Thay: Absolute Nonviolence Is Impossible

Thich Nhat Hanh at Estes Park, Colorado, Retreat, 2011

Thay: Absolute Nonviolence Is Impossible

Discussion date: Thu, Mar 17, 2022 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Thursday Evening Online Program
March 17, 2022, 7:00 to 8:45 pm

Dear Still Water Friends,

On Saturday, March 12th, forty-nine days since Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) transition, special ceremonies of mourning and spiritual support were held in Plum Village monasteries around the world. I was moved by the three hour ceremony in Plum Village, France that included the spreading of Thay’s ashes by hundreds of monastics and lay practitioners (the spreading begins at two hours and twenty-seven minutes). It was a vivid reminder of how many lives he touched and continues to touch.

The energy of Thay is with me as I sit with the tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine. I ask myself: How can I respond in a way that is both authentic and truly compassionate? I have been talking with other practitioners about this question and reading and listening to Thay.

I’ve always appreciated the clarity, compassion, and nuance of Thay’s reflections on nonviolence. In Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism he writes:

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.

Another source I have found particularly helpful is Thay’s response, during a retreat in August of 2011, to a person who asked:

In the face of extreme violence such as genocide is it ever acceptable to respond to violence with action, including even violent action? I practice national security and I think of Churchill or Chamberlain with Hitler, for instance (or more modern examples of Rwanda or Sudan), where maybe compassionate listening with Hitler as was done by Chamberlain may not have been enough. And I struggle with this.

Thay began by explaining that it is our inner intention that determines whether a response is nonviolent or violent, not just what we do or don’t do:

Nonviolent action is not a technique. It is a way, not a technique. The foundation of nonviolent action is understanding and compassion. When you have understanding and compassion in your heart everything you do will be nonviolent.

Suppose someone is killing, someone is breaking the law and you arrest him and put him in jail. Arresting that person and putting him in jail, is that violent or nonviolent? It depends on the situation. If you arrest that person, if you lock him up and yet you do it because of understanding and compassion, that is nonviolent action.

Even if you don’t do anything, you allow the people to kill and to destroy, although you don’t do anything, that is also violence.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will watch Thich Nhat Hanh’s full reply to the question, and then explore together what it means for a practitioner, an aspiring bodhisattva, to respond mindfully to violence. How has nonviolence manifested in our lives? How might it manifest?

You are invited to join us.

The Q and A on nonviolence from the 2011 retreat is available on the internet. A transcript of the conversation is below.

Because of the weather last Sunday, the silent walk and gathering to honor and remember Thay has been rescheduled to Sunday, March 20th. The details are below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner


Honoring and Remembering Thay — A Silent Walk and Gathering
You are warmly invited to join the Still Water community on Sunday, March 20th (10:00 – 11:30 am) at the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Woodend Sanctuary for a silent walk and ceremony honoring the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh. In the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition, special ceremonies of mourning and spiritual support are held daily and weekly for the forty-nine days following a person’s death. This walk and gathering honoring Thay will be one of many ceremonies that will occur world-wide around the 49th day. We hope you can join us. More information and a registration link is on the Still Water website.

If you are active on social media, please support Still Water by following us on Instagram and Facebook:


Can You Ever Respond to Violence with Violence?
A Q and A with Thich Nhat Hanh at the Estes Park, Colorado, Retreat, August 22, 2011.
YouTube Video Link.

(Questioner) Dear Thay, Dear Sangha. My question deals with the first mindfulness practice. In the face of extreme violence such as genocide is it ever acceptable to respond to violence with action, including even violent action? I practice national security and I think of Churchill or Chamberlain with Hitler, for instance (or more modern examples of Rwanda or Sudan), where maybe compassionate listening with Hitler as was done by Chamberlain may not have been enough. And I struggle with this.

(Sister Pine) Dear Thay. Our friend is asking about situations of extreme violence, and she’s giving an example in the middle of the 20th century when Hitler was causing a great deal of suffering. There was one official in England who tried to practice compassionate listening with Hitler and it was seen as not successful and actually allowed Hitler to continue to hurt more people. She’s asking whether in certain situations is it appropriate to use violence to stop violence?

(Thay) Nonviolent action is not a technique. It is a way, not a technique. The foundation of nonviolent action is understanding and compassion. When you have understanding and compassion in your heart everything you do will be nonviolent.

Suppose someone is killing, someone is breaking the law and you arrest him and put him in jail. Arresting that person and putting him in jail, is that violent or nonviolent? It depends on the situation. If you arrest that person, if you lock him up and yet you do it because of understanding and compassion, that is nonviolent action.

Even if you don’t do anything, you allow the people to kill and to destroy, although you don’t do anything, that is also violence.

Violence can be action or non-action. The outer appearance might be violent, but if you do it with a mind of understanding and compassion, it is not truly violence. Suppose a horse suffers very much and is about to die, but cannot die. You give her a death blow so that she can die, it looks like violence, but it comes from your compassion. You don’t want the horse to continue to suffer for too long.

That image tells you that whether the action is violent or nonviolent, it depends on your heart. If you have the willingness to reduce suffering, if you understand why a person has done such a thing violently, then even if you lock him up and deprive him of a few days’ food, that is still nonviolent. Because depriving someone for a few days of food in order to help him to know that having something to eat is something very great, to give him that kind of insight, that does not come from your willingness to punish, but to help him to learn and appreciate. That is nonviolence.

So we should not wait until the situation presents itself to decide whether we should react with violence or nonviolence. We have to begin right now. And when the situation presents itself, we will be able to act with compassion — it means with nonviolence.

Nonviolent action should be conceived as a long-term action. When you teach your child, when you tell your child how to act, you are having nonviolent action. You don’t wait until the child grows up and begins to destroy or to kill before you teach them. You have to use preventative measures.

So in the realm of education, in the realm of agriculture, in the realm of art, you can introduce nonviolent thinking and nonviolent action and teach people to remove discrimination. That is the basic action of nonviolence, because violence comes from discrimination, from separation, from hate, from fear, from anger. Helping people to transform these things before they are translated into action, that is true nonviolent action.

It should begin right now and we should not wait for something to happen in order to think whether we should act violently or nonviolently. I think nonviolence can never be completely absolute. We can say that we should be as nonviolent as we can. When we think of the military, we think that the things that the military do are only violent. But to conduct an army, to protect a town, to stop an invasion of a foreign army, there are many ways to do it. And there are more violent ways, and there are less violent ways. You can always choose.

Maybe it is not possible to do it 100% nonviolent, but 80% nonviolent is better than 10% nonviolent! See? So don’t ask for an absolute. That is the way we practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings. You cannot be perfect in the practice. Do not worry that you will not be perfect. In observing the Fourteen or the Five precepts, what is important is that you are determined to go that way. You do your best, that is what we need. It’s like in the forest — you get lost in the forest at night, and you don’t know how to get out. You have to look at the North Star in order to find your way. And if you go north, that does not mean you want to arrive at the North Star. You don’t need to arrive, you only need to go north. (Laughter) So the Five Trainings are like that. You should go in the direction of understanding and compassion. You don’t have to be perfect. If you know that you are doing your best, that is good enough for the Sangha. That is, good enough for the Buddha. So nonviolence is the same. We have to do our best.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Mar 17, 2022


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