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

Goodreads Link | Author Website

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.



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.

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!

Book Review: Buddhist Meditation: Tranquility, Imagination and Insight (Kamalashila)

Goodreads Link |  Author Website

A brilliant meditation guide with something for all learners.

TL;DR – This book is a great guide for any meditation practitioner – from the absolute beginner to the more advanced users



Why I read it…

I’ve been meditating for a while now – every day for 200 days, and on-and-off before that – and I’ve been wanting to find a way to deepen my practice at home. A friend recommended this book to me as an excellent meditation guide so I thought I would give it a shot – this also, conveniently, meant that the book counted as my “Book recommended bya friend” for my reading challenge…two birds and all that!

The Book…

This book is described as:

“A comprehensive and practical guide to Buddhist meditation, providing a complete introduction for beginners, as well as detailed advice for experienced meditators seeking to deepen their practice.” (from the blurb)

This seems to be about as good a description as I could possibly give. We start with an introduction to the concept of meditation, what it is and what it’s for, then we have instructions for some basic meditations – mindfulness of breathing, metta bhavana (loving kindness), sitting and walking.

Following these basic meditations, we have instructions on how to take our meditation practice to a deeper level, eventually leading into some much more in-depth and advanced practises.

What I liked…

The first thing I loved about this book is the way instruction is offered for meditations. Instructions are broken down into 3 parts.

  1. Brief instructions: Each stage of the meditation is broken down to a few lines, so you can get a feel for what you are supposed to do.
  2. Table guide – Each stage is broken down into the smallest instruction possible, (i.e “Count just after each out-breath”) and displayed in a handy table for easy memorisation.
  3. Detailed instructions. This gives you the full detail for the practice. From posture, to breath, if you’re supposed to do or think something you will find it clearly stated in the long instructions.

This breakdown provides a brilliant opportunity for people who are learning without the benefit of a teacher or group of experienced meditators. The instructions are clear and easy to follow, and the addition of the table and the brief instruction sections make it easier to remember what you are supposed to be doing so you (hopefully) don’t have to keep looking at the book when you should be concentrating.

The next thing I loved was the inclusion of descriptions of things you might feel or experience as you meditate. As anybody who meditates will no doubt know, probably the biggest barrier stopping people from meditation is that they feel they are doing it wrong. They expect meditation to feel different, maybe they expect perfect calm, or insight or a clear mind – it doesn’t always work like that and this book is very clear on the fact that it could feel amazing, but it could also feel like nothing much was happening. Kamalashila then goes on to explain why feeling nothing isn’t actually a problem.

There are also sections about the hindrances to meditation and the importance of routine. The book identifies the primary hindrances, explains what they are and explains how to counteract them. This, I found, was a really useful section as often these sort of things can be completely overlooked when you are learning.

Finally, I loved how in depth the book got – and it went deep. If you are just starting your meditation journey then I warn you now that the second half of this book is going to come at you like a train and seem completely overwhelming – and I’m right there with you. This book went waaaaaaaay deeper than I expected it to go, and well beyond my level – which is fantastic, because with the best will in the world, it’s all well and good knowing who to practice the metta bhavana and get a routine going, but if that’s where my practice is going to end then I feel like I’m missing something. This book should help make my practice deeper for a long while to come.

What I disliked…

In my notes I have written down 2 things that bothered me about the book. The first note was that there where some untranslated mantras kicking around in there – I am aware that mantras don’t necessarily translate very well (and the book might even mention that, I can’t recall), but it would have been nice to have some idea what the words meant without a google search.

I also have written down, the phrase “Use any method…” I’m not 100% certain what this was referring to any more, I just remember thinking that if I had been a complete beginner then I probably wouldn’t actually know any other methods (of whatever it may be) and that bothered me.

Having said that, neither of those things bothered me enough to knock of a whole star, and to be honest for my own purposes barely warranted a half start reduction – take from that what you will.

