Book Review: The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh

Written at 2024-02-27

After finishing the book “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse, I felt a need to explore Buddhism in more detail. People often say that the core teachings of Buddha offer a simple philosophy, which consists of only a few precepts and essential concepts. I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to spend some time understanding the core principles of Buddhism, one of the most influential religions and lifestyle philosophies. So, I started searching for resources to learn more about it. During my search, I came across Thich Nhat Hanh and discovered his book “The Art of Living”.

I began listening to this book through an audiobook application (Storytel) that I recently started using, and… Wow! It was such a great experience!

At the beginning of the book, Nhat Hanh describes reading this book as something similar to taking a walk in a forest, where readers can enjoy the wonders of nature. He underscores how his narrative halts for periods of reflection, similar to breaks taken in a journey to appreciate beauty and calmness.

“Let us explore how the seven concentrations—deep insights into reality—can shine light on our situation, our suffering. If while reading you find yourself in unfamiliar terrain, just breathe. This book is a journey we make together, like taking a walk through the forest, enjoying the breathtaking wonders of our precious planet. Occasionally there is a tree with beautiful bark, astriking rock formation, or some vibrant moss growing just off the path, and we want our companion to also enjoy the same beauty. Sometime along the path we’ll sit and have lunch together, or further on the journey drink from a clear spring. This book is a bit like that.

Occasionally we will stop and rest, to have a little drink, or to simply sit there, the stillness between us already complete.”

I can confirm that reading this book indeed felt like this. In many places, it made me stop, think and feel on a deeper level. I took notes, reflected on things, and meditated.

The book primarily focuses on seven concepts that Thich Nhat Hanh considers extremely important. Three of these concepts come from the Three Doors of Liberation: Emptiness, Signlessness, and Aimlessness. He states, “These three concentrations offer us a deep insight into what it means to be alive and what it means to die. They help us transform feelings of grief, anxiety, loneliness, and alienation. They have the power to liberate us from our wrong views, so we can live deeply and fully, and face dying and death without fear, anger, or despair.”

The final four concepts (impermanence, non-craving, letting go, and Nirvana) are found in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, an early Buddhist text. As he puts it: “The concentration on impermanence helps free us from our tendency to live as though we and our loved ones will be here forever. The concentration on non-craving is an opportunity to take time to sit down and figure out what true happiness really is. We discover that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy, right here in the present moment. And the concentration on letting go helps us disentangle ourselves from suffering and transform and release painful feelings. Looking deeply with all these concentrations, we are able to touch the peace and freedom of nirvana.”

He explains each concept in depth using clear language, also backed up by sutras or stories to emphasize their meaning. I also really liked his use of analogies and stories.

Now I find it necessary to reinforce the key concepts’ of the book in my mind. This is why I am so tempted to write this review.

I need to clarify that all indented text in this essay are direct quotes from the book as a disclaimer. So that the readers do not confuse them as my writing.

Chapter 1: Emptiness (Sunyata)

Emptiness means to be full of everything but empty of a separate existence.

Those were the first words written in this chapter. When Buddhists discuss emptiness, they do not seem to be referring to nothingness. Instead, they appear to reference the concept that all things lack intrinsic existence and nature. Nothing exists as a separate entity; everything is interconnected.

The concept of no-self in Buddhism has always been something I found confusing. After all, if there is no self, what is it that’s writing this review? What is it that experiences the subtle pressure on these finger as it presses keys on the keyboard?

Nhat Hanh addresses these kinds of questions. He explains that “to be” is more accurately “to inter-be”. He discusses how everything is continuously changing, indicating that there is no separate entity. Everything is interconnected as a whole and is therefore, empty.

We can contemplate emptiness in terms of interbeing across space—our relationship to everything and everyone around us. We can also contemplate emptiness in terms of impermanence across time. Impermanence means that nothing remains the same thing in two consecutive moments.

he says, and makes a reference to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

“You can never bathe in the same river twice.”

The state of space never remains the same as time passes. The cells that make up our bodies are dying and being born every moment. The entity we refer to as ‘I’ is constantly changing and is therefore never the same. Reflect back to who you were 5 years ago and consider what has stayed the same and what hasn’t. Contemplate on this.

