Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals, 1962–1966

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Reviewed by:

“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.

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This is me, this past week, teaching a Philosophy class, in the same classroom, at the same school, as I have done for these past 29 years. I look happy, I am happy, I love teaching. If all there is to teaching is   teaching, then, on most days I feel I can teach for ever. But there are meetings, and duties, and obligations, and grades to compute and comments to write, and students to see, and parents to see, and visits to the college office, and plays and other performances and sports events to attend, and (did I mention meetings), new technology to master and more and more pressure on faculty and students alike as the college application process year-by-year encroaches on every corner of high school life. You grow older among a sea of perpetual youth so gradually that you hardly notice your own well of bountiful energy starts to dry up. If your time in the classroom invigorates you, all that time away from the class room drains your internal reservoirs. I am tired. This has been an unusually trying year of ups and downs and I feel it now. So this  is no time to make decisions. But for me the transition away from teaching in this pressured environment has already begun. One more year I have said, a heads up, so as to graciously exit (as a older friend once  called it) “the little stage” of the class room.

Transitions abound in my life as in your own. Elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, high school (usually) to college, college to (maybe)  grad school, and then usually a job. Along the way transitions to and from relationships, transitions through the individuating process in adolescence into new understandings of parents and family life, experiments with and questions around gender roles and sexuality. Transitions in serious relationships, surviving break up, heart ache, more commitment, then (maybe) marriage, children, divorce, second time around a better fit, illness, death. Children, and the unfolding of unconditional love. Big bumps suddenly in life’s smooth path; divorce or death of a (partner) spouse. How do we recover from those transitions? But we do, although gradually life’s bumps and bruises whittle away at our core.

When I had a recent significant birthday I treated myself to a session with a world famous astrologer (Lawrence Hillman) and he is as good as his reputation. At the end of the session he said you have to find a place you can call home. This statement made me ponder, didn’t my Buddhist teachings say home is where the heart is? Well, yes and no. Metaphorically, yes, but physically no; physically I’ve never much cared for the New England landscape although I love the shore villages in the summer and the tranquil Berkshire Hills, and the mountains of Vermont but New England can never replace my complete at-one-ness with the South African landscape I love. Never home. It is too cold and barren and dead for too much of the year. I crave flowers, color, bird song, scents, warmth and light, sunlight, I am a person of the light. My life is in the USA now. I am an African-American. And I’ve found “home” in south west Florida surrounded by the one-of-a-kind and magnificent Everglades that teeming estuarine environment of great white clouds and blue sky, birds, saw grass and fish. And light and warmth.

IMG_0307  This week my counselor suggested I write about transitions because she has so many clients (especially women) experiencing all of the above (and many more), all the time. So perhaps I will. I appreciate your feedback.

Note: The top photograph  © Milton Academy 2014; and the other © Janet Levine 2013.


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Pundits I’ve read recently on common mistakes bloggers make, my guilt is like an egg on my face in some of my latest blogs. If I have bored you in the past, forgive me. The most egregious error; my complaints about the state of publishing and the new avenues of dissemination of the written word in our burgeoning Information age, even, if as I believe, it is sadly adrift. So I apologize to my readers for trying (in my blog) to make sense of why I am so frustrated about all of this. Too personal (I have learned), no one wants to read about someone else’s gripes. According to the pundits again, readers, like mine, enjoy blogs on parenting, spirituality, books and other recommendations, nature, gardening, meditation and Buddhism, and one of my areas of expertise, the psychology of personality. (I wrote two books on this and have lead many international workshops.)

According to the E-model (the personality paradigm that I use) facing our avoidances is a huge step towards cultivating psychological well being. If you are faced with an unexpected dire illness or accident, extended family issues that involve your spouse, abusive behavior by a boss, or any other intense experience, how do you react? We each have a strategy of avoidance.

Let’s examine three common avoidances. One is to experience intense stress as pain, not physical pain but emotional and psychological pain. Do you or someone you know avoid dealing with pain? Ways to avoid pain are to push down on it whenever your thoughts enter that territory. Or push away from it, not wanting to engage with the emotions around the source of the pain. You say to whomever wants to talk to you about the stress, “Do you have to go there?” You hide behind emails and avoid conversations. The panacea for pain avoiders is to always have another plan or option in mind that takes them away from the pain and into a pleasant activity or to turn conversations to less stressful encounters.

Another avoidance is failure. The cause of stress is processed as your failure. You are ill because you failed to do enough to stay healthy. Your extended family is in turmoil because you didn’t juggle the pieces well enough to keep relationships running smoothly. Your boss is rude and harassing because (s)he found out something about you that you are unaware of about yourself. The panacea for failure avoiders is to only operate in arenas where they can feel successful and win approval. Therefore their resumes shine, they have avoided failure.

A third avoidance is vulnerability. Engaging in stressful situations is dangerous it leaves you vulnerable. You don’t let such situations arise. You exercise control from the get-go. “It’s my way or the highway, baby.” You walk away from stress before it can jump you. Illness? You power your way through with every resource you have, and never trust medical help until you have established control of procedures. The panacea for vulnerability avoiders is confrontation and control, “the bull in the china shop” approach. If everyone is wary of your energy and confrontational anger you are no longer vulnerable.

A methodology I teach for us to be able to enter our avoidances and include them in our emotional development is to write a letter to Dear Pain, or Dear Failure, or Dear Vulnerability. Ask what you are avoiding and why. Write a reply to yourself from these mind states. Continue the correspondence until you begin to engage with the avoidance. This is hard inner work but one way to ensure our psychological well being.

In my next blog I’ll look at three more common personality avoidances.


