Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the Living Spiritual Teachers profiled on Spirituality & Practice, is a Vietnamese monk in the Zen tradition, who worked tirelessly for peace during the Vietnam War, rebuilding villages destroyed by the hostilities. In 1967, he was nominated by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is internationally known for his teaching and writing on mindfulness and for his work related to "socially engaged Buddhism."
In September 2001, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Thich Nhat Hanh shared his thoughts on how America should respond to terrorism. The interview by Anne A. Simpkinson was first published on Beliefnet.com. It was reprinted in Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism by Parallax Press.
Osama bin Laden was killed by American Navy SEALS on May 2, 2011, in a compound where he had been hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In December 2012, a movie dramatizing the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty directed by Kathryn Bigelow, was released. After seeing the film and the response to it, we at Spirituality & Practice decided it was time to once again call the world's attention to Thich Nhat Hanh's wisdom on a compassionate and healing response to terrorism. We are reprinting this interview with the permission of Parallax Press.
beliefnet: If you could speak to Osama bin Laden, what would you say to him? Likewise, if you were to speak to the American people, what would you suggest we do at this point, individually and as a nation?
Thich Nhat Hanh: If I were given the opportunity to be face to face with Osama bin Laden, the first thing I would do is listen. I would try to understand why he had acted in that cruel way. I would try to understand all of the suffering that had led him to violence. It might not be easy to listen in that way, so I would have to remain calm and lucid. I would need several friends with me, who are strong in the practice of deep listening, listening without reacting, without judging and blaming. In this way, an atmosphere of support would be created for this person and those connected so that they could share completely and trust that they are really being heard.
After listening for some time, we might need to take a break to allow what has been said to enter into our consciousness. Only when we felt calm and lucid would we respond. We would respond point by point to what had been said. We would respond gently but firmly in such a way as to help them discover their own misunderstandings so that of their own will they will stop committing violent acts.
For the American people, I would suggest that we do everything we can to restore our calm and our lucidity before responding to the situation. To respond too quickly before we have much understanding of the situation may be very dangerous. The first thing we can do is to cool the flames of anger and hatred that are so strong in us. As mentioned before, it is crucial to look at the way we feed the hatred and violence within us and to take immediate steps to cut off the nourishment for our hatred and violence.
When we react out of fear and hatred, we do not yet have a deep understanding of the situation. Our action will only be a very quick and superficial way of responding to the situation and not much true benefit and healing will occur. Yet if we wait and follow the process of calming our anger, looking deeply into the situation, and listening with great will to understand the roots of suffering that are the cause of the violent actions, only then will we have sufficient insight to respond in such a way that healing and reconciliation can be realized for everyone involved.
In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made attempts to realize this. All the parties involved in violence and injustice agreed to listen to each other in a calm and supportive environment, to look together deeply at the roots of violent acts and to find some way of making peace. The presence of strong spiritual leaders is very helpful to support and maintain such an environment. We can look at this model for resolving conflicts that are arising right in the present moment; we do not have to wait many years to realize this.
beliefnet: You personally experienced the devastation caused by the war fought in Vietnam and you worked to end the hostilities there. What do you say to people who are grief-stricken and enraged because they have lost loved ones in the terrorist attack?
TNH: I did lose my spiritual sons and daughters during the Vietnam war when they entered the fighting zone trying to save those under the bombs. Some were murdered because of a misunderstanding that they were supporting the other side. When I looked at the slain corpses of my spiritual children, I suffered deeply.
I understand the suffering of those who have lost beloved ones in this tragedy. In situations of great loss and grief, I had to find my calm in order to restore my lucidity and my heart of understanding and compassion. With the practice of deep looking, I realized that if we respond to cruelty with cruelty, injustice and suffering will only increase.
When the village of Ben Tre village in Vietnam was bombed and 300,000 homes were destroyed, the pilots told journalists that they had destroyed the village in order to save it. I was shocked and angry when I heard this. I practiced walking calmly and gently on the earth to bring back my calm mind and peaceful heart.