“Then, what am I feeling right now? If there is no self, if there is no real me, then how can I be experiencing things right now? We often feel like we remain the same person as time passes, suggesting some form of continuity,” I ask.

According to Nhat Hanh, the problem with this type of questions seems to be that we often view ourselves as a separate entity. We hold the belief that we are the sole authority or proprietor of our body. We might think, “This is my body,” or “This is my mind,” much like we might declare, “This is my house,” “This is my car,” “These are my qualifications,” “These are my feelings,” “These are my emotions,” “This is my suffering.”

The problem here is to assume that in order for an action to take place, there should be an actor:

When the wind blows, there is no blower behind the wind. There is only the wind, and if it does not blow, it is not the wind at all. When we say “It is raining,” there does not need to be a rainer in order to have the rain. Who is the “it” that is raining? There is only raining. Raining is happening.

and he continues,

In the same way, outside of our actions, there is no person, non thing we can call our “self.” When we think, we are our thinking. When we work, we are the working. When we breathe, we are the breathing. When we act, we are our actions.

He also touches the idea of Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum, that is to say “I think, therefore I am”

While “we cannot deny that there is thinking.”, he says, and he adds:

the most accurate way to describe the process of thinking is not that there is “someone” thinking but that thinking is manifesting, as the result of a remarkable, wondrous coming together of conditions. We do not need to have a self in order to think; there is thinking and only thinking. There is not an additional separate entity doing the thinking. Insofar as there is a thinker, the thinker comes into existence at the same time as the thinking. It is like the left and the right. You cannot have the one without the other, but you also cannot have the one before the other; they manifest at the same time. As soon as there is a left, there is also a right. As soon as there’s a thought, there’s a thinker. The thinker is the thinking.

This is an interesting point of view, because once you accept it, concepts like life and death start to gain a different meaning. As there’s no entity separate from others and everything is connected, death becomes nothing more than the transformation of energy from one form to another.

The author challenges the beliefs that emphasize the eternal nature of the soul and the idea that we stop existing after death, descending into nothingness. The author asserts that both these concepts are wrong. The first one is incorrect because everything is constantly changing. The second one is incorrect due to the second law of thermodynamics: nothing can cease to exist from nothing, and nothing can turn to nothing from existence. This is also partly the reason why Nhat Hanh thinks the concept of no-self is in stark contrast to the idea of reincarnation. As the idea of reincarnation suggests that there is a soul or essence of a person that moves and finds residency in another body after death. Hanh suggests reincarnation should be viewed not as a transmission of a self or soul, but as a continuation of consciousness, shaped and influenced by our thoughts, words and actions.

“Rebirth” is a better description than “reincarnation.” When a cloud turns to rain, we cannot say that a cloud is “reincarnated” in the rain. “Continuation,” “transformation,” and “manifestation” are all good words, but perhaps the best word is “remanifestation.” The rain is a remanifestation of the cloud. Our actions of body, speech, and mind are a kind of energy we are always transmitting, and that energy manifests itself in different forms again and again.

Once a young child asked me, “How does it feel to be dead?” This is a very good, very deep question. I used the example of a cloud to explain to her about birth, death, and continuation. I explained that a cloud can never die. A cloud can only become something else, like rain or snow or hail. When you are a cloud, you feel like a cloud. And when you become rain, you feel like the rain. And when you become snow, you feel like the snow. Remanifestation is wonderful.

Chapter 2 : Signlessness (Animitta)

A sign is what characterizes the appearance of something, its form. We usually tend to think of things with certain signs, and make an association between these signs on our heads. The problem is that these signs are most often does not resemble the whole story or truth.

If we recognize things based on their sign, we may think that this cloud is different from that cloud, the oak tree is not the acorn

While these distinctions can be useful on the level of “relative truth”, they might distract us from understanding the true nature of life which goes beyond these indicators.

We often think of ourselves in terms of signs, which can also be viewed as boundaries. However, when we let go of these signs and attempt to perceive reality as it is, things become much clearer.

