Speak the Truth, But Not to Punish

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

| Spring 2017

  • Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to expand our compassion to embrace the Earth and all its inhabitants.
    Photo by Flickr/Geoff Livingston
  • Mindfulness leads us to understanding the interconnectedness of all life.
    Photo by Flickr/Lisa Risager
  • The lotus flower, which emerges from the mud pure and whole, is a symbol of strength.
    Photo by iStock/Heibaihui

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. You don’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.

The Buddha proposed many ways to practice reducing pain in our bodies and in our emotions, to become reconciled within ourselves. Pain increases as tension increases, and it can be reduced when we release the tension. The monk said that this can be done while lying, sitting or walking. “Walk like a free person ...The skill we need is how to lay down our burden in order to be light. The Buddha said that you shouldn’t amplify your pain by exaggerating the situation ... So when you experience pain, whether physical or mental, you have to recognize it just as it is and not exaggerate it ... When you can make peace with it, you won’t suffer as much.” When we get angry and revolt against something, when we worry too much and imagine we are going to die soon, our pain is multiplied 100 times. “That is the second arrow.”

If we want to help the environment suffer less, we have to reduce the suffering in ourselves, Thich Nhat Hanh explained simply. “Be loving, and gentle to yourself.” Avoid the second arrow. He talked about a heart of understanding that is beyond intellect, that is discovered by looking so deeply we touch the seed of understanding and compassion within. Compassion can neutralize anger and hate, and meditation can burn away afflictions such as fear, despair and delusion. “Deep meditation helps us transcend the notion of being and non-being. Nirvana is not a place we will arrive at in the future, but the nature of reality.”

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