Although it was very challenging to maintain my openness in such moments, it was crucial not to respond in any way until I had calmness and clarity about the situation. To respond with violence and hatred would only damage myself and those around me. All of us practiced looking deeply into the suffering of the people inflicting violence on us, to understand them more deeply and to understand ourselves more deeply. With this understanding, we were able to produce compassion and to relieve our own suffering and that of the other side.
beliefnet: What is the "right action" to take with regard to responding to terrorist attacks? Should we seek justice through military action? Through judicial processes? Is military action and/or retaliation justified if it can prevent future innocents from being killed?
TNH: All violence is injustice. The fire of hatred and violence cannot be extinguished by adding more hatred and violence to the fire. The only antidote to violence is compassion. And what is compassion made of? It is made of understanding. When there is no understanding, how can we feel compassion, how can we begin to relieve the great suffering that is there? So understanding is the very real foundation upon which we build our compassion.
How do we gain the understanding and insight to guide us through such incredibly challenging moments that we now face in America? To understand, we must find paths of communication so that we can listen to those who desperately are calling out for our understanding — because such an act of violence is a desperate call for attention and for help.
How can we listen in a calm and clear way so that we don't immediately kill the chance for understanding to develop? As a nation we need to look into this: how to create the situations for deep listening to occur so that our response to the situation may arise out of our calm and clear mind. Clarity is a great offering that we can make at this time.
There are people who want one thing only: revenge. In the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha said that by using hatred to answer hatred, there would only be an escalation of hatred. But if we use compassion to embrace those who have harmed us, it will greatly defuse the bomb in our hearts and in theirs.
So how can we bring about a drop of compassion that can put out the fire of hatred? You know, they do not sell compassion in the supermarket. If they sold compassion, we would only need to bring it home and we could solve the problem of hatred and violence in the world very easily. But compassion can only be produced in our own heart by our own practice.
America is burning with hatred. We have to tell our friends, "You are children of Christ, of Mohammed, of Moses, and of the Buddha." You have to return to yourselves and look deeply and find out why this violence happened. Why is there so much hatred? What lies under all this violence? Why do they hate so much that they would sacrifice their own lives and bring about so much suffering to other people? Why would these young people, full of vitality and strength, have chosen to lose their lives, to commit such violence? That is what we have to understand.
We have to find a way to stop violence, of course. If need be, we have to put the men responsible in prison. But the important thing is to look deeply and ask, "Why did that happen? What responsibility do we have in that happening?" Maybe they misunderstood us. But what has made them misunderstand us so much to make them hate so much?
The method of the Buddha is to look deeply to see the source of suffering; the source of the violence. If we have violence within ourselves, any action can make that violence explode. This energy of hatred and violence can be very great and when we see that in the other person, then we feel sorry for them. When we feel sorry for them, the drop of compassion is born in our hearts and we feel so much happier and so much more at peace in ourselves. That produces the nectar of compassion within ourselves.
If you come to the monastery, it is in order to learn how to look deeply, so that whenever you suffer and feel angry, the drop of compassion in your heart can come out and can put out the fever of anger. Only the drop of compassion can put out the flames of hatred.
We must look deeply and honestly at our present situation. If we are able to see the sources for the suffering within ourselves and within the other person, we can begin to unravel the cycle of hatred and violence. When our house is on fire, we must first put out the fire before investigating its cause. Likewise, if we first extinguish the anger and hatred in our own heart, we will have a chance to deeply investigate the situation with clarity and insight in order to determine all the causes and conditions that have contributed to the hatred and violence we are experiencing within ourselves and within our world.
The "right action" is the action that results in the fires of hatred and violence being extinguished.
beliefnet: Do you believe that evil exists? And, if so, would you consider terrorists to be evil persons?
TNH: Evil exists. God exists also. Evil and God are two sides of ourselves. God is that great understanding, that great love within us. That is what we call Buddha also, the enlightened mind that is able to see through all ignorance.
What is evil? It is when the face of God, the face of the Buddha within us has become hidden. It is up to us to choose whether the evil side becomes more important, or whether the side of God and the Buddha shines out. Although the side of great ignorance, of evil, may be manifesting strongly at one time, that does not mean that God is not there.
