Thich Nhat Hanh on Terrorism and Compassion

Thich-Nhat-Hanh

This past Sunday, Krista Tippett of the public radio program, On Being, rebroadcast her interview with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk in exile, Thich Nhat Hanh, at a retreat in the United States about. ten years ago. Much of what he had to say is still relevant. Here is an excerpt from the transcript. You can find more on the web  of this particular program here.

In the transcript, Thich Nhat Hanh is referred to as “Brother Thay.”

Ms. Tippett: Some of the things you’ve said about the war on terror, you used the word “forgiveness” right away, and I don’t think that was a word that was anywhere in our public discourse in this country. But I also heard you this morning, when you were speaking with the group, talking about the responsibility of everyone also for policies, global policies. Say some more about that, about what role individuals have to play even in something like the war on terror, from your perspective.

Brother Thây: The individual has to wake up to the fact that violence cannot end violence, that only understanding and compassion can neutralize violence because, with the practice of loving speech and compassionate listening, you can begin to understand people and help people to remove the wrong perceptions in them because these wrong perceptions are at the foundation of their anger, their fear, their violence, their hate. And listen deeply. You might be able to remove the wrong perception you have within yourself concerning you and concerning them. So the basic practice in order to remove terrorism and war is the practice of removing wrong perceptions, and that cannot be done with the bombs and the guns. And it is very important that our political leaders realize that and apply the techniques of communication.

We live in a time when we have a very sophisticated means for communication, but communication has become very difficult between individuals and groups of people. A father cannot talk to a son, mother cannot talk to a daughter, and maybe husband cannot talk to a wife. And Israelis cannot talk to Palestinians, and Hindus cannot talk to Muslims. And that is why we have war, we have violence. That is why restoring communication is the basic work for peace, and our political and our spiritual leaders have to focus all their energy on this matter.

Ms. Tippett: But I think some would say — people in positions of power would say that they simply can’t wait for that communication to happen or for that change to take place, that they also have to act now.

Brother Thây: If they cannot communicate with themselves, if they cannot communicate with members of their family, if they cannot communicate with people in their own country, they have no understanding that will serve as a base for right action, and they will make a lot of mistakes.

Ms. Tippett: I’m wondering if, you know, by way of bringing this back to you and the practice and how you know the practice, if you would read this poem, “For Warmth,” and talk about how you think about anger and how one lives with anger. Being mindful doesn’t take away all these emotions. Right? These human emotions.

Brother Thây: Well, we have to remain human, you know, in order to be able to understand and to be compassionate. You have the right to be angry, but you don’t have the right not to practice in order to transform your anger. You have the right to make mistakes, but you don’t have the right to continue making mistakes. You have to learn from the mistakes.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. And would you say something about when you — the occasion on which you wrote this poem also?

Brother Thây: I wrote this poem after I hear the news that the city of Ben Tre was bombed, and an American army officer declared that he had to destroy the town in order to save the town. It was so very shocking for us. In fact, there were a number of guerillas who came to the town, and we use anti-aircraft gun to shoot, and, because of that, they bombarded the town and killed so many civilians.

Ms. Tippett: Was it 1965 or something like that?

Brother Thây: Yeah, around that time.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Brother Thây: [speaking Vietnamese]

Ms. Tippett: [translating]) “I hold my face between my hands. No, I am not crying. I hold my face between my hands to keep my loneliness warm, two hands protecting, two hands nourishing, two hands to prevent my soul from leaving me in anger.”

Brother Thây: When you notice that anger is coming up in you, you have to practice mindful breathing in order to generate the energy of mindfulness, in order to recognize your anger and embrace it tenderly, so that you can bring relief into you and not to act and to say things that can destroy, that can be destructive. And doing so, you can look deeply into the nature of the anger and know where it has come from. That practice help us to realize that not only Vietnamese civilians and military were victims of the war, but also American men and women who came to Vietnam to kill and to be killed were also victims of the war.

[music]

Ms. Tippett: So here’s the question that occurs to me again and again. These root causes are so simple in a way — wrong perception…

Brother Thây: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: …poor communication…

Brother Thây: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: …anger that may have its place in human life but then needs to be acted on mindfully, in your language. Why is it so hard for human beings — and I think this is as true in a family as it is in global politics mdash; to take these simple things seriously, these simple aspects of being human?

Brother Thây: I don’t think it is difficult. In the many retreats that we offer in Europe, in America, in many other countries, awakening, understanding, compassion and reconciliation can take place after a few days of practice. People need an opportunity so that the seed of compassion, understanding in them to be watered, and that is why we are not discouraged. We know that if there are more people joining in the work of offering that opportunity, then there will be a collective awakening.

Ms. Tippett: I look at you and I also see that you view the world through the eyes of compassion, which is another term you use, and that I see the weight of that on you. It is also a burden to look at the world straight and to see suffering and to see the sources of suffering wherever you look.

Brother Thây: When you have compassion in your heart, you suffer much less, and you are in a situation to be and to do something to help others to suffer less. This is true. So to practice in such a way that brings compassion into your heart is very important. A person without compassion cannot be a happy person. And compassion is something that is possible only when you have understanding. Understanding brings compassion. Understanding is compassion itself. When you understand the difficulties, the suffering, the despair of the other person, you don’t hate him, you don’t hate her anymore.

Ms. Tippett: What would compassion look like towards a terrorist, let’s say?

Brother Thây: The terrorists, they are victims of their wrong perceptions. They have wrong perceptions on themselves, and they have wrong perceptions of us. So the practice of communication, peaceful communication, can help them to remove their wrong perceptions on them and on us and the wrong perceptions we have on us and on them. This is the basic practice. This is the principle. And I hope that our political leaders understand this and take action right away to help us. And we, as citizens, we have to voice our concern very strongly because we should support our political leaders because we have help elect them. We should not leave everything to them. We should live out daily in such a way that we could have the time and energy in order to bring our light, our support to our political leaders. We should not hate our leaders. We should not be angry at our leaders. We should only support them and help them to see right in order to act right.

Ms. Tippett: I want to finish because I know I’ve taken a lot of your time. I want to ask you, this is from Fragrant Palm Leaves, which I know is a journal you wrote in the 1960s, but this is about Zen: “Zen is not merely a system of thought. Zen infuses our whole being with the most pressing question we have.” What are your pressing questions at this point in your life?

Brother Thây: Pressing questions?

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. What are the questions you work through in your practice just personally, I wonder.

Brother Thây: I do not have any questions right now. My practice is to live in the here and the now. And it is a great happiness for you to be able to live and to do what you like to live and to do. My practice is centered in the present moment. I know that if you know how to handle the present moment right, with our best, and then that is about everything you can do for the future. That is why I’m at peace with myself. That’s my practice every day, and that is very nourishing.

Ms. Tippett: And I wonder, living that way and practicing that way, does forgiveness become instinctive? Does there become a point where you no longer react with anger but immediately become compassionate and forgiving?

Brother Thây: When you practice looking at people with the eyes of compassion, that kind of practice will become a good habit. And you are capable of looking at the people in such a way that you can see the suffering, the difficulties. And if you can see, then compassion will naturally flow from your heart. It’s for your sake, and that is for their sake also. In The Lotus Sutra, there is a wonderful, five-word sentence. “Looking at living beings with the eyes of compassion,” and that brings you happiness, that brings relief into the world, and this practice can be done by every one of us.

I Declare World Peace.

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