It seems that Buddhists have come up with “different ways to visualize our life without boundaries, and and one of those ways is to see that, as well as our human body, we have many other “bodies.”” While some of the traditions says that we humans have three bodies and others say five or seven, Nhat Hanh, presents us 8 bodies which we can identify ourselves with or relate to it.

The term “body” was somewhat unclear, but I interpreted it as the ways in which we relate to and interact with the world. This resembles our physical body to the extent that we feel like they are a part of us, or we are a part of them. Another similarity I noticed is that, just like our physical bodies, these mentioned bodies can also be strengthened or weakened through our actions.

I think it is also worth meantioning that “Eight bodies” concept does not seem like it is something well known and accepted by all Buddhists, but rather, is something that Thich Nhat Hanh made it up for the reader to understand the concept “signlessness” even more deeply.

The eight bodies he count are as follows:

(1) The Human Body: This body basically refers our physical bodies, it becomes harder to attain a healthy mind without listening and paying attention to our body.

Most of us still need to learn how to take care of our physical body. We need to learn how to relax and how to sleep. We need to learn how to eat and consume in such a way that our body can be healthy, light, and at ease. If we listen carefully, we can hear our body telling us all the time what it does and does not need. Although its voice is very clear, we seem to have lost our capacity to listen to it. We’ve pushed our body too hard, and so tension and pain have accumulated. We’ve been neglecting our body so long, it may be lonely. Our body has wisdom, and we need to give ourselves a chance to hear it.

(2) The Buddha Body

Having a human body means you also have a buddha body. The word “buddha” means someone who is awakened and who is working for the awakening of other beings. “Buddha body” is just a shorthand way of describing our capacity to be awake and fully present, to be understanding, compassionate, and loving. You don’t need to know or use the word “buddha” to have a buddha body.

Allowing the buddha in you to grow doesn’t require special effort. If you wake up to the beauties of nature, you are already a buddha. And if you know how to maintain that spirit of being awake all day, you are a full-time buddha.

(3) The Spiritual Practice Body, signifies the embodiment of disciplined spiritual practices and virtues. As you practice spiritual exercises, your spiritual body become stronger and help you along the way.

It is up to each one of us to develop a strong spiritual practice body every day. Every time you take one peaceful step or one mindful breath, your spiritual practice grows. Every time you embrace a strong emotion with mindfulness and restore your clarity and calm, it grows. Then, in difficult moments, your spiritual practice body will be right there with you when you need it. It is there with you at the airport, in the supermarket, or at work.

(4) The Community Body, is the body which senotes the collective unity and interconnectedness of a spiritual community or sangha. Once you become part of a community which share the same aspirations as you, some part of you lives in your mates and some part of them lives in you.

If we want to grow on our spiritual path, we need a community and spiritual friends to support and nourish us. And in return, we support and nourish them, like cells in the same body. On our own, without a community, we cannot do much. We need a community of like minded friends and colleagues to help us realize our deepest dreams.

We start with a few colleagues who have the same aspirations, and we build up from there. Four people is enough. Five is good. And more than five is excellent.

(5) The Body Outside The Body, seem to suggest that our presence and influence extend beyond our physical form. It emphasizes the idea that we can be present in multiple places simultaneously, not just with our physical body but also through our actions, teachings, and creations. Examples include the impact of books, calligraphies, or even recorded teachings that reach and affect people in various locations.

One prisoner happened to have the book Stepping into Freedom, the manual I wrote for training novice monks and nuns, and after reading it, he wanted to become a novice monk. Realizing it would be impossible for anyone to ordain him, he shaved his own head and transmitted to himself the precepts that a teacher normally would pass on to a student. Then he practiced as a novice monk in his cell in the prison. When I hear these kinds of stories, I know that I am everywhere and my community body is everywhere. Our body is non-local. That prisoner who is practicing mindful walking is us. Our body is not only here; our body is there. We are present everywhere at the same time

(6) The Continuation Body, points to the enduring legacy or spiritual influence that persists beyond one’s lifetime.

Throughout our life we produce energy. We say things and do things, and every thought, every word, and every act carries our signature. What we produce as thoughts, as speech, as action, continues to influence the world, and that is our continuation body. Our actions carry us into the future. We are like stars whose light energy continues to radiate across the cosmos millions of years after they become extinct.

