Thich Nhat Hanh, Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go

As should be clear, I’m in a process of trying to get my Buddhist practice back.  The main point isn’t even the daily sit–meditation, that is–though I have been vastly more consistent over the last couple months than I had been in the six years before, much to my improvement.  The point is, as my teacher always said, to not leave my method, so to speak, on my mat.  That is to say, it’s easy to be all “Zen” and calm when sitting on a cushion in a silent place.  Being in the world and keeping a mind of non-attachment without avoiding or disengaging from the world is the hard part.

Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are is Thich Nhat Hanh‘s translation and commentary on Linji, often transliterated Lin Chi and, in Japanese terminology Rinzai.  Linji is most famous as the master who instructed his students to kill the Buddha should they ever meet him on the road.  Less well known is that he also included parents in that particular teaching.  I practice Buddhism and read it, and so I have a greater familiarity with its history and lineages than probably most people, but I am by no means an expert.  Having said that, Linji has a reputation as being extreme in his teachings, though positively so, extreme in his absolute rejection of all labels and concepts.  Hence, his instruction to kill the Buddha.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most gentle people I could imagine, and having been physically present at his teaching I can attest that he very literally radiates a gentle, opening calm.  Reading Linji–actually, students’ records of his teaching–the two masters seem very different personalities.  Linji shouts at his students, as a tool of awakening, to jog them out of conceptualizing thought, for example.  So too does Linji bemoan the low level, to give it a name he didn’t, of his students’ practice, always chasing as it were an enlightenment that very simply doesn’t exist.  Nhat Hanh, in his commentary, often contextualizes Linji, noting that what might seem to us harshness was in fact compassion, not only the compassion that comes from a friend correcting a friend–a deep compassion but often a hard one–but also that, for example, Linji didn’t hit his students.  Times change, and with them notions of acceptable behavior.

Nhat Hanh is absolutely right to point to Linji’s compassion, which can be easy to miss.  Almost constantly, Linji admonishes his students with something like the following:

My friends, at this very moment your own wonderful function is no different than the wonderful function of the masters and the Buddhas.  It is only because you lack confidence that you are looking for something outside of you.

This is a very deep teaching, easy for me to intellectualize and which I have not yet really penetrated in practice.  That lack of confidence of which Linji spoke seems to me to be the normal mental condition of people, certainly in the United States, with its consumption/credit driven economy based on stimulated perception of people’s inherent deficiency in themselves, and definitely in my case.  This is Linji’s basic teaching, as far as I can tell as someone who by no means has been given leave to teach the Dharma, and if one bears this in mind one can see how thoroughly that teaching reflects, going backwards in time, the basic teaching of the Buddha, reformulated for a different historical and cultural context and, moving forward, in teachings of people like Thich Nhat Hanh and Master Sheng Yen, to name the two with whom I am most familiar.  Nhat Hanh’s stress on mindfulness is precisely Linji’s point, phrased differently, and this is absolutely clear in his commentary on the main text.

I am almost of the mind to say that the book is not fundamentally about practical things, because Thich Nhat Hanh, who as I’ve noted before in my response to The Sun, My Heart, has written so widely and in the case of many books with an extremely practical focus, which is to say, how one sits, or a particularly meditation exercise, etc.  Before I started practicing Buddhism I read various sutras, more for intellectual satisfaction than spiritual, though one should properly say that one can find an open door to practice through intellectual pursuit and possibly that was the door through which I passed into Buddhism.  I haven’t read a sutra in a few years, and that was the short Diamond Sutra in Nhat Hanh’s translation and commentary.  Having said that, sutra study, and in that I will included texts like this Record of Linji, should be seen as fundamentally practical manuals if they are to be of any use.  One cannot, however, come to them cold, that is, without a healthy practice, and get anything more than an intellectual understanding of particular ideas.  Linji pointed out at one point that monks sitting in silent meditation seeking enlightenment was just the creation of more karma and the perpetuation of samsara–the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth–just the same as any number of activities we would label “negative” or “bad.”  The same can be said of sutra study for intellectual pursuit.  It’s not that it’s bad, but the Buddha taught in order to give methods by which people could free themselves from conceptual thought, among other things.  To end the digression, I found that, reading this at a time when my daily practice is more consistent, I found myself thinking more about what Linji’s insistence that we should not look outside of ourselves in terms of what that means for me to actually do, both physically and intellectually.  This is not easier than intellectualizing scripture, though in a literal sense it is simpler.

The nice thing about Linji–it’s odd to put it this way, but there it is–is that he, and Nhat Hanh echoing him, make it very clear what one needs to do.  Drop everything, be who you are, where you are, without concepts.  Obviously, that’s not easy, but that kind of clarity is rare.  I feel like people should make points like that all the time, but they don’t.

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Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart

Cover of "The Sun My Heart"
Cover of The Sun My Heart

Thich Nhat Hanh has never disappointed me, either in the fairly large number of books of his I’ve read or when I was lucky enough to attend a week-long retreat at which he gave Dharma talksThe Sun My Heart is no exception, and, truth be told–I’m actually reading another one of his books at the moment–I don’t expect there to ever be an exception.  You don’t have to be a Buddhist to get a lot from his work, and indeed he makes very explicit and to my mind successful attempts to reach out to practicioners of other faiths, though most particularly Christianity.

I got the book from the library and read it a few weeks ago, but haven’t written about it until today, and I don’t have the copy in front of me, so I imagine what I write will be more tangentially related to the book than usual.  I can’t remember if it was on the back cover or in an introduction that mentioned that the book was a follow-up to The Miracle of Mindfulness, which is the book that made Nhat Hanh’s reputation in the anglophone world.  This connection is likely a matter of marketing more than anything else, which is fine: I’ve been to Plum Village, Nhat Hanh’s home/monastery in Bordeaux, and I can vouch that he really doesn’t have any possessions.  He’s the real deal.  So, marketing considerations just go to fund the community of practicioners, not his own bank account, which doesn’t exist.

