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.
Then too the novella’s authenticity is at one with the author’s own lived world. He himself joined a monastery as a novice at 16. And he’s dedicated his life since to growing his own order of monks and nuns, lay men and lay women. It’s a community of mindful living, now worldwide.
Amplifying this resonance of folk story with the author’s own story, his long-time friend along the Path, Ven. Sister Chan Khong brings to light how he’s dealt with incredible adversity, much probably unknown to most readers. This ranges from lethal violence leveled at his grassroots, nonpartisan social work during America’s war in his native land (aka the Vietnamese war), to the recent brutal repression of his disciples there, after he’d weathered out his 40-some-year exile. The volume is capped with his own summing up.
Listening deeply, I hear how, like his protagonist Quan Am Thi Kinh’s transcendence of great difficulties, he too has become transfigured beyond individual story line. He now makes his great, good heart, as wide as the sky, available for the well-being of all beings, and encouraging us each to do likewise.
Certainly, you don’t need to be Buddhist to enjoy The Novice. Sometimes, to advance spiritually, we all need to retreat. So treat yourself to a brief but deep retreat within the temple and wilds of these pages. Indeed, we are all novices, training to live in peace and joy, harmony and love, in a world at war with itself. Here’s a most beautiful re-minder of how our birthright of total freedom is available to us right now.
Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot's to Buddhism, third edition (Nautilus Book Award), and editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award). His work has also appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including BuddhaDharma, Harvard Divinity Review, Language for a New Century, The New Yorker, Technicians of the Sacred, Tricycle, and Yoga Journal. He teaches mindfulness in San Francisco. Visit http://word.to.