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Thich Nhat Hanh, “Answers from the Heart”

Answers From the Heart, Thich Nhat HanhThich Nhat Hanh can be a brilliant communicator, finding fresh and direct ways of reaching the heart. Can be. Find out why Gloria Chadwick was less than thrilled by his latest book.

When Bodhipaksa asked me to review Thich Nhat Hanh’s new book, Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Life’s Burning Questions, I immediately said yes. I’ve read many of his books and found them to be loving and peaceful.

Title: Answers from the Heart
Author: Thich Nhat Hanh
Publisher: Parallax
ISBN: 978-1-888375-82-4
Available from: Parallax and Amazon.com.

In the spirit of honesty, I must say that I was disappointed with this book. It seems vague; most of the responses to questions asked are answered with an all-encompassing response of basically to be mindful of the emotion you are feeling. In my opinion, Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t offer concrete–or practical–answers to questions in the chapters about Daily Life, Family, Parenting, and Relationships, Spiritual Practices, Engaged Buddhism, Sickness and Health, Death and Dying, and Children’s Questions. But perhaps this is the purpose of Answers from the Heart. To offer us koans to help us create our own answers, to look within for our own compassion and understanding.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on Family, Parenting, and Relationships:

Question: My teenage son and I argue all the time. How can I stop these fights?

Answer: The first thing you can do is to look at yourself, to see whether you have enough calm energy to help calm him when he is in your presence. The problem may not only be with the child, but within the parent. If the parent is not peaceful, this can trigger negative emotions in the child, especially if there are negative seeds planted in him. In the past there may have been times when you got irritated and reacted in a state of annoyance–this has deposited those seeds in him. You have to undo this in the present moment. Being loving and calm and having the capacity to listen can absorb a lot of suffering. If you can engage him to talk to you about his difficulties by practicing deep, compassionate listening, that will help remove the kinds of energies that are making him suffer. If you have loving kindness and the energy of peace in you, even without speaking you can influence another person and he or she will feel better just sitting with you.

I had a bit of a dilemma about whether to post this review since it’s negative and I have so much respect for Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve read many of his books and enjoyed them tremendously, but I didn’t enjoy this book and would not recommend it. I decided to post this review because it is my honest opinion of the book. Have you read this book? What did you think about it?


Gloria Chadwick is the author of the book and website, Zen Coffee. Zen Coffee is for people on the go; it offers an active approach to mindfully meditating in every moment of your busy life. It offers you many ways to bring peace and a sense of serenity into all your experiences and activities, to be in harmony with them. As you race through life with your coffee cup in hand, you’ll find many mindful moments to meditate.

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Comment from seala
Time: June 11, 2009, 6:25 pm

Answers from the Heart:
I haven’t read the book, but from the excerpt you give there, I think you are right, that is exactly what he is doing, helping people to create their own answers. What I love about him is how he bases everything in the practical. Through my work with children I would say they pick up on absolutely everything; the said, and especially the unsaid. Being calm, creating calm, can change a situation completely, however that takes effort if a person hasn’t been in the habit of this. The difference though is amazing, it’s the same with adults, but children are so natural in their responses it’s more obvious.

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Comment from kate booth
Time: June 12, 2009, 10:49 am

Answers From the Heart,
I am surprised that the reviewer felt negativity in the cited excerpt. Being with whatever arises within oneself is the key to resolution of internal conflict. I got the feeling that the reviewer somehow wanted to make the angry child wrong and therefore had difficulty hearing the true message offered by Thay. As a former special education teacher and therapist, a child brings into the room their stored experience. The challenge is to breathe calm and notice your own process.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 12, 2009, 11:38 am

I think, Kate, that it’s wise to be careful when assuming what another person is thinking, feeling, or intending beyond what’s presented in writing. The reviewer prefaces the citation with these words: “But perhaps this is the purpose of Answers from the Heart. To offer us koans to help us create our own answers, to look within for our own compassion and understanding.” It would be reasonable, then, to assume that her the intention in presenting the quote was to illustrate how TNH tries to get us to look inside for our own compassion and understanding, rather than that she “wanted to make the angry child wrong.” I see no basis for making the assumption that the reviewer had that motivation.

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Comment from Ed McGuigan
Time: June 12, 2009, 12:12 pm

As a stepfather of a problematic teenager and now young adult daughter, I have to say that I think the advice in the excerpt is very “a propos”. In my own problems with my stepdaughter the big issue was always my lack of calmness and the hysteria bubbling under the surface. I eventually figured out that her selfishness terrified me but I am still not too sure exactly why.

