I’m 88 years old. I’m a zen master. At 16 I entered a monastery. I’m Vietnamese, living in France, where I founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community. I lead worldwide retreats on the art of conscious living. If I had to choose between Buddhism and peace, I would choose peace.
During the war in his country, Vietnam, he made a decision that marked his life: he brought the monks to the streets. Since then he has been a peace activist. In his travels to the U.S., he met with federal and Pentagon officers, to whom he presented argumentation to stop the war, and helped to change the course of History when he asked Martin Luther King to openly oppose to the Vietnam War. After the war he founded in Saigon the School for Social Aid Service, he rebuilt towns and villages, schools and medical centers. In his recent U.S. tour he met with the most influential executives. He has recently visit Spain.
In Vietnam, during the war, you brought the monks into the streets.
My life is not important. The important thing is that you practice mindfulness. What I want is to help.
You went from contemplation to engagement, you are a revolutionary.
You think you make a decision, but actually the decision already exists: it depends on how you observed, heard …
But it was your his decision.
The freedom of choice can only come from full consciousness: I breath in and know I’m breathing in, I breath out and know I’m breathing out. Decisions are the result of a continuous long time practice.
Are you free?
Yes, I’m free from anger, from fear, from desire… this helps, it takes you to compassion.
What did you understand about the human being during the Vietnam War?
The Vietnam War was no different from other wars, all of them are due to our lack of right thinking, right view. We are dominated by fear and anger and do not understand our own suffering or that of the enemy.
That’s the human condition.
Lack of understanding makes us victims. Both sides had ideas of how to obtain peace and happiness, but they were not able to communicate.
The monks immolated themselves, and that is an act of violence against oneself.
There was no other way to let the world know that we were suffering. What matters is not your act, but your motivation.
A Western psychologist would say that immolation is crazy.
That’s why I had to go to U.S. to explain all of this to Martin Luther King, because from the Western point of view is very difficult to understand.
King proposed you for the Nobel Peace Prize and openly opposed to the war.
I went to U.S. because I knew that there was little understanding of the situation, but Dr. King and I had been sending letters to each other for a while. He, like you, also wanted to understand why the monks set themselves on fire.
You met with federal and Pentagon officers, like Robert McNamara.
The most difficult ones were the members of the peace movement, in which there was a lot of anger. I spent a lot of time helping them to be more compassionate. They were very angry with me because I was not angry. I had to be very patient.
How did you manage to create an illegal Buddhist University in Vietnam?
It was not easy, but there’s something I want to tell you: it does not matter if you are a very talented person and have a lot of energy, alone you cannot do much. We have to build a community in which there is a lot of mutual understanding, a community that shares ideals: this is the way to have hope in achieving something.
You worked with American veterans from the Vietnam War.
We did mindfulness retreats with them. It was very difficult, but there also was true healing. Understanding must be very extensive: you also have to understand the suffering of those who sent you to the war.
They talk about collateral damage.
They suffer a lot. Defense Minister Robert McNamara resigned three months after we met. He had a big heavy weight in his heart, he felt that the war had been a mistake.
How to heal the horror of war?
When you understand your own suffering and that of the others, and you aim to help other people, compassion is born, and this begins to heal you. Let me tell you a story.
Daniel, a war veteran, was full of hatred because most of his colleagues were killed in an ambush. He wanted revenge: he went to a village and left a bag with sandwiches filled with explosive powder… and he saw how five children ate them.
He saw them die?
Yes, in the arms of their mothers. When I met him he was a tortured man, he did not dare to explain that story to anyone. I advised him to dedicate his life to save children who were dying in the world, and that the energy of this aspiration would save him. He did it and then he dreamed that the five children were smiling to him. He was able to heal and married an English dentist woman.
You are the go-to wise man for bankers and businessmen. Why do they suffer so much?
Because they have money but do not have happiness nor time to love. They are full of worries, fear, anger… and they cannot enjoy life. They do not communicate with their wives or their children, and without communication one cannot be happy. I always tell them: “What do you prefer, to be happy or to have money?… You have to choose”.
They want both things.
Yes, but if they practice seriously, they begin to transform their mind and to discover love. They realize they do not need their money and they choose happiness. That’s interesting.
Ima Sanchís (La Contra de La Vanguardia)