To be intimate with the heart and mind of a great teacher is an extraordinary privilege. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh and his publishers at Parallax Press have offered us by publishing his journals from 1962–1966, a crucial period in the history of “engaged Buddhism”—that is, Buddhism in the service of social change. The first section of Fragrant Palm Leaves, 1962–1963, covers the period when Thây, as his students warmly call him, was thirty-six years old, a student and teaching assistant at Princeton and Columbia Universities. The second section, 1963–1966, begins in a village in Vietnam and concludes with Thây’s exile from his country.
Love, particularly love in service, shines through these entries as it does through Thây’s current teachings. This love, we come to understand, is the source of personal transformation and also of the world’s suffering. Thây is eloquent on the lack of difference between the two, holding that “freedom without responsibility is destructive to oneself and others.”
The journals touchingly reveal the embodiment of his beliefs through the details of his life. He spends part of the summer of 1962 in a cabin near a children’s camp outside of Princeton. Evident on every page are his joy in children and his mystic connection with nature that have sustained him through contact with deep suffering. He plays with the boys and teaches them about Buddhism. He ignores his books to lie on moss and look at the sky to reconnect with his true self. The trees teach him the solidity and courage needed to confront the unjust and corrupt Vietnamese regime. His experiences of nature fortify the life of a political activist—a life of ringing phones, attending meetings, writing articles, traveling, fasting for peace.
Much of the first part of this book creates an elegiac atmosphere that is both moving and strange from a teacher known for his commitment to the present moment. The nostalgia is for Phuong Boi (“Fragrant Palm Leaves”), the monastery that Thây helped create in the highlands of central Vietnam in 1957. Over and over he returns in his thoughts to an idyllic time of being sheltered from the world in an “enormous cradle.” We are given a glimpse of an exuberant, young, thirty-one-year-old Thich Nhat Hanh cooking greens, building tables, clearing woods, running on mountain paths, shouting to his friends.
This is the Pure Land, indeed a cradle, the place of safety and bliss that develop a strong heart, and of innocence no one wants to leave, but must. Thây did not come to Phuong Boi to escape. He and his friends had spent eight years creating a new grassroots, humanistic Buddhism that could address the needs of the Vietnamese people. Their goals put them at odds with the Buddhist hierarchy who tried to silence them as dissenting rabble-rousers. Phuong Boi was a place of healing, study, and strategizing the direction for engaged Buddhism.
Phuong Boi was also the locus for deep practice, and the journals for these years, as well as later, are rich in their insights into nonduality, emptiness, interdependence and attention. Each insight increases Thây’s commitment to social justice. He faces his demons to discard his false self and finds that authenticity leads to engagement, since the authentic person will also discard society’s given conventions. By understanding emptiness, Thây knows he must mourn and give up Phuong Boi when the government turns the group out as subversive. He knows too that the reality of its beloved paths and glades exist in consciousness and will never die. Even a transformative enlightenment experience is followed by Thây’s equivalent of doing the dishes, namely holding a planning meeting.
It is one thing to hear a talk about impermanence. It is one thing even to glimpse its truth. It is another to have the dharma available to come to terms with loss and devastation on the scale caused by the war in Vietnam. Thich Nhat Hanh does this and allows us to observe the process. The time of consolidation spent in Phuong Boi and the United States prepares him for the profound engagement he undertakes on his return to his country. He and other members of his School of Youth for Social Service engage in radical forms of development by creating self-help villages and doing relief work in war zones. Thây exemplifies what he calls the Earth-Holding Bodhisattva, devoting himself to rebuilding roads and bridges in order to restore communication in the world. These entries should fascinate any activist.
“The heart is compelled,” he says. Practice is always to serve, to love, to develop talents that will end ignorance and greed. Love arises only through understanding. “The best medicine to chase way the heart’s dark isolation is to make direct contact with life’s sufferings, to touch and share the anxieties and uncertainties of others.” Religion, he believes, is the only instrument left to inspire this level of social responsibility.
Read this book slowly, not as a narrative but as a dharma talk. How rare to enter the mind of a mature teacher, to follow his path, his despair and joy, his difficulties in calming monkey-mind, to feel with him that practice is a life and death matter, looking into the “blood and marrow of our being.” He opens the reality of an exceptional world built on a foundation of unconditional love. Such love arises with direct experience of transcendence where subject and object, thought and action, mud and white snow, self and other are one. Listen in deeply to Thich Nhat Hanh’s voice.