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Listening Deeply for Peace 

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Without deep listening and gentle loving speech it is very difficult to move towards peace. Peace will only become a reality, says Thich Nhat Hanh, when world leaders come to negotiations with the ability to hear the suffering at the root of all conflicts.


A traditional Vietnamese Zen garden is very different from a Japanese Zen garden. Our Zen gardens, called hon non bo, are wild and exuberant, more playful than the formal Japanese gardens with their restrained patterns. Vietnamese Zen gardens are seriously unserious. For us, the whole world is contained in this peaceful place. All activities of life unfold in true peace in the garden: in one part, children will be playing, and in another part, some elderly men will be having a chess game; couples are walking; families are having picnics; animals are free to wander around. Beautiful trees are growing next to abundant grasses and flowers. There is water, and there are rock formations. All ecologies are represented in this one microecology without discrimination. It is a miniature, peaceful world. It is a beautiful living metaphor for what a new global ethic could bring.

War is not a necessary condition of life. The root of war, as with all conflicts, is ignorance, ignorance of the inherent goodness—the buddhanature—in every human being. The potential for ignorance lives in all of us; it gives rise to misunderstanding, which can lead to violent thoughts and behavior. Although ignorance and violence may not have manifested in your life, when conditions are sufficient, they can. This is why we all have to be very careful not to water these seeds and not to allow them to develop roots and grow into arrows.


The Roots of War

When one country attacks another, it is out of great fear and a kind of collective ignorance. For instance, the French fought to keep Vietnam as their colony, because they thought that if they possessed Vietnam, they would be happy. So they sent many young men to Vietnam to kill and to be killed. We know, when we look deeply, that happiness does not come from possessing something or someone; it comes from kindness and compassion, from helping to ease suffering.

If the American people had sat down and practiced looking deeply, they would have seen that the Vietnam War was entirely unnecessary, that their own lives could not be improved through the suffering of another country or the suffering of their own young men. The United States senselessly wasted many lives in this war when it could have supported both North and South Vietnam in their different models of development, helping the Communists and the non-Communists alike to rebuild their societies. This would have been much wiser than supporting one side and fighting the other. If France and the United States had yielded autonomy to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, helping these countries to develop instead of waging war, all sides would have profited from such a friendly relationship. After a long period of suffering, these countries are finally moving in this direction, but this could have happened much earlier without the terrible loss of life.

All violence is injustice. We should not inflict that injustice on ourselves or on other people. Historians and teachers as well as politicians should look deeply at the suffering caused by wars, not just at the justifications that governments give for them. We have to teach our children the truth about war so they learn from our experiences and understand that violence and war are not the right way, that they are not the right actions to take. We have to show our children that people on both sides of war—the French and American soldiers in Vietnam as well as the Vietnamese people—were victims of the ignorance and violence rooted in their societies and governments. Remember, there were no winners.

As long as we allow hatred to grow in us, we continue to make ourselves and others suffer. As we look deeply at the wars in our recent history, we have to transform our hatred and misunderstanding into compassion. We have to recognize that those who have made us suffer are also victims. Many who had a father, brother or friend killed in the Vietnam War have been able to transcend their suffering and to reconcile with the other side, Vietnamese and American. They have done this for their own sake and for the sake of their children.

How can we as individuals influence the collective consciousness of our nations and move in the direction of peace? We do this by uprooting the roots of violence and war within ourselves. To prevent war, we cultivate nonviolence. We practice mindfulness in our daily life so that we can recognize and transform the poisons within us and our nation. When we practice nonviolence in our daily life, we see the positive effects on our families, society and government.


Peace Is Possible

In the summer of 2001 in our community in Plum Village, France, about eighteen hundred people came and practiced with us. Among them were a few dozen Palestinians and Israelis. We sponsored these people hoping they could have the opportunity to practice walking meditation together, to share a meal together, to listen to the teachings of mindfulness practice and to learn the act of deep listening and gentle, loving speech. The Israelis and Palestinians spent two weeks with us and participated in all activities.

