Be Peace First, Do Peace Later

Be Peace First, Do Peace Later

Discussion date: Thu, May 16, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

“What would Thầy do?” is a question I’ve heard numerous times during online gatherings of mindfulness practitioners concerned about the horrific suffering caused by armed hostilities in Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Sudan, and other conflict zones. The same question often arises when the focus is on how we can respond to current inequalities that have their roots in historical brutalities carried out in U.S. history, such as slavery and the decimation of indigenous communities. Often practitioners want specific answers, such as what would Thầy do in 2024 about assisting Ukraine or offering reparations for descendants of enslaved people?

Because Thầy transitioned in 2022, we can’t know exactly what he would say about our current quandaries. However, there are many indicators of Thầy’s overall approach. At a Plum Village retreat in May of 2014 (six months before his disabling stroke), Thầy was asked: “How can I fight the injustices of this world without being consumed with anger, bitterness, outrage, and resentment?” Thầy began his answer imagining a physician who asks: “How can I enjoy my health if many people around me are sick?” Then Thầy explains:

We know that if the doctor is sick, there is no hope for anyone. So the job and the duty of a doctor is to keep himself healthy so that he can help his patients. If you see too many people suffering in the world around you, and if you don’t know how to suffer less, how to nourish yourself with joy and happiness, you will be like everyone, and you cannot help. There must be a way to help you to suffer less, so that you can help other people who suffer more. And that is why the practice of mindfulness can help you.

After talking for a few minutes about being healed by the fresh air, water, and all the restorative elements around us, Thầy returns to the doctor:

So, the doctor, the physician, has to take care of himself. He knows that his well-being, his health, is very important for the people who suffer and who come to him for help. The practice of mindful breathing, of mindful walking, of allowing yourself to be fully present in the here and the now in order to be nourished by nature is very important. If we can stop running, looking for things, we can allow ourselves to be fully present in the here and the now and let refreshing and healing elements of nature heal us. Then we can become an instrument of peace, of happiness, of joy, to help other people to suffer less.

Around us there may be a lot of anger, bitterness, resentment. If we don’t know how to go home to ourselves, to take care of ourselves, to nourish ourselves, we will be overwhelmed by that collective energy of hate, anger, bitterness, and so on. So take care of yourself. It’s very important.

In his closing, Thầy addresses the inter-relationship between mindful being and mindful doing:

You are motivated by the desire to do something to help the world suffer less. But “to do” is just one of the things you can do. “To be” is another way of doing. If you can be relaxed, if you can be peaceful, if you can be compassionate, that is a lot of action already. The way you sit and look at the people can already be very helpful. If you have peace, tranquility, compassion, then your presence is already very helpful.

So “to be” is very important, and “to do” is something that comes from that kind of being — “to be” peace first and “to do” peace later.

I am fully in accord with Thầy in terms of not rushing into doing, into taking actions, while we are “consumed with anger, bitterness, outrage, and resentment.” If we do, there is a good possibility that we may create additional suffering for ourselves or others.

So yes, absolutely! “Be peace first.” It is important for all of us to cultivate our “peace, tranquility, compassion” in as many ways, and as completely, as we can.

And, I have some questions about the “do peace later” that I would like to reflect on with others:

  • How do we know when are we ripe enough to act? What are some indicators?
  • Or put a slightly different way, “What might we already be ripe enough to do?”

For example, although we might not be called to join a march or be involved in a nonviolent action, we may be ready to learn more, with others, about the deep roots of a conflict, including the current and historical causes, and the local, global, and regional contexts.

Or, although we may not have the skills, training, or circumstances to be the one treating wounds and illness with Doctors Without Borders, or providing nourishing meals with World Central Kitchen, we may be able to begin our “do peace later” by sending a contribution to these organizations and other humanitarian organizations like them. Then, through interbeing, we are also there with the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and arms of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

This Thursday evening, after our opening meditation, we will watch the video of Thầy answering the “How can I fight the injustices of this world” question and share our reflections in a Dharma sharing.

An excerpt from Thầy on the spiritual importance of taking a position or acting is below.

A related resource you might also be interested in is a Dharma talk on “What Engaged Buddhism Means to Me” that I recently offered at the 2024 Blue Cliff Monastery Order of Interbeing Retreat.

You are warmly invited to join us this Thursday evening.

Mitchell Ratner


From Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism (1998 edition) by Thích Nhất Hạnh

Teachers who say not to pay attention to the problems of the world like hunger, war, oppression, and social injustice, who say that we should only practice, have not understood deeply enough the meaning of Mahayana. Of course, we should practice counting the breath, meditation, and sutra study, but what is the purpose of doing these things? It is to be aware of what is going on in ourselves and in the world. What is going on in the world is also going on within ourselves, and vice versa. Once we see this clearly, we will not refuse to take a position or to act. When a village is being bombed and children and adults are suffering from wounds and death, can a Buddhist sit still in his unbombed temple? If he has wisdom and compassion, he will find ways to practice Buddhism while helping other people. To practice Buddhism, it is said, is to see into one’s own nature and become a Buddha. If we cannot see what is going on around us, how can we see into our own nature? There is a relationship between the nature of the self and the nature of suffering, injustice, and war. To see into the true nature of the world’s weapons is to see into our own true nature.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, May 16, 2024


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