It is said clearly in the Bible, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." This means that an act of evil is an act of great ignorance and misunderstanding. Perhaps many wrong perceptions are behind an act of evil; we have to see that ignorance and misunderstanding are the root of the evil. Every human being contains within him or herself all the elements of great understanding, great compassion, and also ignorance, hatred, and violence.
beliefnet: In your book Anger, you give an example of "compassionate listening" as a tool to heal families. Can that tool be used at a national level, and if so, how would that work?
TNH: This past summer a group of Palestinians and Israelis came to Plum Village, the practice center where I live in southern France, to learn and practice the arts of deep listening and loving speech. (Around 1,600 people come to Plum Village each summer from over a dozen countries to listen and to learn how to bring peace and understanding to their daily lives.) The group of Palestinians and Israelis participated in the daily schedule of walking meditation, sitting meditation, and silent meals, and they also received training on how to listen and speak to each other in such a way that more understanding and peace could be possible between them as individuals and as nations.
With the guidance and support of the monks and nuns, they sat down and listened to each other. When one person spoke, no one interrupted him or her. Everyone practiced mindfulness of their breathing and listening in such a way that the other person felt heard and understood.
When a person spoke, they refrained from using words of blame, hatred, and condemnation. They spoke in an atmosphere of trust and respect. From these dialogues the participating Palestinians and Israelis realized that both sides suffer from fear. They appreciated the practice of deep listening and made arrangements to share what they had learned with others upon returning to their home countries.
We recommended that the Palestinians and Israelis talk about their suffering, fears, and despair in a public forum that all the world could hear. We could all listen without judging, without condemning in order to understand the experience of both sides. This would prepare the ground of understanding for peace talks to occur.
The same situation now exists between the American people and people of Islamic and Arabic nations. There is much misunderstanding. The lack of communication hinders our ability to resolve our difficulties peacefully.
beliefnet: Compassion is a very large part of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. But at this point in time, compassion towards terrorists seems impossible to muster. Is it realistic to think people can feel true compassion now?
TNH: Without understanding, compassion is impossible. When you understand the suffering of others, you do not have to force yourself to feel compassion, the door of your heart will just naturally open. All of the hijackers were so young and yet they sacrificed their lives for what? Why did they do that? What kind of deep suffering is there? It will require deep listening and deep looking to understand that.
To have compassion in this situation is to perform a great act of forgiveness. We can first embrace the suffering, both outside of America and within America. We need to look after the victims here within our country and also to have compassion for the hijackers and their families because they are also victims of ignorance and hatred. In this way we can truly practice nondiscrimination. We do not need to wait many years or decades to realize reconciliation and forgiveness. We need a wake up call now in order not to allow hatred to overwhelm our hearts.
beliefnet: Do you believe things happen for a reason? If so, what was the reason for the attacks on the United States?
TNH: The deep reason for our current situation is our patterns of consumption. U.S. citizens consume sixty percent of the world's energy resources yet they account for only six percent of the world's total population. Children in America have witnessed 100,000 acts of violence on television by the time they finish elementary school. Another reason for our current situation is our foreign policy and the lack of deep listening within our relationships. We do not use deep listening to understand the suffering and the real needs of people in other nations.
beliefnet: What do you think would be the most effective spiritual response to this tragedy?
TNH: We can begin right now to practice calming our anger, looking deeply at the roots of the hatred and violence in our society and in our world, and listening with compassion in order to hear and understand what we have not yet had the capacity to hear and to understand. When the drop of compassion begins to form in our hearts and minds, we begin to develop concrete responses to our situation. When we have listened and looked deeply, we may begin to develop the energy of brotherhood and sisterhood between all nations, which is the deepest spiritual heritage of all religious and cultural traditions. In this way the peace and understanding within the whole world is increased day by day.
To develop the drop of compassion in our own heart is the only effective spiritual response to hatred and violence. That drop of compassion will be the result of calming our anger, looking deeply at the roots of our own violence, deep listening, and understanding the suffering of everyone involved in the acts of hatred and violence.
Reprinted from Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism (2005) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.