Review of The Novice by Thích Nhất Hạnh

Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist who first came to international prominence during the Vietnam War. In addition to founding monasteries in Vietnam, France, and elsewhere, he has written numerous books promoting Buddhist ideals. The Novice: A Story of True Love is a recent example, and is perhaps the easiest read for a general audience, because it is a retelling of a classic Vietnamese folk tale.

The Novice tells the story of a young woman, Kinh Tam, who from an early age longed for the monastic life, but could not fulfil that desire because only men could be monks. When her marriage dissolved due a false accusation from her husband, Thien Si, she left home, promising her parents that she would return after five years, and disguising herself as a man so that she could become a monk. All seemed to go well until she was accused by a woman, Mau, of fathering her child out of wedlock, a crime punishable by death. Kinh Tam could of course clear her name by revealing her secret, but only at the cost of expulsion from the monastery that she so loved.

Like all good parables, this simple tale has many deep themes woven into it. Westerners will quickly latch on the theme of a woman struggling with the injustices of a male-dominated society, but may be puzzled by Kinh Tam’s attraction to the monastic life. (The tension between the demands of the conventional household life and the lure of the solitary spiritual quest figures prominently in a lot of Hindu and Buddhist literature, but is rather alien to the modern Western mind.) Personally, I was struck by the paradox that Kinh Tam is revered as an enlightened bodhisattva despite desiring something for herself—namely, the monastic life—so strongly that she is driven to break her promise to her parents (Kinh Tam does not return to her parents after five years) and to live her entire life as a lie. I call this a paradox because on some readings of the Buddhist concept of non-attachment, Kinh Tam’s life could be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of attachment, even attachment to something as “noble” as monasticism.

But none of these themes is what Nhất Hạnh is most interested in communicating by telling the story of Quan Am Thi Kinh, as Kinh Tam is also known. In an afterword, Sister Chan Khong, one of Nhất Hạnh’s colleagues, succinctly summarizes what she sees as the core message.

Everyone hates Mau as the most crude and despicable person. But Thich Nhat Hanh’s retelling of the story is in my opinion the expression of his own lived experiences of being unfairly treated and his teaching that compassion extends to everyone, as evidenced by his empathy even for Thien Si and Mau among the characters of the story. Reading this story increases our capacity for love and understanding toward any and every being, the “bad” as well as the “good.” We don’t need to feel contempt toward Thien Si; we don’t bear anger or hatred toward Thi Mau. We can feel we are one with every person in the story.

Sister Chan Khong goes on to describe in detail numerous stories of persecution of Nhất Hạnh’s followers, and how they responded. This account is a fascinating read in its own right. I particularly enjoyed reading about the young woman who was sent to try to seduce some monks sexually but who was so overwhelmed by their spirituality that she switched allegiances.

The book concludes with a non-fiction essay by Thích Nhất Hạnh himself, on “Practicing Love.” For me, his most memorable remarks are about our true home.

Your true home is within yourself. The Buddha said, “Go home to the island within yourself. There is a safe island of self inside. Every time you suffer, every time you are lost, go back to your true home. Nobody can take that true home away from you.” This was the ultimate teaching the Buddha gave to his disciples when he was eighty years old and on the verge of passing away. …

When you find that your conditions are miserable because the windows of your eyes and ears have been left open for too long, the wind from outside is blowing in, and you have become a victim—a mess in your feelings, your body, and your perceptions—you should not keep trying harder and harder to do what you’ve been trying to do. Go home to your hermitage; it is always there inside you. Close the doors, light the fire, and make it cozy again. That’s what is meant by “taking refuge in the island of self.” If you don’t go home to yourself, you continue to lose yourself in the storms of outside circumstances. You can destroy yourself and the people around you, even if you have good intentions and want to do something to help. That’s why the practice of going home to the island of self is so important. No one can take your true home away.

From a Christian perspective, what is missing from Buddhist teaching is the recognition that the solution to our spiritual brokenness lies outside of ourselves, in a transcendent God. We cannot make our souls right solely through meditation or other spiritual practices. We may sweep our home clean and put it in order, but if it is left unoccupied, then wicked demons will invade and we will be worse off than before.

Yet I cannot help thinking that many Christians make the opposite error. Too often, we regard our troubles as being caused by external circumstances, and we think that God’s main role is to save us by altering those unpleasant external circumstances. The public prayer requests at my church are almost always pleas to God to bring about some desired external circumstance, or some change in someone else’s beliefs and behavior. Cultivation of the interior life is rarely on the agenda. We would do well to remember that the most important change that God has effected is inside of us. And we would do well to return often to that place inside of us where the immanent God dwells, the place that no-one can take away from us.

Posted September 2013

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