Monthly Book Review by Ajarn Scott
March 2009

Creating True Peace:
Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community and the World

by Thich Nhat Hanh, Free Press 2003, 208 pp.

“Do you have a cassette player and some blank tapes?” I asked my Thai friend Noraseth.  “What for?” he wanted to know.  “I need to make a tape for some of the meditations in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book.  There’s too much in each meditation to remember when I’m sitting and meditating,” I explained.  “Hmmm,” he replied, “that doesn’t sound like Buddhist meditation the way I grew up learning it.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen Buddhist monk and bestselling author.  His many books on Buddhist philosophy and practice are well known.  So I just assumed that any of those books that deal with the more practical aspects of Buddhism, like guidelines for meditation and such, are simply traditional practices put into words.  For a westerner like myself – and many others like me – who consider themselves Buddhist or who are interested in Buddhist thought and philosophy, books like these are essential to our understanding and fledgling practice.  But, having not grown up with Buddhism, is it always interesting and somewhat of a shock (an interesting shock, then) to find out, or to be reminded, that these books are simply interpretations of Buddhist thought and that there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters.  (I should point out that since I’ve spoken mostly with Thais about this book that some of the differences I’m referring to may be between practices in Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced in Thailand, and Zen Buddhism, which is practiced elsewhere, rather than differences between “east” and “west.”)

After speaking with many Buddhist friends and based on my own understanding of Buddhist precepts and teachings, I can comfortably say that Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Coumminty, and the World is based firmly on Buddhist principles.  Yet the style and approach of the book is different from what many of my Buddhist friends find normal, especially in terms of “meditation.”  My friends tell me meditation is usually done silently or with a simple mantra, not usually with three pages of instructions containing sentences such as “Breathing in, I am aware that my anger/despair/fear distress has passed.  Breathing out, I am aware that my anger/despair/distress has passed … Strong emotion, Passed” (44).  The few I’ve discussed this book with specifically, agree that it is firmly grounded in Buddhist ideas but that the approach is a bit … well, western.  Perhaps, being western, this is the reason I didn’t notice anything different from what my own “filtered” ideas of Buddhism are.  A book in this style, a “how-to” book essentially, is popular and useful for a western audience in my opinion (it is certainly useful for me).  This book can be called a “gentle” tool – rather than a gospel of any kind – and the rest of this review will consider the book from that perspective. 

The title “Creating True Peace” is ambitious.  With any other author’s name on the cover, I might give in to cynical thoughts of “not possible” or “why bother trying.”  But there is something so trustworthy about Thich Nhat Hanh, once you are familiar with any of his work, that a title such as this, in his hands, can be taken seriously.  Hanh never blames, condemns or scolds.  He simply shares stories of his and his students’ own wartime experiences in Viet Nam – how they managed to stay nonviolent and also still campaign for peace in the face of the events surrounding that war.  He also re-creates some of the stories and teachings of the Buddha and other masters in relation to remaining calm and peaceful in even the direst of situations.  He does this with humor and insight.  And he offers suggestions and guidelines as to how one can maintain their own calm when faced with similar circumstances. 

Thich Nhat Hanh inspires readers to be peaceful.  Beginning with the individual then moving to the couple and the family before going out into the community, Hanh gives techniques, mostly centered on breath and breathing,  designed to allow reflection even in life’s toughest moments – especially in life’s toughest moments – that can defuse any “wrong” action from an argument up to and including war.  Very simple yet very profound ideas, easy to apply, the techniques are very approachable, instantly accessible and they work.  Even in the “west” the idea of taking a deep breath and thinking clearly before you act are basic life principles that it’s safe to say everyone knows and which can lead to less stress in one’s mind as well as in one’s life.  To consider those ideas from a Buddhist philosophical perspective and to add exercises to the process as well, only deepens and confirms the truth of such simple action(s).  This is a book that can be read slowly or quickly and then re-read, pulling paragraphs and exercises as desired.  Hanh’s ideas are not sentimental, simply comforting and true. 

Even the style of Hanh’s prose is peaceful: simple, light and easy.  Although I’ve suggested this book targets a western audience seeking some “how-to” type of guidance, the non-native reader will also be able to benefit from the easy English, the wonderfully insightful stories and the restful exercises.  Depending upon where you grew up and/or what type of Buddhism you practice – or don’t practice – the cross-cultural aspect of the material alone may appeal to those with a more anthropological interest.  But whatever motivation one has for reading the book and no matter what one’s background is, readers should consider at least trying some of the more basic breathing exercises.  I recommend using as well as reading this book.  I pull it off the shelf when I’m at work and things get hectic.  Reading just one paragraph gives a new perspective even at the end of the semester during final exams and the grading process.  If the ideas given by Thich Nhat Hanh in this book can keep me calm and centered during all that, then there truly is hope.  From this book I can practice acting, rather than re-acting, and, in my own small way, begin to make the world a calmer, more peaceful place.  The book is inspiring and is having a positive effect on me.  Just ask my colleagues!

On a more thoughtful note, I’ll close the review with a quote from the book (56).  “We are all eager to prevent and to end war … Every mindful step we make and every mindful breath we take will establish peace in the present moment and prevent war in the future. If we transform our individual consciousness, we begin the process of changing the collective consciousness … each and every individual has a direct effect on the collective consciousness.”

Scott Humphries, 6 March 2008 Bangkok