Plum Village practices

Book Reviews

Friends on the PathLiving Spiritual Communities

by Thich Nhat Hanh Compiled by Jack Lawlor

Review by David Percival

This book is an invaluable resource on Sangha building for beginning and advanced practitioners around the world. We are told that even the smallest Sangha nurtures and continues the living tradition of Buddhism. For those of us who are shy or introverted and were brought up in the Western tradition of individualism, a Sangha is a powerful force that pulls us away from our ego to community, togetherness, and freedom.    As Jack Lawlor says, "we have to be willing to let go of a bit or our desire to be anonymous and private." And it is so much easier to let go of our old self-centered baggage when we are with a group of loving friends. It has been a wonderful experience for me to feel the support of Sangha members as, from time to time, stumble along. The Sangha doesn't let me fall. As Thay says, "The Sangha is there to support you in your practice.  So building the Sangha means building yourself."

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Part of the message of this book is to seek out a Sangha and if there is no Sangha in your community, to start one. Enter whole­ heartedly into a mindful practice with spiritual friends. Lawlor offers words of support to all of us plagued from time to time with doubts and discouragement.  His section on "Sharing the Path: An Overview of Lay Sangha Practice" is full of advice, instruction, ideas, and encouragement. And, most of all, be makes us realize that we can do it. We don't need years of experience, a massive library of Buddhist texts, monastic or lay teachers or advisors-­we need just one friend who wants to practice in a community.

As I read this book, I thought back to the beginnings of the Rainbow Sangha here in Albuquerque. A few months after returning from my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1997 I got together with Greg Sever, another Albuquerque retreat attendee. We put up a few fliers around town, set a date, and met in one of our homes. We didn't do much planning, we didn't worry, and we didn't have any guidelines or books on Sangha building. We just started. We structured our meetings based on our observations at the retreat. We invited a bell and began. Some of the advice in this book about starting a Sangha includes: start now, don't put it off. Don't get caught up with planning. Bring together one or more friends and begin.

The remainder of the book offers inspirational and practical chapters written by thirty-five monastic and lay practitioners including sections on Practicing in the Community, Sangha Building, Sangha Practice, Practicing with Young People, and Engaged Practice. Three Appendices include the Mindfulness Trainings, Contemplations, and various practices.

In Chapter Two, "Go as a Sangha," Thay explains what a Sangha is, why we need a Sangha, and how to practice with a Sangha. Thay concludes by telling us that in building Sangha we are continuing the work of the Buddha. Our Sangha is the living Buddha. Even ordinary folks in a small Sangha "can achieve things the Buddha has not achieved, because there are many Dharma doors to be opened. There are teachings yet to be offered." Thay has observed that our task is to invent new Dharma doors that address contemporary needs.

All of us individually, and as a Sangha, are the continuation of the Buddha. Sangha building is our task. Our Sanghas, built on a foundation of love, compassion, mindfulness, freedom, and wider-standing, are torches of inspiration, shining their light on the darkness of despair, and transforming the suffering of the world.   Treasure this book, but more important, use it. Let it inspire you to step into the joy and challenges of Sangha building. This is our practice, this is the way to healing and transformation, this is the way out of despair.

Printed by Parallax Press: To order www.parallax.org

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives and practices in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Under the Rose Apple Tree

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Review by Barbara Casey

Reading this book I realized that a primary reason I am so attracted to Thay 's teaching is that he speaks directly to the child within me. Though the material found here is a compilation of talks he has given to young people over the years, for me it is a comprehensive explanation of the Dharma, in the simple and clear style I have grown accustomed to from Thay. Though he may use some different words and longer explanations when speaking to adults, I see from reading this book that all the wisdom, all the stories that help us understand with our hearts and not just our minds, are right here.

The book begins with explaining that we are all Buddhas to be, and how we can touch the Buddha inside us. Specific mindfulness practices of stopping, hugging, looking deeply to identify our habit energy and planting seeds of happiness are offered. We are taught in detail how to invite the bell. Sitting meditation is explained through the story of Siddhartha sitting in meditation for the first time under the rose apple tree swing the ceremony of plowing the fields. The concept of interbeing is taught through the story of the Buddha and Mara, followed by practices to help when "things get difficult, "including how to deal with anger and how to practice when family members are unhappy. The two promises are offered as a way to learn to love, followed by a frank discussion of how to treat our bodies with respect when making choices about sexual activity and consuming drugs, alcohol, and food.

Filled with hints and reminders of simple and effective ways to practice, two of my favorites are, "the secret of the practice is to do one thing at a time," and the last line of the book, "each of us is a river."

The last chapter, "Chasing Clouds" is a beautiful story of a stream that at one point wants to commit suicide after losing the clouds that she has been chasing. But as she looks deeply, she sees what she has been doing:

"It was strange. She had been chasing after clouds, thinking that she could not be happy without clouds, yet she herself was made of clouds. What she was seeking was already in her. Happiness can be like that. If you know how to go back to the here and now, you will realize that the elements of your happiness are already available to you. You don't need to chase them anymore.” If there were just one book on the Dharma I could offer someone, this is the book I would choose.  I hope that every young person will have the opportunity to become friends with this book. I encourage each of us to make Under the Rose Apple Tree a gift to every young person we know, and perhaps we can create a way to offer it through organizations as a gift to many children.

For its simple beauty, lightness and depth, of all of Thay's books, Under the Rose Apple Tree is my favorite.

Printed by Parallax Press: To order www.parallax.org

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, lives with her husband in Santa Rosa, California, where she practices with the Fragrant Rose Sangha. She is an editor of the Mindfulness Bell and loves to practice hugging meditation with her two young nieces, Natalie and Dru.

