A delightful and enlightening read on Thich Nhat Hanh’s youth when he first entered the Zen monastery:
I ENTERED THE ZEN MONASTERY when I was seventeen years old. After a week’s adjustment to monastic life, I presented myself before the monk who had been put in charge of me to ask him to teach me the Zen “way.” He gave me a small book printed in Chinese characters and recommended I learn it by heart.
Having thanked him, I retired to my room with the small book. This book-which is famous-is divided into three parts: 1) Essentials of Discipline to Apply Each Day; 2) Essential Elements of Discipline for a Novice;
3) Exhortation of the Zen Master Kuai Chan.
There is no Zen philosophy in this book. The three parts treat practical problems only. The first teaches the method of mind control and concentration; the second sets down the required discipline and behavior of monastic life; the third part is a very beautiful piece of writing, an exhortation addressed to Zen disciples to encourage them in their meditations so that they will take to heart the fact that their time and life are precious and should not be vainly dissipated.
I was assured that not only novices of my age must start with this book-which is called Loot Tieu in Vietnamese (Little Manual of Discipline) -but that monks of even thirty or forty years of age must also follow the prescriptions of Luat Tieu.
Before entering the monastery, I had already received a little Western education, and I had the impression that the method of teaching the doctrine in the monastery was old-fashioned.
First it was necessary to learn by heart the whole book; then people were to engage in its practice, without even having been given the fundamental principles of the theory. I unburdened myself to another novice who had already been there two years. “It is the way followed here,” he told me. “If you want to learn Zen, you must accept this way.” I had to resign myself to it.
The first part of the Little Manual, “Essentials of Discipline to Apply Each Day,” contains only formulations aimed at bringing about Awareness of Being (samyak smriti). Each act of the novice must be accompanied by a particular thought. For example, when I wash my hands, I must evoke this thought: “Washing my hands, I wish that the whole world should have very pure hands, capable of holding the Truth of Enlightenment.”
When I am sitting in the Meditation Hall, I must think: “In this upright position, I wish that all living beings should be seated on the throne of perfect enlightenment, their mind purified of all illusion and of all error.” And even when I am in the toilet I say to myself: “Being in the toilet, I wish that all living beings might rid themselves of greed, hatred, ignorance, and all other defilements.”
“Essentials of Discipline to Apply Each Day” contains a limited number of similar thoughts. A ready intelligence should be able to make up others to be used on different occasions. Those proposed by the Manual are only examples; the practitioner can modify them, even change them and make them into others more suited to his needs and to his physiological and mental conditions. Suppose I should be about to use the telephone and I wish to evoke in my mind a thought capable of keeping me in a state of Awareness. This thought is not found in the Little Manual because at the time the book was written there were no telephones. I could then invent a thought like the following: “Using the telephone, I wish that all living beings should free themselves of doubt and prejudice in order that communication between them should be readily established.”
When I was seventeen years old, I thought that the Little Manual was designed for children or for people on the fringes of Zen. I did not attach any more importance to this method than as preparation. Today, twenty-nine years later, I know that the Little Manual is the very essence of Zen and Buddhism.
(Source: Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys, Chapter One, The Little Book)