A review of Thich Nhat Hanh's The Novice: A Story of True Love
Thich Nhat Hanh is author of over 50 books. His latest title may be his most universal yet. It deals with the question, Why do bad things happen to good people? At some point, we will all ask this, about ourselves, or those around us. Yet there’s a deeper question, underneath: How to skillfully respond?
Do we stop to understand the situation? Or do we act on instinct and blame others? Blaming can lead to revenge, retaliation, even military action. But, alas, none of these tactics ever result in genuine relief.
The Novice shows us a better way — and in a format we all can take to heart. It’s framed in a popular folk legend, set in third-century Vietnam, whose retelling here subtly elevates it into a profound parable. A rich girl, named Mau, is drawn to a novice monastic, our protagonist, named Kinh (whose name means respect, reverence, reverence for life). Mau’s deluded infatuation quickly results in multiple victims. The ensuing dramatic conflict challenges Kinh’s dearest aspiration, practicing the Way within monastic refuge, her true love.
My Vietnamese friends tell me they grew up reviling Mau as a vicious villain. But Thây has looked deeply into her heart. Rather than blame her, he understands her suffering — and how the peace within a monastic setting radiates a beauty beyond any physical attraction. Our common tendency is to grasp after external beauty, rather than recognize it as mirroring what’s already within us.
Below the surface of the story’s words, two layers reinforce its potent impact. For one thing, it’s rich in literary as well as spiritual merit. For example, the book opens just before the climax, then flashes back to the beginning. This is a familiar device in cinema, our own century’s global popular folk culture. Indeed, the prose here is so simple yet vivid as to evoke a movie in our minds’ eye. Consider these four words, from the middle of a paragraph: “Mau cried herself dry.” And the whole work is unified by that pitch-perfect ear, simple, elegant, and all-of-a-piece.