Zen travails

Feb 2, 2000 at 12:00 am

Writers on Zen tend to fall into three groups: teachers (e.g. the late master Shunryu Suzuki, author of the modern primer Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind), scholars or interpreters of ancient texts (see Japanese authority D.T. Suzuki or translator Katsuki Sekida), and first-hand reporters on the trials of Zen training (a highly readable example being Lawrence Shainberg’s Ambivalent Zen: One Man’s Adventures on the Dharma Trail). But rarely do we get what Thich Nhat Hanh provides in these newly reprinted excerpts from his journals: a spiritual teacher’s record of his own journey through difficulty. Though most Zen literature comes from the Chinese-Japanese-American lineage, strong traditions also exist in Korea and Southeast Asia. Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, comes off as both venerable and a renegade within his country’s Buddhism, particularly in these writings set against the background of the gathering war. Hanh’s earliest entries (from summer 1962) were written in New Jersey while he was a visiting student at Princeton, but they look back to the pristine forests and unpretentious peasants of a way of life that has since disappeared like smoke dispersed by a hurricane. Hanh’s prose is also pristine, cool as mountain water, clear as the sound of a bell at Phuong Boi, his group’s retreat in the Vietnamese hills. These poetic memoirs are an eerie read for an American, considering that most of us had so little awareness of that distant turmoil at such an early date. The sections written in Vietnam (from winter 1964) remember Hahn’s former colleagues at Columbia – but by then the pain of the conflict was being felt vividly in Saigon – and Hanh’s concerns involve desperate issues of compassion and daily toil against chaos. By the time the book ends, with Hanh forced into exile from a Vietnam on the brink of the abyss, he has achieved a transcendent understanding of human actions – "Let compassion pour from your eyes and don’t let a ripple of blame or anger rise up in your heart." – remarkable given the circumstances. A light-filled read.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].