One of the more difficult picks for me on the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge list was to read a book by an author from southeast Asia. I don’t know much about literature from this area – and thus the purpose of the challenge, to expand literary horizons – so I felt that my choice would be fairly random and rather hit or miss. Then I saw that one of my GoodReads friends had saved a book by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk with a proliferation of writings on peace, mindfulness, and love. I, as much as anyone, could use some help in those areas.
Teachings on Love (1997) is about learning to understand others so that you might love them and be loved in return. It is as applicable to romantic relationships as it is to relationships with family and friends and co-workers and, really, every single person we interact with. Although Hahn is a Buddhist, anyone from any religion or culture can take something from what he’s saying here.
Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are “the four aspects of true love within ourselves and within everyone and everything.” We seek to offer joy and happiness to others, we must harbor the intention to relieve and transform suffering, we must gain and give joy, and we must learn to not be attached and to let go. One important detail that Hahn touches on is that while we usually think of our suffering as caused by others – by an overbearing parent or an obtuse boss or a forgetful partner – we, too, act out of that suffering and create more pain for ourselves and for others. When we stop blaming others for our suffering, we learn to love and care for ourselves.
Learning to love those who have caused you harm is perhaps the biggest lesson I can take from this. Truly, though, isn’t this the challenge for us all? “We see that the person who has harmed us is himself suffering very much. Contemplating his suffering generates understanding and love in us, and with these energies, healing is possible.” These words make sense to me, and I carried them in mind while I was in the midst of a rocky point in a relationship. I could see how we were both suffering and it was easy to understand and to forgive. But I had another experience that brought to mind these words and made me realize how difficult they can be to put into action.
While walking home one day I was accosted by a man outside Whole Foods. When I expressed my disinterest in what he had to say by proceeding to walk away, he called me a bitch. My verbal retort, let me tell you, was not in line with these teachings, and yet, I wondered, how was I to get my point across, that I did not owe him my time, that what he said was not okay? I was torn, because any kinder response would have engaged him in a conversation I did not want to have and to have been silent would have been a tacit agreement that his actions were appropriate. I am sure that man is suffering, but must I be the silent recipient?
Perhaps that’s simply part of being human – not fully understanding and not fully being compassionate because of our own hurt. While I can read this book and logically accept its teachings, it will take more for me to put them into practice, not just with those who are dear to me, whose relationships I wish to maintain, but with those with whom I share a slim connection, who touch a deep-seated vein of mistrust and desolation. Because Hahn is not saying that love is only owed to those we feel worthy – it is owed to everyone. I can see how I have much work ahead of me in that regard.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book by an author from Southeast Asia]