Book Review: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Thich Nhat Hanh)


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Book of the Month
Book of the Month (June 2018)

“This is definitely one of the most important books I have ever read.” ~Me

TL;DR – This book is a basic introduction to the foundations of Buddhism, taught from the point of view of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Absolutely recommended.

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RAGDOLL RATING: Exceptional

The Book…

The book covers the absolute fundamentals of Buddhism. Thầy introduces us to the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path and a handful of other concepts he considers to be the bedrock of the Buddhist faith.

The writing style is quite unusual – I have no idea of this a trait of Zen masters, poets, Vietnamese folks or just a personal quirk but it seems quite unique. Specifically, the writing seems to flow quite rapidly from one thing to another, usually from explanation to metaphor and back again. I don’t personally find it difficult to read because my mind tends to wander a lot anyway and I found it actually helped me take things in, but some people my find it a little tricky to deal with.

Thich Nhat Hanh (Who I will refer to as Thầy (teacher) from now on) is not only a Zen master but a poet too and this look is laced with sections of poetry on related topics. It’s a nice touch although I confess I am far to ignorant of poetry to be able to suggest how good it is.

The book is well referenced, linking to canonical texts, other Buddhist teachers works, and other books Thầy has written. It also includes, in the final section, a small selection of translated discourses which had been mentioned in the text.

Why I read it…

I’ve been trying to read a Buddhist text before my evening meditation and I just happened to buy this book not so long ago. I had listened to a guided meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh and found his insights really struck a chord with me.

Conveniently, this book also took up a position in my reading challenge in the “A book that will make you smarter” category.

Thầy has devoted a considerable amount of word-space to the teachings of the Four Nobel Truths and the Noble Eightfold path – 16 chapters in fact. He breaks down the teachings into their component parts, explains these parts, often with the use of poetry, metaphor and canonical sources. Then he explains how all these elements are connected, how the interplay and are how the ‘inter-are’ – when you truly focus on one element, you will be practicing all the elements automatically.

The third section of the book is dedicated to what I hesitate to call lesser known teachings. Perhaps if you have a good background in Buddhism then you would probably at least know what they were (I knew a handful) but if you are new to Buddhism then the chances are you wouldn’t know them. These teachings are well explained and most importantly linked in to the other elements. It was really good to read about these other important teachings.

Why I love It…

Firstly I have to mention the use of metaphor. This book is full of metaphorical explanations to aid the reader in their understanding. They help make the teachings easier to digest – and some of these teachings can be confusing at the best of times. One thing that really stuck in my mind was a metaphor about waves:

“When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be compared with other waves, and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While living the life of a wave, the wave also lives the life of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water. It would think, ‘Some day I will have to die. This period of time is my life span, and when I arrive at the shore, I will return to nonbeing.’

These notions will cause the wave fear and anguish. A wave can be recognized by signs — beginning or ending, high or low, beautiful or ugly. In the world of the wave, the world of relative truth, the wave feels happy as she swells, and she feels sad as she falls. She may think, ‘I am high!’ or ‘I am low!’ and develop superiority or inferiority complexes, but in the world of the water there are no signs, and when the wave touches her true nature — which is water — all of her complexes will cease, and she will transcend birth and death,” (p.124/5)

While I was reading this passage (and many others), suddenly the ideas behind impermanence, rebirth and all sorts of other things started to make a bit more sense. The book is full of useful metaphors like these and by the end I felt like my understanding of the fundamental concepts was improved.

All the way through I found myself learning new things, and understanding concepts I already knew about much more clearly than I ever have before. I’m sure I missed more than I took in, and this book will definitely become a book I will re-read over and over.

The main reason this book is ranked ‘exceptional’ rather than just 5 buttons is basically because of my emotional reaction to text. With every chapter my understanding grew and I had clear guidance to help me understand some difficult concepts and encouragement to apply these things to me own life. I really strongly felt motivated to make improvements in my life and to follow the teachings of the Buddha more closely. I felt a really strong emotion of loving kindness in my heart as I read this book and that feeling continued after I put the book down each night. It was a rare experience and one I feel very happy to have gone through. I genuinely feel this may be one of the most important books I have ever, or indeed will ever read.

 

Recommended For…

Everyone with an interest in Buddhism, from the absolute beginner to the advanced practitioner.

Everyone generally. I would recommend this book to everyone actually – the contents are very Buddhism-centric (obviously) but there are lessons to be learned from this book that everyone from all works of life could make use of.

Final thoughts…

This book is probably one of the best books on Buddhism that I have read for a beginners view. The concepts can be difficult but Thầy offers excellent guidance and explanation to help you understand.

The book also contains a good deal that would be of value to a more experienced practitioner. Yes, it’s good as a reminder of the basic teachings but the poetry and imagery of this work make it well worth reading as a guide to deeper understanding and encouragement to deeper practice.

Everyone should read this book.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Thich Nhat Hanh)

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