Let’s look again at the cloud in the sky. While the cloud is still a cloud, she can already begin to see her continuation body in the form of rain, snow, or hail. Let’s say one-third of the cloud has become rain and the other two-thirds of the cloud is still up in the sky, happily watching the rain falling down to earth. She is seeing her continuation body. To be a cloud is beautiful. But to be rain falling down and becoming a stream of water is also beautiful. The cloud enjoys looking down from the sky and seeing her continuation body as a fresh, clear stream of water meandering through the countryside.

When I was eighty years old, a journalist asked me if I ever planned to retire as a spiritual teacher. I smiled and explained that teaching is given not by talking alone but by the way we live our life. Our life is the teaching. Our life is the message. And so I explained that as long as I continue to practice mindful sitting, walking, eating, and interacting with my community and those around me, I will continue to teach. I told her that I had already started encouraging my senior students to begin to replace me by giving their own Dharma talks. Many of them have given wonderful Dharma talks, and some have been better than mine! When they teach, I see myself continued in them.

(7) The Cosmic Body, encompasses the interconnectedness of all existence within the broader cosmic context.

We can visualize our human body as a wave, and our cosmic body as all the other waves on the ocean. We can see ourselves in all the other waves and all the other waves in us. We don’t need to go looking for our cosmic body outside us. It is right here within us at this very moment. We are made of stardust. We are children of the Earth, made of all the same elements and minerals. We contain mountains, rivers, stars, and black holes. In every moment of our life the cosmos is going through us, renewing us, and we are returning ourselves to the cosmos. We are breathing the atmosphere, eating the earth’s food, creating new ideas, and experiencing new feelings. And we are emitting energy back into the cosmos, in our thinking, speech, and actions, in our out-breath, in our body’s warmth, and in releasing everything we have consumed and digested. In this very moment many parts of us are returning to the earth. We don’t return to the earth and cosmos only when our body disintegrates.

We are already inside the earth, and the earth is inside us.

(8) The Ultimate Body. Represents the highest and ultimate state of spiritual realization or enlightenment.

Our eighth body is the deepest level of the cosmic: the nature of reality itself, beyond all perceptions, forms, signs, and ideas. This is our “true nature of the cosmos” body. When we get in touch with everything that is—whether it is a wave, sunshine, forests, air, water, or stars—we perceive the phenomenal world of appearances and signs. At this level of relative truth,everything is changing. Everything is subject to birth and death, to being and nonbeing. But when we touch the phenomenal world deeply enough, we go beyond appearances and signs to touch the ultimate truth, the true nature of the cosmos, which cannot be described in notions, words, or signs like “birth” and “death” or “coming” and “going.”

Chapter 3 : Aimlessness (Apranihita)

This chapter was really interesting because the term “aimless” initially had negative connotations in my mind. However, when the author delved deeper into this concept, I found great similarities between Apranihita and concepts which I already am familiar with such as Ataraxia -serenity- of Epicureans and Apathea -equanimity- of Stoics.

Being aimless doesn’t mean doing nothing; instead, it means mindfully doing things in such a way that we are really present.

The concentration on aimlessness means arriving in the present moment to discover that the present moment is the only moment in which you can find everything you’ve been looking for, and that you already are everything you want to become.

Aimlessness does not mean doing nothing. It means not putting something in front of you to chase after. When we remove the objects of our craving and desires, we discover that happiness and freedom are available to us right here in the present moment.

The problem with our lives is not that we do too little, but rather, we do too much that increase our suffering. We often chase after various things without really understanding about whether they will make us happier or not. What we frequently find is that when we acomplish these goals, we achieve only momentary happiness.

There is nothing wrong with having goals. However, when we cling to certain goals, especially those that are not well thought-out, they can increase our suffering rather than alleviate it.

We don’t feel fulfilled in the here and now, and so we run after all kinds of things we think will make us happier. We sacrifice our life chasing after objects of craving or striving for success in our work or studies. We chase after our life’s dream and yet lose ourselves along the way. We may even lose our freedom and happiness in our efforts to be mindful, to be healthy, to relieve suffering in the world, or to get enlightened.