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paimaeThis is a cautionary tale told by an experienced practitioner (me) directed mainly at myself to heed my own words. Earlier this week I received copies of the Portuguese translation of my parenting book, Que Pai Ou Mae Quer Ser?. Definitely an “UP” moment in my writing life not only because the book looks attractive and professional but also because of the timing of its arrival. (The birth of this book has a sub-plot whose synopsis is germane to this blog.)

In the summer of 2009 I received an email from a Portuguese Catholic priest who had read the original American edition of my book Know Your Parenting Personality, an application of the Enneagram to parenting. He said something to the effect that he wished every parent in Portugal could read the book and asked about translation rights. I replied that was a promising idea I supported and he should approach Portuguese publishers who may be interested and then email me. And to my pleasant surprise, he did. A year later one of them contacted me. My agent and the publisher arranged a contract, and she cautioned me that it would not be easy to “get funds from Europe” (remember the low point of the Great Recession out of which we are slowly climbing?) I did not hear anything for two years and then in October there was an email from the publisher to say that because of the recession he had put many publishing plans on hold but now they were going ahead with the parenting book. And lo and behold, ten weeks later I have the translation edition in my hands.

Now for the “DOWN” moment (turning out to be a long one and therefore the reason why an “UP” moment is so welcome.) I am trying the old-fashioned way to publish my latest work, a novel Veld Fire. I wrote my heart into this book; and yes, I do know that is not a “gimme” to being published. (Call out here to my excellent editor, Lorraine Fico-White at who saved me from my excesses and helped me shape the manuscript into a novel I am proud to stand behind.) The protagonists are two women and their love story is the engine of the work. (Call out to President Obama who in his Inauguration Speech highlighted Stonewall and gay rights as central to the ongoing struggle for human rights.) What better time than now to publish this book? What better time for a book about two people who love one another (and are women) to flow into the literary mainstream? Liv and Rosie’s story is set in 1960 in South Africa, the significant year of the Sharpeville Massacre and its aftermath. It celebrates history’s neglected PAC leader Robert Sobukwe and his contribution to the human rights struggle, in addition to a cast of many other real and imagined characters.

Agents have lauded the writing. But no one bites. South Africa is far away. Lesbians are not as popular as vampires. Historical fiction is but a tiny niche in the fiction market.

Three strikes.

This is not my failure. I am a Three on the Enneagram and the  notional idea of “failure” is a big psychological hurdle for me. As a Three I am all about product and performance and “getting things done.” But here and now I need a dance partner. I do not want to self-publish, that smells of defeat; for me, for the whole publishing industry. How many thousands of worthy manuscripts languish and die every day? A writer once famously said the books that deserve to be published will find a publisher. Is this an old-fashioned maxim now as redundant as the traditional publishing industry is rendering itself? Maybe or maybe not. One of my sons, a writer himself, advised, “Let the process work.” But what process is he talking about?

Do I go Indie?

It took years for the Portuguese translation to reach me, this is my lesson to myself.

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Apologies to my loyal readers for my lack of blogging activity in past months. Something has to give. Several months ago I began working with an editor on my latest fiction manuscript “Love Affair in the Shadow of Apartheid.” I have worked with many editors after decades of publishing, both as a journalist and book writer, and, thankfully, my current editor is an editor’s editor, in other words — a perfectionist. This means that the first round of reviews is an almost complete rewrite of the novel, paragraph by painstaking paragraph. Possibly if I had known how hard I would be working I may not have taken this on . . . However here we are in the penultimate and then hopefully ultimate  go-around and as my editor says, “It looks like a book now.”

A good editor makes a good writer; what a debt we owe editors. Maxwell Perkins, of Scribners, made the American “greats” of the 1920s and 1930s, well, great. Daphne duMaurier, the hugely popular British novelist of the 1940s and 1950s apparently turned in atrociously written drafts, but they encompassed unsurpassed modern Gothic story lines that her regular editor then turned into gold. There are many other examples of famous writer-editor duos.

With the ever-increasing pressure on writer’s to send agents publishing-ready quality manuscripts or for most writers to have ebook ready manuscripts, the editing business is booming. Daily editors thank Amazon and Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, and all other indie publishing and self-publishing ventures.

But for writers, for the hours and hours — day by day, week after week, month following month, and, often, for the years that go by — writing is a preposterous vocation, avocation, hobby, past-time. I have published four books but I have no idea what will happen to this latest creation. As I have written on this blog previously, publishing is undergoing a seismic shift.

It used to be that a well-written, competent novel would find the mid-list of most of the “big” publishers who wanted the cachet of publishing literary fiction. But now the “literary” tag is almost extinct among the vampires, romances, horrors, mysteries, young adults, chicks’ lit, and other genres. Literary is no longer a genre that is “in”, viable or relevant. And the world of ideas is poorer for this.

In this writer-editor go-around something has surprised me, how patient I have become. I am a Type-A personality, it all has to be done yesterday. But somehow now, possibly knowing that this lovingly nurtured creation so many months and years in gestation, may be still-born, has made the process as precious to me as the product. And that, in itself, perhaps, is truly a good thing.




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The title words of today’s post are by Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot in his famous Four Quartets. Last weekend on a glorious fall day I was in our nation’s capital. The area around the mall is indeed living proof of Eliot’s idea that “Time past and time future are contained in time present” — this is expressed in modern coinage as “being in the moment” and in other literary references as “the eternal moment.” Yes, indeed, the past lives on and the dream will never die…

© Janet Levine 2011





Washington Memorial 10.8.11

©Janet Levine 2011





MLK, Jnr. Memorial 10.8.11

©Janet Levine, 2011



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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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