Understanding: The Key to Community Building

In a world full of divisive issues, the principles of Vietnamese Monks attempt to build a unified and understanding community.


| December 2016



Hands

Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that people "listen more deeply, and allow others to speak," as differing points of view do not have to divide people, but rather they can create a better life for everyone involved.

Photo by Fotolia/Prawny

I'm Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up (New Society, 2016) by James Hoggan with Grania Litwin examines the current state of public discourse in the world. Hoggan spent four years traveling the world to ask leading thinkers why issues like climate change and income inequality have become so polarizing. This excerpt comes from chapter 21, "Speak the Truth, But Not to Punish," gives readers the tools necessary to build a community based on understanding.

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A couple of years ago, my wife Enid and I participated in a five-day program at the University of British Columbia with the renowned Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

“As activists we want to do something to help the world to suffer less,” Thich Nhat Hanh said, but when we’re not peaceful, when we don’t have enough compassion in us, we are unable to do much to help the world. “Peace, love, and happiness must always begin in us, with ourselves first. There is suffering, fear, and anger inside of us, and when we take care of it, we are taking care of the world.”

Thich Nhat Hanh used the example of a pine tree and suggested, what if that tree asked us what it could do to help the world? Our answer would be very clear: “You should be a beautiful, healthy pine tree. You help the world by being your best.” That is true for humans also. The most basic thing we can do to help the world is to be healthy, solid, loving, and gentle to ourselves. Then when people look at us, they will gain confidence and say, If he or she can do that, I can too. So anything you do for yourself, you do for the world, he said. “Don’t think that you and the world are two separate things. When you breathe in mindfully and gently, when you feel the wonder of being alive, remember that you’re also doing this for the world. Practicing with that kind of insight, you will succeed in helping the world. Youdon’t have to wait until tomorrow. You can do it right now.”

During the retreat, lectures invariably touched on the subject of anger, and I listened as he encouraged me to examine the anger I felt toward special interests that mislead the public about the environmental challenges we face. One day Thich Nhat Hanh told us Buddha’s story of the second arrow: When an arrow strikes you there is pain, but if a second arrow drives into the same spot, the pain is excruciating, much worse. The Buddha advised when you have pain in your body or your mind, breathe in and out and recognize the significance of the pain but don’t exaggerate its importance. If you are full of anger, worry and fear over the pain you magnify the suffering. This is the second arrow — and it is directed from within.