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The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

4.33  ·  Rating details ·  12,073 ratings  ·  546 reviews
“If there is a candidate for ‘Living Buddha’ on earth today, it is Thich Nhat Hanh.”
                                                                                                 – Richard Baker-roshi
In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, now with added material and new insights, Thich Nhat Hanh introduces us to the core teachings of Buddhism and shows us that the Buddh
Paperback, 294 pages
Published June 8th 1999 by Broadway Books (first published May 1998)
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Michelle Wruck The difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism is the subject of a good deal of debate. There are a number of interesting, scholarly works tha…moreThe difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism is the subject of a good deal of debate. There are a number of interesting, scholarly works that address the subject, particularly focusing on the period when the two traditions split. There is little consensus on why the traditions split so the conversation can sometimes end with a general recognition that we'll never really know but Joseph Walser has recently published some new thinking on it that looks promising to me. (I'm still working my way through the book.)

At this point, the distinctions have a lot to do with the way people practice meditation, with differing historical accounts of the history of Buddhism, with reliance on different texts, and with distinct understandings of one of Buddha's core teachings called 'dependent arising' or 'mutually dependent origination,' called simply 'impermanence' or "emptiness" in the Zen tradition.

The Theravada tradition is often seen as more traditional. The primary texts they follow are called The Pali Canon, which is composed of three 'baskets' - the Suttas, the Vinayas, and the Abhidhamma. The Suttas are the recorded conversations the Buddha had while he was alive. They are often referred to as "The Discourses," or "The Early Discourses." The vinayas are Buddha's teachings on how monks and lay Buddhists should live. They include rules about how large your prayer mat should be, how often and what time you should eat, how people should be ordained, and what mistakes should require a monk or nun to be expelled from the Buddhist community. The Abhidhamma is a collection of commentaries on the Vinayas and Suttas.

The reason the Mahayana tradition does not trust the Pali Canon exclusively is because it was not written down until about the 2nd century, AD. Buddha died (we think) around 430 BC. The Suttas and Vinayas were memorized by a man called Ananda, who was not, himself enlightened at the time of Buddha's death, but was the one who recorded and taught all of the teachings at the First Council. People memorized the two sets of teachings and passed them on. This might sound incredible but at the time it was common to pass on teachings in this way. There was no form of writing and so people's memorization abilities were highly practiced.

That said, the texts weren't written down until 5 centuries later. It's understandable that the Mahayana tradition would feel that maybe they had lost some of the essence of Buddha's teachings. What Thich Nhat Hanh says in this book is that by the time the Suttas and Vinayas were written down, there was only one monk who still remembered them and that he was a very arrogant monk. His account makes sense of the earliest historical Mahayana text, the Lotus Sutra, which is laced with accusations against "arrogant monks."

The Mahayana tradition, therefore, argues that what is transmitted in the Pali Canon is "the first turning of the dharma wheel." That is, it is only the beginning of Buddha's teachings. The Lotus Sutra claims that just before Buddha died, he gave the second turning of the dharma wheel, in which he affirmed the non-substantiality of all dharmas (impermanence) and presented the bodhisattva way as superior to the way of the arahant.

The distinction between the bodhisattva and the arahant is primarily one of focus. The arahant strives to emancipate his or her self from suffering, to end their own suffering through meditation practice. Both traditions agree that this must be the starting point for any Buddhist practice. The Mahayana tradition argues that it is not enough to become enlightened for ourselves. Once our own suffering has ended, they say, we must step onto the path of the bodhisattva and work for the end of suffering of all beings. The bodhisattva, therefore, postpones parinirvana so that they can return to Earth to work for the enlightenment of all beings. (Parinirvana is the state of being an enlightened person enters after they die. It means they will never return to Earth.)

The teaching on the insubstantiality of all dharmas is less telling. It's emphasized in the Lotus Sutra and does become an important part of the Mahayana tradition but it's unclear that the Theravada tradition disagrees with it. In the Pali Canon, Buddha clearly argues against attachment to any part of the self, describing each part of the self (the 5 aggregates - form, sensations, perceptions, mental activities or formations, and consciousness) are all dependently arisen. That means that their existence is dependent on something else and therefore they are not permanent. For example, the sensation of smell is dependent on their being something to smell. When that thing is gone, the sensation is also gone. This seems easy enough to understand and see for ourselves but Buddha pushes it pretty far when he argues that our consciousness is also dependently arisen. He leaves no part of the self that is not dependently arisen, which is really pretty radical, even today.

