- True Virtue: The Journey of an English Buddhist Nun by Annabel Laity
The structure of this engaging autobiography initially appears to be that of a travelogue. Its chapters move geographically and chronologically from "Childhood in Cornwall," through Europe, Asia, and the United States, to "Fragrant Stream:" a secluded, tree-filled area in Plum Village's Upper Hamlet in France where nuns and monks can practice alone when they desire. Sr. Annabel Laity now lives there when she's not teaching, writing, or simply enjoying Plum Village's other monasteries in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Now in her early seventies, she's the second person that Thich Nhat Hahn fully ordained into his Plum Village Vietnamese Rinzai monastic lineage. In addition to recounting her geographical travels, this book also traces her spiritual journey through Buddhist practices that transport her from suffering frequently to enjoying life more frequently.
Sr. Annabel (as she's called by many non-Vietnamese practitioners) begins her journey with snapshots of her family's 300-acre, generations-old farm on Cornwall's coast and of sailing solo while still a child in the inlet that their land overlooks. As she journeys, her intuitive, childhood reverence for her ancestors' beautiful land expands to include the lands of everyone's ancestors.
Ever the careful teacher, Sr. Annabel pulls three themes through the book. First, she writes extensively about her relationship with her parents. Second, she traces her youthful relationships with Anglican and Roman Catholic parishes, schools, campus ministries, and convents. In her afterword, she shares her perceptions of contemporary Christian monasticism. Third, she frames her life as a Buddhist practitioner with the image of the mendicant's cane. This multifaceted Buddhist symbol points back to the earliest descriptions of the Buddha's monastic followers: people who had "gone forth" from their blood kin to live a peripatetic, less predictable, and seemingly more independent life.
This book review will consider how Sr. Annabel uses her reflections on these themes to teach the Buddha's Dharma: which Plum Village describes as his program for alleviating suffering. She does this, in part, by examining how she slowly learns to embody the buddhadharma by building harmonious "four-fold sanghas," that is, interdependent communities of lay men and women and monastic men and women. Plum Village's monastic sangha has been multicultural since its 1988 beginning: a Vietnamese Zenmaster ordaining a Vietnamese and an English bhikkshuni and a Vietnamese novice to practice peace while helping lead a refugee community with many non-practitioners. Fostering harmony wasn't easy. British monastics have remained a minority. In Plum Village and several other Buddhist lineages, teaching the buddhadharma also entails fostering harmonious community outside the sangha: beginning with the monastery's neighborhood and extending to the entire planet. This, too, isn't easy.
Sr. Annabel's highly readable journey from suffering to less suffering begins with an epigraph by Thich Nhat Hanh that explains, in part, her Vietnamese ordination name, Chan Duc, translated "True Virtue." [End Page 346]
The first virtue is the virtue of putting an end to afflictions;letting go of anger, craving, fear, and delusion.
The second virtue is the virtue of loving;having the capacity to accept, forgive and embrace the other person.
The third virtue is the virtue of insight:the ability to look deeply so you can gain insightso you can resolve your difficulties and help other people.1
In her preface, which follows immediately, she muses that, initially, "I was not impressed by the name and I tried to forget about it." But then, I felt happy when I learned about the virtue of cutting off afflictions … I felt this was something I could do, bit by bit" (x).
The rest of the book reflects on: (a) the afflictions that she inherited, inflicted on herself, and inflicted on others, and (b) her efforts to shed her habits that cause suffering "bit by bit" and develop the virtues of love and insight. These virtues strengthened her to help build harmonious communities. With great poignancy she...