The heart of the Buddha’s Teaching Book Review (Thich Nhat Hanh)
“The heart of the Buddha’s teaching” is an introduction to Buddhism, written by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thầy), who portrays the elements to enlightenment in well-segmented chapters. Using poetry, metaphor, and mundane scenarios in daily life, Thầy guides readers to link Buddhism ideals to actionable practices. The book is unique in its writing style that flows like water — with core ideals that interlinks to different elements, captured with metaphors, poetry, and canonical sources. Thầy explains how these elements are interconnected — when we focus on one mindfulness element in our daily lives, we will be practicing other elements simultaneously. I especially enjoyed reflecting with 3 of the core values shared in the book: mindfulness, slowing down, and listening to understand.
Being mindful of the present moment
Mindfulness (念: 今+心) can be practiced with mindful breathing, walking, and smiling. As simple as it can be, much of our sufferings come from not eating mindfully, receiving toxic sensual impressions (such as fear, hatred, and violence), or materialistic wants. “Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes from the inability to dwell in the present moment; while regret comes from ruminating on past moments.”
Right concentration leads to stillness and insight. For me, moments of deep concentration are themselves the greatest rewards: Venturing into nature and only focusing on the steps ahead, our minds can be filled with happiness when in deep concentration — taking one step at a time; Writing when blessed with clarity of thought, with words flowing along with mindful reflections; Enjoying artistic performances or movies, when we are focused squarely at the movements on stage. In these beautiful moments, we are transfixed, focused, unperturbed…gratifying experiences when we focus solely at present.
Slowing down, relaxing, taking a breather
“Calming allows us to rest, and resting is a pre-condition of healing.”, says Thay. Calming, slowing down, taking a breather are essential for the longer journey, as life is a marathon not a sprint. Yet, when we are immersed in our daily rituals or transferred to a new environment, we may be constantly forging forwards: adapting and finding our new equilibrium. “Our habit energy pulls us in our daily lives. Stopping and slowing down is an art.”
“We have to learn to be solid and stable like an oak tree, not blown side by side by the storm.” Transitioning from student life into young adulthood can be bewildering — in our building career blueprints, managing interpersonal relationships, balancing our work with creative pursuits etc. Challenges, predicaments, opportunities, and novel situations can rock our boat, but a strong set of values and a supportive network can anchor us in midst of a sea of novelties.
I was taught multiple lessons when I push myself off limits, by forging ahead without realizing physical and psychological limits. After multiple episodes, I have learned to focus on one priority at a time, and that health comes first. “Maintain your health, be joyful, and acknowledge physical and psychological limits.”, says Thay. Health is the magic key that opens all doors: working in a healthy and sustainable fashion, building self-confidence and people relationships, and having “le gout de la vie.” As calligraphy master *** shares his motto in calligraphy, “I tell myself to relax during my calligraphy work. I am here to enjoy — not in a rush just for the sake of completion.”
Hectic schedules, big cities, and life stressors (time, workload, interpersonal etc) can impede us from slowing down. In the book Brideshead Revisited (1945), Evelyn Waugh wrote “…for in that city (New York) there is neurosis in the air which the inhabitants mistake for energy.” I love how the author vividly captures the frenzy and fast paced tempos of big cities, where inhabitants can be oblivious to when fully immersed in the environment.
Listening to understand — Love is understanding
Love is understanding. For me, this is one of the most special insights in the book that rang multiple bells in interpersonal relationships. “To love means to nourish with appropriate attention. When we understand someone’s suffering, difficulties, and aspirations — that is true love.” Deep listening without judging or reacting enables us to understand different life circumstances and mentalities, which in turn guides us to think from the point of view of others. Mutual understanding starts when the magical key of understanding unlocks our differences, biases, and defensiveness. “In difficult moments, you are blessed if you have a friend who can truly be present with you. The greatest gift we can offer others is presence.” We are also blessed when we are the shoulder to lean on, when people open up sharing difficult situations. This strong bond is based on trust and understanding that should be cherished. “If you speak with a friend openly about your suffering, determined to discover its roots, this enables you to see them clearly. When we see its source, we are already on the path towards liberation and emancipation. If you keep them to yourself, it might grow bigger every day.”
Growing up with ***** who has a drastically different personality and interests; his novel ideas, aspirations, and decisions have been met with my surprise and bewilderment at times. Yet, it was not until a few late-night conversations after university– when we shared challenging novel situations, talked about future aspirations, and analyzed our soft spots and strengths together that we better understood our divergent mentalities and decisions. Deep listening without judgement, analyzing situations with composure, and using warm and caring speech — is something that we should nourish our closest relationships with. This practice interconnects with mindfulness, as Thay writes “Value impermanence. If we are in good health, we will take good care of ourselves; if we are in healthy relationships, cherish the connections — we shall value every moment we have.”
We may come across challenging situations and people in different contexts. “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply himself/herself, and the suffering is spilling over. Offer them what they need — relief and understanding.” This captures the essence of 海納百川…staying composed and benevolent as the sea, taking in rivers from different origins with grace and generosity.
In an age with instant communication — instant messages, emails, online news websites, communication between individuals can become more difficult. Thay shares that (1) Speaking truthfully, (2) Not speaking cruelly — shouting or creating hatred, (3) not exaggerating or embellishing are important. We can be more mindful when ingested with “toxins” — stimulative news reports, gossips, and unfounded rumors which leads to negative emotions.
“Letter writing is a form of speech — it is a practice of looking deeply, proofreading enables you make sure you have understanding of the other and have looked deeply.” I like connecting with old pals with correspondence, which enables us to delve into deeper reflections compared to short messages. Despite geography or time zone differences, I found discussions on life directions, career pursuits, or interpersonal dynamics to be profound, as we transformed our experiences into words and organized them with logic and clarity.
The 5 Mindfulness trainings
1. Practice of generosity — time, energy, materials, wisdom.
2. Deep listening and loving speech.
3. Mindful consumption: Living simply, proper diet, promoting societal justice. Right diligence lies in the middle way, between the extremes of austerity and sensual indulgence.
4. Protecting lives of humans, other beings, and nature.
5. To protect children from sexual abuse, and to preserve the happiness of individuals and families.