I think it was reading a book by Master Sheng Yen, the recently deceased–let’s say, “transformed”–Chan (“Zen,” in the Chinese) master in whose lineage I started practicing Buddhism, and in it he said that in all of his books he, Sheng Yen, keeps repeating the same thing, over and over.  That’s true in a way for Nhat Hanh as well, though probably less so as he sees himself very much as a writer, which Sheng Yen didn’t.  In any event, The Sun My Heart makes that same, basic Buddhist point that Sheng Yen makes and that Nhat Hanh made in The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Sit your ass down, literally or metaphorically, drop your concepts, and be in the present moment.  Then, you can be happy.  Indeed, it is not possible to be happy in anything other than the present moment.  That’s really it.

Nhat Hanh is very prolific and I imagine that he writes nearly every day.  I’m fantasizing, of course, but for a reason.  I imagine that his method is to respond to whatever is passing through his head, be it what’s going on in the news, a book he just read, etc., and respond to it as a practioner.  Much of The Sun My Heart refers to quantum physics, a favorite subject of many Buddhists because it seems to confirm the basic ontological observations the historical Buddha made 2,500 years ago.  The connection is not an original one–Thich Nhat Hanh, I have to think, was not the first Zen monk to make it–but, typically, Nhat Hanh does it exceptionally clearly and exceptionally well.  He is a deeply gifted writer (and speaker, if you ever get a chance to hear him in person), in that his words are absolutely clear and simple and at the same time stimulate very deep and, at times, complex thought, at least in me.  That week I spent at Plum Village was taken up largely by me chewing over Nhat Hanh’s talks, which, as I heard them, were easy listening.  His writing is the same: very easy to read, and prone to stimulate deep thinking on, among other things, being.

Formally, the book feels to me like a very, very long Dharma talk.  There are themes to which Nhat Hanh returns throughout the book, and episodic returns to a pair of characters, a Vietnamese orphan who stayed with Nhat Hanh, and a friend and interlocutor of Nhat Hanh.  Periodically, the book re-visits the two, as if to check in.  That said, the subject matter changes from practical advice on both meditation and maintaining mindfulness off of one’s cushion–the tricky part, anyone who’s tried it can tell you–to the periodic references to quantum physics, to discussions of particular aspects of Buddhist thought.

Anyone who knows me will know that I compare everything I like to good jazz, particularly to bebop and the post-bop of the 1950’s.  Bearing that in mind, the comparison here actually has some validity: it’s always seemed to me since I started (and stopped, and started again) practicing Buddhism that good Dharma talks, or Dharma books, are like good jazz.  The teacher, like the musician, is so attuned to the essence of the material that she or he can play with it and let it go, so to speak, without dropping it.  A bop musician has mastered the form in order to let it go and let the performance attune itself to the particular situation of the moment.  Good bop goes where it will be is never out of place.  So too with a good Dharma talk, or in this case, book.  The Sun My Heart, were one to label each section with subject matter, would seem to bounce from topic to topic.  Really, that’s discriminating mind getting in the way.  The whole book is, like Sheng Yen pointed out, really making the same point, over and over, though from different angles, and, importantly, really well.  The book was a great help to me as I restarted my practice.

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Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and Historical Method

I studied history in school because I liked it, and I can say that I like reading academic history more than histories intended for the general public, most of the time. I say this not to sound elitist, but because the best academic history operates on a much greater level of detail than popular histories, and I find that detail interesting. One of my big questions as a person is that of the relationship between general and specific.

A number of years ago a friend TA’d for a course in which the prof had assigned Carlo Ginzburg‘s The Night Battles: Witchcraft & Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries, which on my friend’s recommendation I purchased. I began reading it, liked it, got distracted, and gave it away with the rest of my library when I moved to Senegal. In the intervening years, however, I’ve thought about it quite a bit, and for my birthday I asked my parents each to get me some Ginsburg books. This one, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, I actually bought myself to round out the set, breaking my rule about not buying books any more. The library didn’t have it, I say in my defense.

The book is a series of articles, the contents of which I checked out before buying it, which seemed most interesting to me when they focus on what Ginsburg is justly famous for: documenting popular culture, witchcraft particularly, using sources hostile to the subject. One title explains the basic point: “The Inquisitor as Anthropologist.” We might actually as a general rule reverse the two and note the Anthropologist as Inquisitor, had not Vine Deloria already done so so beautifully. Ginzburg, however, is dealing with an extreme example of the basic methodological question in history, which is that of source material. Ginsburg uses inquisitorial records of heresy to examine popular religious belief. To do this, he needs to compensate for the inherent bias of the source material, in particular the tendency of inquisitors to understand statements of the accused as recitations of the Church’s notions of heresy–everything leads up to the Witches’ Sabbat–rather than as statements in and of themselves. Nor are the accused speaking freely. Everything the accused says is an attempt to on the one hand be credible to the inquisitor and at the same time innocent of capital crime.

This to me is a fascinating inquiry. As such, the most interesting–and without question, my primary concern to me in reading anything is whether or not I happen to find it interesting–articles in the book are the ones that deal with popular religion and methodology. Codification of eros in Titian is of abstract interest to me, but I’d rather have been told the point in conversation with someone over pints than have taken the time to read the article. I did so as a point of principle, having paid for the book.

Definitely not a starting point for Ginzburg’s work. The Night Battles or, I am told, The Worms and the Cheese are certainly worth anyone’s time. I have those both waiting near my bed to finish by summer’s end.

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