Next week, the United States will start the week by observing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and end it by inaugurating Donald Trump as its 45th President. A series of major marches are scheduled for the next day. How, as mindfulness practitioners, do we navigate this coming week and square engaging in social justice activism with the principle of nondiscrimination? Listening to our teachers, the answer seems to be that we must stand for what we believe, but to do so with open hearts.
The Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh firmly embraces social justice activism and rejects partisan politics. This is not mere Buddhist theory, but was put into practice by Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and many others in Vietnam through decades of conflict. They did protest; they did petition the government; they did call out injustice and drew the world’s attention to oppression, as detailed in Sister Chan Khong’s book “Learning True Love.” But what they did not do is to take sides between political parties. They were not partisan in the sense of attaching to one set of political views and announcing them to be the truth. Instead, they focused on the social justice goals—ending the war; freedom of religion; education, health care, and nutrition in rural areas—and pressed all sides to find ways to meet these universal goals.
When we attach to a set of views and defend them at all costs, we have become partisan. Our ideas do not need to have an elephant or a donkey label attached to be partisan. In the words of the First Mindfulness Training:
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.
Thich Nhat Hanh put language about nondiscrimination and being open to others in this Training, which addresses killing, not the Fourth Training, which addresses mindful speech and deep listening. What does that tell us? My reading is that meeting those with whom we disagree with a set of political statements and a closed heart is an act of harming, as it denies interbeing and causes us to act from our gut, our baser instincts, not our heart.
All people want safety and happiness. We all want a healthy and prosperous planet and nation. But we have very different views on how to achieve these goals. It is a challenge to remember that we share common goals when our methods of achieving them seem so opposite.
Approaching a person who has different political views with curiosity and openness has so much more potential than mere opposition. In particular, can we state our truths without demonizing, belittling, or losing hope for the person with whom we disagree? Can we see the person behind the ideas, even if their speech is foul and harsh, to listen to what is really being said? Do we dare look behind the mask of his face, under the aura of her bravado, and listen to the little child that is at everyone’s core? Answering these questions, we may find ways to understand better our “adversary” and even come to see new ways of approaching common goals. And if we do not, we can at least try to establish common bonds of understanding and familiarity, if not friendship, that can transcend disagreement.
After a bombing that killed several people in Vietnam in 1967, Sister Chan Khong wrote a eulogy that addressed the killers:
We cannot hate you, you who have thrown grenades and killed our friends, because we know that men are not our enemies. Our only enemies are the misunderstanding, hatred, jealousy, and ignorance that lead to such acts of violence. Please allow us to remove all misunderstanding so we can work together for the happiness of the Vietnamese people…. Social change must start in our hearts with the will to transform our own egotism, greed, and lust into understanding, love, commitment, and sharing responsibility for the poverty and injustice in our country.
I expect next week to be very difficult at times and very nourishing at times as well. Some of us will celebrate at the beginning of the week, some at the end, some all week long. I hope we can embrace it as a time of practice and learning together. Personally, I have a lot to learn about how to practice from this place of openness and much transformation to undergo to meet Sister Chan Khong’s call. As a community, I think we have a lot of exploring to do as well to share and learn together what it means to be socially engaged mindfulness community that is welcoming to people of all political views. To this end, you might enjoy a recent interview with Thay Phap Dung, a senior Plum Village monastic, here.
Please join us on Thursday to recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and to share your practice of protesting from the heart.
From Creating True Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh
Too often in the past, peace conferences have been environments where people came and fought each other, not with weapons but with their fear. When we are carried away by our fear and prejudices, we cannot listen to others. We cannot just bring two sides together around a table to discuss peace when they are still filled with anger, hatred and hurt. If you cannot recognize your fear and anger, if you do not know how to calm yourself, how can you sit at a peace table with your enemy? Facing your enemy across a table, you will only continue to fight. Unable to understand yourself, you will only continue to fight. Unable to understand yourself, you will be unable to understand the other person.
The secret of creating peace is that when you listen to another person you have only one purpose: to offer him an opportunity to empty his heart. If you can keep that awareness and compassion alive in you, then you can sit for one hour and listen even if the other person’s speech contains a lot of wrong perceptions, condemnations and bitterness. You can continue to listen because you are already protected by the nectar of compassion in your own heart. If you do not practice mindful breathing in order to keep that compassion alive, however, you can lose your own peace. Irritation and anger will come up, and the other person will notice and will not be able to continue. Keeping your awareness keeps you safe.
From a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 17 November 1957, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_loving_your_enemies/
I’ve said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Apostle Paul, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”
So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.
History unfortunately leaves some people oppressed and some people oppressors. And there are three ways that individuals who are oppressed can deal with their oppression. One of them is to rise up against their oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But oh this isn’t the way. For the danger and the weakness of this method is its futility. Violence creates many more social problems than it solves. And I’ve said, in so many instances, that as the Negro, in particular, and colored peoples all over the world struggle for freedom, if they succumb to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Violence isn’t the way.
Another way is to acquiesce and to give in, to resign yourself to the oppression. Some people do that. They discover the difficulties of the wilderness moving into the promised land, and they would rather go back to the despots of Egypt because it’s difficult to get in the promised land. And so they resign themselves to the fate of oppression; they somehow acquiesce to this thing. But that too isn’t the way because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.
But there is another way. And that is to organize mass non-violent resistance based on the principle of love. It seems to me that this is the only way as our eyes look to the future. As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way. Jesus discovered that.