Friday, June 26, 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh's "No Death, No Fear": Book Review

From a flame and a cloud, these pages teach impermanence and no-self. Simple terms, complex doctrines made concise, meditative, and calming. I read this after my father's death and when parents of friends of mine died. While familiar with Buddhist basics already, I'm challenged by the intangible idea of continuity that transcends form and duration.

Nhat Hanh repeats his lessons. He returns to the cloud analogy, transformed into rain and water, milk and grass, cows and ice cream! In a cup of tea, our DNA, a burst of diffused fireworks, a plum tree's pit, he directs us to recognize life as it's sustained rather than ended. As cells live and die, so our consciousness comes and goes. Rather than "creation" or "departure" the monk prefers to say: "Manifestation and the cessation of manifestation are constantly taking place. We do not remain the same in two consecutive moments. The same is true of the river, the flame, the cloud or the sunflower." (71) This sums up the two hundred pages, but again, in the flow of the discourse, the recapitulation and elaboration of the spare lesson, we hear as if with a musical motif the theme deepened, played with, pondered, and intoned.

Christians may find this book especially helpful, for it explains some dharma teachings while comparing them to the Living Christ resurrected in our world. He notes how Christmas should be more a "Continuation Day" rather than a birthday of the One incarnated but not "created"; similarly, we are encouraged to think of ourselves as part of a continuum that has never begun or ended in the universal scheme that defies easy summary, but whose wisdom will, by "skillful means," blossom.

The latter half of the book shows how this can happen. "Touching the Earth" in three meditations offers ways to inculcate the notion of emptiness, impermanence, and how we connect to our ancestors and our progeny in non-theistic guided thoughts that anyone, regardless of their beliefs, can incorporate. While this book would not serve as a primer on dharma (try perhaps Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist" or "Buddhism Without Beliefs" by Stephen Batchelor for comparable introductions, both reviewed by me recently on Amazon & my blog), it can provide a welcome companion for those bereaved or mourning.

He reminds us how the Buddha continues in the people we see, and in our selves if we pause to reflect on our true nature and practice awareness. Again, fundamental truths, but ones often obscured and abandoned to our peril. "Practice like a wave. Take the time to look deeply into yourself and recognize that your nature is the nature of no-birth and no-death. You can break through to freedom and fearlessness this way. This method of practice will help us to live without fear, and it will help us to die peacefully without regret." Taken in slowly, this will begin to make more sense than many of these statements may seem initially to contain, if a reader's facing Buddhist discourse such as this for the first time.

He also adds in the final chapter advice on comforting a dying person, and ways that we can ease their pain and ours with confidence that "emptiness is not the opposite of existence." Rather than existing or not existing totally, Nhat Hanh interprets the Buddha's teaching as telling us that "notions of being and non-being cannot be applied to reality." This seems contradictory, but just as matter changes into other energy even if invisible to us, so does our consciousness manifest or cease; neither nihilism nor eternalism substitutes for this profound but, for Westerners, often elusive concept to conceive of, this notion of "nothing is born, nothing dies." The chapters pace themselves as if dictated from the meditative mind, often a few paragraphs suffice for a shorter reflection within each section. This makes therefore an ideal resource to dip into for spiritual refreshment and emotional support.

I read this on my birthday, and turned to find that "the vertical line" with a year inserted of the reader's imagined birth and death-date fit, at least so far, mine-- eerily to the year of my conception! I wondered about this coincidence, when news of Michael Jackson's sudden death then came into my household: a small reminder of the lessons this Buddhist monk warns us about, to never take the future for granted, to look not to fame or riches but to family and neighbors as our bodhissatvas to show us the way to a surer path to ultimate reality beyond the temptations and distractions peddled by so many in our world. There's no talk of karma here, only confidence that continuity demands us to accept that we must die to live again, and to leave fear behind to embrace love. (Posted 6-25-09 to Amazon US)


Tony Bailie said...

John, you'll probably get a letter from my bank manager blaming you for yet another amazon transaction by me. Don't think I can really go past this book following your review. Ah sure its only money.

Fionnchú said...

Hope it counts for good karma-- a term absent from this book tending more towards "inspirational" than I customarily drift, but a timely excursion off the beaten path. Speaking of which, welcome back from Balkan splendors! I'm getting nearly everything I read from the library now, but I share your mingled pleasure and fear at the books that pile up along with the bills past due! I'm surrounded by both as reminders of ambition and folly.