The Practice of Peace
Parallax Press Archive
To make peace alive in us is to actively cultivate understanding, love, and compassion, even in the face of misperception and conflict. Practicing peace, especially in time of war, requires courage.
This article appeared in our October 2003 issue.
In 1946, during the France-Indochina war, I was a novice monk at the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, in central Vietnam. At the time, the city of Hue was occupied by the French army. One day, two French soldiers arrived in our temple. While one stayed in the jeep outside the temple gate, the other came in carrying a gun, and demanded all our rice. We had only one sack of rice for all the monks, and he wanted to take it. The soldier was about 20, and hungry. He looked thin and pale, as if he had malaria, which I also had at the time. I had to obey his order to carry our heavy bag of rice to the jeep, it was a long distance, and as I staggered under the bag’s precious weight, anger and unhappiness rose up in me. They were leaving our community without food. Later, to my relief, I learned that one of the older monks had buried a large container of rice deep in the temple grounds.
Many times over the years I have meditated on this French soldier. I have seen that, in his teens, he had to leave his parents, brothers, sisters, and friends to travel across the world to Vietnam, where he faced the horrors of killing my countrymen or being killed. I have often wondered whether he survived and returned home to his parents. Very likely he did not. The France-Indochina war lasted many years, ending with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accord in 1954. After looking deeply, I came to realize that the Vietnamese were not the only victims of the war; the French soldiers were victims as well. With this insight, I no longer had any anger toward the young soldier. Compassion for him was born in me, and I only wished him well.
I did not know the French soldier’s name and he did not know mine, but when we met we were already enemies. Under different circumstances, we could have become close friends, even loving each other as brothers. It was only the war that separated us and brought violence between us.
This is the nature of war. It turns us into enemies. All who suffer through these conflicts are victims. Coming from such devastation and suffering, having experienced the France-Indochina War and the Vietnam War, I have the deep aspiration to prevent war from ever happening again.
The spiritual teachings of all traditions help us cultivate the seeds of compassion, non-violence, inclusiveness, and reconciliation. They show us the way out of fear and conflict. Hatred cannot be stopped by hatred. Violence should not be responded to with violence. The only way out of violence and conflict is for us to embrace the practice of peace, to think and act with compassion, love, and understanding.
Turning Arrows into Flowers
Violence is never far away. We see the seeds of violence in our everyday thoughts, speech, and actions. The daily wars that occur within our thoughts and our families have everything to do with the wars fought between peoples and nations throughout the world. The conviction that we know the truth and that those who do not share our beliefs are wrong has caused much harm. When we believe something to be absolute truth, we are caught in our own views. If we believe, for instance, that Buddhism is the only way to happiness, we may be practicing a kind of violence by discriminating against and excluding those who follow other spiritual paths.
If we look around we will recognize war’s many faces: religious intolerance, ethnic hatred, child neglect, racial discrimination, and exploitation of the world’s resources. But we also know that the seeds of peace, understanding, and love are there, and that they will grow if we cultivate them.
The night before his enlightenment, the Buddha was attacked by Mara, the Tempter, the Evil One. Mara and his army of demons shot thousands of arrows at the Buddha, but as the arrows neared him, they turned into flowers and fell harmlessly to his feet.
This is a powerful image. We can all practice understanding and compassion so that we can receive the violent words and actions aimed at us and transform them into flowers.
We begin by recognizing that, in the depths of our consciousness, we have the seeds of both compassion and violence. We become aware that our mind is like a garden that contains all kinds of seeds: seeds of understanding, seeds of forgiveness, seeds of mindfulness, and also seeds of ignorance, fear, and hatred. We realize that at any moment, we can behave with violence or compassion, depending on the strength of these seeds within us.
When the seeds of anger, violence, and fear are watered in us several times a day, they will grow stronger. Then we cannot be happy or accept ourselves; we suffer and make those around us suffer. Yet when we know how to cultivate the seeds of love, compassion, and understanding in us every day, those seeds will become stronger, and the seeds of violence and hatred will become weaker and weaker.
