Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh

The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

“All of us suffer from injustice and intolerance. Instead of being brothers and sisters to each other, we aim guns at each other. When we are overtaken by anger, we think that the only response is to punish the other person. The fire of anger continues to burn in us, and it continues to burn our brothers and sisters. This is the situation of the world, and it is why deep looking is needed to help us understand that all of us are victims.”

Yesterday, I finished reading The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh. I found it helpful in two specific ways. First, Hanh does a commendable job of explaining the tenants of Buddhism and its history, including the historical splits and how the different regions took different approaches to the faith/philosophy following the Buddha’s death. Second, Hanh spends a lot of time emphasizing what is important to practitioners of Buddhism, especially mindfulness and The Middle Path. He often clarifies what Buddhism is versus what it is not, in particular noting where Buddhist teachings have been misapplied or misunderstood.

For someone who is new to Buddhism, this book is really an excellent and helpful starting point. I won’t say I understand most of Buddhism, yet. In fact, a lot of the the different components, like The Four Noble Truths, The Five Precepts, and The Eightfold Path, are still pretty confusing to me; however, the book did help me understand these principles on a basic level, to get an idea of the way forward and the general attitude/practice. If nothing else, it provided me with a great deal of impetus for learning more and a number of ways to pursue that learning, whether that be direction to specific texts or guidance to a way of being in and interacting with the world.

It’s hard to review religious texts, but I’m approaching Buddhism more as a philosophy than a faith. It’s different from Taoism, for example, in that there’s no specific expectation of an after-life, deified salvation, or reincarnation, for example, which separates it from a lot of similar religions. Instead, it’s a guide to living peacefully and with kindness, to finding wholeness and balance, and to helping others live their best lives as well. I think this is why the philosophy is resonating so loudly with me; for a long time, I’ve been agnostic who is simply trying his best to be a kind person that lives up to his potential, finds inner-peace, and helps others succeed whenever possible. Buddhism is interesting because it is a similar philosophy, with the strength and community of thousands of years and millions of people supporting it.

I will say, this book seemed to get repetitive after a while, partly because I started to become confused about the more technical teachings. They all seemed similar to me, and I had a difficult time understanding when/how each of them was supposed to apply or be applied. In treating this book as a primer, though, I have to say I am impressed, and I’m eager to read and to learn more. The best parts are Hanh’s personal stories about Vietnam. When he speaks in his own voice about his own experiences, it is beautiful. Hanh has a great deal of texts to his name, covering a variety of topics, and I think it will be beneficial to read specific books about specific ideas, now that I’ve read an overview of Buddhism generally. It might help me connect the dots a little more. To this end, I’ve purchased and will be starting LIVING BUDDHA, LIVING CHRIST, next. I have the 20th-Anniversary edition, and I look forward to beginning it tomorrow.

I’ve also downloaded the free PLUM VILLAGE app for my phone. Hanh’s Plum Village is an actual Buddhist colony (is that the right word? See, still much to learn), and the app provides meditations, songs and chants, lectures based on user’s questions (e.g. “Can we be mindful in a competitive environment?”), readings, contemplations, practices, resources, etc. It’s a really wonderful resource.

Notable Quotes

“Your purpose is to be yourself. You don’t have to run anywhere to become someone else. You are wonderful just as you are.”

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”

“Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment.”

“The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”

“Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas. If it is the same, we accept it and say that it is correct. If it is not, we say it is incorrect. In either case, we learn nothing.”

“All of us suffer from injustice and intolerance. Instead of being brothers and sisters to each other, we aim guns at each other. When we are overtaken by anger, we think that the only response is to punish the other person. The fire of anger continues to burn in us, and it continues to burn our brothers and sisters. This is the situation of the world, and it is why deep looking is needed to help us understand that all of us are victims.”

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10 thoughts on “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

  1. What I love about Buddhism is it is a way of life, not idolizing a higher being. You live what you learn and that results in kinder, more compassionate persons. This can be seen when one visits countries that are primarily Buddhist as opposed to more Christian countries. Also Buddhists take responsibility for their life choices and don’t pray to God to help them. It comes from within. The repetition in Buddhism helps drum the teachings home again and again until it becomes habit. 🤠🐧

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  2. Thank you so much for this! I’m currently re-reading The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield (who specifically defines Buddhism as a philosophy and not a religion.) I’ve been wanting to read another book on Buddhism but wasn’t sure where to start. This one looks great! I’m also intrigued by the Plum Village app. I use Insight Timer for meditation, so I’m curious how they compare.

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    • Are we friends on Goodreads? I got a bunch of recommendations from Buddhist friends that I added to my “to-read” shelft.

      Hanh has so many interesting ones, so I’m sure I’ll read a lot of his. I look forward to starting Living Buddha, Living Christ (if it ever arrives- it was supposed to be here 2 days ago!) I’m even going to read through the “Complete Guide to…” and “The Everything Book of…” etc. series’, just to get a better handle on all of it. Maybe even the “Idiot’s Guide to…” and the “Buddhism for Dummies” books. They’re all pretty basic, but they’re written by experts and in an easy style meant for beginners. And that’s me! Here are a few I’ve seen:

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  3. Like you, I am attracted to Buddhist philosophy. Loving kindness is such a wonderful idea. I can recommend Lama Surya Das for your next step. Stephen Cope also does some interesting work linked to yoga & meditation & psychology.

    I have also been fortunate to find a local meditation class that includes a discussion each week on a different aspect of Buddhism. I now only attend semi-regularly for top-up sessions, when life gets too hectic, but one night is enough to centre me & get me back in touch with the basics 😊 it’s a modern approach to Buddhism which works for me too. A free e book is available here – http://emodernbuddhism.com/

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  4. Mudpuddle says:

    great post! mrs. m and i have been admirers and devotees of Hanh for years… and Watts, Suzuki, and others…. it’s heartening to finally read a post that recognizes the importance and universality of Zen and Buddhist ideas…

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