Final thoughts…

I can’t decide if it was a mistake to read this book like a novel – a chapter or so a day until I finished. I think reading it like that made the content seem overwhelming and intimidating at times, although it did open my eyes to the scope of meditation practice. I am quite certain I will find myself coming back to this book from time to time, to dip in-and-out of in order to deepen my practice.

My recommendations for this book would be definitely for meditators who want to deepen their practice. Advanced meditators might find it useful, but not being an advanced meditator myself, I wouldn’t like to assume. I would recommend this to beginners, with the proviso that you should take it slowly and get the hang of what you have read before moving on.


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!

Book Review: Bodhisattva Ideal: Wisdom and Compassion in Buddhism (Sangharakshita)

Goodreads Link | Sangharakshita Website

“To consider the Bodhisttva ideal is to place one’s hand on the very heart of Buddhism, and feel the beating of that hears.” ~Extract from the blurb

TL;DR – A fascinating read. Don’t read this unless you have at least some idea about Buddhism beforehand.



Why I read it…

I’ve been fascinated by the concept of the Bodhisattva from the moment I first heard about it, and this seemed as good a place as any to start.

As it says in my introduction, I am a practising Buddhist. I have started to read a chapter of a book on a Buddhist topic every day before meditating.

Also, it was on my Reading challenge list.

The Book…

This book is an intended as an introduction to the concept of the Bodhisattva – which simply (and completely underwhelming put), is a being who seeks enlightenment for all sentient beings, rather than for themselves.

The first chapter takes you briefly through the origins of this ideal – detailing the differing opinions of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. This history is filled out a little more in the following chapters to provide you with a neat little guide to the origins and reasons for the rise of this ideal.

The remaining chapters are a fascinating account of the qualities of a Bodhisattva, and detailing how one becomes a Bodhisattva.* Chapter 2 introduces and explains the concept of Bodicitta and how it applies to the ideal. Chapter 3 introduces the Bodhisattva vows, and so on and so fourth. Each chapter introduces further qualities and concepts and explains them all.

*NOTE:- when I say ‘how one becomes…’ I do not mean to suggest this book is a sort of spiritual ‘how-to’ guide, nor that it pretends to offer a ‘quick’ guide to enlightenment.

What I liked…

I enjoyed the writing style. It was – for the most part – quite clear, and made use of metaphor, and drew parallels to other things in order to try and make difficult concepts clearer. I found the book mostly easy to read and to digest – the chapters are about 25-30 each, which was perfect for the way I chose to read this book.

Obviously I enjoyed the content. Going in, I was primarily interested in finding some explanations as to how a Bodhisattva functions – unlimited compassion and seeking enlightenment for all sentient beings is a lofty ideal, and something that I find both interesting and inspiring. I found some good information in this area, and the rest of the book was just as interesting. The historical aspects in particular were very enjoyable.

I also liked that the book was well referenced throughout, pointing to Buddhist. It’s usually a good sign to have proper referencing in a factual book.

Finally, there is a neat little Further Reading section at the back, which is something I always like to see.

What I disliked…

I would have liked a glossary of terms at the end – all the non-English terminology is translated and explained within the text, it just would have been nice. That said, there is a fairly big index that appears to contain all the non-English terminology (and a whole lot more) so it would not be difficult to research.

I found it a little difficult at times to grasp some of the concepts, and on occasion I was confused about the point being made – however this almost certainly has more to do with the complexity of the topic, the difficulty of explaining concepts that by their are difficult do understand from what I would term ‘the normal level’, and also inexperience on my part – as such, I would warn that this is not a book for the beginner; some knowledge of Buddhism is (I would think) essential, before reading this book.

Final thoughts…

I really enjoyed this book. I found it a very enjoyable and fairly simple read, and it answered a lot of questions – of course it also raised countless other ones, but that is definitely a good thing. It has inspired me to further reading on the subject of the Bodhisattva ideal, and also Buddhist history.

The book loses half a star, purely because it was not always as beginner friendly as I hoped. However, it will be going on my ‘read again’ list for a time when I will understand it better.

I would definitely recommend this book to anybody interested in the subject – providing they have some prior knowledge of Buddhism or don’t mind a doing a little bit of research.


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!