Unfortunately it took me years to figure this out and even if I had seen this advice at the right time, I don’t think I was ready to take it on board. I suppose that anybody who is on the Buddhist path has seen this advice applied to almost every situation where there is conflict so another book full of it might seem unnecessary. That doesn’t stop it from being the correct advice. Calmness is infectious.

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Comment from seala
Time: June 12, 2009, 12:25 pm

I’m no expert at all, but I think children are sometimes frightening in their independence. Yet if they didn’t have this, they would find it difficult to become independent adults, individuation and all that. Sometimes an extreme desire for independence can seem very selfish, but is often healthy, and it can create room for love, rather than dependence.

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Comment from Ed McGuigan
Time: June 12, 2009, 4:33 pm

Hi Seala:
In my specific case this is a mixed bag. My stepdaughter wants her independence within the context of staying at home, enjoying all of the benefits of an extended childhood ( she’s 24 now and still firmly ensconced in the nest ) with little sign of movement towards taking on a more adult role within the household.

I actually find that a lot of young people these days are too materialistic to leave a comfortable home in search of full autonomy. I left home to go to college at 18 ( 26 years ago in the UK ) and basically lived in what the young would now consider poverty until I was 23. I had food on the table and clothes on my back ( and money for beer of course ) but no extras. I could literally carry everything I owned.

My 22 year old son has left home and enjoys a state of semi-independence. In doing do he has found new respect for us as he realized all of the things that were and still are done for him. He and I did butt heads on a few occasions where he felt the need to oppose me in order to assert his independence but that hasn’t been the situation with my daughter. She is supposed to leave home by the end of the year but it still seems that she is looking to others to support her and is unwilling to sacrifice any level of comfort in order to be independent.

BTW – what I realized frightened me is the extent to which she can be selfish. I have the opposite problem of not putting myself first which can be as big a character flaw with its roots in a lack of self love. When I am confronted by a person who just unashamedly takes the position of “this is what suits me so screw you” I find it terrifying and get very angry ( anger comes from fear ). Since I realized that this was the case things have been a lot better and we cohabit relatively peacefully without me fantasizing about her departure. She is my test and I guess I should be grateful to her for making me take action to work on my anger and hate.

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Comment from seala
Time: June 12, 2009, 6:54 pm

Hi Ed, I think had envisioned a different situation! You sound like you have the situation figured out. I think sometimes anger comes from fear, but other times it comes from a valid reaction to an injustice. It’s not always necessary to solve anger, maybe it’s justified.

I saw a great documentary recently on bbc called the worlds strictest parents, about some English children who went to a strict family in Ghana, it was very moving how though they railed against the discipline, they eventually were really grateful (these were very ‘advanced’ 16/17yo’s)

As you say, maybe she’s a good teacher for you, if you are not good at putting yourself first, now’s your perfect chance to change that. She’s not going to make it easy for you, but she might be thankful in the end, as your son is. Best of luck with it, and I’m sure you will find a way!

also..I think a lot of kids today get their confidence through material things, and so are even more scared than we are of losing those things. But there’s no substitute for experience!

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Comment from Roger
Time: June 14, 2009, 3:28 pm

Looking simply at the extract chosen
‘ If you have loving kindness and the energy of peace in you, even without speaking you can influence another person and he or she will feel better just sitting with you.’
In my work with often hurting and angry young people I have found that to be centered in loving kindness
not only desireable but essential.
It is essential for my wellbeing and for the wellbeing of those around me.
It may well be that the pain of the person who I am with remains, it may even be such that there is little immediate
evidence of benefit or change.
One thing remains certain though. Inner peace and loving kindness is most tangible.
It is supremely communicable, so much so that words are not strictly always helpful.

It should be noted that being centered in the energy of peace and loving kindness
need not inhibit us from challenge or debate, however vigorous.

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Comment from Just Amy
Time: June 30, 2009, 2:49 pm

Getting back to the book review. I have read several of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, and “Peace is Every Step” changed my life,
I too was disappointed with this book.

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Pingback from Removing fear is the order of the day « Nancy Imperiale Blog
Time: July 19, 2010, 7:45 am

[...] new one or maybe even subscribe) and this jumped out at me. It’s reprinted from a book called Answers From the Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh: I’m still afraid of losing my mother or another loved one. How can I transform this fear? We [...]

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