True peace is always possible. Yet it requires strength and practice, particularly in times of great difficulty. To some, peace and nonviolence are synonymous with passivity and weakness. In truth, practicing peace and nonviolence is far from passive. To practice peace, to make peace alive in us, is to actively cultivate understanding, love, and compassion, even in the face of misperception and conflict. Practicing peace, especially in times of war, requires courage.
Mindful Practices to Cultivate Peace
To bring about peace, our hearts must be at peace. Mindfulness is the practice of stopping and becoming aware of what we are thinking and doing. The more we are mindful of our thoughts, speech, and actions, the more we develop concentration. With concentration, insight into the nature of our own suffering and the suffering of others arises. We then know what to do and what not to do to live joyfully and in peace.
Mindful walking is the simple act of being aware that you are walking. Instead of being carried away by your thinking, worries, anxieties about the future, or regrets about the past, dwell fully in the present moment, fully aware of each step you make. With each step, arrive in the present moment. You have already truly arrived — why are you still running? Whether walking down a street, into a building, or across the room, be aware of your feet making contact with the ground. Notice how many steps you make comfortably during an in-breath and during an out-breath. As you breathe in, say to yourself, "In," with each step. As you breathe out, say to yourself, "Out," with each step. You can practice walking meditation anytime during the day.
Write a Love Letter
When you have practiced transforming your inner pain, you can begin to learn to express yourself so that another person can really hear what you have to say. If we only insult or condemn, our speech will be of no use. With mindfulness, we practice being honest and skillful at the same time.
Many people can write a letter of protest or complaint, but few of us can write a love letter. Expressing yourself with love is an art. When you have understanding and compassion, you can express your concerns to another. When your tone is angry, blaming, and punishing, you will only make the gulf between you wider. You must be willing to open your heart to the goodness within you, your Buddha nature, the Mind of Love. Then you are in a good position to write your love letter to reflect your calm, clarity, and compassion, and the other person will receive what you want to say.
The secret of creating peace is that when you listen to another person you have only one purpose: to offer him an opportunity to open his heart. If you can keep that awareness and compassion alive in you, then you can sit and listen for one hour even if the other person expresses wrong perceptions, condemnation, and bitterness. You can continue to listen because you are protected by the nectar of compassion in your own heart. If you do not practice mindfulness to keep that compassion alive, however, you can lose your own peace. Irritation and anger will surface, and the other person will notice and be unable to continue. Keeping your awareness keeps you safe. — T.N.H.
Peace is Possible
From around the world, groups come to practice walking meditation at Plum Village in France.
In the summer of 2001 in Plum Village, a few dozen Israelis and Palestinians spent two weeks with us practicing walking meditation together, sharing meals, listening to teachings on mindfulness meditation, and learning deep listening and gentle, loving speech. At the end of their stay, the community gathered and our visitors stood up and gave a report. After only two weeks of practice, they had been transformed. They had become a community of brothers and sisters, Palestinians and Israelis. They said, "Dear community, dear Thay [teacher], when we first came to Plum Village we couldn't believe it. It did not look real to us because it is so peaceful. In Plum Village, we did not feel the 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, communication, brotherhood and sisterhood."One member wrote to me afterward, "Thay, 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 Noble Truth of Buddhism — 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. Together we followed the basic practice: to do everything mindfully. We establish ourselves in the here and now to touch life deeply. We practice mindfulness while we breathe, walk and talk, brush our teeth, chop vegetables, and wash dishes.
We trained them to speak so that the other side could hear, understand, and accept. They spoke calmly, without condemnation or judgment. They told the other side of the suffering they, their children, and their societies had endured. 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 understood, which relieved much of their suffering. We listened deeply, opening our hearts with the intention to help them express and heal themselves.
We were reminded that during the Vietnam War, we Vietnamese had suffered terribly. Yet our practice allowed us then and now to see that our world is beautiful, with all the wonders of life available every day. That is why we know that our friends from the Middle East, too, can practice peace in the middle of war.
Before going back to the Middle East, our friends promised to continue the practice. They told us they would organize local weekly meetings to continue to walk together, sit and breathe together, share a meal, and listen to each other. Every month they have done this. They practice true peace even in the midst of war.
Adapted from Creating True Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh. Copyright© 2003 by The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.