The insubstantiality of all dharmas means that all things, not just the self is dependently arisen. It takes Buddha's teaching in the Pali Canon and applies it to all matter. All things (dharmas) are "empty." Again, it's unclear that the Theravada tradition disagrees about this but it is often held up by Mahayana Buddhists as a distinction between the two traditions.

The Mahayana tradition has many branches including Zen, Tibetan (tantric), and Yogacara. Zen developed in China and East. Tibetan Buddhism argues that there was a third turning of the dharma wheel that led to the development of tantric Buddhism, which is what they practice. I don't know much about it though, so I can't say more than that. The Yogacara tradition interprets Buddha as having said that all things are mental formations, so they end up being a type of "mind-only" philosophy.

Hope that helps!

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Oct 18, 2010 rated it really liked it
First, I want to make a distinction between what I’d like to call ‘cultural Buddhism’ and ‘secular Buddhism’. Secular Buddhism, much like secular Christianity, is a distilled version of cultural Buddhism made to fit the vogues of our society. Offensive elements are purged, unreasonable stories and precepts dismissed, and what you have left is a perfectly digestible form of the original that now can be taught as an elective for school credit. Cultural Buddhism, as I’ve deemed it, is Buddhism as r ...more
Aug 15, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: buddhism
If you're looking for an erudite, comprehensive overview of mainstream Buddhist thought, "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching" is an adequate choice, but prepare for a long, hard slog. Thich Nhat Hanh is at his best when he's telling stories from his own life— his time in Vietnam during the war, or stories about the Buddhist community he started in France. Unfortunately, most of the book isn't told from his personal point of view— it's an academic rundown of major Buddhist ideas (and endlessly li ...more
Clif Brittain
Dec 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. I think I love Buddhism, but please, please, please, don't make me take a test on it.

When I decided I wanted to know more about Buddhism, it was because of my developing interest in yoga. I can't tell you how exactly Buddhism is related to yoga, but it surely is. First of all, I find no need for faith in yoga or Buddhism. It works. I practice yoga, I feel better. I practice Buddhist principles, I feel better. No faith involved.

Compare this with Judaism. You believe in God? Pro
Mary Overton
"Let us look at a wave on the surface of the ocean. A wave is a wave. It has a beginning and an end. It might be high or low, more or less beautiful than other waves. But a wave is, at the same time, water. Water is the ground of being of the wave. It is important that a wave knows that she is water, and not just a wave. We, too, live our life as an individual. We believe that we have a beginning and an end, that we are separate from other living beings. That is why the Buddha advised us to look ...more
Aug 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Lucid and helpful with great presentation of Noble Eightfold Path especially.
Thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am incorporating parts of it in my meditation.
Nicholas Whyte
Jun 16, 2012 rated it liked it

A book by a prominent Buddhist monk outlining key teachings of Buddhism. I started off rather liking it as an approach to mindfulness and how to process suffering and the good things about life. But after he Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, I started to get a bit irritated with the constant discovery of new lists of important spiritual things, from the Two Truths up to the Twelve Links of Interdependent Co-Arising; it seems to me that over-descr
Feb 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Thich Nhat Hanh 's book is hard to rate for a variety of reasons having to do with its laudable accomplishments and/but embarrassing shortcomings. His scholarship is undeniable: each section of the book is organized, each concept is fleshed out and Nhat Hanh goes through great lengths to interweave tangential abstractions together in the hopes of elucidating the more complex teachings Buddhism and its many schools has to offer. As a source of contemporary Buddhist criticism, however, The Heart o ...more
Robert Gustavo
Apr 24, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: meditation
One of the more difficult books I have read, to the point where I am not sure I got out even a tenth of what Thich Nhat Hanh put into it. I will want to revisit this in the future, once I have let it settle in.

I was bothered by some of the symbolism and examples, such as this: "The Buddha offered this example. A young couple and their two-year-old child were trying to cross the desert, and they ran out of food. After deep reflection, the parents realized that in order to survive they had to kill
Mar 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is an excellent book to read to understand the core fundamentals of Buddhism. It covers the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, in a good amount of detail. It also goes further than that, drawing on key concepts which are common to most variants of Buddhism.