Aimlessness is a state of being in which you feel fulfilled from simply being present. You don’t chase after feelings; instead, you’re content with where you are.

We have a tendency to think in terms of doing and not in terms of being. We think that when we’re not doing anything, we’re wasting our time. But that’s not true. Our time is first of all for us to be. To be what? To be alive, to be peaceful, to be joyful, to be loving. And this is what the world needs the most. We all need to train ourselves in our way of being, and that is the ground for all action.

Our quality of being determines our quality of doing.

There are those who say, “Don’t just sit there—do something!” When we see injustice, violence, and suffering all around us, we naturally want to do something to help. As a young monk in Vietnam in the 1950s and ’60s, together with my friends and students, we did everything we could to create a grassroots Buddhism that could respond to the enormous challenges and suffering of the times. We knew that offering chants and prayers was not enough to save the country from the desperate situation of conflict, division, and war.

The comparison here between being and doing reminds me of the distinction in Epicurean philosophy between katastematic - or inert - pleasures and kinetic - or active - pleasures. Like Buddists, Epicureans also favoured a state of being, referred to as Ataraxia, over active pleasures. Ataraxia is very similar to the Buddhist concept of Aimlessness, it is the state of having no unfulfilled desires by being already eliminated unnecessary or unnatural desires that many people tend to pursue after.

Chapter 4 : Impermanence

Everything is in a state of constant change. The concept of impermanence is closely intertwined with the concept of emptiness or non-self. At the further sections of this chapter, Nhat Hanh relates the two concept as follows:

When you touch impermanence deeply, you touch no self. Impermanence and no self are not two different things. In terms of time, it’s impermanence, and in terms of space, it’s no self, emptiness, interbeing. They are different words, but they are the same thing. The deeper we understand impermanence, the deeper we can understand the teachings on no self and interbeing.

One result of impermanence is that we can find comfort in impermanence at places where suffering is in play. The thing is, everything transforms, everything ends, even bad things have to end and transform. Nhat hanh, shares one of his stories regarding this:

There were times during the war in Vietnam when it seemed the violence would never end. Our teams of young social workers labored tirelessly to rebuild villages that had been destroyed by bombs. So many people lost their homes. There was one village near the demilitarized zone that we had to rebuild not only one but two and even three times after repeated bombings. The young people asked, “Should we rebuild? Or should we give up?” Luckily, we were wise enough not to give up. To give up would be to give up on hope.

I remember that about this time a group of young people came to me and asked, “Dear teacher, do you think the war will end soon?” At that point, I could not see any sign of the war ending. But I did not want us to drown in despair. I stayed silent for some time. Finally, I said, “Dear friends, the Buddha said that everything is impermanent. The war has to end one day.” The question is, what can we do to accelerate the impermanence? There are always things we can do each day to help the situation.

Another aspect of impermanence is that it encourages us to appreciate the gifts that nature presents to us. In some ways, this mirrors the Stoics’ concept of “preferred indifferents”. Preferred indifferents are external elements that, while not meaningful in themselves, could be preferred to occur because a wise person can use them effectively. Stoics viewed external things like money, fame, and health as temporary gifts from nature. They appreciated these gifts, but tried not to be upset if they lose them. They understood that they may not have had these things in the first place if circumstances had been slightly different. This mindset cultivates a sense of gratitude.

A similar theme is strong in Buddhism as well, aspecially with respect to the concept of impermanence.

We may fear dying, and yet we find it hard to imagine growing old. We cannot believe that one day we might not be able to walk or stand. If we are lucky, one day we will be old enough to sit in a wheelchair. Contemplating this, we value every step and know that in the future it will not be like it is now. Recognizing impermanence allows us to cherish the days and hours that are given to us. It helps us value our body, our loved ones, and all the conditions that we have for happiness in this moment. We can be at peace knowing we are living our life to the fullest.

One reason why we fear impermanence and sometimes want things to become permanent is because we fear death he says.

