Wednesday, December 19, 2012

5 Interesting Books by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most fascinating and compelling people alive - a real living spiritual treasure. I first came upon his work when I was a very young man, and I was delighted by the simplicty, clarity and lack of pretension in his message. I wanted to find out more about Buddhism, and he was the first writer to really bring it alive for me. It is because of Thich Nhat Hanh that I have spent the last 20 years exploring Buddhism and exploring Vietnam. It is no wonder, then, that my book Destination Saigon carries a thank-you note to him in the acknowledgements.
As well as being a meditation master and the second most famous Buddhist monk in the world (the Dalai Lama beats him), he is also a scholar and linguist, with a great love for literature and a real gift for expression. He has been a prolfic writer over the years, so I thought I would humbly present my own list of his books that have helped and inspired me over the years:

Savor - This is his newest book, and is co-authored with Dr. Lilian Cheung. It is a fascinating exercise - a kind combination Buddhist manual and diet book. Thich Nhat Hanh has always talked a lot about food in his writings: the need to eat mindfully, the need to be thankful for our meals, how to eat ethically etc. So I guess devoting a whole book to it is a natural progression. Interestingly, this is also the book that finally got him noticed by Oprah - so he at last carries the imprimatur of the queen of popular culture!

The Energy of Prayer - This little book is probably the one I turn to most. My copy is battered and dog-eared, filled with highlighting and comments. I have used it a lot in my meditation teaching, because I find it uses language that is quite familiar to Western, non-Buddhist minds. Master Nhat Hanh has been interested in the meeting of Eastern and Western spiritualities since he was a young man, and this book is the best melding of those traditions. Its final section is a series of prayers and meditations that would be helpful to anyone's spiritual life.

The Miracle of Mindfulness - Probably his best-known book, The Miracle of Mindfulness was something of a Bible for me in the 90s. I read it over and over as I traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and my filthy copy was perused at some of the most beautiful and amazing locations! It is a beautifully written and belletristic exploration of meditation and mindfulness, and I promise it will be a constant inspiration.

Master Tang Hoi - One for the history buffs. Master Tang Hoi was the first Zen teacher in Vietnam, and this is the most intriguing book about him and his teachings. It is essential reading for anyone interested in Vietnamese history and culture, and for Zen enthusiasts it represents a meditation teaching that pre-dates Bodhidharma by 300 years!

Joyfully Together - If you are interested in building community and making the world a nicer place to be, this is a really wonderful place to start. It is one of Thich Nhat Hanh's more obscure titles, but I have found it to be tremendously useful and inspiring, and have drawn on its wisdom and advice many times. Master Nhat Hanh has himself established a global community of gigantic proportions, so why not learn from a master?

Top 5 Day-Glo Lotuses in Vietnam

I have a thing for the popular Buddhist art of Vietnam.
I am a fan of the school of maximilism that informs most of the temple decoration that you see in Vietnam. Indeed, the working title for my book Destination Saigon was 'Day-Glo Lotus and Neon Halo', which I thought captured perfectly the kind of Vietnamese groove I wanted to describe. Sadly, my publishers didn't agree.
So I wanted to present you with a less-than-comprehensive overview of some of Vietnam's finest day-glo lotuses.

  1. An Long Temple, near Quy Nhon, Binh Dinh Province: This is the classic in contemporaray day-glo lotus sculpture. Supporting a colourful statue of Di Lac, the fat, laughing Buddha of the future, this lotus is the hottest of pinks, with the acidest of green contrasts. These kinds of statues are still produced by hand at little workshops all over Vietnam. Made of plaster, they are quite fragile but still remarkably heavy. They are also quite cheap.

2. Hien Nam Temple, Quy Nhon City, Binh Dinh Province: Right near Quy Nhon's massive supermarket sits this more subtle example of an outdoor lotus. Rendered in a faded orange, these outdoor lotuses have to be touched up yearly, and so can undergo quite radical changes in colour from one year to the next. This one is supporting Quan The Am, the Bodhisattva of Mercy.

