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An advocate for peace starts with listening

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen-Master, is leading me through a dark room in the Hynes Convention Center, empty except for a few tables and chairs. A couple of other monks and nuns are silently padding across the carpet. No one bothers to flip a light switch.

Thây, (for “teacher,” as his followers call him) takes a seat next to a tall window, under the faintest glow of dusk. “So we can have a bit of light,” he says.

To describe Thich Nhat Hanh’s manner as understated misses the point. Every word seems cautiously chosen, every bend of the wrist deliberate.

And when he talks about peace, people of all faiths and backgrounds listen – from world leaders during the Vietnam War to Israeli and Palestinian factions today.

Just minutes earlier, he was in a giant auditorium several floors below, kneeling on a stage before an audience of more than 2,000.

For nearly three hours, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke about fear, anger, and hate. Addressing the crowd’s security anxieties following Sept. 11, he urged Americans not to let the media “water the seeds of fear.” He also asked the American government to act as a concerned older brother, “setting an example for other nations.”

The powerful effect of his words came at the end, when Thich Nhat Hanh invited questions from the audience. One woman approached the stage and shared that she had lost a sister in the World Trade Center attack. But “I have no anger,” she wanted everyone to know.

Thich Nhat Hanh is no newcomer to the crusade for peace. He’s a leader of “engaged” Buddhism, a style of Buddhist worship promoting nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1966, he was exiled from Vietnam for his antiwar efforts, including a relief group which brought aid to ruined villages. He then toured the globe on a peace mission.

During this time, Thich Nhat Hanh made several trips to the US and represented the Buddhist delegation in the Paris Peace Talks, prompting Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1982, he founded Plum Village, a monastery in southwest France, which has since opened branches in Vermont and California. Thich Nhat Hanh, who has not yet returned to Vietnam because of safety concerns, divides his time between the Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont and Plum Village.

He’s also a prolific poet, fiction writer, and philosopher. His latest publishing venture, “Anger, Wisdom for Cooling the Flames,” was released last September.

The cornerstone of Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideas about peace – whether he’s talking about sparring spouses or warring nations – is compassionate listening. “Is there any politician that is willing to ask the other side: ‘What is the best way to ensure your safety?’ “

For some, it might be tempting to write off his comments as utopian musings. But Thich Nhat Hanh’s work is grounded in day-to-day life.

Last summer, he invited a group of about 15 Israelis and Palestinians to Plum Village. True to Zen form, no schedule of events or agenda was handed out to the newcomers. The leaders of the gathering didn’t even know how long the retreat would last.

But “that doesn’t mean we were not productive,” says Thich Nhat Hanh. Apparently, a warm dialogue eventually ensued between the guests, with one woman confessing that it was the first time she had allowed herself to believe in peace in the Middle East. A second group of Palestinians and Israelis converged at Plum Village after Sept. 11, and a third retreat is planned for early this summer.

Thich Nhat Hanh is clear that his is not the average definition of “intervention.” The challenge, he says, is helping people in places that know only violence to “taste something different.” It’s “creating a kind of setting, an environment, where people can realize they are all human beings.”

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