BOOK REVIEW: Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh & Nguyen Anh-Huong

Walking Meditation (With DVD)Walking Meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This brief guide to walking meditation lays out a basic practice linking breath and stride, and then explores such topics as: how to apply the practice to varied environments, coping with emotion through [and during] walking, the social dimension of walking meditation, and a few thoughts on applying the practice to jogging. The book is nominally attributed to the beloved Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who recently passed (i.e. January 2022,) Thich Nhat Hanh, but it seems the bulk of the book was written by the co-author (Nguyen Anh-Huong.) That said, it’s a clearer distribution of labor than usual for mega-guru books; not only does the author get a co-author credit but the words of Thich Nhat Hanh are presented as textboxes with bylines.

The book is less than a hundred pages of text, but the edition I have came with a CD and DVD (if anyone still has a player for these antiquated technologies. If you’re paying full price, I’d make sure you have some means to play the CD and DVD. I obtained a used copy at a low price, so it wasn’t a concern.) The book’s brevity has both pros and cons. On the pro side, it keeps things simple. The practice is a straightforward one of linking one’s breath to one’s stride, and there’s no tedious elaborations or variations with which to contend. On the con side, if one is looking for insight into improving alignment or biomechanics of walking, that’s not covered in this book. That is probably for the best, because it’s hard to avoid overthinking the practice if one is given extensive directions on stride and the like. This isn’t so much a criticism as an attempt to temper expectations for those who may feel they would benefit from some sort of anatomical or biomechanical insights on walking or physiological insights about the breath.

If you’re looking for a quick and straightforward guide to practicing walking meditation, give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Breathe! You are Alive [i.e. Anapanasati Sutta] Trans. & Commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh

Breathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of BreathingBreathe! You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing by Thich Nhat Hanh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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One evening at the end of a rainy season in Shravasti (present-day Uttar Pradesh near the Nepali border,) the Buddha taught a practice using awareness of breath to quiet the mind. This is a translation with commentary by the Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh [RIP, FYI – he passed away on January 22nd.] (To clarify: Annabel Laity translated the book from Vietnamese to English, Thich Nhat Hanh translated versions of the sutra from Pali and Chinese.) The teaching is called the Anapanasati Sutta (i.e. “Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing.”) It consists of sixteen variations on the theme of “Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”

The sutra itself is only a few pages long, leaving commentaries and appendices to stretch the book to its barely one-hundred-pages. This isn’t a criticism; the commentary is beneficial because the sutra is bare bones. Even being somewhat aware of basic Buddhist concepts (e.g. impermanence, emptiness, liberation, etc.) I still found that the commentary offered some valuable insight about how to understand these ideas as well as how they relate to the practice. The Appendices consist of a variation on the practice and a translation of Chinese version of the sutra. The latter is a bit redundant, but one can also see little differences in translation that may be informative for some.

Besides presenting the practice, the book explains how it relates to (and is built around the principles from) the “Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness.” This book outlines the Four Establishments clearly enough to see how the Anapanasati practice is shaped by them. However, it’s worth noting that Thich Nhat Hanh also produced a translation and commentary on the Four Establishments that is entitled “Transformation & Healing.”

As someone who has found breath practices to be among the most effective tools for improving the mind, I benefited from this book tremendously. Besides its discussion of the practice and variations, I learned a lot from the philosophical elaborations that were made. I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of MeditationThe Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thích Nhất Hạnh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book by the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, activist, and poet, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers pointers on how to live a life of mindfulness. Like most of Hanh’s works, this one is brief, concise, and the front and back matter account for about as much verbiage as the chapters themselves.

The seven chapters that make up the book proper examine mindfulness from various angles, with various approaches, and have a loose organization. The most readable of these chapters–owing to its narrative format–is the last, which retells a Tolstoy story about an Emperor who receives three questions and–unable to find suitable answers by offering a reward to his subjects–dons a disguise and visits a hermit sage. Needless to say, the sage (and life events) enlighten the Emperor, and the answers revolve around the theme of mindfulness. Among the most thought-provoking of the chapters is one that proposes that one take one day of the week to focus on mindfulness. Hanh offers advice on how to best select and structure such a day.

