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#2620 - Saturday, October
21, 2006 - Editor: Gloria Lee
Listening Deeply for Peace
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Shambhala Sun | November 2003
Without deep listening and gentle loving speech it is very difficult to move
towards peace. Peace will only become a reality, says Thich Nhat Hanh,
when world leaders come to negotiations with the ability to hear the
suffering at the root of all conflicts.
A traditional Vietnamese Zen garden is very
different from a Japanese
Zen garden. Our Zen gardens, called hon non bo, are wild and
exuberant, more playful than the formal Japanese gardens with their
restrained patterns. Vietnamese Zen gardens are seriously unserious.
For us, the whole world is contained in this peaceful place. All activities
of life unfold in true peace in the garden: in one part, children will be
playing, and in another part, some elderly men will be having a chess
game; couples are walking; families are having picnics; animals are free
to wander around. Beautiful trees are growing next to abundant grasses
and flowers. There is water, and there are rock formations. All
ecologies are represented in this one microecology without
discrimination. It is a miniature, peaceful world. It is a beautiful living
metaphor for what a new global ethic could bring.
War is not a necessary condition of life.
The root of war, as with all
conflicts, is ignorance, ignorance of the inherent goodness ≠ the
buddhanature ≠ in every human being. The potential for ignorance lives in
all of us; it gives rise to misunderstanding, which can lead to violent
thoughts and behavior. Although ignorance and violence may not have
manifested in your life, when conditions are sufficient, they can. This is
why we all have to be very careful not to water these seeds and not to
allow them to develop roots and grow into arrows.
The Roots of War
When one country attacks another, it is out
of great fear and a kind of
collective ignorance. For instance, the French fought to keep Vietnam as
their colony, because they thought that if they possessed Vietnam, they
would be happy. So they sent many young men to Vietnam to kill and to
be killed. We know, when we look deeply, that happiness does not
come from possessing something or someone; it comes from kindness
and compassion, from helping to ease suffering.
If the American people had sat down and
practiced looking deeply, they
would have seen that the Vietnam War was entirely unnecessary, that
their own lives could not be improved through the suffering of another
country or the suffering of their own young men. The United States
senselessly wasted many lives in this war when it could have supported
both North and South Vietnam in their different models of development,
helping the Communists and the non-Communists alike to rebuild their
societies. This would have been much wiser than supporting one side
and fighting the other. If France and the United States had yielded
autonomy to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, helping these
countries to develop instead of waging war, all sides would have profited
from such a friendly relationship. After a long period of suffering, these
countries are finally moving in this direction, but this could have
happened much earlier without the terrible loss of life.
All violence is injustice. We should not
inflict that injustice on ourselves or
on other people. Historians and teachers as well as politicians should
look deeply at the suffering caused by wars, not just at the justifications
that governments give for them. We have to teach our children the truth
about war so they learn from our experiences and understand that
violence and war are not the right way, that they are not the right actions
to take. We have to show our children that people on both sides of war ≠
the French and American soldiers in Vietnam as well as the Vietnamese
people ≠ were victims of the ignorance and violence rooted in their
societies and governments. Remember, there were no winners.
As long as we allow hatred to grow in us,
we continue to make
ourselves and others suffer. As we look deeply at the wars in our recent
history, we have to transform our hatred and misunderstanding into
compassion. We have to recognize that those who have made us suffer
are also victims. Many who had a father, brother or friend killed in the
Vietnam War have been able to transcend their suffering and to
reconcile with the other side, Vietnamese and American. They have
done this for their own sake and for the sake of their children.
How can we as individuals influence the
collective consciousness of our
nations and move in the direction of peace? We do this by uprooting the
roots of violence and war within ourselves. To prevent war, we cultivate
nonviolence. We practice mindfulness in our daily life so that we can
recognize and transform the poisons within us and our nation. When we
practice nonviolence in our daily life, we see the positive effects on our
families, society and government.
Peace Is Possible
In the summer of 2001 in our community in
Plum Village, France, about
eighteen-hundred people came and practiced with us. Among them were
a few dozen Palestinians and Israelis. We sponsored these people
hoping they could have the opportunity to practice walking meditation
together, to share a meal together, to listen to the teachings of
mindfulness practice and to learn the act of deep listening and gentle,
loving speech. The Israelis and Palestinians spent two weeks with us
and participated in all activities.
At the end of their stay, the whole
community gathered together and our
visitors stood up and gave a report. After only two weeks of practice,
they had transformed very deeply. They had become a community of
brothers and sisters, Palestinians and Israelis. They said to us, "Dear community,
dear Thich Nhat Hanh, when we first came to Plum Village
we couldn't believe it. Plum Village did not look real to us because it is
so peaceful. In Plum Village, we did not feel the kind of anger, tension
and fear that we feel constantly in the Middle East. People look at each
other with kind eyes, they speak to each other lovingly. There is peace,
there is communication and there is brotherhood and sisterhood." One
member of the delegation said, "We spent two weeks in paradise."
