Dear Still Water Friends,
This summer, I have found myself repeatedly returning to a story that Thich Nhat Hanh tells about encountering an American soldier on a remote, vacant airfield during the height of the Vietnam War. They were the only people at the airfield, both waiting for transport.
I looked at him and saw that he was young. Immediately, I had a lot of compassion for him. Why does he have to come here to kill or be killed? So out of compassion I said, “You must be very afraid of the Viet Cong.” The Viet Cong were Vietnamese communist guerrillas. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very skillful, and what I said watered the seed of fear in him. He immediately touched his gun and asked me, “Are you a Viet Cong?”
Before coming to Vietnam, U.S. Army officers had learned that everyone in Vietnam could be a Viet Cong, and fear inhabited every American soldier. Every child, every monk, could be a guerrilla agent. The soldiers had been educated this way, and they saw enemies everywhere. I’d tried to express my sympathy to the soldier, but as soon as he’d heard the word Viet Cong he’d been overwhelmed by his fear and went for his gun.
I knew I had to be very calm. I practiced breathing in and breathing out very deeply and then said, “No, I am waiting for my plane to go to Danang to study the flooding and see how I can help.” I had a lot of sympathy for him, and this came through in my voice. As we talked, I was able to communicate that I believed the war had created a lot of victims, not only Vietnamese but also Americans. The soldier calmed down as well, and we were able to talk. I was safe, because I had enough lucidity and calm. If I had acted out of fear, he would have shot me out of his fear. So don’t think that dangers come only from outside. They come from inside. If we don’t acknowledge and look deeply at our own fears, we can draw dangers and accidents to us. –From Fear, pp. 3-4
I have resonated deeply with this image, as a practitioner, a person of color, and a parent living in this time of heated rhetoric meant to inspire and motivate fear of the “other.” I know that my fears are based in a reality of increased risk of harm or even death. Nevertheless, I am also a practitioner. By acknowledging and looking deeply into my own fears, and into my anxieties and worries about the injustices that continue to be exposed in our society, I can encounter external dangers with a spaciousness that allows me to see clearly and brings an energy of transformation to a difficult moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that when we practice in this way – looking deeply into ourselves in order to remain calm and see clearly – even a single person has the ability to transform a stormy situation with calmness. Together, as a Sangha, a community of practitioners, with our practice of acknowledging and looking deeply at our own fears, we are able to transform them with our understanding and compassion. From this comes the clarity to speak skillfully and effectuate action that can save the lives of many in our nation and our world.
On Thursday evening, in the discussion following our sitting and walking meditation, we will share our insights and challenges with the invitation to acknowledge and deal with our inner fears as a means to address external dangers and injustice. An excerpt below from Being Peace may provide you with some inspiration.
Peace and blessings,
Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (pp. 21-22)
Many of us worry about the world situation. We don’t know when the bombs will explode. We feel that we are on the edge of time. As individuals, we feel helpless, despairing. The situation is so dangerous, injustice is so widespread, the danger is close. In this kind of situation, if we panic, things will only become worse. We need to remain calm, to see clearly. Meditation is to be aware, and to try to help.
I like to use the example of a small boat crossing the Gulf of Siam. In Vietnam, there are many people, called boat people, who leave the country in small boats. Often the boats are caught in rough seas or storms, the people may panic, and boats can sink. But if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression – face, voice – communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many.
Our world is something like a small boat. Compared with the cosmos, our planet is a very small boat. We are about to panic because our situation is no better than the situation of the small boat in the sea. You know that we have more than 50,000 nuclear weapons. Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. Mahayana Buddhism says that you are that person, that each of you is that person.