A Public Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh at the Riverside Church, New York
My Dear friends, I would like to tell you how I practice when I get angry. During the war in Vietnam, there was a lot of injustice, and many thousands, including friends of mine, many disciples of mine, were killed. I got very angry. One time I learned that the city of Ben Tre, a city of three hundred thousand people, was bombarded by American aviation just because some guerillas came to the city and tried to shoot down American aircrafts. The guerillas did not succeed, and after that they went away. And the city was destroyed. And the military man who was responsible for that declared later that he had to destroy the city of Ben Tre to save it. I was very angry.
But at that time, I was already a practitioner, a solid practitioner. I did not say anything, I did not act, because I knew that acting or saying things while you are angry is not wise. It may create a lot of destruction. I went back to myself, recognizing my anger, embracing it, and looked deeply into the nature of my suffering.
In the Buddhist tradition, we have the practice of mindful breathing, of mindful walking, to generate the energy of mindfulness. It is exactly with that energy of mindfulness that we can recognize, embrace, and transform our anger. Mindfulness is the kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is going on inside of us and around us, and anybody can be mindful. If you drink a cup of tea and you know that you are drinking a cup of tea, that is mindful drinking. When you breathe in and you know that you are breathing in, and you focus your attention on your in-breath, that is mindfulness of breathing. When you make a step and you are aware you are making a step, that is called mindfulness of walking. The basic practice in Zen centers, meditation centers, is the practice of generating mindfulness every moment of your daily life. When you are angry, you are aware that you are angry. Because you already have the energy of mindfulness in you created by the practice, that is why you have enough of it in order to recognize, embrace, look deeply, and understand the nature of your suffering.
I was able to understand the nature of the suffering in Vietnam. I saw that not only Vietnamese suffered, but Americans suffered as well during the war in Vietnam. The young American man who was sent to Vietnam in order to kill and be killed underwent a lot of suffering, and the suffering continues today. The family, the nation also suffers. I could see that the cause of our suffering in Vietnam is not American soldiers. It is a kind of policy that is not wise. It is a misunderstanding. It is fear that lies at the foundation of the policy.
Many in Vietnam had burned themselves in order to call for a cessation of the destruction. They did not want to inflict pain on other people, they wanted to take the pain on themselves in order to get the message across. But the sounds of planes and bombs was too loud. The people in the world, not many of them were capable of hearing us. So I decided to go to America and call for a cessation of the violence. That was in 1966, and because of that I was prevented from going home. And I have lived in exile since that time, 1966.
I was able to see that the real enemy of man is not man. The real enemy is our ignorance, discrimination, fear, craving, and violence. I did not have hate the American people, the American nation. I came to America in order to plead for a kind of looking deeply so that your government could revise that kind of policy. I remember I met with Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara. I told him the truth about the suffering. He kept me with him for a long time and he listened deeply to me, and I was very grateful for his quality of listening. Three months later, when the war intensified, I heard that he resigned from his post.
Hatred and anger was not in my heart. That is why I was listened to by many young people in my country, advocating them to follow the path of reconciliation, and together we helped to bring about the new organizations for peace in Paris. I hope my friends here in New York are able to practice the same. I understood, I understand suffering and injustice, and I feel that I understand deeply the suffering of New York, of America. I feel I am a New Yorker. I feel I am an American.
You want to be there for you, to be with you, not to act, not to say things when you are not calm. There are ways that we can go back to ourselves and practice so that we rediscover our calmness, our tranquility, our lucidity. There are ways that we can practice so that we understand the real causes of the suffering. And that understanding will help us to do what needs to be done, and not do what could be harmful to us and to other people. Let us practice mindful breathing for half a minute before we continue.
In Buddhist psychology, we speak of consciousness in terms of seeds. We have the seed of anger in our consciousness. We have the seed of despair, of fear. But we also have the seed of understanding, wisdom, compassion, and forgiveness. If we know how to water the seed of wisdom and compassion in us, that seed, these seeds will manifest themselves as powerful sorts of energy helping us to perform an act of forgiveness and compassion. It will be able to bring relief right away to our nation, to our world. That is my conviction.
I believe very strongly that the American people have a lot of wisdom and compassion within themselves. I want you to be your best when you begin to act, for the sake of America and for the sake of the world. With lucidity, with understanding and compassion, you will turn to the people who have caused a lot of damage and suffering to you and ask them a lot of questions.
"We do not understand enough of your suffering, could you tell us? We have not done anything to you, we have not tried to destroy you, to discriminate against you, and we do not understand why you have done this to us. There must be a lot of suffering within you. We want to listen to you. We may be able to help you. And together we can help build peace in the world." And if you are solid, if you are compassionate when you make this statement, they will tell you about their suffering.
In Buddhism we speak of the practice of deep listening, compassionate listening, a wonderful method by which we can restore communication - communication between partners, communication between father and son, communication between mother and daughter, communication between nations. The practice of deep listening should be taken up by parents, by partners, so that they can understand the suffering of the other person. That person might beour wife, our husband, our son, or our daughter. We may have enough good will to listen, but many of us have lost our capacity to listen because we have a lot of anger and violence in us. The other people do not know how to use kind speech; they always blame and judge. And language is very often sour, bitter. That kind of speech will always touch off the irritation and the anger in us and prevent us from listening deeply and with compassion. That is why good will to listen is not enough. We need some training in order to listen deeply with compassion. I think, I believe, I have the conviction, that a father, if he knows how to listen to his son deeply and with compassion, he will be able to open the door of his sons heart and restore communication.
