Reviews1The Novice: A Story of True Love
Thich Nhat Hanh
HarperOne,
September 2011
160 pp.; $23.99 cloth

What does Thich Nhat Hanh believe? In many of the early writings that launched his reputation in the West, he comes across as a peace activist first, a sort of ecumenical Buddhist sage second, and a traditional Zen master a distant third. Buddhism is mentioned in early books like The Miracle of Mindfulness and Being Peace, but it seems a very relaxed, nonthreatening faith that makes few demands on its adherents. The dharma, he explains, is simply “the way of understanding and love.” The sangha is just “the community that lives in harmony and awareness.” Meditation almost sounds easy, and enlightenment is just a matter of paying closer attention. Practice is essential, but “if you feel at all tired while practicing, stop at once.” And as if to underscore the universal nature of these teachings, his American followers organized themselves under the radically nonsectarian and essentially nonreligious rubric “The Community of Mindful Living.”

To many of the new followers attracted to his writings in the 1980s and 1990s, Thich Nhat Hanh became synonymous with Vietnamese Buddhism, although the traditional Vietnamese temples dotting the landscape of North America and Europe remained largely invisible to all but the exile community. And so the long and storied history of Buddhism in Vietnam was largely lost on Thich Nhat Hanh’s growing readership, which was unfortunate, since it might have helped them put his teachings into context.

Vietnam lies at a unique point in Buddhist Asia, with the Theravada nations of Cambodia and Laos to the west and the Mahayana motherland of China to the north. Many Buddhist traditions permeated the country and to a great extent blended together. The Zen and Pure Land sects had largely merged by the 12th century. Most monks wore robes very similar to those of their Chinese brethren, but generally they lived according to the full rigor of the Theravada precepts. In 1964, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam went a step further, bringing the Theravada and Mahayana traditions—separate for nearly two millennia—under a single umbrella sangha. In his authoritative Buddhism and Zen in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh’s friend the late Thich Thien An quotes a Vietnamese Theravada master proclaiming that there is “no distinction” anymore between Theravada and Mahayana in Vietnam.

Given that Thich Nhat Hanh came of age among those intertwining lineages, in which Mahayana teachings are heavily seasoned with Theravada discipline, it seems natural that he also held some rather orthodox views of Buddhist practice. In Being Peace, he seemed to imagine that Buddhism in the West might evolve into something quite different than that found in Asia, that we would “create [our] own Buddhism.” But in 1997, he published Stepping into Freedom, which presented a much more traditional view of monastic training to his Western audience. No longer was the emphasis on carefully eating each piece of tangerine, as he had memorably described in The Miracle of Mindfulness; now one also had to “chew each mouthful quietly and carefully, thirty or fifty times,” as well as remember to lie on one’s right side whengoing to sleep and “not to moan” when using the toilet. Nhat Hanh published Freedom Wherever We Go in 1999, with the subtitle A Buddhist Monastic Code for the Twenty-first Century. But this code turned out to be a lot like the traditional codes of previous centuries. It was updated to permit riding in cars, for instance, and using email under certain conditions, but it did not revisit the rules of celibacy or recognize the equality of women. (Inappropriate touching of the opposite sex necessitates an apology for a monk, for example, but expulsion for a nun.) Around this time he also reorganized his American sangha into a branch of a reincorporated Unified Buddhist Church, not entirely without resistance.

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