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Mindfulness and Engaged Buddhism

With the publication of her book, based on her research thesis, Dr Lauri Bower positions herself as a leading scholar of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH).

I hesitated before reading the book.  Was it going to be:

  • a scholarly text, difficult to read and of little value to my own practice?
  • a comparative study “A says X, B says Y, C agrees with A here…but not here…”?
  • a sycophantic text where the author tries to ‘prove’ that their guru has all the perfect answers?

Bower has managed to miss these pitfalls.  The book covers only TNH teachings and associated practice groups.  At the end of her thesis she is so convinced by the teachings that she joins TNH’s Order of Interbeing.  However, the journey she takes is, perhaps, unique.  Based on interviews with over 30 practitioners and several monastics, she explores each part of the subject in a light, but meticulous way.

She is helped by the fact that her supervisors allowed her to write in the first person (“I went on a retreat…” rather than “A retreat was attended…”, and she manages to include the necessary references without unduly upsetting the flow of the sentence.

The book retains some of the ‘messiness’ of reality.  I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the various uses of the term ‘Engaged Buddhism’ and the newer ‘Applied Buddhism’.  Many pages gave me food for thought.  I was interested in ‘quietism’, in contrast with ‘socially engaged’.

This is a book you may like to have on your shelf.  You may not choose to read it cover-to-cover at first, but it is a rare reference work where you can thumb the contents page when exploring one aspect of the tradition.

It’s available as ebook and also print-on-demand:  all very ecological.

My reservations are that her treatment of the concept of Interbeing (TNH’s version of prajna/wisdom) is limited and the central place it holds in Engaged practice not well developed.  There is also no index – which makes life more difficult if, like me, you like to ‘dip and delve’ rather than read the book through.  Hence 4 stars out of 5.

Available from Amazon, Wordery and Lulu

Mike Bell

Cambridge, England.

Chapter titles

  • Mindfulness in early Buddhism and its relevance for Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Learning Mindfulness in Vietnam: the Formulation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Teachings
  • ‘Entering into Life’: The Development of Engaged Buddhism   
  • A Manifestation of Mindfulness: the Plum Village Meditation Practice Centre
  • ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’: Transforming Suffering into Happiness
  • The Transplantation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Teachings into the West