Old Path White Clouds chronicles the life of one of the greatest teachers to grace the earth – Gautama Buddha. The author, the venerated Thich Nhat Hanh, is also one of the best known teachers of Buddhism in the world, having spent a lifetime spreading the message of non-violence and teaching the practice of mindfulness. He has been honoured numerously and has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. The Vietnamese monk has also been associated with global political issues like the Vietnam War, the Israel – Palestine conflict and demonstrations in Mayanmar.
The prose is very simple and perhaps, for that reason, reading the book is such a powerful experience – one can completely relate to Siddhartha and his transformation to Tathagata. The feelings and emotions of people around him are also depicted without any embellishments and one feels transported to the time – King Suddhodhana’s understandable insecurity when his son is prophesised to be a great ascetic, Yashodhara’s conflict in preparing herself for her husband’s departure in search of something nobody even knows exists, the shift in the state of mind that people feel on meeting Buddha or coming across his teaching etc. In the beginning, the narrative focuses on young Svasti, who belongs to an untouchable caste and tends water buffaloes to make a livelihood for himself and his baby siblings. He is drawn to the radiant Siddartha, who comes to stay near the village towards the culmination of his spiritual practice. A tender friendship develops and Svasti is eventually ordained into the monastic order many years later. Through Svasti we also get an outsider’s perspective of watching Siddartha become the Buddha. The evolution of Buddhism during Buddha’s lifetime has been very believably described because the author unpretentiously describes the obstacles encountered at different phases of the movement – the trivial ones like how the logistics were arranged for accommodating and feeding the growing number of bhikkus every season and how guidelines for their conduct and behaviour with society emerged to more grave ones like unfavourable public opinion when a social outcast is included in the Sangha or the politics among spiritual teachers that even leads to assassination attempts on the Buddha’s life.
It is the story of a profound journey that took place a long time ago and yet is no less alluring, many centuries later, because of the timelessness of its message. Despite all the control that the human race has learnt to wield over the forces of nature, eternal peace has always been a quest that all generations in history have been mystified with. The great Shakyamuni not only pursued that quest successfully but the path that he outlined has served to bring peace to many through the ages. At a time when we can hear explosions of violence not just in distant battlefields but also in our own neighbourhoods, the Buddha becomes all the more relevant today. Old Path White Clouds serves as a faithful reminder, a very palpable echo of silence, which the Buddha so completely embodied.