left for us. So at night we went to the vegetable garden and we picked up all these small insects and released them far away. Our neighbors were very surprised to see us and wanted to know what we were doing in the dark!

But that does not mean that we have the best way. We are still learning better ways to protect life. Thank you for asking the question so that we can continue our reflection on that.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear brothers and sisters, I would like to ask a question regarding my superiority complex. All my life when I’ve met people, I’ve automatically judged them and found something in them that made me feel superior. I used to go to a school where at the end of each year we had the custom to invite the best of each year onto a stage before the entire school and honor them with a golden plaque. There is still this voice in me that would really like to share that I, too, once received one of those golden plaques. But I have also discovered how in this way I create a distance between myself and other people.

I have discovered that one reason for my feeling of superior­ity is that I’ve tried to protect myself from a feeling of inferiority. Because of this discovery, things are changing a little bit. However, this feeling of having to create a distance between me and other people is still an obstacle in my way. I would like to ask you for more advice on how to manage this better. Thank you.

Thay: This morning when I touched the earth with the Sangha, I saw all the non-me elements coming together and touching the earth. I did not see me at all, only the non-me elements. That created a lot of space inside. Because you believe in a self, you compare that self with other selves. Out of it come the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, the equality complex. If you touch the truth of non-self in you, you are free.

When I was ordained, I was told how to bow to the Buddha. Bowing to the Buddha because you have the impression that the Buddha is perfect and you are not perfect is not the best way. As a young novice I was told that before you bow, you have to look deeply into yourself and into the Buddha to whom you bow. There is a verse you can recite while breathing in and out, before you bow. The verse is: “Dear Buddha, I know I have no self and you have no self. That is why I can see me in you and you in me.”

The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are not two separate entities. So when you remove the barrier, the distinction between the one who bows and the one who is bowed to, then the experience of the bow can be very deep. Although you conceive of the Buddha as the perfect one, your teacher, the fully enlightened one, you have no complex whatsoever.

Then there is the insight that our ancestors have transmitted to us many wonderful qualities. If we have some talent, there’s no “our own” talent. That is something that has been transmitted to you by your father or your grandfather or grandmother. You should be proud of it. If another person does not seem to have that talent, that doesn’t mean that talent is not in him or her. That person has been in an environment that has not helped that talent to manifest. You are luckier, because you have been in an environment where that talent had a chance to manifest. If you can see that, you won’t have any superiority complex over him.

Also, our ancestors have transmitted to us negative things, habit energies, sufferings. If we happen to be in a good environment where there are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we will be able to transform them more quickly than another person can. I know that the negative things in me may have been transmitted to me by my ancestors, and I know that with the Dharma, with the Sangha, I may be able to help transform them. Not only for myself but for my ancestors at the same time.

So the environment is very important. We should pay attention to how to create a good environment for us and for our children so that the good things can come out easily and the negative things can be transformed more easily.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, twelve years ago I had a crisis, and when I was in most need of the help of my friends, I was let down and even attacked by them. I became very ill and lost all my trust in other people. I have tried to look into the causes of all that happened, and I have tried to forgive myself and others. Now I am on a new path, trying to open myself up and to trust other people again. Much has changed for the better. But my old wound is being opened again by some recent interactions with people, and now I feel that people cannot be counted upon and I need to protect myself. So, dear Thay, how can I live in an open and trusting way, even with people who are not very mindful, and how can I at the same time protect myself?

Thay: We speak of protection with mindfulness. When you do things mindfully, you are in a safer situation. When you walk mindfully, you don’t risk falling down. When you speak mind­fully, you know what you are saying, and you know that what you say is going to create danger or safety. Most of the time the dangers come from ourselves, and not from others. We should learn to think mindfully, because our thoughts can draw danger to ourselves. When we do things, when we say things, when we think from a basis of anger and fear, we bring danger to ourselves and to the people around us. That is why when we notice that fear or anger is coming up, we should not say anything, we should not do anything. We should only go back to our mindful breathing and mindful walking in order to calm down these emotions. Learning to act mindfully, to speak mindfully, and to think mindfully is the best way to protect ourselves, and we can help protect the people around us at the same time.

If someone asks you to do something, to say something, you say, “Dear friend, I’m not in a position to do or say anything, because there is anger or fear in me. I risk making myself suffer more, and I risk making you suffer more.” If we can practice that, we are in a safer situation, and we can help another person to feel safer at the same time. And we can suggest that the other person, suffering from anger, do the same.

The second thing is that you are in a situation to help people in that negative environment, who have become the victims of such behavior. Mindfulness gives you that insight. These people did not have the intention to make you suffer, but they don’t know how to handle the suffering in them. That is why they do things and say things that make themselves suffer, and the people around them become victims. With that insight you are free and you are in the situation to help, because you have compassion in your heart.

Dear friends, it’s time for us to do walking meditation. Enjoy the Kingdom of God. Thank you.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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