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Book Reviews

mb64-BookReviews1Love Letter to the Earth By Thich Nhat Hanh Softcover, 120 pages Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

Love Letter to the Earth includes ten beautiful love letters that are poetic, deep, and inspirational. Thich Nhat Hanh explains how we can heal ourselves and the Earth. “We cannot wait any longer to restore our relationship with the Earth because right now the Earth and everyone on Earth is in real danger…. Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.” According to Thay, by healing ourselves, we heal the Earth. He recommends walking meditation as a powerful tool for healing ourselves and the Earth simultaneously. Other practices for falling in love with the Earth include mindful breathing, deep listening, drinking and eating mindfully, and reciting the Five Contemplations before each meal.

Thay describes Mother Earth as a bodhisattva. “A bodhisattva is a living being who has happiness, awakening, understanding and love…. Anyone who cultivates love and offers a lot of happiness to others is a bodhisattva…. When we look at our planet, we know that the Earth is the most beautiful bodhisattva of all. She is the mother of many great beings. How could mere matter do all the wonderful things the Earth does? Don’t search for a bodhisattva in your imagination. The bodhisattva you are looking for is right at your feet.”

The calligraphy and writings in this book instill hope in the regenerative power of the Earth and in the potential Buddha nature in each living being. We all have the potential to take refuge in the Earth and to become awakened, Thay reminds us. As we practice mindfulness, “relaxation will come. When you are completely relaxed, healing will take place on its own. There is no healing without relaxation. And relaxation means doing nothing…. This is the practice of non-practice.”

Thay urges us to accept responsibility for what is happening to the Earth. “We need to realize that the conditions that will help to restore the necessary balance don’t come from outside us, they come from inside us, from our own mindfulness, our own level of awareness. Our own awakened consciousness is what can heal the Earth.” Thay invites us to join the revolution to “ease our suffering” and in turn to treat the Earth with love and respect.

mb64-BookReviews2Peace of Mind Becoming Fully Present

By Thich Nhat Hanh Softcover, 180 pages Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

The thesis of Thich Nhat Hanh’s newly published book Peace of Mind: Becoming Fully Present is this: “The basis for healing is to be in touch with ourselves, with our bodies.” He explains how each of us can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, and shows that happiness is available to everyone in the present moment.

Thay returns to simple and poetic language reminiscent of his early books, The Miracle of Mindfulness and Peace Is Every Step, to guide the reader in the practices of Plum Village, including mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating, deep relaxation, touching the Earth, and body scan meditation. He introduces new metaphors, such as the following: “A mindful body is a body with awareness. The embodied mind is the mind that is fully present in the body. It’s like software and hardware. If your software and hardware aren’t communicating with each other, you can’t do anything.” There is a wonderful chapter on how to use the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing to create “peaceful, harmonious and pleasant” breathing, which in turn leads to harmony and peace.

Reading this book evoked a memory from the first Day of Mindfulness that I attended with Thay and Sister Chan Khong, when I received the Five Wonderful Precepts (as they were called at that time). On my application form, I indicated that my aspiration was to experience “inner peace.” At that time, I had rarely felt inner peace and doubted that practicing the precepts would help me, but I took a leap of faith. Looking back over the past twenty years, I see that the practices of Plum Village and the mindfulness trainings have in fact transformed my suffering and led me to more continuous experiences of inner peace. Thay’s latest offering, a clear and profound manual for becoming fully present and establishing peace of mind, will be appreciated by beginning and experienced practitioners alike.

Thank you dear Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and the fourfold Sangha for sharing these practices around the world at Days of Mindfulness, public talks, peace walks, retreats, and practice centers, on the Internet, and in print.

mb64-BookReviews3Unfinished Conversation Grieving and Healing after a Loved One’s Suicide

By Robert Emile Lesoine and Marilynne Chöphel Softcover, 160 pages Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Elenore Snow

As a trauma psychotherapist, I so appreciate Unfinished Conversation: Grieving and Healing after a Loved One’s Suicide. This book offers itself not only as a resource but also as a companion, guiding the journey of loss from a loved one’s suicide. Written in short chapters that open with a personal narrative about author Robert Lesoine and the death of his best friend Larry, it is written in an accessible, engaging way that supports the reader in understanding some of the themes unique to this kind of loss. Each chapter walks the reader through journal exercises to help create meaningful closure and healing around the gaping wound of a sudden and devastating loss.

Although the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention documents twenty-five reported suicides a day in the U.S., we often feel isolated in the wake of a suicide loss. Early chapters of the book look at the ways in which a suicide leaves us with feelings of “unfinished business,” such as disregarded warnings and an incompleteness that comes from unanswered questions. Each chapter ends with a simple exercise to return to the present moment. We have a chance to write an uncensored eulogy, sit with the positive and negative influences of this person in our life, explore our loved one’s shadow (and our own), and reflect on dreams in which we are visited by the one we lost.

The book takes us beyond the initial shock and disbelief and into a richer way to know ourselves and our loved one, working with the suicide as an opportunity for post-traumatic growth. Perhaps my favorite chapter, “Discovering Interbeing,” touches on one of the most meaningful themes of Thay’s teaching. Lesoine writes, “What I am discovering is that the more I release him, the more I can connect with an affection and love for the Larry that transcends form.”

The way we choose to respond to suicide determines the quality of our consciousness as we make our way. Unfinished Conversation helps us see how to make choices that can heal us from the devastation of suicide with meaning and grace.

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