Maintaining awareness in our daily life of our eight different bodies helps us transform our deeply rooted fear of dying. We see that our physical body is just a tiny part of who we are, and we see all the many ways in which we are being continued. We should not be in denial about our physical body’s impermanence. Keeping this awareness alive in our daily life can help us see clearly how to make good use of the time we still have. The Buddha taught the Five Remembrances—a contemplation to recite at the end of every day—as an exercise to lessen our fear of death and remind us of the preciousness of life.

Both suffering and happiness are permanently intertwined. Thus, life is not about minimizing suffering, but instead about learning how to use it positively. Learn how to draw strength from it without allowing it to consume you.

The truth is that suffering and happiness inter-are; there cannot be one without the other. It is thanks to overcoming difficult moments in our relationships that we can deepen our love. And the good news is that suffering and happiness are both impermanent. That is why the Buddha continued to practice even after he had attained enlightenment; he continued to make good use of suffering to create happiness. It is possible for us all to make good use of suffering to create happiness, just as a gardener makes good use of compost to make flowers.

One section contains a story known as “We’ll See.” I found strong similarities between this story and a Sufism story called “This Too, Shall Pass.”

I just wanted to note it here as I liked the both stories.

Chapter 5 : Non-craving

In this chapter, Nhat Hanh discusses the nature of craving, its effects on us, and how the concept of craving deeply contrasts with the idea of being aimless, among other things. Craving, not only prevent us from living in the moment, it also cause us to start lose track of means and ends… We often want things in the belief of that it will make us happy, yet it often turns out that while pursuing stuff we sometimes become even unhappier.

Contemplating non-craving is another way to practice the concentration on aimlessness. Each one of us has a big block of craving inside. We’re always looking outside ourselves for something to make us feel satisfied and complete—whether it is food, sensual pleasures, money, a relationship, social status, or success. But so long as we have the energy of craving in us, we’re never satisfied with what we have and with who we are right now, and true happiness is not possible. The energy of craving sucks us into the future. We lose all our peace and freedom in the present moment and feel we can’t be happy until we’ve got what we’re craving.

The Buddha used the image of a fish biting on an attractive bait. The fish doesn’t know that there’s a hook hidden in the bait. It looks so delicious, but as soon as the fish bites, it gets hooked and caught. The same is true with us. We run after things that seem very desirable—like money, power, and sex—without realizing the danger in them. We destroy our body and mind chasing after these things, and yet still we continue chasing them. Just as there’s a hook hidden in the bait, there is danger hidden in the object of our craving. Once we can see the hook, whatever it is we’re craving simply won’t be appealing anymore, and we’ll be free.

While most of our cravings have an evolutionary basis, the environments that caused many of those cravings are no longer present. The majority of us now live in a society where we can easily find food, live in a shelter, and so forth. Yet, our fear doesn’t seem to have disappeared at all.

Even though we have grown into adults, our original fear and desire are still alive. We fear being alone or abandoned; we fear getting old. We crave connection and someone to take care of us. If we work nonstop, it may be because of our original fear that otherwise we cannot survive. And our own fear and desire may come from our ancestors’ original fear and desire. They suffered from hunger, wars, exile, and so on, and over thousands of years have endured countless difficulties where survival was touch and go.

When fear, craving, or desire comes up, we need to be able to recognize it with mindfulness and smile to it with compassion. “Hello, fear; hello, craving. Hello, little child; hello, ancestors.” Following our breathing, and in the safe island of the present moment, we transmit the energy of stability, compassion, and non-fear to our inner child and our ancestors.

We should ask the following question:

If you can’t touch happiness now, when can you be happy? Happiness is not something you can postpone to the future.

One of the poems included in the text also resonated deeply with me:

You have to make a choice. Do you want to be number one, or do you want to be happy? You may become a victim of your success, but you can never become a victim of your happiness.

We often confusingly mix up means with ends. While we chase certain things to achieve happiness, over time, we tend to pursue those very things at the cost of our happiness. To prevent this, we need to be more mindful about our daily actions and the things we pursue. I particularly enjoyed a passage where the author described finding joy even in simple actions like brushing his teeth. If you really think about it, it’s not hard to find happiness in such simple acts. I think mindfulness is also about this.

