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Thich Nhat Hanh's Peaceful Action, Open Heart

Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra is a beautiful and accessible commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh on a highly revered and influential Mahayana sutra, the Lotus Sutra. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most revered Buddhist teachers alive today, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace and human rights activist. He is best known for his teachings on 'engaged Buddhism', in which he advocates a combination of mindfulness practice and social engagement as the heart of the bodhisattva path. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. for his work opposing the Vietnam War, and has authored bestselling books such as Being Peace and Old Path, White Clouds (my personal favorite version of the Buddha's life), as well as many others.

Peaceful Action, Open Heart was originally published as Opening the Heart of the Cosmos in 2003, and only recently re-released under this new name. It can be read as a companion to the Lotus sutra, or independently. The Lotus sutra is notoriously hard to read, especially for those new to sutra reading, and part of the purpose of this book is to make it accessible to anyone. Thich Nhat Hanh first outlines the historical context for this sutra, and the tensions that existed when it first surfaced between the 'conservative' and 'progressive' schools of Buddhism. He writes that the Lotus sutra was the first sutra to "use loving speech and...accept all schools and tendencies of Buddhism. Therefore, the Lotus Sutra is like a cool breeze, a gentle rain, assuaging the stifling atmosphere" present at the time.

The Lotus sutra is also the first sutra to proclaim that "everyone can become a Buddha", which is "the great insight of the Mahayana." In this sense it is THE defining sutra of the Mahayana tradition, of which both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism (among others) descend. It rejuvenated Buddhism at the time, and laid the groundwork for the creation of sanghas that included both monks and lay practitioners. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, "The two traditions were unified as the One Vehicle that can carry all beings to the shore of liberation."

The first two Parts of this book follow the order of the Lotus sutra, elucidating the primary lessons of each chapter, and distinguishing between the 'historical' and 'ultimate' dimensions present within the text. The first is the "door of history, the events we experience and what we can see and know in our lifetimes." Within the Lotus sutra, this is the historical details of the Buddha's life and teachings. The ultimate dimension is that of "ultimate reality, which goes beyond time and space." The Buddha's teachings, and the true Buddha, exist here too. Everything, particularly dharma teachings, participate in both dimensions - they are comparable to a wave and the ocean. A wave can be identified as distinct within space and time, but is never separate from its ultimate dimension as water. In the same way, the Lotus sutra needs to be read and understood along both dimensions.

After exploring both the historical and ultimate chapters of the Lotus sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh defines the 'action dimension'. As he puts it, "how can we help people of the historical dimension get in touch with their ultimate nature so that they can live joyfully in peace and freedom?" This is the boddhisattva path, and here he offers concrete practice examples for living as a boddhisattva within the modern world.

Peaceful Action, Open Heart is for anyone that would like to explore an actual Buddhist sutra in depth, but from a personal practice perspective, rather than an academic one. You don't need to read the Lotus sutra itself to benefit from it, or have any detailed knowledge of Mahayana. At the same time, if you do have this knowledge, you will no doubt still gain much new understanding.

Visit the forum to comment on your favorite Thich Nhat Hanh books and/or engaged Buddhism. Please also note that I have recently added one of his children's books, A Pebble for Your Pocket to my children's Buddhist book list.

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