The Times of India, 2 October, 2008: Thich Nhat Hanh on the use of force to bring peace

times of india 2You can use a knife to kill or you can use it to chop vegetables

An Israeli soldier asks about the use of force during a question and answer session with Thich Nhat Hanh on November 29th, 2001.

Question: I am from the Israeli-Palestinian group. I want to ask about force. I was, and still am, in the Israeli army. At times we need to use force to prevent an act that will cause suffering, and that force causes suffering to another person. My question is, can force be used?

Thay: If you have understanding and compassion in yourself, then what we call force, what we call military force, may help to prevent something, to achieve something.

But that shouldn’t prevent us from seeing that there are other kinds of force that may be even more powerful. We don’t know how to recognize and make use of them so we always have cause to resort to military force. The spiritual force is also very powerful. The spiritual, the social, the educational – they are all forces, and much safer to use. Because we have not been trained to use these forces, we only think of using military force.

Suppose there are two people, both of them full of anger, misunderstanding, and hatred. How can these two people talk to each other, even if they are negotiating for peace? That is the main problem: you cannot bring people together to sit around a table and discuss peace if there is no peace inside of them. You have to first help them to calm down and begin to see clearly that we, as well as the other people, suffer. We should have compassion for ourselves as well as for them and their children. This is possible. As human beings we have suffered. And we have the capacity to understand the suffering of other people.

The spiritual and educational dimensions can be very powerful, and we should use them as instruments, as tools for peace. Suppose you live in a quarter where dozens of Palestinians live peacefully with Israelis. You don’t have any problems. You share the same environment, you can go shopping in the same place, you can ride on the same bus – you enjoy. You don’t see your differences as obstacles, but as enriching.

You are an Israeli and she is a Palestinian and you meet each other in the marketplace and you smile to each other. How beautiful, how wonderful. You help her and she helps you. That image should be seen by other Palestinians and Israelis. If you are a writer you can bring that image to many people outside of your group. If you are a filmmaker, why don’t you offer the image of peaceful coexistence to the world? You can televise it to demonstrate that it is possible for Palestinians and Israelis to live peacefully and happily together. That is the work of education. There are a lot of people in the mass media who are ready to help you to bring that image, that message to the world. That is very powerful – more powerful than a bomb, a rocket, or a gun, and that makes people believe that peace is possible. Why don’t you invite a few Palestinians and Israelis who have not been in such a safe place, to show them that, “Well, you see, there is no problem living together.”

If you have enough energy of understanding and peace inside of you, then this kind of educational work can be very powerful, and you won’t have to think of the army and of guns anymore. If the army knows how to practice, it will know how to act in such a way as to not cause harm. The army can rescue people; the army can guarantee peace and order. It is like a knife. You can use a knife to kill or you can use a knife to chop vegetables. It is possible for soldiers to practice non-violence and understanding. We don’t exclude them from our practice, from our Sangha. We don’t say, “You are a soldier, you cannot come into our meditation hall.” In fact, you need to come into the meditation hall in order to know how to better use the army.

So, please don’t limit your question to such a limited area. Make your question broad – embrace the whole situation, because everything is linked to everything else.

There are many things we can do today to extend our understanding, compassion, and peace, because every bit of it is useful, is gold. When you take a step, if you can enjoy that step, if your step can bring you more stability and freedom, then you are serving the world. It is with that kind of peace and stability that you can serve. If you don’t have the qualities of stability, peace, and freedom inside of you, then no matter what you do, you cannot help the world. It is not about “doing” something, it’s about “being” peace, “being” hope, “being” solid. Every action will come out of that, because peace, stability, and freedom always seek a way to express themselves in action.

That is the spiritual dimension of our reality. We need that spiritual dimension to rescue us so that we don’t think only in terms of military force as a means to solve the problem and uproot terrorism. How can you uproot terrorism with military force? The military doesn’t know where terrorism is. They cannot locate terrorism – it is in the heart. The more military force you use, the more terrorists you create, in your own country and in other countries as well.

The basic issue is our practice of peace, our practice of looking deeply. First of all, we need to allow ourselves to calm down. Without tranquility and serenity, our emotions, our anger, and our despair will not go away. And we will not be able to look and see the nature of reality. Calming down, becoming serene is the first step of meditation. The second step is to look deeply, to understand. Out of understanding comes compassion. And from this foundation of understanding and compassion you will be able to see what you can do and what you should refrain from doing. That is spoken in terms of meditation. In that respect, everyone has to practice meditation – the politicians, the military, the businessman. All of us have to practice calming down and looking deeply. You have our support.

Follow-up Question: We have to pray and work for a whole lifetime to purify ourselves of anger and to cultivate compassion for those who try and succeed in hurting us and causing suffering. There is not a lifetime in Plum Village; there are two weeks. There is a whole lifetime in Israel to meditate. But during that time there are situations in which I see someone who is committing an act of force, and the only way I can stop him is through force, not through education or meditation, because those are processes that take a long, long time.

