At a 2003 retreat in Plum Village for Palestinians and Israelis, Thich Nhat Hanh offered insights into the situation in the Middle East based on Buddhist teachings as well as his own experience of war in Vietnam.
This retreat was one of a number of retreats at Plum Village Monastery in France where fifteen to thirty Palestinians and Israelis were invited to practice mindfulness together for two weeks with a wider community. These teachings were offered by Thich Nhat Hanh in Dharma Talks and a question and answer session over the course of the retreat.
We all have feelings of sadness, pain, or excitement. Our feelings flow through us like a river and often overwhelm us. Being together with friends who know how to handle their feelings and emotions, we can learn how to handle ours as well. Within fifteen minutes of breathing and being mindful, we can begin to know how to handle our fear, despair, and anger; this is very important. If you cannot handle your body and your feelings of anger, fear, and despair, you cannot talk about peace. Handling them well will bring peace and harmony into your body, feelings, and emotions.
Often our bodies are not at peace. We can learn how to bring peace into our body right in the here and the now. Our body suffers, especially during times of war. We feel tension, stress, and pressure. We have worked our body too hard and it is full of conflicts. The way we handle our bodies makes them suffer so much that we have no real peace. To bring peace into our bodies, we allow them to rest and have a chance to renew and heal themselves. We can do it today. Even after one or two hours, we will feel much better. We are not just talking about peace in our body, we are actually bringing peace into it.
When we are overwhelmed, we do not perceive things as they are; we have wrong perceptions about who we are, who others are, and what the world is like. These wrong perceptions are the foundation of all our actions that bring unhappiness, destruction, fear, and anger. We need to be able to handle our perceptions, so we know whether our perception is wrong or correct. Most of our suffering comes from our wrong perceptions. We should take the time to look deeply into the nature of our perceptions so we are not caught by them, because our perceptions are the foundation of all our feelings, emotions, and afflictions.
In daily life we are seldom free of our feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. We are rarely truly ourselves. Often we are victims of our feelings and perceptions; we are like a leaf floating on the ocean, with the waves pushing it to and fro. We don’t have sovereignty over our situation. That is why it is so important to come home to ourselves. In this way, we cease to be dominated by our circumstances. This is the basic practice of peace. If we have some peace in our body, our emotions, and our perceptions, then we can help another person to have peace. But we have to begin with ourselves. You cannot be an instrument of peace if you have no peace within yourself.
Listening Deeply to Each Other
For the past few years, groups of Palestinians and Israelis have come to Plum Village to practice mindfulness. When they first come, they are often suspicious of each other. They can’t look at each other with sympathetic eyes. But with the practice and the support of the community, they are able to calm their suffering, their anger, their suspicion, and their hate. After several days, they are able to see that the other group also suffers. It takes time.
The practice of deep, compassionate listening is crucial. If you don’t have compassion, you cannot listen, because what the other person is saying may water the seeds of irritation and anger in you, and you may lose the compassion you have and no longer be able to listen. If you know how to listen for one hour, deeply, with compassion, the other person will suffer much less. It is very healing and transforming.
Deep listening goes together with the practice of loving speech. We try to speak of our suffering without blaming the other side. We speak without bitterness, blame, or anger. This helps others understand our situation and our suffering. If we use deep listening and loving speech, communication will be possible.
During the first five or six days we don’t say anything. We just practice mindful breathing; mindful walking; recognizing the fear, anger, and suffering in ourselves; and calming down. Once we are successful in calming our emotions, we can begin the practice of listening deeply to the other person to understand his or her suffering. We sit down and listen to the other group and recognize that they have suffered a lot also. Now we are able to look with the eyes of compassion, and we use deep listening and loving speech. When it is the other group’s turn to speak about their suffering and frustration, then mutual understanding becomes a reality.
When we see that another person also cries and is in a state of despair, we see him or her as a human being, and suddenly the level of hate, fear, and suspicion in us decreases. We feel better. Now we can look at the other person with more understanding and compassion. There are brothers and sisters in the practice, whether they are monastics or laypeople, who know how to help.
You, as a group of Palestinians and Israelis, have undergone a lot of suffering. Every time your people are hit by a bomb or a weapon, you want to retaliate. The message is very clear, “If you attack us we will attack you back. A tooth for a tooth—that is politics. If you commit an act of terrorism, you will be terrorized.” That message is aimed at dissuading the other side. You terrorize and threaten each other. But if you are enlightened, awakened, and have seen suffering and learned from suffering, then you know that the course of punishment has not brought any positive result.
[Thich Nhat Hanh described an incident during which four collegues who were killed in Vietnam.]
