Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Life's Burning Questions
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Reviewed by Chris Faatz
Thich Nhat Hanh is a favorite at Powell's. His many books, including the epochal Being Peace and Peace Is Every Step, fly off the shelves. Anyone interested in Buddhism, and many who are already experienced explorers of the path, eventually find their way to his work.
Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master and social activist, has, in his way, changed the world. He's brought the concept of mindfulness, of being totally aware and awake in each and every moment which we experience, to a mass audience. The example of his own life is almost as powerful as his words: he was an early peace activist in his homeland during the war there, and was eventually forced into exile. He worked with boat people and other refugees, and pioneered reconciliation work among veterans of the U.S. war. During that period he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. He's founded a community, Plum Village, in France where his ideas are practiced and which serves as an example to countless people internationally.
Nhat Hanh pioneered the concept of Engaged Buddhism, an approach to living from a deeply spiritual perspective that's not afraid to confront structures of power and oppression at all levels, from the personal to the societal. Engaged Buddhism recognizes that we are connected with everything that exists, and that there is a responsibility inherent in that connection. In Nhat Hanh's terms, we "inter-are"; "interbeing" is the word he's coined to encapsulate that understanding, and he's founded a new Buddhist order rooted in this profoundly revolutionary and transformative worldview (the Tiep Hien Order; see his book Interbeing for more on this subject).
As well as all of that, he's continued to write. And, now, with the publication of Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Life's Burning Questions, he's given us his best book in years.
Answers from the Heart is just that, a series of 50 questions and answers on a multitude of subjects. Chapter headings include "Daily Life," "Family, Parenting, and Relationships," "Spiritual Practice," and much more. There is a chapter on Engaged Buddhism. There's also a chapter comprising questions from children, which is absolutely delightful, and, at the same time, deeply challenging and provocative.
Nhat Hanh doesn't shy away from the hard questions in this book. Random questions include, "Can mindfulness practice help us live with our sexual energy and remain loyal to our spouses and partners?" or "What can we do when a person attacks us physically? May we use force in order to protect ourselves? Can a country use force to protect itself?" Nhat Hanh answers questions such as these on a multitude of levels. However, in the end, they always rest on three things: boundless compassion towards all beings (including ourselves!), the necessity of being totally present to everything that arises in our lives and experiences and approaching those experiences in a state of total awareness, and the recognition of the ethic inherent in our interbeing.
In one of the questions, Nhat Hanh is asked, "What is the Buddhist view of homosexuality?" He answers:
The spirit of Buddhism is inclusiveness....Someone who discriminates against others and causes them to suffer is someone who is not happy within himself. Once you've touched the depth and the nature of your ground of being, you'll be equipped with the kind of understanding that can give rise to compassion and tolerance, and you will be capable of forgiving even those who discriminate against you. Don't believe that relief or justice will come through society alone. True emancipation lies in your capacity to look deeply....Don't wait for things to change around you. You have to practice liberating yourself. Then you will be equipped with the power of compassion and understanding, the only kind of power that can help transform an environment full of injustice and discrimination. You have to become such a person -- one who can embody tolerance, understanding, and compassion. You transform yourself into an instrument for social change and change in the collective consciousness of mankind.
One of the children asked, "What does 'Dharma' mean?" Nhat Hanh answers:
The Dharma is the practice of love and understanding. The Dharma may be in the form of a Dharma talk, or perhaps in the form of a book. The best Dharma is the living Dharma embodied by a practitioner. When you look at that practitioner you see the presence of peace, loving kindness, understanding, and compassion. That is the living Dharma.
This book is a gift of Dharma to the world, the expression of a 2,500-year-old life stance that challenges us all to live with more compassion, more integrity, and a deeper vision of what it means to be human. It's eminently readable, written in a quiet, simple, and lucid prose that sinks deep into one's consciousness. May it water the seeds of goodness and interbeing that are already planted there. May it help us in our conscious seeking of a kinder and gentler world. This book sets a high standard, but perhaps it's a necessary one for ourselves and our families.