We do not always have the time to have compassion for that person. At times the act of force that will stop that person from killing, hurting, or wounding so many people is done through anger or hatred and without compassion. But I feel that even though I am still not pure, it is an act that I have to do because I have to protect my people. If a terrorist walks into a restaurant with a bomb on him and I can stop him, the military can stop him, but only by killing him; I don’t have time to have compassion. It could be an act of hate and anger to shoot him, but it will stop him from blowing up that restaurant with women and children and people who are my people.

Thay: Of course it is very difficult to not get angry when they are killing your wife, your husband, or your children. It is very difficult to not get angry. That person is acting out of anger, and we are retaliating also out of anger. So there is not much difference between the two of us. That is the first element.

The second element is: why do we have to wait until the situation presents itself to us as an emergency before we act, dealing only with the immediate circumstance? Of course you have to act rapidly in such an emergency situation. But what if we are not in an emergency situation? We can wait for an emergency situation to arise or we can do something in order to prevent such a thing from happening. Our tendency is to not do anything until the worst happens. While we have the time, we do not know how to use that time to practice peace and prevent war. We just allow ourselves to be indulged in forgetfulness and sense pleasures. We do not do the things that have the power to prevent such emergency situations from happening.

The third element is that when things like this happen, it is because there is a deep-seated cause, not only in the present moment but also in the past. This is, because that is. Nothing happens like that without a cause. You kill me, I kill you. But the fact that you are killing me and I am killing you back has its roots in the past and will have an effect on the future. Our children will say, “You killed my grandfather, now I have to kill you.” That can go on for a long time. When you get angry, when you have so much hatred towards the person who has made you suffer, and you use all kinds of means to destroy him, you are acting out of anger just like he is. And anger is not the only cause. There are also misunderstandings, wrong perceptions about each other, and people who urge us to kill the other side because otherwise we will not be safe. There are many causes.

In the past our fathers and our grandfathers may not have been very mindful and may have said things, may have done things that have sown seeds of war. And their grandfathers also said things and did things, planting seeds of war. And now our generation has a choice. Do we want to do better than our grandfathers or do we want to repeat exactly what they did? That is the legacy we will leave for our children and grandchildren.

Of course in a situation of great emergency you have to do everything you can to prevent killing. And yet, there are ways to do it that will cause less harm. If you have some compassion and understanding, the way you do it can be very different. Bring the dimension of the human heart into it; help the military strategists to have a human heart. It’s the least we can do. Do we teach the military to conduct a military operation with a human heart? Is that a reality in the army, in military schools? They teach us how to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible, but they do not teach us how to kill someone with compassion.

In one of his past lives, it seems that the Buddha was a passenger on a boat that was overtaken by pirates, and he killed one of them while trying to protect the people on the boat. But that is an earlier life of the Buddha. If the true Buddha were there he may have had other means; he may have had enough wisdom to find a better way so that the life of the pirate could have been spared. Because life after life, the Buddha made progress. You are the afterlife of your grandfather; you must have learned something over the past three generations. If you don’t have more compassion and understanding than he did, then you have not properly continued on after your grandfather. Because with compassion and understanding we can do better, we can cause less harm and create more peace.

We cannot expect to achieve 100 percent peace right away – our degree of understanding and love is not yet deep enough. But in every situation, urgent or not, the elements of understanding and compassion can play a role. When a gangster is trying to beat and kill, of course you have to lock him up so he will not cause more harm. But you can lock him up angrily, with a lot of hate, or you can lock him up with compassion and with the idea that we should do something to help him.

In that case, prison becomes a place to love and to help. You have to teach the prison guards how to look at the prisoners with compassionate eyes. Teach them how to treat the prisoners with tenderness so they will suffer less in prison, so we can better help them. Do we train them to look at prisoners with eyes of compassion? A prisoner has killed; a prisoner has destroyed. Maybe he was raised in such a way that killing and destruction were natural for him, and so he is a victim of society, of his education. If as a prison guard, you look and see in that way, then you will have compassion, understanding, and you will treat your prisoner with more gentleness. That helps him and that helps you. Help him to become a better person, and help yourself to be happy by helping people in difficulty. That is the principle.

We should not focus only on short-term action. Again, we have to look with the eyes of the Buddha. We must train ourselves to look at things with a broad perspective and not just concentrate on the immediacy of the problem. Our lives are for that, and the lives of our children will be for that, because we are a continuation of each other. We build synagogues and mosques in order to have a place to sit down and do that – to look deeply, so that our actions will not only be motivated by desire, greed, or anger. We have a chance to sit in the mosque or synagogue for a long time, and in that time our compassion and understanding should grow. And then out there we will know how to act in a better way, for the cause of peace.

As a soldier you can be compassionate. You can be loving and your gun can be helpful. At times you may not have to use your gun. It is like a knife that is used to cut vegetables. You can be a Bodhisattva as a soldier or as a commander-in-chief of the army. The question is whether you have understanding and compassion in your heart. That is the question.


This article appeared in The Times of India on 2 October, 2008. You can read it on The Times of India website.

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