The Monks and Me book review

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THE MONKS AND ME: How 40 Days in Thich Nhat Hanh’s French Monastery Guided Me Home
Mary Paterson

Hampton Roads Publishing, Sept 2012
ISBN: 978-1571746856
Paperback, 256 pages
$18.95

From the publisher:
“Death can be a destabilizing force. And when it touches you closely, you must somehow discover a way to find and rebuild your secure home,” popular yoga instructor Mary Paterson writes. With the death of her father, she felt as if she had no place to stand. She had lost her home.

Paterson’s response to this life crisis, was to embark on a pilgrimage to Plum Village, the retreat of Nobel Prize-nominated Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. This wonderfully frank and funny chronicle of her 40-day sojourn offers readers the 40 Buddhist precepts that she learned. The primary theme is the necessity of discovering how to “take refuge” or find a permanent home within ourselves–without taking oneself too seriously.

With chapters such as The Lesson in a Bad Fish, The Man Who Nicked My Headphones, How a Monk Washes His Face, and How Not to Be Sneaky, this lyrical, wise, and witty personal journey book is inspirational and a joy to read. Paterson’s sensibility is grounded, realistic, and engaging.

About the author:
Mary Paterson is the founder and director of Toronto’s Lotus Yoga Centre. Certified in Kundalini and Hatha yoga, Mary also holds a Bachelor of Arts and teaches internationally. She has been interviewed for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Elle Canada, the Toronto Star, and the Globe and Mail, and has regularly contributed celebrity health profiles to online journals. Mary is often invited by a wide variety of diverse companies to teach and speak about the transformational powers of yoga and meditation. Trained in classical ballet, Mary also performed professionally in theatre and film. She has traveled throughout India and now lives in Toronto, Canada.

The Sumeru review:
Thich Nhat Hahn’s Order of Interbeing is one of the fastest-growing lineages in Canada, particularly among Western practitioners who are drawn to his contemporary vision of Vietnamese Zen, exemplified in the Plum Villages organization in France. For many, TNH has achieved the same status as His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

This book is the story of a 40-day pilgrimage to Plum Village, arranged in the format of daily entries themed around particular aspects of TNH’s teachings. As such, each entry is four pages long. It’s not a linear narrative, but rather a series of independent homilies exploring topics such as faith, humility, gratitude, patience, courage, resilience and so on, from a Buddhist perspective.

As a record of a pilgrimage retreat, Paterson’s book hits many of the tableaux vivantes one would expect: the quiet epiphanies, the garrulous fellow traveller, the benevolent stranger, petty rebellions, beatific religious elders… without falling into cliché (well, not often). For anyone who is new to Buddhism, she does an excellent job of demonstrating how a Buddhist perspective is radically different from everyday thinking. She has a spiritual background, follows a life focused on practice rather than cerebral distractions, and has accumulated lots of writing skills along her journey. This makes her book an easy read. However, readers expecting to read it from cover-to-cover will be disappointed. It is meant to be savoured in small snippets, a section at a time, perhaps over an extended period. Mirroring the content, its format demands that we slow down, breathe, and appreciate each moment before rushing on to the next.

While I found that the writing is polished and the insights strike no false notes, I was disappointed not to experience more of Paterson’s raw emotion arising from the deaths of her parents. Having experienced the death of my own parents (a father to lung cancer when he was 63 and I was 17, and my mother seven years ago when she was 96), I know firsthand what it is like. Samsara is not pretty. I missed that authenticity in Paterson’s account. In her efforts to create a graceful series of vignettes, she sacrifices the chance to give us an insight into that powerful Zen image: the red-hot iron ball of The Great Matter of Life and Death, stuck in one’s throat.

The Monks and Me is not intended as a structured analysis of TNH’s approach to Buddhist practice, but it does an excellent job of evoking the daily lives and focus of the Plum Village Sangha. It is approachable, forthright and decent. It is a way to be in the world, interconnected, rather than an attempt to renounce the world. Paterson may not reveal the inner lives of Plum Village monastics, nor does she explore the implications of becoming a nun herself (beyond the occasional musings about cutting her hair, giving up fine wines and boyfriends); she does give us a window into her leap of faith as a spiritual seeker and leaves us with some take-aways we can apply in our everyday lives regardless of our spiritual inclinations.

All in all, a good read for night-table Buddhists. For serious practitioners, perhaps a good gift book for the aunt who keeps asking you if you are still in that cult.

 

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