This, remember, is the monk — now 82 years old — credited with a big role in turning American public opinion against the war in Vietnam — for which Martin Luther King Jr had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. And so, his words are not to be dismissed lightly.
”Every reader has seeds of fear, anger, violence and despair, and also seeds of hope, compassion, love and forgiveness,” said Thich Nhat Hahn, affectionately called Thay.
”As journalists, you must not water the wrong seeds. The stories should touch the seeds of hope. As journalists, you have the job of selectively watering the right seeds. You must attempt to tell the truth and yet not water the seeds of hate. It’s not what’s in the story, but how you tell it that’s important.”
But how should the State deal with terror? Thay’s answer: ”We should invite those who believe they are victims of discrimination and injustice to speak about it. We should initiate sessions of deep listening and invite deeply spiritual people, who don’t have to be famous, to attend these. We must televise these sessions nationally. I am sure you will see a dramatic drop in the level of violence. A war on terror cannot succeed, because you cannot bomb perceptions. The only solution is dialogue.”
He cited the example of an experiment by his own group of monks at Plum village, south of France, in 2006. ”We asked people to write letters to terrorists and more than 40 letters came in. Some claimed, ‘I am the terrorist because I am also violent and there is suffering in me as well’. We need to get together. When we address suspicion and anger as a collective, when we talk informally about suffering, then we can find answers. If we reduce the violence in us, and change, then we change others around us because then we are connected to them.”
Talking about world peace, the monk said, ”Political leaders meet at peace summits but no lasting solutions to the world’s problems are found. Therefore, political leaders, before they get down to talking at summits, should practice sitting, walking, talking informally with each other and practice techniques to calm themselves. Only then can talks lead to positive results.”
The history of Vietnam in the last century was fraught with violence. Thay has himself seen war from close quarters. Naturally, the question came up: Does he believe non-violence can help find solutions in today’s complex world?
Thay’s reply was surprisingly pragmatic. ”Non-violence can never be absolute. However, you can make aggressive action less violent. In war, the generals must try and avoid the death of innocents. Even soldiers can show compassion. The first step towards nonviolence is to be calm and compassionate yourself.”
Questions on wars and conflicts led to the next logical query. How can humanity relate with each other when it is divided within confines of national or ethnic or racial identities?
That brought the Buddhist teacher into his element, propounding on one of Buddhism’s basic tenets of ‘non-self’. The problem, he said, arises when one’s self is set against another’s self. Once we realize that self is made of non-self, then the issue of identity gets settled.
”Man is made of non-me elements. I am made of so many non-me elements — my parents, the food I eat, the education I received, animals, vegetables. Take away all the ‘non-me’, and there is no ‘me’ left. Buddhism is made of non-Buddhist elements. A Christian is made of non-Christian elements and a Muslim is made of non-Muslim elements,” said Thay. Once we realise that we are all interconnected, we will begin caring for all other things.
That’s why, Thay says, we need to learn from suffering. Because only after we have understood the nature of suffering can we understand true happiness. ”Happiness and safety can’t be individual matters. If you have peace on your side, only then can you promote peace in the world. Individual happiness is impossible, as is individual suffering. Because we are not one but a collective.”
And what about the financial crisis that is causing many to suffer? The answer, says Thay, is related to greed and fear. ”As journalists, you must help people so that they don’t become victims of greed and fear. If the aim is happiness, then you must be prepared to give up riches and fame and power, all of which are transitory.”
Can the modern economy — fuelled by conspicuous consumption — co-exist with a monk’s lifestyle? After all, if everyone stopped consumption, industries would shut down and unemployment would rise. So should individuals, in their pursuit of ‘selfish’ happiness, create unhappiness for others?
”Many of us have started believing in happiness from consumption. But happiness is largely a problem of the mind. You don’t have to run into the future, you have enough conditions to be happy right here and now. But in our search for more conditions to be happy, we sacrifice the present. The remedy for us is to go home to the present moment. Don’t get stuck with the past or get sucked into the future. So many wonders of life are with you. Development is like a wild horse that we are riding, over which we have lost control,” responded Thay.
But then, isn’t it much simpler for a monk to talk about not consuming than for people who have to deal with the world on the world’s terms? Can regular people with regular lives follow his teachings?
According to Thay, ”The meditative practice is for everyone, monks and non-monks, the young and the less young. The conditions for reaching out for Buddha-hood are there for everyone. We are just caught up in our worries and projects. The kingdom of God is available for you. But are you available for the kingdom?”
We couldn’t resist asking: what were his feelings when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas? His reply: ”There was no anger. We have a tendency to punish whoever has dared to make us suffer. We seek relief by making the other person suffer. If we see whoever is hurt as a victim, then a neuro pathway will open in our brain and we will forgive the person and reduce his suffering, which in turn will help us to suffer less. All this is not based on speculation but on the basis what we have done, in our group sessions.
This article appeared in The Times of India on 2 October, 2008. You can read it on The Times of India website.