People in our Congress and our Senate should also train themselves in the art of deep listening, of compassionate listening. There is a lot of suffering within the country, and many people feel their suffering is not understood. That is why politicians, members of the Parliament, members of the Congress have to train themselves in the art of deep listening - listening to their own people, listening to the suffering in the country, because there is injustice in the country, there is discrimination in the country. There is a lot of anger in the country. If we can listen to each other, we can also listen to the people outside of the country. Many of them are in a situation of despair, many suffer because of injustice and discrimination. The amount of violence and despair in them is very huge. And if we know how to listen as a nation to their suffering, we can already bring a lot of relief. They will feel that they are being understood. That can diffuse the bomb already.
I always advise a couple that when they are angry with each other, they should go back to their breathing, their mindful walking, embrace their anger, and look deeply into the nature of their anger. And they may be able to transform that anger in just fifteen minutes or a few hours. If they cannot do that, then they will have to tell the other person that they suffer, that they are angry, and that they want the other person to know it. They will try to say it in a calm way. "Darling, I suffer, and I want you to know it." And in Plum Village, where I live and practice, we advise our friends not to keep their anger for more than twenty-four hours without telling the other person. "Darling, I suffer, and I want you to know it. I do not know why you have done such a thing to me. I do not know why you have said such a thing to me." That is the first thing they should tell the other person. And if they are not calm enough to say it, they can write it down on a piece of paper.
The second thing they can say or write down is, "I am doing my best." It means "I am practicing not to say anything, not to do anything with anger, because I know that in doing so I will create more suffering. So I am embracing my anger, I am looking deeply into the nature of my anger." You tell the other person that you are practicing holding your anger, understanding your anger, in order to find out whether that anger has come from your own misunderstanding, wrong perception, your lack of mindfulness and your lack of skillfulness.
And the third thing you might like to say to him or her is, "I need your help." Usually when we get angry with someone, we want to do the opposite. We want to say, "I don't need you. I can survive by myself alone." "I need your help" means "I need your practice, I need your deep looking, I need you to help me to overcome this anger because I suffer." And if I suffer, there is no way that you can be happy, because happiness is not an individual matter. If the other person suffers, there is no way that you can be truly happy alone. So helping the other person to suffer less, to smile, will make you happy also.
The Buddha said, "This is like this, because that is like that. This is because that is." The three sentences I propose are the language of true love. It will inspire the other person to practice, to look deeply, and together you will bring about understanding and reconciliation. I propose to my friends to write down these sentences on a piece of paper and slip it into their wallet. Every time they get angry at their partner or their son or daughter, they can practice mindful breathing, take it out, and read. It will be a bell of mindfulness telling them what to do and what not to do. These are the three sentences: "I suffer and I want you to know it." "I am doing my best." "Please help."
I believe that in an international conflict, the same kind of practice is possible also. That is why I propose to America as a nation to do the same. You tell the people you believe to be the cause of your suffering that you suffer, that you want them to know it, that you want to know why they have done such a thing to you, and you practice listening deeply and with compassion.
The quality of our being is very important, because that question, that statement is not a condemnation, but a willingness to create true communication. "We are ready to listen to you. We know that you must have suffered a lot in order to have done such a thing to us. You may have thought that we are the cause of your suffering. So please tell us whether we have tried to destroy you, whether we have tried to discriminate against you, so that we can understand. And we know that when we understand your suffering, we may be able to help you." That is what we call in Buddhism "loving speech" or "kind language," and it has the purpose of creating communication, restoring communication. And with communication restored, peace will be possible.
This summer, a group of Palestinians came to Plum Village and practiced together with a group of Israelis, a few dozen of them. We sponsored their coming and practicing together. In two weeks, they learned to sit together, walk mindfully together, enjoy silent meals together, and sit quietly in order to listen to each other. The practice taken up was very successful. At the end of the two weeks practice, they gave us a wonderful, wonderful report. One lady said, "Thay, this is the first time in my life that I see that peace in the Middle East is possible." Another young person said, "Thay, when I first arrived in Plum Village, I did not believe that Plum Village was something real because in the situation of my country, you live in constant fear and anger. When your children get onto the bus, you are not sure that they will be coming home. When you go to the market, you are not sure that you will survive to go home to your family. When you come to Plum Village, you see people looking at each other with loving kindness, talking with other kindly, walking peacefully, and doing everything mindfully. We did not believe that it was possible. It did not look real to me."
But in the peaceful setting of Plum Village, they were able to be together, to live together, and to listen to each other, and finally understanding came. They promised that when they returned to the Middle East, they would continue the practice. They will organize a day of practice every week at the local level and a day of mindfulness at the national level. And they plan to come to Plum Village as a bigger group to continue the practice.
I think that if nations like America can organize that kind of setting where people can come together and spend their time practicing peace, then they will be able to calm down their feelings, their fears, and peaceful negotiation will be much easier.