Book Review of Eyes of Compassion: Learning From Thich Nhat Hanh, Jim Forest, Orbis Books, 2021
When I was working for Amnesty International in the 1980s, I began a correspondence with Jim Forest (who was working for Fellowship of Reconciliation at the time) that continues to thrive and flourish. I also began in the 1990s a correspondence with Thich Nhat Hanh (certainly not as extensive as the one I have had with Jim over the decades). So, it was a delight and joy to meditatively read the much more extensive journey of Jim with Thich Nhat Hanh. The subtitle is apt indeed–Learning From Thich Nhat Hanh. I suspect Nhat Hanh has also learned much from Jim Forest. Such experiences do knit people together well and wisely.
Eyes of Compassion threads together about 70 short reflections on the journey of Thich Nhat Hanh and Jim’s pilgrimage with him.The period of time covered, obviously, cannot ignore the American involvement in Vietnam and the role of many seekers of justice and peace in the USA (and elsewhere) doing what they could to support Buddhist peacemakers like Thich Nhat Hanh (and other Buddhist monks and nuns inspired by his life and writings). There is a sense that this short book, replete with touching and telling black-white photos, is also a recounting of both dark times and those who were light-bearers in such a tragic period of history. Each of the short reflections (and they are just that) need to be quietly sat with to fully appreciate their time tried wisdom and insights.
The kindly and thoughtful, personal and tender, “Introduction” by Mobi Warren is well worth many a read. I mentioned that the many photographs in the book speak much about Jim and Thich Nhat Hanh’s journey together, but the many sketches in the book have both abundant literal and symbolic significance. In short, the combination of text, photos and sketches makes this missive of a book an entrée of sorts into the deeper meaning of eyes, seeing, compassion, friendship, justice and peacemaking—well worth the journey of understanding.
Amnesty International has a logo that states “Better to Light a Candle than Curse the Darkness.” There is a definite sense in which Jim Forest and Thich Nhat Hanh have been candles in such darkness and Eyes of Compassion: Learning From Thich Nhat Hanh highlights how they (and many others mentioned in the book) have been such flickering yet consistent and enduring lights.
Thich Nhat Hanh has, for many in the West, become a symbol (like the Dalai Lama) of the Buddhist meditative and mindful way but few know about the nature of his more personal journey that Jim so thoughtfully recounts. And, as the notion of “Engaged Buddhism” has become prominent, compassion became even more essential as a corrective to the legitimate demands of justice. This seemingly small book is not so small when understood in its deeper meaning and significance. Do read and inwardly digest—much nutrition indeed for soul and society.
University of the Fraser Valley