Inner Freedom

Venerable Thich Nhat Tu visiting a women's prison in Vietnam.

Book Review: Inner Freedom

During my recent visit to Vietnam, I was very fortunate to meet many great monks and Buddhist teachers, one of whom was the Venerable Thich Nhat Tu, Ph.D. He is the abbot of a temple, a university professor, deputy rector of the Vietnam Buddhist University, deputy chair of the National Department of International Buddhist Affairs, editor-in chief of Buddhism Today magazine and the Vietnam Buddhist University Series, as well as a lecturer and learned monk. He has written over 40 books in Vietnamese and has started having his works translated into English.

Inner Freedom is a book of Dharma talks that Ven. Thich Nhat Tu gave at prisons in Vietnam. His lively style of teaching and practicing the Dharma comes across very well in this book. He speaks of the practical side of ignorance, desire/lust, and anger and how these aspects of egoist existence cause us to violate the laws of humanity and the cardinal precepts of Buddhism. He uses simple stories and explanations to help us understand freedom and the real prison of our own beginning-less greed, hate, and delusion.

In one wonderful tale he tells the story of the eel and the tilapia fish. They were very close friends and would often join together to play and hunt for food. One day the eel came to the tilapia and said, “I just found a wonderful ‘food pile’ – you must come with me and have some.”

Well the tilapia had just eaten and was really quite full so she suggested that the eel go on and eat without her. “But, I don’t want to eat alone,” cried the eel. Reluctantly the tilapia agreed to join her friend for a snack.

The “food pile” turned out to be a fish-trap, which had a large opening at one end (which was easy to enter) but a very narrow opening at the other end, making it impossible for a fish to exit easily. The eel charged right in and started gobbling up some delicious tidbits and the tilapia joined her after some coaxing.

After eating her fill the eel easily swam out of the narrow exit. When the tilapia tried to leave she could not get through and was soon grabbed by the fisherman. Both of them were sad and cried at their fate and both felt the terrible loss of friendship and freedom. The story ends there.

Ven. Thich Nhat Tu goes on to talk about the motivation and intent of each being. The eel wanted only to share good food with her friend, the tilapia wanted only to be with her friend. Good intentions on both parts caused the tilapia to become dinner for the fisherman. Venerable Thich Nhat Tu describes how many of us are lured by fish-traps in life: wealth, beauty, fame, food, entertainment etc. All of them are very tempting and yet all of them are fish-traps –easy to enter and difficult to exit.

In using simple tales Ven. Thich Nhat Tu allows us to easily see the nature of the fish-traps in our own lives and how we too have been caught like the tilapia and experience terrible suffering. “The way to turn around and reach the other shore of peace and happiness is to cultivate compassion”. Once we have turned, then we become aware of the other shore and the journey of Buddhist practice begins in earnest. It seems that just avoiding fish-traps will considerably shorten our journey.

Using simple stories and Buddha’s teachings, Thich Nhat Tu leads us towards realizing that the real bars of our prison are not made from metal and stone, but rather are created in our own minds.

These Dharma talks, while given to prisoners, are actually a way for all of us to look at our own lives and our own prisons. The Dharma talks have a fresh and easy manner yet are filled with guideposts and advice on Buddhist practice.

The Mt. Adams Zen Buddhist Temple hopes to place at least one copy of Inner Freedom in every prison library in Washington and Oregon. If you can help with this goal please contact us.

Inner Freedom is available from Mt. Adams Zen Buddhist Temple, PO Box 487, Trout Lake WA 98650 (e-mail [email protected]). There is no charge for the book but we would appreciate a $5.00 donation to help with postage. The Vietnam Buddhist University Publications published this book. You can contact them at [email protected] or their website


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Contributor: Ven. Thich Minh Tinh (Kozen Sampson).
Photo: Courtesy of Ven. Thich Nhat Tu/Buddhism Today.