"In the stormy refuge of life, take refuge in yourself" - Thich Nhat HanhHaving just returned from my own brief retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in Hong Kong, I was delighted to discover Mary Paterson's book, The Monks and Me, in a Melbourne bookshop. It is her account of a 40 day period spent in residence at Thich Nhat Hanh's monastery in Southern France, Plum Village.
Thich Nhat Hanh has been an immense spiritual influence on both me and my Universal Heart Book Club co-host Stephanie Dowrick. I know that he is also a beloved figure for many of you that are a part of the club as well. I can proudly say I have read everything written by and about this Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master, and The Monks and Me makes a charming addition to this list.
|Thich Nhat Hanh|
Mary Paterson is a Canadian writer who goes to stay at Plum Village with something of a heavy heart. She is unlucky in love and she is also torn by memories of her father's dementia and death. Arriving at the monastery she is not plunged instantly into some cliched heart of deep peace. Instead she finds an odd little collection of buildings filled with monastics and lay people, many of whom are carrying their own hurts and frustrations. As the retreat progresses, Paterson realises that some of the best teachers aren't monks and nuns at all, but some of the prickly souls she is forced to share rooms with.
Part of what makes The Monks and Me such a delight to read is the author's honest recognition of her own foibles and her propensity to romanticise Buddhism and the impossibly glamorous monks and nuns who glide so sleekly and beautifully on the edge of her new world. She discovers she has become something of a monastic snob, a state instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent any time in a monastery. Impatient and dismissive of "normal" people, she aches for contact with the other-worldly religious with their shaved heads and floating brown robes. In time she realises that this, too, is just another mental trap, something that ties her up her in the minutiae of worldly experience.
Her greatest lesson, learned whil sitting and listening to the teachings of Master Nhat Hanh (a process which turns out to be remarkably complicated) is that suffering must be looked squarely in the eye. She quotes him saying:
"Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world."
And in hearing this she realises that much of her restlessness and pain is the result of a perpetual escape from life's realities. It is a beautiful moment in the book, an epiphany that embraces many of the other characters she has encountered and, indeed, the entire world.
Throughout The Monks and Me, Mary Paterson gives all kinds of details about the peculiar life that has evolved as a result of the tremendous popularity of this monastery. She also describes the gentle, accessible and idiosyncratic teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. This book is healing and inspiring, and will be of immense interest to anyone who has found solace in the writings of this most gentle monk.
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