3. Khanh Hoa Temple, Pham Van Hai St., Tan Binh Dist., Ho Chi Minh City: This is vintage lotus, pre-1975. Much more beautifully and carefully rendered, I'd say constructed on the spot from reinforced cement. This is the largest of the lotuses featured. It is an indoor setting, and the colours are slightly more muted.

4. Giac Vien Temple, Dist. 11, Ho Chi Minh City: This temple is filled with antique wooden statues of great beauty, but these are a couple of the newer additions. The statue in green is quite a unique rendering - I've never seen a deity dressed in quite that shade in any other Vietnamese temple. Her position next to Amitabha makes me think it is a statue of Dai The Chi (Mahasthamaprapta) but I can't be sure, because the iconography is stangely noncommittal.

5. Huong Mai Temple, Hoai Nhon village, Binh Dinh: This is a detail from quite an amazing outdoor statue of Quan The Am at a remote fishing village. The red lotus column emerges from the belly of a dragon painted a quite distinct shade of aqua. This colour is new in temple statues, but I noticed it being used a lot in Central Vietnam last time I was there. I love how even these things are influenced by fashion!

Christian-Zen, Zen-Christian

Pic from Randy Dellosa

Just briefly, I wanted to alert you to this fascinating podcast from Unity FM's World Spirituality podcast on Christian-Zen practice.

Zen Buddhism is the form that Vietnamese Master Thich Nhat Hanh has exported to the world in its uniquely Vietnamese guise. And, as you will hear on this podcast, there has been a great deal of merging Zen and Christian practice in the West.
Such interfaith activity is almost unknown in Vietnam, however, where Catholics and Buddhists remain quite separate, and each side views any attempt to incorporate the other with abhorrence. I would actually be really interested in taking these ideas to Vietnam, but I fear that in the present political climate it would be impossible.
Anyway, please listen to this quite moving podcast and let me know what you think. Would particularly like to hear from people who are engaged in both traditions.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Van Mieu - The Temple of Literature - Hanoi

My favourite place in all of Hanoi is Van Mieu, the medieval Confucian University.

Yes, I know it is something of a tourist hell-hole these days (in fact, I write about it in Destination Saigon), but despite the crowds of tourists and the ever more obnoxious guides, I still love just slouching about the grounds of this exquisite building.

The first time I ever went there, back in 1994, Hanoi was still largely unvisited, and the Temple of Literature was absolutely decrepit. Even then, though, it had incredible charm. The morning we first visited there was no-one else at all in the place, apart from a few sad-faced souvenir sales-girls and a man cleaning the toilets. It seems hard to believe now, when hundreds must stream through every day.

Still, I think there's no better place to go on a grey, rainy Hanoi morning. The last time I went the gardens were filled with schoolgirls reading Chicken Soup for the Soul in Vietnamese. Which is exactly what I'd be doing if I was in their shoes.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Next Big Thing - Destination Cambodia

My pal P.M. Newton, the acclaimed Australian crime novelist, has tagged me with the Next Big Thing Meme. In the true spirit of procrastination, I have embraced the opportunity. So here goes:

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Destination Cambodia 

Washing the Buddha in Battambang, Cambodia

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

It is really the continuation of a lifelong journey that produced my first book, Destination Saigon. I have been visiting Cambodia for sixteen years, and my publisher at the time, Maggie Hamilton, said she wanted to hear about my experiences in that amazing country.

Walter Mason reads his first book, Destination Saigon

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Travel memoir.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Who could play me? As an ex-thespian, I am afraid I would have to cast myself in the role. 

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

An affectionate, insightful and intimate glimpse of modern Cambodia.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

This is a very American question. I don't have an agent, but am published by Allen & Unwin, one of the oldest and most prestigious publishing houses in the world. 

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Oh dear. Not yet finished! To date, ten months.

8)8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Hmmm...this is a trick question to make me sound like a self-deluded egotist. Bill Bryson, William Dalrymple, Pico Iyer...

Inspiration: Pico Iyer

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have to say that it was Paul Theroux who made me want to be a travel writer. But ultimately Cambodia is inspiration enough - there are a billion stories there.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

There's quite a bit of magic - I mean, real magic, not the literary kind. 

Cambodian magical tattoos

Related Posts with Thumbnails