Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals, 1962–1966

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“A satisfying read on many levels . . .” 

Fragrant Palm Leaves is the work of a person in his mid-thirties coming to terms with realistic acceptance of the meanings that arise from his monk’s training and leadership role in trying to reform Buddhism in his country, Vietnam. Included in these musings are the great possibilities of leadership and mission as well as significant disappointments of personal loss.

The strength of the journals lies in Hahn’s honesty in his writing. The journal entries are not private musings but poignant and often powerful reflections, inspirational messages directed at his followers. A controversial figure in Vietnam as he went into to exile (for the first time) in May 1966, he wrote that he doubted if the collection would pass the censors. “If it can’t be published, I hope my friends will circulate it among themselves.”

The memoir opens in 1962 in mid-winter at Columbia University in Manhattan and at Princeton University in New Jersey. Thay is in exile from Vietnam for his controversial challenges of the government and the traditional Buddhist hierarchy in Vietnam.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his eighties now, is a Zen Buddhist master, a peace activist and the founder of global Communities of Mindfulness. He has written scores of books and is known affectionately by followers as “Thay” (teacher in Vietnamese).

In the first section of the journals many striking descriptions of Thay’s reminiscences of the secluded mountain monastery and retreat he built with his friends and comrades—monks and nuns—at the place they named Phuong Boi contrast with his descriptions of the stark winter beauty of an American northeastern winter. “Phuong” means “fragrant” and “boi” is a palm leaf on which the “teachings of the Buddha were written in ancient times.”

Anyone who has resonated with a “place of the heart” now lost to them will be powerfully moved by Thay’s descriptions of life at idyllic Phuong Boi and his sheer joy in the beauty he finds there. His realization that he cannot remain attached to this place is a lesson for us all. As he writes, quoting another monk, “Phuong Boi doesn’t belong to us, we belong to Phuong Boi.”

Whether it is in the starry sky in Vietnam or a winter storm in New Jersey, in any place he lives Thay finds solace and cosmic connection to nature. “I still respond to the call of the cosmos . . . with all my body, with every atom of my being, every vein, gland and nerve, I listen with awe and passion. That is how I feel when I hear the call of sky and earth.”

Among many other reflections Thay touches on the passing of youth and the permanency of truth. He shares several instances of his own growing realizations on the nature of reality and illusion. These moments contain the clarity of awakened understanding. They are illuminating and encourage us to continue in our practices knowing that we, too, can experience the conviction of Truth. “How can we continue to live if we were changeless? To live we must die every instant. We must perish in the storms that make life possible. I cannot force myself back into the shell I’ve broken out of.”

Thay returns to Vietnam in 1964 after his stint lecturing in the USA and although Phuong Boi has fallen into ruin in the tropical environment, he and his cadre of followers devise Buddhist practices in the impoverished rural village communities where they find themselves. These practices are the bedrock from which will evolve the Communities of Mindfulness that Thay will establish around the globe. Several years later Thay goes into permanent exile and settles in France where he builds Plum Village, a monastery and retreat center serving thousands of followers over many decades. There are several Communities of Mindfulness in the United States committed to serving the spiritual needs of all.

A satisfying read on many levels: a great introduction to Thay’s ideas, to the majesty of his poetic writing, and to understanding the inspiration for his spiritually based activism.

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/fragrant-palm-leaves-journals-1962%E2%80%931966#sthash.xBbqmyCa.dpuf

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Lotus pond, Lumbini, India ©Janet Levine 2007

One of the Buddha’s profound teachings is that the greatest prayer is patience. Nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to think, but simply to be, and be patient. Let’s examine this further, what is  patience? According to the Buddha’s teachings, patience is a mind structure that accepts the truth of a situation as it is. It contains all the meditation and self-awareness practices you have undertaken in order for you to arrive at this patient point that is the eternally present moment and from where you can see cause and effect, the subjective conditioning we bring to all our psychological states and interactions, our understanding of the ephemeral nature of change and nature of duality in this realm where we live our lives.

From this vantage point we can understand that to experience insult and distress without resentment and to persevere is not wimpish behavior but an act that arises from  self-knowledge and courage. The stance manifests our understanding of objective truth. From a negative point of view, it seems that patient endurance is to tolerate an adverse situation. However, in reality, endurance is not in a cowardly way blindly accepting what happens. Once we have glimpsed objective reality beyond our relativism we can be proactive, yes proactive, by being patient, and not expending energy on emotions of anger, fear, resentment and blame. A mind-state of patience is effortless, a state of clear understanding.

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What is Time? Such a seemingly simple question but it can lead to intensely elusive searches for a concept that defies easy answers. Sure we have schedules, and clocks, and calendars based by our ancient forebears on their observations of the wheeling stars and planets. But we also have so many postulations by so many philosophers and cosmologists and various scientists that one’s head can spin from it all. What is Time? Some say Time is a synonym for God. Others that Time is change. Saint Augustine said a thousand years ago, “Intuitively I know what time is, but if you ask me to explain time to you I cannot do so.” What is Time? If all human life disappeared from this planet would Time cease to exist? In other words does our consciousness conceive of Time or does it exist whether we are here or not?

A woman in Soweto, South Africa, a tour guide for a group of harried Americans, wanted to stop at a museum but was asked “Do we have time?” She answered, “I don’t know if you have time. I know you have watches…and I know I have time.”

T.S. Eliot one of the most famous poets of the twentieth century wrote one of his master works The Four Quartets as an exploration into Time. In Burnt Norton, one of the quartets he writes, “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past./…all time is eternally present…”

All time is eternally present. What you need to know is that Eliot studied Eastern spirituality as an undergraduate at Harvard and had in depth knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha. One of the Buddha’s seminal teachings is that Time is an unceasing succession of transient nanoseconds through which our lives pass and of which passage we need to be aware as our ephemeral future so rapidly becomes our fleeting past. Or in other more colloquial words we need to live in the present moment. Not the past. Not the future. But the present moment. To be truly alive we need to bring all our attention and awareness to every moment of our lives: to our loves, our activities, our preoccupations, our commute, to our emotions, to eating, bathing and on and on. Then perhaps we can begin to understand what Time is and what Time is not.

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