When I brush my teeth, I enjoy the fact that, even at my age, I still have teeth to brush! Being aware of this is already enough to make me happy. Each one of us can brush our teeth in such a way that makes us happy. And when we go to the toilet, it is also possible to enjoy that time. We are part of the river of life, and we return to the Earth what she has given us. Mindfulness transforms even the most mundane of actions into sacred actions. Any moment can become a meaningful moment where we encounter life deeply—whether we’re washing the dishes, washing our hands, or walking to the bus stop.

When you eat, you can cherish every single moment. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight will tell you that this moment of eating is exceptional. It is wonderful to have food to eat.

Chapter 6 : Letting Go

I found this concept highly similar to concept of “non-craving”.

Craving is about yearning for things other than the present moment. Attachment is about clinging into certain labels or posessions.

Just like non-craving cultivates a state of contentment by satisfaction with the present moment, without feeling a strong yearning for something else. Likewise, the practice of letting go cultivates a state of contentment through the practice of non-attachment, or not clinging to certain labels or possessions. Just as desiring things you don’t have is disruptive, so too is a pervasive fear of losing the things you cling to. Both can diminish your freedom.

We may be entangled by our projects, our work, and our fast-paced way of living. We may be caught up in our craving or restlessness. We may be blocked by our sorrow, anger, or fear. We may have been entangled our whole life by the ropes of anger and fear or weighed down by a grudge we can’t shake off. A relationship with someone close to us may have become overgrown and buried by weeds of misunderstanding. Or perhaps we are caught up in seeking status, money, or sensual pleasures. All these things prevent us from touching the happiness, peace, and freedom that is available right here in the present moment.

At one of the passages, Nhat Hanh puts an emphasis on how “our idea of happiness may be the very obstacle standing in the way of our happiness.”

Each one of us has our own idea of happiness. We may think our happiness depends on having a certain job, house, car, or person to live with. Or we may think we have to eliminate this or that from our lives in order to be happy. Some of us think that if only a certain political party was in power, then we’d be happy. But these are just ideas we have created for ourselves. If we let go of our ideas, we can allow ourselves to touch happiness right away. Our idea of happiness may be the very obstacle standing in the way of our happiness.

If letting go is so good and reduces suffering around the world, why not throw this body and get rid of the suffering?

When we’re facing a personal crisis or suffering from depression, we may feel that life itself is the problem. We may think that if somehow we could throw off this body, then we would not suffer anymore. We want to shed this mortal coil in order to go somewhere where there is no more suffering. But we have seen that this is not possible. Life and death are not what they seem. “To be or not to be: that is [not] the question!” There may be birth and death on the level of conventional truth, but on the level of the ultimate truth, to be or not to be is no longer the question. The teachings on emptiness, aimlessness, signlessness, and our eight bodies show us that we are so much more than this body. There is no separate self-entity that can leave this body and go to a place where there is perfect bliss, a place free of suffering.

Essentially, by destroying our bodies, we achieve nothing and the suffering remains. It’s better to channel that suffering into something positive and try to decrease it. Our bodies enable us to do this. Remember the analogy of using compost to nourish a flower.

Thanks to having a body and to being alive, we have an opportunity to heal and transform our suffering, and to touch true happiness and the wonders of life. Whatever we can do to heal and transform ourselves is contributing to a more beautiful continuation body not only for us but also for our ancestors.

Chapter 7 : Nirvana

The concept of Nirvana represents the highest state of mind that can be achieved. It is the primary goal that Buddhists strive for. Essentially, it involves perceiving and experiencing reality without any labels or concepts associated with conventional truth.

The Buddha used the word “nirvana” to describe the pleasant experience of the cooling of the flames of our afflictions. Many of us are burning in the fire of our craving, fear, anxiety, despair, or regret. Our anger or jealousy, or even our ideas about death and loss, can burn us up inside. But when we transform our suffering and remove our wrong ideas, very naturally, we can touch a refreshing peace. This is nirvana.

There is an intimate connection between our suffering and nirvana. If we did not suffer, how could we recognize the peace of nirvana? Without suffering, there can be no awakening from suffering, just as without the hot coals, we cannot have the cool ashes. Suffering and awakening go together.