Another person wrote to me after he returned home and said, "This is
the first time that I have believed that peace is possible in the Middle
What did we do to make the third truth ≠
that well-being and peace are
possible ≠ real to them? Honestly, we did not do much. We just
embraced these friends from the Middle East as brothers and sisters.
They learned to walk mindfully with us, to breathe in and out mindfully
with us, to stop and be there in the present moment with us, and to get
in touch with what is pleasant, nourishing and healing around them and
within themselves. The practice is very simple, but supported by a
practicing sangha, they were able to succeed more quickly than on their
own and to touch the peace and happiness within each of them.
Together we all followed the basic
practice: to do everything mindfully.
We established ourselves in the here and now in order to touch life
deeply. We practiced mindfulness while we breathed and walked and
talked and brushed our teeth and chopped vegetables for meals and
washed dishes. That is the basic daily practice that our friends learned.
We in the sangha offered our support, sitting with our visitors and
practicing listening with compassion with them.
We trained them to speak in such a way that
the other side could hear
and understand and accept. They spoke in a calm way, not condemning
anyone, not judging anyone. They told the other side of all the suffering
that had happened to them and their children, to their societies. They all
had the chance to speak of their fear, anger, hatred and despair. Many
felt for the first time that they were listened to and that they were being
understood, which relieved a lot of suffering within them. We listened
deeply, opening our hearts with the intention to help them express and
Two weeks of the practice of deep listening
and using loving speech
brought a lot of joy to our visitors and to all of us in Plum Village. We
were reminded, hearing these stories, that during the Vietnam War, we
Vietnamese, too, had suffered terribly. Yet our practice allowed us then
and allows us still to see that our world is beautiful, with all the wonders
of life available every day. This is why we know that our friends from the
Middle East, too, can practice in the middle of war around them.
There were moments during the war when we
wished so hard that there
would be a cease-fire for just 24 hours. We thought that if we had only
24 hours of peace, we would have been able to breathe in and out and
smile to the flowers and the blue sky. But we did manage to breathe in
and out and smile, even then, because even the flowers had the courage
to bloom in the middle of war. Yet still, we wanted 24 hours of peace
during the war. We wanted the bombs to stop falling on us.
During the war in Vietnam, young people
came to me and asked, "Do
you think there will be an end to the war?" I could not answer them right
away. I practiced mindful breathing, in and out. After a long time I looked
at them and said, "My dear friends, the Buddha said everything is
impermanent, including war."
Before going back to the Middle East, our
friends promised us that they
would continue the practice. They told us that on the local level they
would organize weekly meetings so they could continue to walk
together, sit and breathe together, share a meal together and listen to
each other. Every month they have had an event to do this. They
practice true peace even in the midst of war.
True Peace Negotiations
When you come to any negotiation, whether
at work or in a meeting with
other parents, teachers or neighbors, you have hope for peace. When
your representatives go to a negotiation table, they hope for peace. But
if you and they do not master the art of deep listening and loving speech,
it is very difficult to move toward peace in any situation or to get
concrete results. If we have not transformed our inner block of suffering,
hatred and fear, it will prevent us from communicating, understanding
and making peace.
I beg the nations and governments who would
like to bring peace to the
Middle East and other countries to pay attention to this fact. We need
our governments to organize peace negotiations so that they will be
fruitful. A very important factor for success is creating a setting where
true communication can be practiced, where deep listening and gentle,
loving speech can occur. It may take one month or two just for people to
learn how to listen to each other, to talk so that the other side can hear
and understand. It is important not to be in a hurry to reach a conclusion
or an agreement about what to do for peace to be possible. One month
or two is nothing compared with years of pain and suffering. But if we
have a great determination, then five days may be enough to restore
communication between people. Two weeks were enough for our
Palestinian friends and our Israeli friends to begin to understand and to
accept each other as brothers and sisters, to begin to practice and
create peace. Two weeks were enough for them to have hope.
Too often in the past, peace conferences
have been environments
where people came and fought each other, not with weapons but with
their fear. When we are carried away by our fear and prejudices, we
cannot listen to others. We cannot just bring two sides together around a
table to discuss peace when they are still filled with anger, hatred and
hurt. If you cannot recognize your fear and anger, if you do not know
how to calm yourself, how can you sit at a peace table with your
enemy? Facing your enemy across a table, you will only continue to
fight. Unable to understand yourself, you will only continue to fight.
Unable to understand yourself, you will be unable to understand the
The secret of creating peace is that when
you listen to another person
you have only one purpose: to offer him an opportunity to empty his
heart. If you are able to keep that awareness and compassion alive in
you, then you can sit for one hour and listen even if the other person's
speech contains a lot of wrong perceptions, condemnations and
bitterness. You can continue to listen because you are already protected
by the nectar of compassion in your own heart. If you do not practice
mindful breathing in order to keep that compassion alive, however, you
can lose your own peace. Irritation and anger will come up, and the
other person will notice and will not be able to continue. Keeping your
awareness keeps you safe.
