In The Moon Bamboo and a Taste of Earth (short stories) and Hermitage Among the Clouds (a historical novel), Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen master and poet, interweaves stories with his reflections on their meanings. He often cuts away from the main tale in order to interject a teaching, as if to remind us that the unfolding of events isn’t the only thing that’s important; we must pause to listen if we want to pick up on the rhythms of the meaning and lessons in life.
For the Western mind, Nhat Hanh’s approach to storytelling may often diverge from expectation. He does not enter the long tradition of fiction wherein an author “shows” the reader his meaning instead of “telling” the meaning. Occasionally he even goes off on tangents from the main storyline without weaving them back in again. Yet after an initial discomfort, I found myself—a fiction writer—swept along by Nhat Hanh’s sheer gentleness of spirit. His writing has a lightness, a loveliness and a delicacy that is somewhat akin to a slightly sweetened biscuit. It never overpowers; it simply calms and nourishes. “When the earth cakes were done, [Lieu] opened one up. The banana leaves had left a faint imprint of green. When he cut the cake open, up rose a familiar and delicious smell. He knew that his square cakes were a worthy symbol of Mother Earth, and his round cakes a worthy symbol of Heaven.”
Nhat Hanh has the unusual ability to write the most horrific scenes—a Vietnamese girl who is raped by pirates on a refugee boat in “The Lone Pink Fish” (The Moon Bamboo)—without oversimplifying the ambiguities between good and evil and without making a monster out of any of the players. In the hands of most writers, all characters would be divided into right and wrong, sides would be taken, the “wrong” side would be condemned. But—as in “The Stone Boy” in which a small girl is blinded by chemical warfare and loses her mother—Nhat Hanh manages to unflinchingly describe the horrors of war without losing his compassion for the poor souls who are playing out their parts in ignorance of their true natures. What is to be most appreciated about this teacher/author is that in the telling of these stories he is manifesting the totality of his life. He personally went through the Vietnam war, absorbed the pain, and transformed it into a wisdom that is gently held in the lap of compassion.
In Hermitage Among the Clouds, Nhat Hanh tells the story of Amazing Jewel, a woman who begins life as the daughter of a king-turned-Buddhist teacher and then becomes a nun, Sister Fragrant Garland. As the head of Tiger Mountain Convent, she assumes the role of teacher in her own right. Again, the message is often presented in the tale alongside the storyline instead of through it. Whole sections of text are carved out to deliver a teaching. But the overall effect is not ponderous and weighty. Rather, I got the feeling as I followed the tale, of a toy sailboat bobbing lightly on the waves of a small pond; the story trips along revealing not only the events of the characters’ lives, but what life in general was like for the people of Cham (presumably present-day Vietnam) five centuries ago. The author describes how the nuns used to split bamboo to make baskets, hull rice, and bind childrens’ schoolbooks from rice paper. His deep felt appreciation of nature is evident throughout, as when he compares a woman to a young green banana leaf or describes the sweet fragrance of a rice paddy or the refreshing taste of cool mountain water.
Like all cultures, Vietnam has a view of the beginning of the world. In A Taste of Earth, Nhat Hanh first narrates the tale of Au Co, a goddess, who transforms herself into a snow-white Lac bird in order to explore Earth. In tasting of Earth, she unintentionally binds herself to it forever, thereby insuring that she can never turn back into goddess form. Her tears of grief then become the rivers and streams that give the earth greenness and life. After she meets the Dragon Prince who comes from the sea, they mate and populate the planet. The subsequent traditional stories tell the continuing tale of human life through the offspring of Dragon Prince and Au Co, the Vietnamese Adam and Eve. In four sections—Beginnings, Food and Customs, Conflict, and Changes—the author depicts the quality of basic goodness and the spirit of cooperation in the people.
In all three books, Thich Nhat Hanh shows his deep respect for the land, for human beings and, indeed, all life, and for the wisdom of the Buddha. In the end, the mystery is that his simple technique gives rise to something beyond technique. He evokes a vision/feeling of the deeper meaning of heartache and loss, violence and hatred, upheaval, friendship, and love in all forms. His books left me with the feeling that in spite of every calamity, mishap, and tragedy fate throws in our way, truth is still worth pursuing and the world is still a beautiful place.