Whilst on holiday in Brittany the past week (blog and photos to come!) I read Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s novel, The Novice. It is his first novel, that tells the story of a young woman who has become a legend in Vietnam for paving the way for women to be nuns in the Buddhist tradition. It’s a short book, eloquently written and filled with wisdom throughout.
Kinh Tam is a beautiful young woman who has always felt a calling for deep learning through Buddhist enlightenment. As there were no temples for nuns at the time, she felt that her only option was to do what women did back then – marry and have children. However, her marriage failed as her in-laws falsely accused her of trying to kill her husband one night. Kinh Tam goes back home then, cuts off her hair and disguises herself as a boy, wandering for five days until she comes to a temple where she asks to be taken in as a novice.
She shows an aptitude unlike any other monk in her devotion to the Zen Buddhist teachings and carrying them out. She lives the perfections of generosity, mindfulness, magnanimity, diligence, patience and insight. She has already been through much, after the false accusations of attempted murder, and yet she holds true to her path, holding no malice to those who have wronged her through their own false perceptions.
A young noblewoman who visits the temple falls in love with the young “boy” monk, seeing in him such beauty that only an open-heart can radiate. Kinh Tam avoids her, with as much compassion as possible, as her secret cannot be found out else she faces expulsion. After Kinh Tam turns down the noblewoman’s request for a private meeting, the noblewoman woman becomes enraged, filled with her own anger and wounded pride, accusing the young novice of impregnating her when it was really a servant boy from her household whom she took to bed in anger and despair of not being able to sway the young novice from his devoted path.
Kinh Tam faces the dilemma of choice: tell everyone that it’s not possible, as she is a woman, or face beatings for her “transgressions”. Her love for her path is so strong that it sees her through the beatings, and yet again she never holds any malice towards the young woman (Mau), those who believe her false accusations and even those who beat her. She knows it is only their wrong perception of her that makes them act as they do, and the strength of loving kindness overcomes all the pain she endures.
Kinh Tam goes through further hardships, yet always with the endurance of a loving heart and the deep well of forgiveness. I won’t tell you the ending, but I was in tears as I read it – it was just so beautiful.
Kinh Tam’s story is one that can help anyone going through a rough time. It doesn’t matter what it is that you are enduring, whether it is being shot at, beaten, false accusations or someone trying to undermine you and your work – the open heart of compassion and seeing the unity of all things is stronger than any of these. Anyone can relate to Kinh Tam’s story. As a woman, I felt a deep bond with her struggles and an empathy for her trials and tribulations. I felt deeply the tug of sadness as one woman falsely accuses another (albeit unknowingly regarding the disguised gender, yet with an intended malice in any event). As a practitioner of Zen I found deep wisdom in the teachings that lay like little stars filled with light across the pages, twinkling with their insight into living a life of less suffering. We all suffer, for various reasons, but we can lessen that suffering through the open heart of compassion. Those who try to hurt us, physically, emotionally, intellectually, who undermine our person and our work, who tell lies and allow their pride, anger and other emotions to overwhelm their reason and the ability to see clearly the heart of the matter – these are things we all go through at some point in our lives. Whether it is through war, office/work politics or family issues, the cause is the same: wrong perceptions. Because they have a wrong perception of us, they act out, lash out, are ruled by the monkeys riding on their backs.
Yet we don’t have retaliate like for like. We can see their suffering, and still send them our love and compassion, even from afar. Because they perhaps have not seen that there is another option, they have no way out. Living through our actions, of opening our eyes to all possibilities and the reality of the present moment we can hopefully provide an example for a peaceful way of life that benefits the whole. We can forgive these misjudgements from others, as they are easily created. Through diligence we can work to dissolve these false perceptions within ourselves, through meditation, deep insight and the other teachings of Zen Buddhism.
I always doubted whether humans were truly capable of forgiveness. When explained through the words and story told by Thich Nhat Hanh, it makes so much more sense; it is so easy. There are three appendices to the story, one describing further the legend of Kinh Tam, the second describing the legacy of Kinh Tam by Sister Chan Khong of Plum Village monastery, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s own addendum about practicing love. These appendices are just as important as the story itself, for it shows “Engaged Buddhism” in action as Sister Chan Khong and Thich Nhat Hanh both relate how the practice of compassion helped them through the suffering of the Vietnam war, exile and more. We see first-hand how the Zen Buddhist precepts are put into practice, actually lived out in the lives of those who worked in the DMZ, offering wisdom and deep insight into how suffering is different for each individual and yet can be overcome when held in the arms of compassion.
In the UK, you can buy this wonderful little book from as little as £1.04 second-hand; do try to read it if you are at all interested in Zen Buddhism, mindfulness, compassion or loving kindness. If you feel you are suffering in any shape or form, this book might be able to help you find the way to transforming suffering into something that instead brings peace and harmony to your world, and thereby to the world at large.
May we be peace. x