Out of all the chapters, this one was the hardest for me to grasp because I couldn’t figure out how to truly understand what nirvana is. Is it a state of mind where there is no suffering, or is it a state of mind where we see things as they are, not in terms of good or bad? If it’s the latter, how can we find peace in it? Don’t we need to look at things from a human perspective to feel peaceful? I was very confused.

For example compare the following two different passages:

Suppose you’re walking barefoot and you accidentally step on a briar, and a dozen thorns pierce your foot. Immediately you lose all peace and happiness. But as soon as you’re able to remove one thorn, and then another, you begin to get some relief—you get some nirvana. And the more thorns you remove, the greater the relief and peace. In the same way, the removal of afflictions is the presence of nirvana. As you recognize, embrace, and transform your anger, fear, and despair, you start to experience nirvana.

Nirvana, the ultimate nature of reality, is indeterminate; it is neutral. That is why everything in the cosmos is a wonder. The lotus is a wonder, and so too is the mud. The magnolia is a wonder, and so too is the poison oak. Ideas of good and evil are created by our mind, not by nature. When we let go of and release all these ideas, we see the true nature of reality. We cannot call an earthquake, storm, or volcano “good” or “evil.” Everything has its role to play.

However, it seems that touching Nirvana doesn’t make us Nirvana. We remain human. The feeling of peace that we obtain when we touch Nirvana still comes from within us. Suddenly, the concept of Nirvana started making sense when I began to interpret it in this way.

Even the peace and happiness that arises from touching the ultimate comes from within us, not from the ultimate itself. The ultimate, nirvana, is not itself peace or joy, because no notion or category like “peace” or “goodness” can be applied to the ultimate. The ultimate transcends all categories.

Or consider this paragraph:

Nirvana is the ultimate dimension. It is the extinction and letting go of all notions and ideas. The concentrations on emptiness, signlessness, aimlessness, impermanence, non-craving, and letting go all help us get a breakthrough into the true nature of reality. By contemplating deeply our physical body and the realm of phenomena, we get in touch with nirvana—the true nature of the cosmos, our God body—and we experience peace, happiness, and the freedom of non-fear. We are no longer afraid of birth and death, being and nonbeing.

The book concludes this chapter with a story about Buddha, emphasising how Buddha still experienced suffering even after experiencing Nirvana under the Bodhi tree, because he was still a human being. Yet how the suffering was so less because he started to see things more clearly.

The book concludes this chapter with a story about Buddha. Showing that even Buddha continued to experience suffering after achieving Nirvana under the Bodhi tree as a result of still being a human being. However, the thing is his suffering lessened significantly as he started to see things more clearly.

When the Buddha attained enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree, he was a human being, and after his enlightenment, he was still a human being, with all the suffering and afflictions that having a human body entails. The Buddha was not made of stone. He experienced feelings and emotions, pain, cold, hunger, and fatigue, just like all of us. We shouldn’t think that because we experience the suffering and afflictions of being human, we cannot touch peace, we cannot touch nirvana. Even after his enlightenment, the Buddha experienced suffering. From his teachings and stories about his life, we know that he suffered. But the key point is that he knew how to suffer. His awakening came from suffering: he knew how to make good use of his afflictions in order to experience awakening. And because of this, he suffered much less than most of us.

One breath or one step taken in mindfulness can already bring us real happiness and freedom. But as soon as we stop practicing, suffering manifests. Small moments of peace, happiness, and freedom steadily come together to create great awakening and great freedom. What more can we ask for? And yet many of us still think that as soon as we experience awakening, that’s it, we’re enlightened! We think that after that, we’ll have no more problems; we can say goodbye to suffering forever. But that’s not possible. Awakening and suffering always go together. Without the one, we can’t have the other. If we run away from our suffering, we will never be able to find awakening. So it’s okay to suffer—we just need to learn how to handle it. Awakening can be found right in the heart of our suffering. It is thanks to transforming the heat of the fire that we can touch the coolness of nirvana. The practices in this book can help you touch peace and freedom at every step along the path.


This book was incredibly engaging and smoothly written. It was a fascinating blend of art, philosophy, and psychology. I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in philosophies of livings, especially Buddhism.