I liked the fact on how Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes the need for depth in life - developing it by living the values, the Buddha taught and practised. Mindfulness is expectedly a strong theme throughout the book.

The only aspect whi
Jun 08, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I have been savoring this book for some time, and was lucky to have it with me while trapped on planes and in airports and on an overnight detour to Detroit--Hanh's teachings didn't quite transform the ordeal into great spiritual practice, but they did vastly improve the experience. Many of his other books can be read almost as a philosophy of Buddhism; here he explains the basic religious tenets in depth (and with more clarity than I'd previously encountered in introductory texts). While not qu ...more
Ankur Banerjee
Oct 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh goes into a lot of the background from the later-life teachings of the Buddha such as the Lotus Sutra, so in a way, it's more about what the Zen school of Buddhism or Mahayana sects in general teach. Concepts are well-explained with copious footnotes, and it remembers the Indian roots of Buddhism throwing in Sanskrit / Pali terms in addition to Japanese and Chinese terms.

But while the book is easy to read, it often overwhelms the reader with
160813: this is a very useful book for me, helping to clarify exactly what is the difference between religious and philosophical texts, what I like about Buddhist thought, what I learn, what I generally do not note. as far as difference: ethical assertions within a metaphysical superstructure, ontological arguments, referring often to texts or authorities or stories, is religion. conceptual exploration of said superstructure, of metaphysics, of arguments, referring often to other philosophical t ...more
Anthony Mazzorana
May 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: buddhism
there is a lot here. sometimes it feels like too much. take small bites. chew. repeat.
Hákon Gunnarsson
I think this may be the most interesting book on Buddhism I’ve read in a while. Certain concepts fell into place while listening to it. Mind you, it’s not the easiest, nor the simplest book on the subject out there.

It covers a lot of ground, and maybe it’s one of those books that one really needs to re-read before getting it completely, and I think I will do that in some time. But I got a lot out of it anyway. Especially the first half.

He touches up on religious dogmatism early on, and handles
I've had this book on my shelf for years, and I've attempted to read it several times, but I've always abandoned it part way through. This has been a recurring thing for me since I was about sixteen years old: I get interested in Buddhism, read a couple of books, but then I quell the interest by convincing myself that suffering and angst are conducive to good work (just look at the arts!), that it's good to feel bad sometimes, and I leave it alone. A few months later, I get interested again. And ...more
Jakob Masic
Jan 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
I consider myself a spiritual person. And have for as long as I remember being alive, wanted to stay away from religion, any religion. Reading about Buddhism, I truly recognized myself, and the way I live my life inside the faith and practises.
What I like most is the here and now way of living.
Through meditation and living mindfully, is what I believe to be the most important qualities for any soul to practice. In order to understand the here and now, is all that really matters.
As I read more
Andrew Marshall
I first read this book about five years ago. I found it both heavy going and life changing. Returning to The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, I was pleased that I was able to understand more but it is still overwhelming. I think the problem is the huge amount of information: the four noble truths, the twelve turnings of the wheel, the eight fold path, the twelve links of interdependent co-arising, I could go on... And although each item made sense, the overall feeling was indigestion but perhaps that ...more
Jan 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A thorough and very easy to digest review, in depth, of the teachings of the Buddha. Thay delivers here...illuminating the path with clarity.
Mack Hayden
Aug 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: religion
The more I research Buddhism, the more I'm blown away by just how much understanding its early teachers had of human psychology. Thich Nhat Hanh is probably the best communicator of Buddhist ideas I've come across in my admittedly limited amount of reading on the subject. Don't let the concision of this book fool you, it's a surprisingly comprehensive and nuanced look into all of Buddhism's central teachings alongside practical applications and illustrations for how to implement them into your l ...more
A.C. Paige
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
Many gems of wisdom in this book. There were parts I got lost, but that is okay. I might go back and reread a chapter or two. There was also a lot of repetition. I liked the way Thich Nhat Hanh compared us to the same cookie batter. Really when you think about it many things and beings on this earth are made of the same components. We’ve got to be easy on ourselves and others. Also, I really liked the way he said that even when our heart is feeling pain, we can still enjoy many of life’s wonders ...more
Joshua Buhs
May 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: b12, non-fiction
Still the best book on Buddhism that I have read.

