By Jeff McMahon
When he was a young monk in Vietnam, the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhất Hạnh fell in love with a nun.
“As a monk, you are not supposed to fall in love,” he writes, “but sometimes love is stronger than your determination.”
Nhất Hạnh tells the story of his star-crossed love in a strange little book developed from a series of dharma talks he delivered in France in 1992, about 40 years after the love story occurred in his life.
I call “Cultivating the Mind of Love” strange because it transitions so suddenly from a tender love story to an annunciation of Buddhist scriptures. The first 32 pages could fit on the Romance shelf, the next 88 in Eastern Religions.
The book may disappoint readers who want to linger in the romance, but the unusual structure of the book is, in an important sense, its message. Its aim is to deliver us from that disappointment—by teaching us through the scriptures that the romance need never end.
We have to read with faith that this important teacher treats honestly and openly a topic so taboo in Buddhist orders. He portrays their love as chaste—they touched only once, he tells us, a brief embrace when they parted ways.
The love Nhất Hạnh feels for the unnamed nun blends with his love for their common vision—for a more service-oriented Buddhism that was struggling to emerge in 1950s Vietnam.
“She represented everything I loved—my ideal of compassion, loving kindness, bringing Buddhism into society, and realizing peace and reconciliation. That desire in me was so strong and sacred that anything like holding her hand or kissing her on the forehead would have been a violation. She represented all that was important in my life, and I could not afford to shatter it.”
As resolute as he sounds here, he also describes a sleepless night after they had spent hours talking together:
“I was still awake and I felt a strong desire to be with her—to sit with her, to look at her, to listen to her…. During many moments that night, I felt the desire to go and knock on her door and invite her to the sitting hall to continue our discussion.”
But he does not knock on her door—another disppointment for the romance reader accustomed to tales of forbidden lovers overcoming the obstacles between them in passionate embrace.
Instead, Nhất Hạnh finds a teaching moment. He recognizes attachment in his feelings for the nun, recognizes the threat it presents to both of them, to their vows and to their self-realization, and through the teachings of the Buddha he transmutes his love for the nun into love for all beings, for all existence.
“I began to see her everywhere,” he writes. “Over time, my love for her did not diminish, but it was no longer confined to one person.”
I recently read a beautiful explanation of this kind of transformation by the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass. As one’s consciousness evolves along the path, he says, one comes to realize that love isn’t located outside, where the beloved seems to be, but within. If you and I are truly in love, then you go to the place within you that is love, and I go to the place within me that is love, and we are “in love” together.
The enlightened being is always in that place, in love together with everything. So the love of the enlightened being is attached not to one love object but to everything.
Nhất Hạnh does not explain this transformation as carefully as Ram Dass has done, and he senses that it will be hard for some readers to swallow:
“When you are serene—smiling, breathing in and out mindfully, I know that you understand,” he writes. “But when you are stuck in the notion of a self, a person, a living being or a life span, you cannot understand the nature of my true love, which is reverence, trust, and faith.”
Nhất Hạnh anticipates, too, that we will want to know what happened next—to him, to his beloved, to the love story we have been following. He cautions us: “If you ask what happened next, you are forgetting that the self is made of non-self elements.”
And this is when the book makes its strange transition. He plunges into an exploration of Mahayana Buddhism, the major school of Buddhism distinguished by the doctrine that what we commonly regard as the self has no intrinsic existence.
Through a collection of Mahayana teachings, captured in a handful of sutras, Nhất Hạnh explores the nature of the self, the nature of the world, our relationship to our environment, our way of seeing the world, and the way of seeing that comes with enlightenment.
He endeavors to teach us that love for another is a fragment of universal love, that any love we have experienced—like our powerful first love—”has no beginning and no end. It is always in transformation.”
Appropriate to his Zen tradition, Nhất Hạnh is at least as much a poet as a philosopher. His argument in this little book is often impressionistic.
This soft style of argument at times leaves the reader unguided, but it allows Nhất Hạnh to suggest his message through beauty and analogy rather than arid discourse. For example, he writes:
“Seven years after the death of my mother, I woke up suddenly one night, went outside, and saw the moon shining brightly. At two or three o’clock in the morning, the moon is always expressing something deep, calm, and tender, like the love of a mother for her child. I felt bathed in her love, and I realized my mother is still alive and will always be alive.”
Through crystal moments like this, Nhất Hạnh conveys that no love need ever end, if we will take the path that reveals its enduring.