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Book Review : The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching
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25th May 2006 
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh
Reviewed by Kate Moss

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 to him.

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).

 

Such subject 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 Nhat Hanh
More information on Plum Village


: The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching
: The Miracle of Mindfulness

 
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