Saturday, November 14, 2015

book review - The Novice

We all have things we need to work on in life. Sometimes we don’t realize what we need to work on. Most times, however, we know the area of “development need” (“opportunity”?), but don’t really want to look our deficits straight in the eye. I’ve been ignoring one such for most of my life, but a few years ago, decided that it was high time to get working on it. 

In my case, I’m speaking of the peculiar shade of self-centeredness that can develop in an only child (my sister arrived when I was 10) with doting parents. Or maybe it’s just my natural state, that didn’t get challenged early on. I can apply some harsh (but truthful) words to describe myself: judgmental, selfish, miserly, critical, arrogant. The picture emerges…

I’ve learned about habits and training from simple things like diet and exercise and finally realized that I could apply study and practice to learning compassion, too. Practice eventually becomes change. 

So, I’m studying. 

In browsing the shelves in my new library, I found this parable of compassion, set down by Thích Nhất Hạnh. It’s a very old Buddhist story, but he retells it in charming English prose (one of the several languages he is proficient in). It’s a simply lovely book. 

The parable is one of Kinh Tam, a daughter of a wealthy family in long ago rural Vietnam who aspires at an early age to become a Buddhist nun. In the time she lives, there are no temples for nuns, only monks, so she disguises herself as a boy and runs off. Along her way, she encounters false accusations and injustice. The way in which she overcomes these injustices is to accept the consequences without trying to prove her innocence and practice magnanimity toward her accusers and the world as a whole. She rises above the injustices by reflecting loving kindness and compassion back at those who cast her out and beat her. Upon her death, the injustices are revealed and the accusers are profoundly changed by her love and the village builds a temple for nuns. 

After the retelling of the parable, the book includes a essay by Thích Nhất Hạnh and also one written about his life by one of his long-time students, Sister Chan Khong. Many things that have happened to Thích Nhất Hạnh parallel the injustices portrayed in the parable. His continued compassion, loving kindness and service to his students and countrymen, especially during the long Vietnam war, echo the compassionate practices of Kinh Tam.

Strongly recommended reading. Parables are great ways to internalize lessons. Study and practice. Practice and study.