In this book Thich Nhat
Hanh gives the reader an excellent introduction to basic
Buddhist beliefs and principles, highlighting Buddhism as
a way of being rather than a formal religion. Indeed, he
actively encourages those practicing formal religions to
continue doing so, as the Buddhist way of being is complementary.
This is of course equally applicable to agnostics such as
myself, and atheists. All he really asks us to believe in
is ourselves, and life in general. There is a beautiful
eloquence to the way in which Thich Nhat Hanh writes, using
evocative stories, recollections, and metaphors to clearly
demonstrate the core Buddhist beliefs. To his followers
he is known as Tha^y (“Teacher”), and to keep
things simple from here on in that is how I shall refer
Tha^y starts by explaining the Four Noble Truths: Recognising
and acknowledging suffering; Looking deeply at the causes
of our suffering; Refraining from doing the things that
make us suffer; Maintaining a way of living that prevents
the suffering from re-occurring (Noble Eightfold Path).
matter addresses some very difficult questions, however
Tha^y does this in a way that makes the answers appear wonderfully
simple, without attempting to be moralistic, or to indoctrinate.
This is because the impact of his words relies on our inner
strength and desire to minimise suffering and be happy.
Our global society is becoming increasingly materialistic
and greedy, and this book is a real antidote to that, reminding
us that the key to happiness is not money, status, or power.
In western society in particular many of us are encouraged
to place far more emphasis on money, status, and power than
is good for our spiritual well-being, and that of those
around us, so is it any wonder that many of us reach crisis
point at some point in our lives? Tha^y encourages us to
identify the bad habit energies that can cause our suffering.
These can take many forms, varying greatly from individual
to individual. Examples could be ingesting toxic substances
(food, drink, drugs etc.) or negative behaviour patterns
(abusive, unhealthy desire to please, aggressively competitive
etc.). He gives us ‘tools’ to help us free ourselves
of our bad habit energies and cultivate our good habit energies,
comparing this to watering and tending to the positive seeds
in the garden of our consciousness.
One of the ‘tools’ that Tha^y talks about at
length is living in mindfulness, i.e. dwelling entirely
in the present moment. Many of us spend too much time dwelling
on the past or worrying about the future. This clutters
up our minds, often makes us agitated and anxious, and prevents
us from appreciating and enjoying the present moment. This
book describes many simple ways of helping ourselves live
in the present. I have a long way to go but having practiced
some of these I am convinced that mindfulness is fundamental
to being happy. I also recommend another book by Tha^y,
“The Miracle of Mindfulness”,
which deals with this subject in more detail, especially
in terms of meditation techniques (link below).
The latter half of the book deals with other basic Buddhist
teachings. It explains some quite difficult concepts in
a really accessible way, e.g. that nothing is permanent
(impermanence), nothing exists in isolation (inter-being),
and the complete silencing of concepts (nirvana). I love
Tha^y’s peanut butter cookie story about inter-being,
which can be summarised as follows: ”When you make
the mixture you know that all the cookies are one, they
all come from the same mixture. However, imagine that as
soon as they are placed on the baking tray each cookie begins
to think of itself as separate. They begin to talk to each
other in the oven. “Get out of my way, I want to be
in the middle.” “I am brown and beautiful, you’re
ugly.” “I’ve got more peanuts than you.”
We tend to behave this way too, and it causes a lot of suffering.
If we know how to touch our non-discriminating mind our
happiness and the happiness of others will increase manifold.”
Most of the concepts are explained based on simple metaphors
that are easy to follow. For example my coffee table does
not exist in isolation in that it was made by a carpenter
from wood from a tree that grew because the sun shone and
it rained and so on. Neither is it permanent – it
may eventually get burnt, generating heat and other by-products
that will be re-used elsewhere. There is something ‘no-nonsense’
about this approach. Another favourite chapter in this part
of the book is “The Four Immeasurable Minds”,
which describes love, compassion, joy and equanimity within
the context of Buddhism. As with a lot of the book I found
this chapter very uplifting.
In conclusion I definitely felt enlightened about Buddhism
and life after reading this book. It is the best self-help
book I have ever read and has helped me at a time of great
need. In fact my counsellor was so impressed that she has
decided she will actually recommend it to future clients.
I still keep the book with me wherever I am.
About Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master, poet, best-selling
author and peace activist, has been a Buddhist monk for
over 50 years. He was chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist
peace delegations during the Vietnam War, and was nominated
by Dr Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1966
he visited the United States and Europe on a peace mission
and was unable to return to his native land. Today he leads
Plum Village, a meditation community in southwest France,
where he teaches, writes, gardens, and aids refugees worldwide.
More information on Thich
More information on Plum