The Novice by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh opens with a scene reminiscent of many stories in Buddhist lore used to explore that delicate balance between passion and desire. Kinh Tam is the young novice of the title who, in the initial setting of the novel, sees a young woman standing at the edge of the monastery grounds holding a crying baby. The implications are at once obvious and terrifying for the novice.
This template story of monastics being accused of illicit affairs and resulting progeny is a familiar one for students of Buddhism. There are parables and koans, a similar tale from Hakuin’s life and even the Buddha himself is said to have been accused of fathering a child. How the perceptions of the world were met by them forms a powerful teaching of the Dharma. The Eight Worldly Dharmas are inescapable and being thus, they form an intricate lesson of equanimity in meeting praise and blame, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disgrace. The young novice joins a long line of worthy ancestors who face the dilemma of protecting ones own reputation or skillfully steping aside and holding true to practice.
But it isn’t just a story of steadiness in the face of false blame. Kihn Tam’s life is in itself a process challenging the rigid concepts we face in treading a path of service. The novice is a woman who leaves her emotionally dead marriage after a false accusation and enters a monastery disguised as a young man. There, she fulfills her passion for living the Dharma while struggling with the moral distress of the fundamental misrepresentation of who she is. The accusation of fathering a child provides another layer of moral dilemma; the resolution of the accusation is simple but the consequences for continuing in a spiritual life are enormous. How Kinh Tam makes her choice and the effect on the people around her forms the heart of the novel.
In the story of the novice’s spiritual conviction and dedication, Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thấy as his students refer to him) continues to show us how we can enter the Dharma through many levels of understanding. It is a multi-layered story of a young person’s struggle with bearing witness to their own suffering, with cultivating steadiness in the face of not-knowing, and in nurturing skillful action. It comes as no surprise that Thấy’s teachings through this story are in essence the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker: bearing witness, not knowing and compassionate action. In fact, the guiding principle and resolution of every inner conflict is no different from that of an external one: compassionate and skillful action. Through carefully described practices, Thấy moves the central character of the novel towards more and more skillful and compassionate ways of meeting her many challenges. She chooses over and over again to hold steadfastly to the Dharma rather than take the easy way out.
There are some obvious difficulties in the narrative; some scenarios require a significant suspension of doubt if not an out-and-out shift of reality. However, this is not a novel in the tradition of thick plots and twisted rationales. It is a parable pulling together skeins of Dharma and, when read through that lens, it is a simple teaching on a complex point of relationships. In a social system where we find ourselves potentially reacting to the perceptions of others and faced with the duality of self and other, this is a timely reminder to be steady, see clearly, and not personalize the perceived attack on what is precious to us. Ultimately, the story of Kihn Tam is not one of finding personal righteousness in tolerating the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but of realizing the truth of suffering and making that the call to practice, to be as the earth, water, fire and air which transform all that is given to them.
That being said, it is unfortunate that the story of Kihn Tam is followed by Chân Khong’s semi-autobiographical rendition of the various ills that befell early and more recent followers of Thich Nhat Hanh. While I don’t diminish the violence the early practitioners suffered during the Vietnam conflict, the latter issue of Prajna Monastery and the eventual evacuation of the young monastics is misplaced in this book. Not only is the juxaposition of a political issue with a novel-parable distracting to the lessons contained in “The Novice,” it creates a sense that the novel might have been intended as a justification of the controversial process and resolution of the Prajna affair.
Thấy’s teachings are challenging. I’ve said this many times in sangha and in the order of lay ordained practitioners: Thấy offers an easy entry to the Dharma. Most people are attracted to the gentleness and peace of this powerful teacher. We dive quickly into his words and just as quickly fall into the trap of believing that the mere recitation of Thich Nhat Hanh quotes is sufficient. The true nature of practice, however, is the real challenge that Thấy offers us and may make it hard for many to stay the course. Practice and have faith in the practice regardless of the conditions you find yourself in. This is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings and, I believe, the heart of the story of The Novice.