Peace conferences must create environments
that can help people calm
down and see that they are suffering and that the other side is suffering
also. Many leaders have tried to sponsor talks and discussion, but theirs
was not the way of practice. They did not practice to transform anger
and fear into deep listening and loving speech. When leaders do
practice, there will be a chance for true reconciliation. After the practices
of deep listening and kind and loving speech have dissolved bitterness,
fear and prejudice, people can begin to communicate with each other.
Then reaching peace will be much easier. Peace will become a reality.
Practicing Deep Listening with Other Countries
If America invests all her heart and mind
into this practice, then other
people will also be able to tell her about their suffering. If America goes
back to herself and restores the spirit of her forefathers, America will be
truly great. She will then be in a position to help other countries establish
similar forums, to invite other groups and countries to express
The setting must be one of safety and love.
Countries from around the
world can come together not as enemies that bomb and destroy each
other but as wise people sponsoring sessions of deep listening. All
nations could come and help with the practice; people from different
cultures and civilizations would have the opportunity to speak to one
another as fellow human beings who inhabit the same planet. In addition,
people who are not just politically minded but humanists who understand
the suffering of others could be invited ≠ people who know how to sit and
listen calmly, with compassion. These people would know how to create
an atmosphere of peace without fear so that others can have the
chance, the inspiration, and the desire to speak. We must be patient.
The process of learning about each other's suffering will take time.
If such an international forum were
broadcast around the world,
everyone could participate and have the chance to learn about the
causes of suffering. The first and second noble truths of the Buddha, the
awareness of suffering and the awareness of the causes of suffering,
could be practiced together by billions of people.
The first and second noble truths will lead
us to the third and fourth noble
truths; namely, the awareness that there is a path out of suffering and
that that path consists of certain concrete steps, such as right
understanding, right thinking, right speech and right action.
Creating Peace in the World
The antidote to violence and hatred is
compassion. There is no other
medicine. Unfortunately, compassion is not available in drugstores. You
have to generate the nectar of compassion in your heart. The teaching
of the Buddha gives us the means to generate the energy of
compassion. If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by
our projects, our uncertainty, our craving, how can we have the time to
stop and look deeply into the situation ≠ our own situation, the situation
of our beloved one, the situation of our family and of our community, and
the situation of our nation and of the other nations? Looking deeply, we
find out that not only do we suffer but also the other person suffers
deeply. Not only our group suffers but the other group also suffers.
Once awareness is born, we know that punishment, violence and war
are not the answer.
The one who wants to punish is inhabited by
violence. The one who
endures the suffering of the other person is also inhabited by the energy
of violence. Violence cannot be ended with violence. The Buddha said
that responding to hatred with hatred can only increase hatred a
thousandfold. Only by responding to hatred with compassion can we
The future is a notion.
The future is made of only one
present. If you are taking good care of the present moment, why do you
have to worry about the future? By taking care of the present, you are
doing everything you can to assure a good future. Is there anything else
you can do? Live the present moment in such a way that peace and joy
may be possible here and now ≠ that love and understanding may be
possible. Dwelling happily and peacefully in the present moment is the
best thing we can do to ensure peace and happiness in the future.
We have to practice looking deeply as a
nation if we want to get out of
this difficult situation of war and terrorism. Our practice will help the
other nations to practice. I am sure that America is very capable of
punishing. The United States can send bombs; the whole world knows
she is very capable of doing so. But America is great when she acts with
lucidity and compassion. I urge that when we are suffering, when we are
overcome by shock, we should not do anything, we should not say
anything. We should go home to ourselves and practice mindful
breathing and mindful walking to allow ourselves to calm down and to
allow lucidity to come, so we can understand the real roots of our
suffering and the suffering of the world. Only with that understanding can
compassion arise. America can be a great nation if she knows how to
act with compassion instead of punishment. We can offer peace. We
can offer the relief of transformation and healing.
It is my deep wish that the American people
and the people of other
countries become spiritual allies and practice compassion together.
Without a spiritual dimension and practice, we cannot really improve the
situation of the world. We can come together as a family in order to look
deeply into our own situation and the situation of the world.
Practicing peace is possible with every
step, with every breath. It is
possible for us to practice together and bring hope and compassion into
our daily lives and into the lives of our families, our community, our nation
and the world.
From Creating True Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh
© 2003 by the Venerable
Thich Nhat Hanh. Reprinted by permission of The Free Press, a division
of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen teacher, poet and
leader of the engaged
Buddhist movement. A well-known, anti-war activist in his native
Vietnam, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther
King, Jr. The author of more than forty books, he resides at Buddhist
practice centers in France and Vermont.
Listening Deeply for Peace, Thich Nhat
Hanh, Shambhala Sun, November 2003.
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