While the appended matter of some of Thich Hhat Hanh’s books can read like filler (intended to reach a page quota), that isn’t so much the case with this book. The most valuable of the appendices gives 32 exercises for building mindfulness. Many of these exercises are variations on a theme, and some are much more extensive than others, but it’s a crucial section and might even be called the heart of the book. Likewise, there are five sutra translations that will be appreciated by readers who are actually Buddhist. (Non-Buddhists may find the sutras to be a less colorful and more repetitive restatement of what Hahn has told them in the chapters. If one pays attention to the chapters and does the exercises, reading the sutra’s isn’t necessary for those who are not students of the religion.)

There is an odd postscript by one of Hanh’s students that is like those I’ve seen in other Hanh books. It’s an odd little testimonial. I put it in the filler category as anyone buying the book knows who Thich Nhat Hanh is and about the accolades he has received and, therefore, they don’t need a prologue telling them how awesome he is. It actually detracts from his persona as a wise man, because it makes one wonder who inspired the little ego trip. I suspect this is more a publisher desired addenda than an author inspired one, but, at any rate, it’s not useful. It can be interesting to hear about the war days, but there’s an outlet for that. Furthermore, I would think the place to tell us how awesome the author is would be at the beginning of the book–not the end. If one gets to the back matter, he must have done something to impress one.

I’d recommend this book for meditators, would-be meditators, and anyone who thinks that life is slipping through his or her fingers because of constant stress and a runaway mind.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Novice: A Story of True LoveThe Novice: A Story of True Love by Thích Nhất Hạnh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Novice is the retelling of a Vietnamese folk tale about a young monk who is repeatedly wronged, but who always does the virtuous thing. As I read this book, I thought the story seemed familiar, and I realized that I read the same story as The Martyr by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa does a much better job of story building. The Japanese writer doesn’t reveal to the reader that Lorenzo (his novice and the equivalent of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Kihn Tâm) is a female until the end—thus definitely resolving the claim that the young monk fathered a child out-of-wedlock and in contravention of vows f0r the reader at the same time as the characters in the story learn it.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that the novice is a female at the beginning, and he does so via backstory that serves both to give justification for why Kihn Tâm chooses to disguise herself and become a monk and to pile onto the injustice. We learn that Kihn Tâm’s female alter ego had been married, but the marriage ended with a false accusation of attempted murder of her husband. This backstory probably isn’t worth the drag for either of the aforementioned purposes—but the former is more justifiable than the latter.

What Thich Nhat Hanh lacks in gripping narrative structure, he gains in provoking thought. The Zen monk and poet gives the reader insight into how Kinh Tâm manages to be preternaturally virtuous. In The Martyr this is a black box affair. Hanh also encourages the reader to see Kihn Tâm’s accusers as the novice does, i.e. with compassion. Akutagawa does what any writer would do; he vilifies the accusers so as to make the story resonate with the average, petty, martyr-complex prone reader—as opposed to the enlightenment-aspiring reader. Hanh leaves the other monks in Kinh Tâm’s corner, i.e. when everyone else is condemning the novice, they still believe in her. In Akutagawa’s story, monastics are not inherently so perfect.

The book offers some interesting back matter. The most substantial of the appendices is an account by Sister Chan Khong of the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers both during the war and afterword when they tried to establish a monastery in Communist Vietnam. The essay echoes the themes of loving-kindness and compassion that form the core of the novella, as does the essay by Hanh that brings the book to a conclusion. While this back matter is filler to make up for the fact that the story is not novel length, it nevertheless makes for interesting reading.

I’d recommend this book for those with an interested in Zen. If you’re looking for a good story, read Akutagawa’s The Martyr, but if you want to be inspired to compassion, read Thich Nhat Hanh.

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