June 15, 2006
Old Path White Clouds
I have been reading books on Zen Buddhism for the last ten years. I must have read at least ten if not more. Each book simply reshapes and redraws my understanding of the Zen practice, but at this point, very seldom do the books teach me anything new. I guess this is largely due to the fact that Zen Buddhism is at its core a very simple concept: Awareness and mindfulness cause our minds to stop chasing after thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow, and help our minds dwell in the present. Living in mindfulness and awareness means to live in the present moment. A person who is living in the present can see all the wonders of the universe and how all things are interconnected. Once you see the interconnectedness of all beings, you have compassion for all beings, because you understand that a nothing is separate from you. We are all a part of one larger being. We are not born and we do not die. On the other hand, if we are not living mindfully, and we allow our illusions to make life permanent, when it is by nature impermanent, we suffer. Ignorance gives rise to a multitude of sorrows, confusions, and troubles. Greed, anger, arrogance, doubt, jealousy, and fear all have their roots in ignorance. Become aware, live mindfully and eradicate ignorance, and voila enlightenment. Sounds easy, right? All the books I have read say the same thing. So why do I spend so much time wracked with guilt, rage and anger against a world I cannot change? Why can’t I simply live mindfully in my own life?
Zen is not an intellectual pursuit. It must be practiced. It must be lived not understood. It must simply be. So no many how many books one reads, one still has to actually apply the lessons to their personal life. There's the rub. The difficult part is that these teachings can take lifetimes. Sometimes, however, a book can help calm the reader and guide his practice through its simplicity and beauty. Old Path White Clouds is one such book. Written in a graceful yet unadorned manner, Thich Nhat Hanh, tells the story of the life of Guatama Buddha over an 80 year span. Part historical fiction, part novel, part children’s book, it is a fairytale that even a child could absorb, but only a truly enlightened being can fully enact. Hanh, masterfully carries the reader back to the time of the Buddha and illuminates us with timeless lessons on mindfulness, love, and compassion. He forces the reader to read each page slowly and truly internalize each paragraph. The impatient reader will be frustrated by the slow pace and minimalist prose, but upon careful reading, he will elucidate a pattern of story telling woven carefully with the major tenets of the Zen practice. Hanh writes, “When you children look at rice plants, coconuts, tangerines, and water, remember that in life you depend upon many other beings for your existence. These other beings are part of you. If you can see that, you will experience true understanding and love.”
This book will not teach you anything new about Zen, but it will help you better understand the very simple lessons the Buddha taught all mankind like, “Each person’s disposition is the result of physical, emotional, and social conditions. When we understand this, we cannot hate even a person who behaves cruelly, but we can strive to help transform his physical, emotional and social conditions. Understanding gives rise to compassion and love, which in turn gives rise to correct action. In order to love, it is first necessary to understand, so understanding is the key to liberation. In order to attain clear understanding, it is necessary to live mindfully, making direct contact with life in the present moment, truly seeing what is taking place inside and outside of oneself.”
The beauty of this book is that these lessons are not simply listed one after another, creating a polemic self help guide, but rather, they are interwoven in a carefully crafted children’s tale. I think back to when I was a child, and my grandmother would tell me stories about ancient princes and kings in Persia, as I fell asleep. Reading Old Path White Clouds, reminds me of the wonder that can be found in a story about a forgotten time. I look forward to the day when I can sit on my daughter’s bed and read her the story of the Buddha and slowly teach her the lessons that I can only assume I will still be trying to learn.