Cultivating The Mind of Love:
A Brief Review.

Binh Anson


Thich Nhat Hanh (1996), Cultivating the Mind of Love. Parallax Press, Berkeley, USA. ISBN 0-938077-70-8. Paperback. Price: US$14.00

The sub-title of the book is "The practice of looking deeply in the Mahayana Buddhist Tradition". While I understand why the author chose the word "Mahayana" in this heading - as the book deals with the main Mahayana sutras such as the Vimalakirty (Kinh Duy Ma Cat), Diamond (Kinh Kim Cang), Lotus (Kinh Phap Hoa) and Avatamsaka (Kinh Hoa Nghiem) - I believe that the main ideas in the book would be easily understood and accepted by Buddhists of all traditions.

First of all, the book gives some accounts on the private life of TNH: how he became a monk, and how he fell in love with a nun some forty, fifty years ago when they were young. I really admire the way he told his own story, and how he coped with that love feelings and emotions. Most importantly, how one can deeply look within oneself to transcend that love into a noble goal which one still continues to pursuit.

"... Where is the self ? Where is the non-self ? Who is your firt love ? Who is your last ? What is the difference between our first love and our last love ? How can anything die ?

" ... Whether water is overflowing or evaporating depends on the season. Whether it is round or square depends on the container. Flowing in spring, solid in winter, its immensity cannot be measured, its source cannot be found. In an emerald creek, water hides a dragon king. In a cold pond, it contains the bright full moon. On the bodhisattva's willow branch, it sprays the nectar of commpassion. One drop of water is enough to purify and transform the world in ten directions. Can you graps water through form ? Can you trace it to its source ? Do you know where it will end ? It is the same with your first love. Yoyr first love has no beginning and will have no end. It is still alive, in the stream of your being. Don't believe it was only in the past. Look deeply into the nature of your first love, and you will see the Buddha."

More importantly, the book does not deal only with personal love, but also with other well-known sutras, especially those Mahayana sutras which were introduced well after the Parinirvana of Gautama The Buddha. However, TNH also explains beautifully the ideas in the "Snake Simile" Sutra of the Pali's Majhima Nikaya: Dhamma is a raft we can use to cross the river and get to the other shore, and:

" ... there are always some people who study the sutras only to satisfy their curiosity or win arguments, and not for the sake of liberation. With such a motivation, they miss the true spirit of the teaching. They may go through hardship, endure difficulties that are not much benefit, and exhaust themselves."

The book explains the development of Mahayana concepts from earlier scriptures (which are now largely available in Pali scripts), how the above sutra is related to the Vimalakirti (Kinh Duy Ma Cat) and Diamond (Kinh Kim Cang), and how the Diamond should be understood in the concept of "interbeing":

"... Looking at anything, we can see the nature of interbeing. A self is not possible without non-self elements. Looking deeply at any one thing, we see the whole cosmos. The one is made of the many. To take care of ourselves, we take care of those around us. Their happiness and stability are our happiness and stability. If we are free of the notions of self and non-self, we will not be afraid of the words self and non-self. But if we see the self as our enemy and think that non-self is our saviour, we are caught. We are trying to push away one thing and embrace the other. When we realize that to take care of the self is to take care of non- self, we are free, and we don't have to push away either."

Chapter 9 of the book deals with the Three Dharma Seals: impermanence, non-self, and nirvana. This is different from the Theravada's concept of: impernanence, non-self, and unsatisfactoriness (or suffering). This may be a topic of debate between Buddhist scholars of different traditions. For a humble practicing Buddhist like me, I am more interested to see how the book explains those 3 seals. Especially:

"... If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. When a flower dies, you don't suffer much, because you understand that flowers are impermanent. But you cannot accept the impermanence of your beloved one, and you suffer deeply when she passes away. If you look deeply into impermanence, you will do your best to make her happy right now. Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving, and wise. Impermanence is good news. Without impermanence, nothing is possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Instead of complaining, we should say, 'Long live impermanence!'. Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation."

Chapter 13 presents the Avatamsaka (Kinh Hoa Nghiem). The author discusses the concept of Dharma body (Dharmakaya, Phap Than) manifested in the Avatamsaka realm, a realm of awaken consciousness.

"... Whenever I touch the flower, I touch the sun and yet I do not get burned. When I touch the flower, I touch the cloud without flying to the sky. When I touch the flower, I touch my consciousness, and your consciousness, and the great planet Earth at the same time. This is the Avatamsaka realm. The miracle is possible because of insight into the nature of interbeing. If you really touch one flower deeply, you touch the whole cosmos. The cosmos is neither one nor many. When you touch one you touch many, when you touch many you touch one. ..."

The last sutra mentioned in the book is the Lotus (Kinh Phap Hoa). According to the author, the two main teachings in it are: (1) everyone has the capacity to become a fully enlightened Buddha; and (2) the Buddha is present everywhere, all the time. I believe that these two concepts would be readily accepted by Buddhists of all traditions. The author recommends us to read chapter 2 of the Sutra ("Skillful Means", Pham Phuong Tien) carefully, because this is the important point where many Mahayanists often overlook: there is only one vehicle (ekayana) to take us to liberation. The author also mentions the fact that this concept of "One Vehicle" (ekayana, Nhat Thua) was also included in the Sattipathana Sutta (Foundations of Mindfulness, Kinh Quan Niem) of the Pali script. The author goes on to explain the meaning of all major chapters of the Lotus, which helps me to understand more on this popular sutra. The author sums up:

"... We can enter the Lotus Sutra through 3 doors. The first is through the historical dimension, the dimension of forms, signs, and phenomena. The second is through the ultimate dimension, the dimension of substance, nature, and noumena. The third is through the dimension of action, where we try to serve, guided by so many exemplary bodhisattvas."

The book also presents many pratical ideas on meditation and insight development, on harmonious living in a Buddhist community, the development of the six boundless virtues (the six paramitas), etc ...

"... When I picked up the leaf, I saw that the leaf was pretending to be born in the spring time and pretending to die at the end of autumn. We too appear, manifest to help living beings including ourselves, and then disappear. We have within us a miraculous power, and if we live our daily lives in mindfulness, if we take steps mindfully, with love and care, we can produce the miracle and transform our world into a miraculous place to live. Taking steps slowly, in mindfulness, is an act of liberation. You walk and you free yourself of all worries, anxieties, projects, and attachments. One step like this has the power to liberate you from all afflictions. Just being there, you transform yourself, and your compassion will bear witness."

To end this review, I would like to copy down here TNH's poem in the last page of the book:

Walking joyfully in the ultimate dimension,
walk with your feet,
not with your head.
If you walk with your head, you'll get lost.

Teaching Dharma in the ultimate dimension,
falling leaves fill the sky.
The path is covered with autumn moonlight.
The Dharma is abundant in all direction.

Discussing Dharma in the ultimate dimension,
we look at each other and smile.
You are me, don't you see ?
Speaking and listening are one.

Enjoying lunch in the historical dimension,
I feed all generations of ancestors,
and all future generations.
Together, we will find our way.

Getting angry in the historical dimension,
we close our eyes and look deeply.
Where will we be in three hundred years ?
We open our eyes and hug.

Resting in the ultimate dimension,
using snowy mountains as a pillow,
and beautiful pink clouds as blankets.
Nothing is lacking.

Meditating in the ultimate dimension,
sharing Prabhutaratna's lion seat,
every moment is a realization,
every fruit is ripe and delicious.

(Thich Nhat Hanh, 1996)


Binh Anson,
Perth - Western Australia
August 1996.