My wife and I gave Thich Nhat Hanh’s modest (183 pages) book to the guests at our wedding. As a party favor, it’s an oddity — a celibate Buddhist monk writing about romantic love. Well, so be it. This is perhaps a wise man’s wisest book.
Love is key to Thich Nhat Hanh because, he says, everything else flows from it. The first sentence of the book: “Happiness is only possible with true love.” And what is true love? You’ll be surprised.
It starts with loving yourself. Loving yourself first. Loving yourself most.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a lovely, graceful writer. Mostly, he speaks from the heart, avoiding the technical language of Buddhist practice. And he has a gift for getting the reader’s attention with stories. Like this:
One day King Prasenajit of Koshala asked Queen Mallika, “My dear wife, is there anyone who loves you as much as yourself?”
The Queen laughed and responded, “My dear husband, is there anyone who loves you more than you love yourself?”
The next day they told the Buddha of their conversation. He said, “You are correct. There is no one in the universe more dear to us than ourselves. The mind may travel in a thousand directions, but it will find no one else more beloved. The moment you see how important it is to love yourself, you will stop making others suffer.”
Thich Nhat Hanh offers some easy exercises to help you love yourself — or, in his words, to “stop treating yourself like an enemy.” From there, he moves on to your romantic partner. His advice is almost too simple: Be present. Listen. Respect. Encourage. This is not always pleasant: “The other person, like us, has both flowers and garbage inside.” But because we are intimate with our lover — because he/she takes us into the emotional and sexual equivalent of the Forbidden City — we have a special opportunity to live each moment fully and deeply. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]
In an even shorter, 2014 book, with a title — “How to Love” — that would induce skepticism if it were written by anyone but Thich Nhat Hanh, he streamlines his message:
Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.
Often, we get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.
In true love, there’s no more separation or discrimination. His happiness is your happiness. Your suffering is his suffering. You can no longer say, “That’s your problem.”
To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love. To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen.
I’m not so stupid as to think this is easy. It’s not. It’s work. But not odious work. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s practice, you walk slowly and acknowledge your feelings and thoughts as you walk. You breathe in, you breathe out. Mostly, you try to live in the here and now. And in that space, you can, he says, convert the energy of anger to the energy of love and reduce the hatred in the world.
What about doing? Doesn’t that matter as much as being? I hear you. I don’t endorse these teachings because they make intellectual sense, because if I think about them, they’re much too simple. On a practical level, however, they work. I feel I make progress when I try to live these teachings. Painfully slow progress. But nothing else works.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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