At the end of their stay, the whole community gathered together and our visitors stood up and gave a report. After only two weeks of practice, they had transformed very deeply. They had become a community of brothers and sisters, Palestinians and Israelis. They said to us, "Dear community, dear Thich Nhat Hanh, when we first came to Plum Village we couldn't believe it. Plum Village did not look real to us because it is so peaceful. In Plum Village, we did not feel the kind of anger, tension and fear that we feel constantly in the Middle East. People look at each other with kind eyes, they speak to each other lovingly. There is peace, there is communication and there is brotherhood and sisterhood." One member of the delegation said, "We spent two weeks in paradise." Another person wrote to me after he returned home and said, "This is the first time that I have believed that peace is possible in the Middle East."

What did we do to make the third truth—that well-being and peace are possible—real to them? Honestly, we did not do much. We just embraced these friends from the Middle East as brothers and sisters. They learned to walk mindfully with us, to breathe in and out mindfully with us, to stop and be there in the present moment with us, and to get in touch with what is pleasant, nourishing and healing around them and within themselves. The practice is very simple, but supported by a practicing sangha, they were able to succeed more quickly than on their own and to touch the peace and happiness within each of them.

Together we all followed the basic practice: to do everything mindfully. We established ourselves in the here and now in order to touch life deeply. We practiced mindfulness while we breathed and walked and talked and brushed our teeth and chopped vegetables for meals and washed dishes. That is the basic daily practice that our friends learned. We in the sangha offered our support, sitting with our visitors and practicing listening with compassion with them.

We trained them to speak in such a way that the other side could hear and understand and accept. They spoke in a calm way, not condemning anyone, not judging anyone. They told the other side of all the suffering that had happened to them and their children, to their societies. They all had the chance to speak of their fear, anger, hatred and despair. Many felt for the first time that they were listened to and that they were being understood, which relieved a lot of suffering within them. We listened deeply, opening our hearts with the intention to help them express and heal themselves.

Two weeks of the practice of deep listening and using loving speech brought a lot of joy to our visitors and to all of us in Plum Village. We were reminded, hearing these stories, that during the Vietnam War, we Vietnamese, too, had suffered terribly. Yet our practice allowed us then and allows us still to see that our world is beautiful, with all the wonders of life available every day. This is why we know that our friends from the Middle East, too, can practice in the middle of war around them.

There were moments during the war when we wished so hard that there would be a cease-fire for just 24 hours. We thought that if we had only 24 hours of peace, we would have been able to breathe in and out and smile to the flowers and the blue sky. But we did manage to breathe in and out and smile, even then, because even the flowers had the courage to bloom in the middle of war. Yet still, we wanted 24 hours of peace during the war. We wanted the bombs to stop falling on us.

During the war in Vietnam, young people came to me and asked, "Do you think there will be an end to the war?" I could not answer them right away. I practiced mindful breathing, in and out. After a long time I looked at them and said, "My dear friends, the Buddha said everything is impermanent, including war."

Before going back to the Middle East, our friends promised us that they would continue the practice. They told us that on the local level they would organize weekly meetings so they could continue to walk together, sit and breathe together, share a meal together and listen to each other. Every month they have had an event to do this. They practice true peace even in the midst of war.


True Peace Negotiations

When you come to any negotiation, whether at work or in a meeting with other parents, teachers or neighbors, you have hope for peace. When your representatives go to a negotiation table, they hope for peace. But if you and they do not master the art of deep listening and loving speech, it is very difficult to move toward peace in any situation or to get concrete results. If we have not transformed our inner block of suffering, hatred and fear, it will prevent us from communicating, understanding and making peace.

I beg the nations and governments who would like to bring peace to the Middle East and other countries to pay attention to this fact. We need our governments to organize peace negotiations so that they will be fruitful. A very important factor for success is creating a setting where true communication can be practiced, where deep listening and gentle, loving speech can occur. It may take one month or two just for people to learn how to listen to each other, to talk so that the other side can hear and understand. It is important not to be in a hurry to reach a conclusion or an agreement about what to do for peace to be possible. One month or two is nothing compared with years of pain and suffering. But if we have a great determination, then five days may be enough to restore communication between people. Two weeks were enough for our Palestinian friends and our Israeli friends to begin to understand and to accept each other as brothers and sisters, to begin to practice and create peace. Two weeks were enough for them to have hope.

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 are able to 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.