We then organized a ceremony and invited many people to come. During the ceremony we made a speech in which we said, “Dear friends, you kill us because you think that we are your enemy, that we are trying to destroy you. But our intention is not to destroy anyone. We have been trained to love and to serve. We do not want anyone to die, whether they are Communist, non-Communist, or anti-Communist. If you really understood us and our motivation, you would not have killed us like that.” We knew that they were there, listening in the crowd.
The war machine is horrible. If you get into it, you will be crushed, and you will have to crush the lives of others. That is why I urge young people not to join violent revolution. It does not mean that you have to sit and do nothing—you can do a lot, and you can succeed, too. Buddhist practice can help if it has been renewed. It is the same with Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. The practice should help us be more peaceful and remove our anger, suspicion, and fear, otherwise we will not be able to accomplish anything. It is the practice that can help us be together as a group, not suspicious of each other, but treating each other like brothers and sisters. You can only succeed in your revolution if you do that
There are Israelis who are for peace, who do not agree with their government. Supporting them is one of the things you can do. Knowing that there are Israelis like that is one thing that can bring you out of despair. On the Israeli side it is the same; they know there are Palestinians who see the suffering of the war and do not want to follow the path of violence. That helps them feel better also. There are young Israelis who have the courage to refuse to go to the army. Their act is a kind of Dharma talk about nonviolence.
Sit down together and write a love letter. The letter must be the product of your understanding and compassion. If you don’t have enough understanding, you cannot write the letter. The letter may take several months, because you want to manifest all the awakening and compassion that you have in your heart. When you have finished the letter and the other group reads it, they will see that you wrote it out of your awakening and compassion and that it is not just diplomatic. That will move their hearts. It will speak directly to the hearts of the Palestinians, the Israelis, and all the people in the world who are concerned about the suffering in the Middle East. You are speaking for your own people because your government has not been able to do so. You are part of a real peace process.
Finding the True Enemy
Sometimes it is easier to be angry than to express your own suffering. The Israelis think that they are not Arabs, but they are very similar to the Arabs. They are human beings. They don’t want to die, and they want to live in safety. They want brotherhood, sisterhood, and peace. We are separated by names like “Buddhist,” “Christian,” “Jew,” “Muslim.” When we hear one of these words, we see an image and we feel alienated, we don’t feel connected. We have set up many structures in order to be separated from each other and make each other suffer. That is why it is very important to discover the human being in the other person, and to help the other person discover the human being in us. As human beings we are exactly the same. If you have many layers of garments, you prevent other people from seeing you as a human being. Being “Buddhist” may be a disadvantage, because if you have that title, it may be an obstacle, and people may not be able to discover the human being in you. Also, if you have the label “Muslim,” that may turn many people off, because people are caught in these notions and images and they cannot recognize each other as human beings. It is a pity. That is why Master Lin Chi said that you have to burn all these obstacles—take them out and burn them. This is a true practice—to burn everything in order for the human being to be revealed. That is the work of peace.
Both Israelis and Palestinians are victims, even their governments are victims of these ideas and emotions. The practice recommended in Plum Village is not to destroy the human being, but to destroy the real enemy that is inside the human being. If you want to help someone with tuberculosis, you kill the bacteria, not the person. All of us are victims of the bacteria called violence and wrong perception. While we are in Plum Village we have the opportunity to sit down together, locate the real enemy, and discuss how to remove it. When you still have a lot of anger, fear, and despair, you are not lucid or calm, and you are not able to undertake the right action that can bring real peace.
If I can say anything to you, it is to invite you to look deeply and recognize the real enemy. That enemy is not a person. That enemy is a way of thinking that has brought a lot of suffering for everyone. This is an opportunity for us to sit down, be calm, and do just that—identify the real enemy and seek ways to remove it.
How to Deal with Unequal Sides?
In the case of Israel and Palestine, it can feel as though the situation is impossible and that the sides are unequal because Israel has more political power, nuclear weapons, and the support of the United States. You may be deceived by the appearance. During the Vietnam War everyone saw that America was the big power and the Vietnamese were a tiny nation without weapons, technology, or the huge amount of money that the Americans had. But the Americans had to withdraw from Vietnam. We should not be too sure. Suppose the Palestinians are more united, they talk to each other nicely, communicate with each other perfectly, live in harmony, and treat each other like brothers and sisters in a community. They would then be able to produce the kind of insight that could help them become very strong, so they could protect themselves, set up a country of their own, and have the world support them in their attempt to have their own country, their own territory, their own sovereignty. I don’t think you need to be a big power in order to do that. You need to be intelligent, peaceful, and harmonious. There are things within that we have to do. Don’t think that everything inside is okay and that now there are only external things to do. This is a big mistake. Going home to ourselves—rearranging things so that we have harmony and peace inside—will bring us a lot of power. That power cannot be seen in terms of weapons, technologies, and soldiers.