The first two sections are the best, providing a nice overview of the ideas at the heart--as it were--of Buddhist philosophy. Thay certainly has his axes to grind. He is of the opinion that Buddhist practice should emphasize joy, not suffering--suffering is something to get beyond; and to emphasize the immanence of nirvana, rather than putting it off for the after life (or after lives).

He provides textual support for his take. I am not enough of a
Smitha Murthy
Every now and then, I come across a book that is like a source of light - a gentle breeze that wafts into all the crass corners of my soul and urges me to rethink life all over again. This book is one of those. I have been practicing meditation for almost three years now and this is a wonderful complement to the serious practitioner. Not that meditation is all serious - it’s fun too!

But bear in mind this - if you are a beginner to Buddhism or meditation, this book might just put you off. It’s c
James Langer
Feb 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I first picked up this book when I was going through an identity crisis in the seventh or eight grade. Many books have made me think, many books have changed my opinions before, but the Heart of the Buddha's Teachings has been the only book to change my life. I remember the very day when I read a passage from this piece and it was like a great awakening.
Adding this one to the list of "books that have changed my life." This is an excellent, clearly-written explanation of major tenets of Zen Buddhism. My only complaint is the use of terms without definitions. For some unfamiliar terms, definitions are provided late in the text, while others go completely unexplained. Overall, though, a lovely and important read.
Nov 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A delightfully rendered and faithful dive into the core teachings of the Buddha. Covers the four noble truths and noble eightfold path in exhaustive detail and clear, modern language, with a deep exploration into suffering, desire, it's causes and how to break the cycle of samsara.

If I could take half a star away it would be only that it can become a bit dense, repetitive, and requiring of significant focus when diving into the many numbered lists, concepts, and categories of the many factors of
Twila Newey
Mar 19, 2019 rated it liked it
I listened to this, which was probably a mistake. There were so many terms with which I am not yet familiar and numbered lists of teachings related to other teachings. I do love the circularity of Buddhism. I love the central tenet of the many in the one, as well as the acceptance of impermanence as the state we inhabit. And that you need not be Buddhist to practice the principles of Buddhism. I let it wash over me and in doing so found that much of it feels spiritually true, as well as having h ...more
Jun 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
A great introduction to many of the basic concepts of Buddhism and how you might apply them in your life. A couple of caveats, though: first, do not attempt to read this book straight through, at least not past the first 100 or so pages. The last section of the book is an enumeration of various Buddhist teachings generally formulated as lists, which I feel are much better consumed one or two at a time. The second is to be aware that Nhat Hanh is frequently presenting his own syncretic interpreta ...more
Craig Werner
Oct 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The best introduction to Buddhism I've come across. Clear, as should be the case, practical in its focus. Simple without simplifying.

The first two sections devote chapters to each of The Four Nobel Truths and each step of The Nobel Eightfold Path, followed by a section with chapters on various Buddhist approaches: the Two Truths, The Three Dharma Seals, The Three Doors of Liberation, The Three Bodies of Buddha; The Three Jewels and several others. (Not sure why Buddhists have such a thing for li
Feb 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Probably the best introduction to the trappings of Buddhist thought and methodologies; simultaneously instructing the reader in the way to be a mindful and useful human being.

Written by a man who is fully awake and filled with metta. Everyone should read this book. It should be taught at school. The world would be so much better for it.
Kim Yee
Dec 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Thich Nhat Hanh's writing is gentle, compassionate and joyful, each page was filled with inspirations for me to be a kinder person every day. You don't need to be a Buddhist to read and understand this book. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how to look deeply into ourselves and others, and reminds us that joy can be found in the here and now, we just need to pay attention to find it.
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Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist who now lives in southwest France where he was in exile for many years. Born Nguyễn Xuân Bảo, Thích Nhất Hạnh joined a Zen (Vietnamese: Thiền) monastery at the age of 16, and studied Buddhism as a novitiate. Upon his ordination as a monk in 1949, he assumed the Dharma name Thích Nhất Hạnh. Thích is an honorary ...more

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