Dear Still Water Friends,
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will continue our study and reflections on Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism.
In the book’s second chapter Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) asks: How can we all, as practitioners, as citizens, and as soldiers, become less violent?
People usually think in extreme terms of absolute nonviolence and violence, but there are many shades of gray in between. The way we talk, eat, walk can be violent. We are not dogmatic, worshiping the idea of nonviolence, because absolute nonviolence is impossible. But it is always possible to be less violent. When we have understanding and compassion in us, we have a good chance. When we are motivated by fear and anger, we are already victims. No cause is worthy enough to be served by this state of being. A truly good cause is always motivated by compassion.
Soldiers, Thay says, "are the flame at the tip of the candle.” They feel the heat most, but the whole candle is creating the flame. The whole society is responsible for the war; we are all responsible.
As individuals we can create conditions for less violence by the way we think, talk, and act. We can be guided in our daily life by compassion, rather than fear and anger. As mindful citizens and artists we can change the collective consciousness—we can change media; culture, and shared values, so that peace, compassion, and understanding are nourished.
Thay believes there is need for armies—to defend a country if it is being invaded, to offer assistance to other countries being invaded, and to engage in helpful public works projects in peace time. Too often, however, military force is seen as the only option. The tendency is to ignore the problem until it has become an emergency, and then to use extreme measures. There is much that can be done before it is an emergency, through diplomacy, alliances, humanitarian assistance, and communication.
The critical issue for Thay is whether as individuals and as a country we are able to preserve our humanity and compassion, our capacity to recognize that those on the other side are not so different from us, and to treat them kindly whenever possible.
Typically, soldiers are taught to demonize the other side. They are indoctrinated to believe that their cause is just and those that believe otherwise are evil. They are taught that they must kill in order not to be killed. Because of their anger and fear, unnecessary harm is inflicted on soldiers, civilians, and prisoners.
Thay believes, however, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to be a compassionate soldier. It is even possible to kill compassionately:
You can be loving and your gun can be helpful. There are times you may not have to use your gun. It is like that knife that is used to cut vegetables. You can be a bodhisattva as a soldier or as a commander of the army. The question is whether you have understanding and compassion in your heart. That is the question.
(The notion of compassionate military action is elaborated in the excerpt by Thay that follows this note.)
Thay’s perspective transcends the usual dichotomy between pacifists and militarists. It focuses on the importance of retaining our humanity in whatever situation we find ourselves. Do Thay’s thoughts touch you? Do they help orient you? Do they help clarify your position regarding our national response to terrorism?
You are invited to share your reflections with us Thursday evening at Crossings, and on Sunday evening, March 30th at our Columbia gathering. (Copies of Calming the Fearful Mind are available for purchase at both Crossings and Columbia.)
Defending Ourselves Without Violence
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Calming the Fearful Mind
There are many other ways to defend ourselves: through diplomatic foreign policy, forming alliances with other countries, humanitarian assistance. These are all approaches motivated by the wisdom of interbeing. When we use these approaches to resolve conflicts, the army doesn’t have to do much. They can serve the people by building bridges and roads and mediating small conflicts. This is not idealistic thinking; armies have worked this way in the past. With good foreign policy, the army will not have to fight.
Of course, when a country is invaded, the army should resist and defend the people. It is also sometimes necessary for other countries to help a country that is being invaded. But that is quite different from attacking other countries out of national interest. The only really necessary and appropriate circumstance under which an army should resort to violence is to physically defend itself or an ally from a direct invasion. And even in this case, much suffering will result.
Military action can be compassionate, but the compassion must be real compassion. If compassion is only a screen masking anger and fear, it is useless. It upsets me that former generations have committed the same mistakes and yet we don’t learn from them. We haven’t learned enough from the war in Vietnam. There were so many atrocities committed there. So many innocent people were tortured and killed because they were perceived as either “communist” or “anticommunist.”
Mindfulness has so many layers. When we kill because we think that the other person is evil and that killing them will bring peace, we are not practicing Right Mindfulness. If we are mindful, we will see beyond the present situation to the root and the future consequences of our act in that moment. If we are truly mindful, other insights will arise: “This person I want to kill is a living being. Is there any chance for him to behave better and change his present, harmful state of mind? Maybe I have a wrong perception and one day I will see that he is just a victim of misunderstanding, and not really the evil person I think he is.” Mindfulness can help a soldier to see that he may just be an instrument for killing being used by his government.
A general who is mindful of his actions is capable of looking deeply. He may not need to use weapons. He will see that there are many ways to deter the opposite side and he will exhaust all other means before resorting to violence. When nothing else works, he may use violence, but out of compassion, not out of anger.