What is the community of nations doing in this situation? They don’t seem to be doing anything. They seem to leave everything to the United States of America. America is a big brother in the human family. He has the tendency to do everything by himself and does not allow other members of the family to come and help. He wants to take care of Iraq alone; he wants to take care of the Middle East alone. I think the United Nations have to come together as a family of nations and discuss how to end the violence in the Middle East right away. My insight is that we should invest in the United Nations and allow it to become a real peacekeeping organization. As it is now, it does not have the authority and means to do it.
Many of us suffer a lot because we feel helpless. We feel that we cannot do anything to stop the atrocities in the Middle East, because there does not seem to be any role our countries can play, even if they are represented in the United Nations. As citizens we have to speak out. Whether you are a Jew or a Muslim, whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian, you need to say that we should behave like a family and should allow the family to take care of us.
People’s Peace Process
Many people in the world are concerned about the suffering in the Middle East. If you can organize a people’s peace conference, you will have tremendous power to educate yourself, the other group, and the whole world on how to make peace.
When warring parties come to a peace conference, each side is full of suspicion, anger, and distrust. With those emotions in their hearts, not much can be achieved, because there is no peace inside as a basis for making peace with the other. Negotiators for peace should have some peace in themselves. At least they should know how to handle their anger, fear, and suspicion.
In peace talks people normally make a lot of proposals and have many discussions. A real peace conference should be organized like a retreat, and both groups should be given time to calm themselves and take care of their emotions, their fear, and suspicion. Some of us know how to help. Some of us from the Middle East know about the practice of calming, of resting, and of embracing our fear and our anger, and we can help prepare the ground for mutual understanding. If peace negotiations fail, it is because people don’t start with this. They are in a hurry and want to discuss things right away. Mutual understanding is not possible when there is a lot of suffering, fear, and suspicion on each side.
It is possible for you to organize a people’s peace conference, somewhere in the Middle East, in Paris, or even in Plum Village. You can invite the international press to come. You are practicing peace—not discussing it—and establishing communication with the other group of people. That is the process of peace—the real road map. You can do it.
We cannot look for God or for peace in the government. We should look for peace within our heart. The real peace process has to come from ourselves, within our group and our people. We should not continue to blame the other side for not practicing peace. We have to practice peace in order to help the other side to make peace.
I think in six months’ or a year’s time your group could organize a people’s peace conference. It could be anywhere, and the world would come and listen to you and see how you practice peace. Many of us from all over will come and support you in your people’s peace conference. That would draw the attention of the world and of your governments.
Your government will listen to you if you are a real entity of peace, if you can listen to the other group with all your compassion, and see that their people suffer as much as your people. Both adults and children live in constant fear. When you are able to see them as victims of suffering, the nectar of compassion will flow in your heart and you will suffer less. When you suffer less, you will help them to suffer less. Every agreement made with that kind of mutual understanding will be a real peace solution, a text signed by both parties. If fear, anger, and suspicion remain intact on both sides, then it is only a piece of paper; it is not peace. If there is compassion and mutual understanding, then you don’t even need a piece of paper.
We can’t wait for our governments to initiate the peace process. They may continue for a long time and not arrive anywhere. We have to take the situation in hand and organize the peace process through our own practice.
A Fast for Peace
On the last day of the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh offered a practical suggestion to the Palestinains and Israelis who were present.
Suppose a group of Palestinians came together and organized a fast somewhere visible, say in New York or Paris. This will be difficult, because many of you are not allowed to travel and cannot afford to travel. You will need outside support and help for your plan. You could say, “We will fast until we get a country for our people and, if necessary, we will die right here in New York on the steps of the United Nations.” Many of you have died—hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. You would need only one hundred people to take part in a nonviolent struggle, but you are not ready to do that. Are you capable of going to New York as a group, with everyone speaking the same kind of language and performing the same kind of action? If you had such a group you would have millions of people around the world supporting you. They would help you organize the fast on the steps of the United Nations. Many doctors would come and take care of you; many people would bring you water; and many others would sit with you to show their support.”