Peace conferences must create environments that can help people calm down and see that they are suffering and that the other side is suffering also. Many leaders have tried to sponsor talks and discussion, but theirs was not the way of practice. They did not practice to transform anger and fear into deep listening and loving speech. When leaders do practice, there will be a chance for true reconciliation. After the practices of deep listening and kind and loving speech have dissolved bitterness, fear and prejudice, people can begin to communicate with each other. Then reaching peace will be much easier. Peace will become a reality.


Practicing Deep Listening with Other Countries

If America invests all her heart and mind into this practice, then other people will also be able to tell her about their suffering. If America goes back to herself and restores the spirit of her forefathers, America will be truly great. She will then be in a position to help other countries establish similar forums, to invite other groups and countries to express themselves.

The setting must be one of safety and love. Countries from around the world can come together not as enemies that bomb and destroy each other but as wise people sponsoring sessions of deep listening. All nations could come and help with the practice; people from different cultures and civilizations would have the opportunity to speak to one another as fellow human beings who inhabit the same planet. In addition, people who are not just politically minded but humanists who understand the suffering of others could be invited—people who know how to sit and listen calmly, with compassion. These people would know how to create an atmosphere of peace without fear so that others can have the chance, the inspiration, and the desire to speak. We must be patient. The process of learning about each other's suffering will take time.

If such an international forum were broadcast around the world, everyone could participate and have the chance to learn about the causes of suffering. The first and second noble truths of the Buddha, the awareness of suffering and the awareness of the causes of suffering, could be practiced together by billions of people.

The first and second noble truths will lead us to the third and fourth noble truths; namely, the awareness that there is a path out of suffering and that that path consists of certain concrete steps, such as right understanding, right thinking, right speech and right action.


Creating Peace in the World

The antidote to violence and hatred is compassion. There is no other medicine. Unfortunately, compassion is not available in drugstores. You have to generate the nectar of compassion in your heart. The teaching of the Buddha gives us the means to generate the energy of compassion. If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by our projects, our uncertainty, our craving, how can we have the time to stop and look deeply into the situation—our own situation, the situation of our beloved one, the situation of our family and of our community, and the situation of our nation and of the other nations? Looking deeply, we find out that not only do we suffer but also the other person suffers deeply. Not only our group suffers but the other group also suffers. Once awareness is born, we know that punishment, violence and war are not the answer.

The one who wants to punish is inhabited by violence. The one who endures the suffering of the other person is also inhabited by the energy of violence. Violence cannot be ended with violence. The Buddha said that responding to hatred with hatred can only increase hatred a thousandfold. Only by responding to hatred with compassion can we disintegrate hatred.

The future is a notion. The future is made of only one substance, the present. If you are taking good care of the present moment, why do you have to worry about the future? By taking care of the present, you are doing everything you can to assure a good future. Is there anything else you can do? Live the present moment in such a way that peace and joy may be possible here and now—that love and understanding may be possible. Dwelling happily and peacefully in the present moment is the best thing we can do to ensure peace and happiness in the future.

We have to practice looking deeply as a nation if we want to get out of this difficult situation of war and terrorism. Our practice will help the other nations to practice. I am sure that America is very capable of punishing. The United States can send bombs; the whole world knows she is very capable of doing so. But America is great when she acts with lucidity and compassion. I urge that when we are suffering, when we are overcome by shock, we should not do anything, we should not say anything. We should go home to ourselves and practice mindful breathing and mindful walking to allow ourselves to calm down and to allow lucidity to come, so we can understand the real roots of our suffering and the suffering of the world. Only with that understanding can compassion arise. America can be a great nation if she knows how to act with compassion instead of punishment. We can offer peace. We can offer the relief of transformation and healing.

It is my deep wish that the American people and the people of other countries become spiritual allies and practice compassion together. Without a spiritual dimension and practice, we cannot really improve the situation of the world. We can come together as a family in order to look deeply into our own situation and the situation of the world.

Practicing peace is possible with every step, with every breath. It is possible for us to practice together and bring hope and compassion into our daily lives and into the lives of our families, our community, our nation and the world.



Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen teacher, poet and leader of the engaged Buddhist movement. A well-known, anti-war activist in his native Vietnam, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr. The author of more than forty books, he resides at Buddhist practice centers in France and Vermont.

Listening Deeply for Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh, Shambhala Sun, November 2003.

Click here for more articles by Thich Nhat Hanh

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