Everyone knows by now how Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, was driven from his native Vietnam in the late 1960s and has since become an international peace advocate (nominated of the Nobel Peace Prize) and a Buddhist spiritual leader, as many point out, second in popularity only to the Dalai Lama.
Mr. Hanh’s retreats and his books are equally well loved, and yet his message is so simple and clear, a wonderful mix of Zen and Pure Land Buddhism. The gong rings yet not in distant temples, but in the streets and with the people. Perhaps that is why he’s so deeply appreciated.
His books and those of his Plum Village brothers and sisters (see One Buddha Is Not Enough, 2010) are typically published by Parallax Press of Berkeley. Yet periodically he publishes with the larger presses and achieves bestsellers as in his The Miracle of Mindfulness (Beacon Press, 1974) and his Peace Is Every Step (Bantam, 1991).
This new book from HarperOne offers us the essential Thich Nhat Hanh in what is almost a handbook of practice. He provides ways of becoming more mindful in our daily lives from our waking moment, our touching feet to floor, our washing our face, brushing our teeth, yes, even using the toilet, and clearly our eating and our breathing—all of it in the moment.
The way to his teaching and that of all Buddhism is through the breath—“Breathing in, I calm my body/ Breathing out, I smile.” The last quarter of the book are these gathas or short verses to memorize and help the reader to practice. Here’s one on walking meditation, another key practice: “The mind can go in a thousand directions,/ but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace./ With each step, a gentle wind blows./ With each step, a flower blooms.”
What is refreshingly lacking in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the recounting of a legacy of past Buddhas. His practice is present and practical and so immediately spiritual. As he suggests, it’s not enough to intellectually admit our impermanence, we must take it into ourselves, and for him this is done by a daily practice of mindful living.
I do miss the storytelling of other Buddhist teachers such as Pema Chodron or Tara Brach, but the exchange is a remarkably simple and useful book. Certainly, it is so short, it could be read in a couple of hours, thereby missing it entirely. But, unless one slows down to read and actually do the practices of a few pages at a time, the book will fly above or sink below them.
In his 80s now, Mr. Hanh gives us what we he feels he has to give and what we most need, a guide into ourselves and a connection to others. His beautiful calligraphy provides illustration and guidance as in “Solid as a Mountain,” “Each step brings you back to life,” “You are free to be here.” It’s that simple and one feels indebted to him for reminding us. If you are looking for a treatise on or an historical recounting of Buddhism, look elsewhere. This is a handbook on awakening through each breath.