Then, a group of one hundred Israelis could organize themselves and come and sit nearby—not to protest but to fast and support the Palestinian group, saying, “We want to support them, for them to have a country of their own. We want our government to stop bombing and occupying the land. The Palestinians have to state their path of nonviolent revolution very clearly. They have to renounce violence and call upon their people to stop all acts of violence. If you are divided, you will not be able to act effectively for your people and your country. That is why the spiritual dimension has to be there. You have to restore unity, harmony, and brotherhood among yourselves. This is crucial for the success of a revolution.
Within your group, there must be five or ten people who can articulate your position very well. You can say, “Now we are stopping all acts of violence. We want peace. We are committed to not use violence again. Now they do not have a reason to bombard and kill us anymore. In the past they had the excuse that because we were killing them, they had to punish us. Our people are no longer committed to violence. We have stopped all acts of violence, and we are representing our people here. We want a peaceful solution and a country to live in. The United Nations and the world should satisfy our request.
The Israelis can practice in the same way. They can call on their government to stop all violence against the Palestinians and ask the United Nations to meet in an emergency session to discuss the situation. Not much may happen for the first twenty or thirty days, but when those who are fasting show no signs of giving up, I am sure they will take action. You will help the world to wake up, and you will force the United Nations and other countries to do something.
We must use our intelligence. We need a strategy based on understanding, compassion, and nonviolence. If you think that not enough people in other countries will support you, you are wrong. There are many countries who would like to help you. The Israelis too, must act to end the violence. Both sides have a lot of fear, despair, discrimination, and anger—our real enemies. In Plum Village we remind each other that our real enemies are not human beings—they are division, hatred, suspicion, anger, and despair. And as we recognize and identify them, we try to transform them and remove them from ourselves and others. The teaching and practice are very clear.
We have to rely on ourselves, not too much on other people; they are so busy. I propose you form a combined group, working together for one year, to build a community who agree on how to live together as brothers and sisters in the same land. One year is the minimum required to work on that and to prepare for nonviolent action. The whole year would be devoted to building that group, who would speak the same kind of language and be committed to the practice of nonviolence.
I would love to see you organize your group. You need a powerful spiritual strength in order to create such a group in such a short time—a group that can organize a People’s Peace Conference and sign a People’s Peace Treaty. If you are really motivated by the desire to serve your people, this is the path. I tell you this with my heart, not my mind. The nonviolent way is the only way. You will win the hearts of so many people in the world by acting nonviolently. Abandon violence and you will succeed.
I see the path quite clearly. If you want to live, live in a beautiful way, with a lot of meaning, and surely you will be successful. Living for the sake of compassion, understanding, and nonviolence is very beautiful. I tread this path and I will never renounce it. If I were in your situation, I would follow this path. I learned this lesson in my home country. Hundreds of thousands of people died in frustration, because they embraced the path of violence. They killed each other, brothers and sisters, and I don’t want you to do the same.
Peace is possible. We are not talking vaguely, we mean concrete action. That action is directed to ourselves and to the world at the same time. It is a process of transformation, healing, and peace. The spiritual power of such action can change the world.
If you are committed to nonviolence and ask your own people to stop the conflict, your voice will be stronger than the voices of the world leaders who are creating violence. Many people in the world will support you, and you will be in the spotlight. To plan for that, you need a lot of time, a lot of practice, a lot of mindful breathing, and a lot of mindful walking. Then everyone will have to see you and listen to you. This is my hope.
Reconciliation is Possible
Ms Hagit Harmon (formerly Sr Thai Nghiem) who was present at many of the Palestinian-Israeli retreats in Plum Village, both as a layperson and monastic, wrote the forward to the book ‘Peace Begins Here’. There she reflected that reconciliation was indeed possible as witnessed after a mere two weeks practicing together in Plum Village:
“The Palestinian-Israeli groups who have come to Plum Village have been able to listen wholeheartedly, even when suffering is being shared, without judging and without commenting. In doing so, they have been able to create brotherhood and sisterhood, a true holy land in which our care for each other is revealed and we are able to nourish our compassion and understanding. It has been a challenging process. We have had to look in ourselves and embrace our pain and overcome suspicion”
Reflecting about the experiences of Palestinians and Israelis practicing together in Plum Village in a talk in 2008, Thich Nhat Hanh pointed out that:
“After ten days of practice, the two groups could hold hands and practice walking meditation or sit down and share a meal in brotherhood and sisterhood.”
Since this retreat Plum Village monastics have undertaken teaching tours to Palestine and Israel and further groups of Israelis and Palestinians have been invited to practice together in Plum Village.
Videos from the 2003 Retreat
Dharma Talks with Arabic Translation
The full teachings from the 2003 retreat are collected in the book Peace Begins Here, published by Parallax Press, which also includes stories from individual Palestinians and Israelis. This article contains edited extracts from the book.