Feb 15, 2010
Thich Nhat Hanh, “Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment”
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment offers instructions on dwelling in the body and mind, on metta (or universal lovingkindness), and on Thich Nhat Hanh’s distinctive teaching on “interbeing.” The book includes–as bookends, teachings on walking meditation–but many other practices are discussed in between. The book is in fact quite a collection of Dharma teachings.
Buddha Mind, Buddha Body is based on The Verses on the Characteristics of the Eight Consciousnesses by Master Hsuan-Tsang (ca. 596-664), though the connection to that text is not readily apparent, and nowhere does the author explicitly state he’s discussing Hsuan-Tsang’s work.
Sometimes Thich Nhat Hanh’s explanations neatly encapsulate major struggles from my own practice and remind me of why I seek the freedom that mindfulness brings:
“Dispersion is when you allow yourself to be carried away by emotions. When we feel out of control of our lives, as if we don’t have any sovereignty, that’s mind consciousness in dispersion. You think and speak and do things that you cannot control. We don’t want to be full of hate and anger and discrimination, but sometimes the habit energy feels so strong we don’t know how to change it. There’s no loving kindness, understanding, or compassion in your thinking, because you are less than your better self … you say things and do thing you wouldn’t say or do if you were concentrated. You lose your sovereignty.” (page 77)
In these flashes of clarity, I wonder: where did this guy come from? Who is he? Thich Nhat Hanh started practicing when he was 16 in Vietnam, in a tradition that draws heavily from Zen, although Thich Nhat Hanh seems to value the whole Buddhist tradition.
Conditionality is a key idea in Buddhism, and is always present in one form or another in this book, mostly in his emphasis on “interbeing.” Conditionality is the idea that we, and everything, are predicated on conditions. Being separate is a mistake and a delusion.
I found the lack of footnotes confusing. I like a Dharma book that notes exactly where a particular story comes from in the vast tradition, so I can look it up and reinforce what I’m learning, or see if I agree with an author’s interpretation of a text.
Also his translations are sometimes different from standard definitions. Instead of the usual translation of “patience” for kshanti, he translates it as “inclusiveness.” He likens it more to growing larger, so that little things do not bug you. He translates sila as “mindfulness”, though usually it’s considered “ethics.” Not that ethics doesn’t require mindfulness, but we have the tradition of the precepts to guide us here. Virya isn’t translated as “energy” but “diligence.”
Thich Nhat Hanh uses the language of theism when he says, “a kingdom of God or Pure Land.” This language might be helpful to some, and unhelpful to others. It’s pretty clear that the Buddha said questions about God’s existence, is not pragmatic on the path to Enlightenment, it’s a red herring. But Buddhism isn’t a stickler for dogma. What ever practically helps you on the path to enlightenment. If thoughts of god help you, then well it doesn’t matter what the Buddha said. Of course because the Buddha has said something, according to the tradition, there’s a good reason to look into it and take it seriously.
The last chapter of the book is a guided walking meditation, derived from past books, and then there are appendices, which leads to a clunky kind of ending, a mishmash of information that is not well strung together. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the book over all, and look forward to reading more from him. He’s clearly a spiritual genius, a star Buddhist in a great sky of wonderful Buddhist stars, and well worth your notice.