Title: “True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart.”
Author: Thich Nhat Hanh
Bodhipaksa reviews a new book by Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and finds a treasure-trove of teachings on love.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Master, is one of the foremost Buddhist teachers in the West. He is rightly known as a preeminent teacher of mindfulness meditation, having burst into the reading public’s attention with his now-classic “The Miracle of Mindfulness.”
His style, however, is not the dry-as-bones, here-are-the-traditional-lists style that you find with many eastern teachers of mindfulness. His manner exudes warmth, friendliness, and compassion. He appreciates. He is understanding. He has a rich and creative approach to communicating spiritual practice. And it’s therefore no surprise that he has much to say about love, nor that on the whole he says it in a simple and eloquent style.
No background is given to the origin of the teachings in True Love, but they read as if they were initially delivered in the context of a retreat in the United States. The style is relaxed, informal, and often gently humorous. If you’re familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s speaking style you can hear his slow and accented voice as you read the words on the page.
True Love is a very practical approach to cultivating lovingkindness, but it’s a practical approach that does not skip on profundity. There’s a classic line near the start of the book where the author says, “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free,” and in which, as is so often the case, Thich Nhat Hanh finds a fresh, original, and penetrating way of expressing an otherwise elusive truth.
You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.
For Thich Hant Hanh, mindfulness and lovingkindness are not separate qualities. Although they may theoretically be seen as distinct, he regards mindfulness as incomplete without an infusion of metta; mindfulness is a warm, appreciative, and integrated faculty rather than a cold and objective gaze at our experience. Likewise, he sees lovingkindness as being incomplete, or rather impossible, without mindfulness: “Love Is Being There” is the title of one chapter, in which he reminds us that “the most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence.”
He offers four “mantras” that we can use to help us enact love in our lives. He explains that in Buddhism a mantra is a spoken formula that, when spoken in a state of concentration, can alter a situation (a neat if unconventional definition). By extension then he regards anything said in a state of concentration to be, in effect, a mantra. And so he offers mantras such as:
- Dear one, I am here for you
- Dear one, I know that you are here, and it makes me very happy
- Dear one, I know that you are suffering, that is why I am here for you
- Dear one, I am suffering, please help.
Some of us may not be comfortable with the precise form of the wording — I can’t imagine calling my wife “dear one” — but the message in these four mantras strikes me as being a simple but powerful application of lovingkindness, empathetic joy, and compassion.
In True Love, Nhat Hanh places the cultivation of mindfulness and lovingkindness in an existential context. He reminds us that
We have a great fear inside ourselves. We are afraid of everything–of our death, of being alone, of change.
He also points out that “mindfulness helps us to touch nonfear.” We do this through transcending “the notions of being and nonbeing,” and the “notions of birth and death,” and this in turn is achieved by “looking deeply” with mindfulness.
He also puts the teaching of love in a firmly nondualistic framework:
Every time you have an energy that needs to be transformed, like jealousy or fear, do something to care for this energy, for this negative energy, if you do not want this energy to destroy you… There should be no conflict between one element of our being and another element of our being. There should only be an effort of taking care and being able to transform. So we must have a nonviolent attitude with regard to our suffering, our pain.
This nonviolent approach to transformation is rooted in love. We do not look at our destructive tendencies as things that must be destroyed (for that would be employing violence in the pursuit of nonviolence) but as confused and hurt parts of ourselves that must be befriended and understood. Love is the nonviolent conqueror, transforming through a mature and loving care, “the care given by the big brother to the little brother.”
The task of the meditator is not to chase away or to suppress the energy of anger that is there but to invite another energy that will be able to care for the anger.
The book has some peculiarities. For one thing there is a recurring theme about how quick and easy transformation is. Sometimes we’re told “three weeks are enough to transform the pain,” while other times “the result could be there, maybe, in three or four minutes.” It’s certainly good to remind people that change can happen quickly, but more often people need reassurance in dealing with the relatively slow pace of change that they experience, and in my view Nhat Hanh goes a little over the top in a way that sounds rather like salesmanship.
And Nhat Hanh has a longstanding habit of “quoting” the Buddha, when what he’s actually doing is at best paraphrasing him and at worst putting words into his mouth.
But these minor quibbles aside, this is an excellent book. There are some interesting asides that branch from the main narrative, including an amusing discussion of “telephone meditation” (including a warning not to expect the phone to be picked up immediately — or at all — when calling his retreat center in France), and a discussion in which he points out that we have a right to demand that our political leaders cultivate mindfulness and lovingkindness.
Complete beginners to meditation and Buddhism will find in True Love a systematic guide to cultivating love, mindfulness, and wisdom, and old hands will find enough freshness, inspiration, and profundity to enrich their practice for months or years to come.
Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.
As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa or join him on Facebook.