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“Two Treasures: Buddhist Teachings on Awakening and True Happiness,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

book cover Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Two Treasures is a translation of and commentary on two Buddhist texts by Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese Zen teacher, writer, and activist.

The two texts are a Mahayana Sutra, The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, and the Pali Mangala Sutta or “Discourse on Happiness.” Both texts are very short — fewer than 600 words for the “Eight Realizations” and 400 for the Mangala Sutta — and the commentaries are also brief. This makes for a very compact volume, with just under 70 pages in an attractively-packaged pocket-sized format.

Thich Nhat Hanh at his best is simple, eloquent, and fresh in his writing. His words often are uncomplicated and communicate an almost palpable compassion. As a social activist from the time of the Vietnam war he frequently relates Buddhist teachings to social issues in what is known, in a term apparently coined by Nhat Hanh himself, as “engaged Buddhism.” At his worst, Thich Nhat Hanh can be simplistic and vague. We see both those sides — the eloquently engaged and the na├»ve — in this small volume.

Both texts present pithy instructions for leading a meaningful, mindful, and happy life. The Mahayana text outlines key reflections that help support the motivation of a Bodhisattva — one whose spiritual life is devoted to the welfare of all living beings. These reflections are basic reminders of impermanence, of the origins of our own suffering (which the sutra tells us lie in desire, laziness, and ignorance), of the need for the Bodhisattva to consider other beings non-judgmentally, of the need for simplicity in the Bodhisattva’s life, and of the need to take the Bodhisattva Vow to help liberate all beings from suffering.

The translation is distinguished by Nhat Hanh’s desire to bring a contemporary and socially-engaged twist to this ancient teaching. His attempts are frequently successful, as in John Blofeld’s “The existence of a country [is] but fleeting” being rendered as “All political regimes are subject to fall.”

Also successful is Nhat Hanh’s “More desire brings more suffering” to replace the “Excessive desire causes suffering” found in Tom Graham’s translation. While Graham’s version may more accurately render the literal meaning of the passage, the question naturally arises of how much desire is too much. When the mind is unable to make such an assessment it gives itself leeway to indulge desires. Nhat Hanh’s version does not assume that there is some indeterminate point at which desire crosses from being helpful to being detrimental, and instead points at the spiritual truth that the more desire we have the more suffering we experience. Desire and suffering are seen as directly proportional and the leeway that allows for rationalization is therefore neatly removed. I can’t help but think that the translation in this instance reveals the truth that the original text was trying, imperfectly, to communicate.

While the translation of the Sutra itself is handled with aplomb, the commentary gives the appearance of having been transcribed from an oral presentation that I can only assume was given on one of Nhat Hanh’s off-days. At times the commentary is rambling and imprecise. For example we have “Suffering has to do with the emptiness of all things.” That’s true of course, but then everything has to do with the emptiness of all things, so the question arises, how exactly is suffering related to emptiness? The closest we come to an explanation is the mysterious, “Buddhas and bodhisattvas understand that when there is a harmonious relationship among the four elements, there is peace. When the four elements are not in harmony there is suffering.” Make of that what you will.

Some of the commentary on the Great Beings is considerably clearer than this, however, and there are nuggets of wisdom to be found. I particularly benefited from Nhat Hanh’s reflections on simplicity, which is something he particularly embodies in his life.

With the Mangala Sutta, Nhat Hanh has also made alterations to the original sense of the sutta in order to bring a more contemporary spin, but in this case the changes are more questionable. For example, an injunction to avoid alcohol altogether is watered down so that we’re enjoined merely not to be “caught by alcoholism.” The Buddha’s original message is an uncompromising avoidance of intoxicants, where Nhat Hanh’s translation — while adopting more contemporary terminology — allows for indulgence short of actual addiction. I don’t think this was at all Nhat Hanh’s intention, and that what has happened is that his desire to use modern buzzwords has obscured the true meaning of the text.

Likewise, a passage that in the original Pali advocates living celibately becomes in Nhat Hanh’s version merely an exhortation to live “diligently.” It’s fine to recognize that the Buddha’s teachings — many of which were originally aimed at monks and nuns — may appear too stringent for modern tastes and may at times be inappropriate for householder Buddhists, but the way to make such accommodations is through commentary on the texts, not by distorting the historical message of the texts themselves.

In the commentary Nhat Hanh is often seen at his best — simple, direct, and compassionate. He offers basic but nevertheless profound teachings on the importance of spiritual community, gratitude to one’s family, giving, and other virtues that act as supports to a life that is meaningful, mindful, and satisfying. There are places when the teachings fall into being simplistic — such as the assertion that whenever we acknowledge a fault and recommit ourselves to living by the precepts our guilt from the past will immediately disappear. In my experience the psychology of remorse and personal change is considerably more complex than that! But at the same time we are reminded of simple but profound truths that we can reflect upon and use as guides in our lives.

One translation of the title of the sutta is “happiness” while another is “blessing,” and Nhat Hanh ends this little book by reminding us that blessings and happiness are related. Happiness does not just arrive out of the blue, like a blessing. We are responsible for our own happiness and “The greatest blessing is the happiness that each of us can generate for ourselves.”

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