Radical Compassion

Thich Nhat Hanh, whose activism enraged both sides in the Vietnam war, believes happiness is a tool for peace

| January/February 2002

A small, quiet man with the energy of a dynamo, Thich Nhat Hanh is a monk, teacher, poet, novelist, and tireless globe-circler who leads meditation retreats from California to Moscow. He headed the Vietnamese Buddhist delegation to the Paris peace talks on the war in Vietnam, and in 1967 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize -by Martin Luther King Jr. He enraged both the Hanoi and Saigon regimes with his even-handed desire for peace. After North Vietnam’s victory, they exiled him for refusing to declare himself pro-Hanoi.

All of his work, from publishing to international activism, is rooted in the premise that simple happiness, achieved right now with the aid of a calmed mind and special attention to our breathing, is the deepest and most fundamental 'peace work.'

Whether he is recommending dishwashing as a mindful and joyous form of meditation, encouraging drivers to think of red lights as 'a bodhisattva helping us return to the present moment,' or spearheading an international initiative, he shows that personal and global peacemaking means facing—courageously and compassionately—the world exactly as it is.

But how would he deal with Osama bin Laden? Author Anne Simpkinson asked him that question in an interview in the online spirituality journal Beliefnet.com. 'The first thing I would do is listen,' said Nhat Hanh. 'I would try to understand why he had acted in that cruel way. I would try to understand all of the sufferings that had led him to violence. . . . 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, trust that they are really being heard.

'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 to help them to discover their own misunderstandings so that they will stop violent acts from their own will.

'When we react out of fear and hatred, we do not yet have a deep understanding of the situation. . . . 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.'

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