I would say to Osama Bin laden ?
- Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how listening is
the first step towards peace
- Interview by Ann A. Simpkinson
If you could speak to Osama bin Laden, what would you say
to him? Likewise, if you were to speak to the American people, what would you suggest we
do at this point, individually and as a nation?
If I were given the opportunity to be face to face with Osama bin Laden, the first thing I
would do is listen. I would try to understand why he had acted in that cruel way. I would
try to understand all of the suffering that had led him to violence. It might not be easy
to listen in that way, so I would have to remain calm and lucid. I would need several
friends with me, who are strong in the practice of deep listening, listening without
reacting, without judging and blaming. In this way, an atmosphere of support would be
created for this person and those connected so that they could share completely, trust
that they are really being heard.
After listening for some time, we might
need to take a break to allow what has been said to enter into our consciousness. Only
when we felt calm and lucid would we respond. We would respond point by point to what had
been said. We would respond gently but firmly in such a way to help them to discover their
own misunderstandings so that they will stop violent acts from their own will.
For the American people, I would suggest
that we do everything we can to restore our calm and our lucidity before responding to the
situation. To respond too quickly before we have much understanding of the situation may
be very dangerous. The first thing we can do is to cool the flames of anger and hatred
that are so strong in us. As mentioned before, it is crucial to look at the way we feed
the hatred and violence within us and to take immediate steps to cut off the nourishment
for our hatred and violence.
When we react out of fear and hatred, we
do not yet have a deep understanding of the situation. Our action will only be a very
quick and superficial way of responding to the situation and not much true benefit and
healing will occur. Yet if we wait and follow the process of calming our anger, looking
deeply into the situation, and listening with great will to understand the roots of
suffering that are the cause of the violent actions, only then will we have sufficient
insight to respond in such a way that healing and reconciliation can be realized for
In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made attempts to realize
this. All the parties involved in violence and injustice agreed to listen to each other in
a calm and supportive environment, to look together deeply at the roots of violent acts
and to find agreeable arrangements to respond to the situations. The presence of strong
spiritual leaders is very helpful to support and maintain such an environment. We can look
at this model for resolving conflicts that are arising right in the present moment; we do
not have to wait many years to realize this.
You personally experienced
the devastation caused by the war fought in Vietnam and worked to end the hostilities
there. What do you say to people who are grief-stricken and enraged because they have lost
loved ones in the terrorist attack?
I did lose my spiritual sons and daughters during the war when they were entering the
fighting zone trying to save those under the bombs. Some were killed by war and some by
murder due to the misunderstanding that they were supporting the other side. When I looked
at the four slain corpses of my spiritual sons murdered in such a violent way, I suffered
I understand the suffering of those who
have lost beloved ones in this tragedy. In situations of great loss and grief, I had to
find my calm in order to restore my lucidity and my heart of understanding and compassion.
With the practice of deep looking, I realized that if we respond to cruelty with cruelty,
injustice and suffering will only increase.
When we learned of the bombing of the
Bentre village in Vietnam, where 300,000 homes were destroyed, and the pilots told
journalists that they had destroyed the village in order to save it, I was shocked, and
[racked] with anger and grief. We practiced walking calmly and gently on the earth to
bring back our calm mind and peaceful heart.
Although it is very challenging to
maintain our openness in that moment, it is crucial that we not respond in any way until
we have calmness and clarity with which to see the reality of the situation. We knew that
to respond with violence and hatred would only damage ourselves and those around us. We
practiced [so that we might] look deeply into the suffering of the people inflicting
violence on us, to understand them more deeply and to understand ourselves more deeply.
With this understanding we were able to produce compassion and to relieve our own
suffering and that of the other side.
What is the "right
action" to take with regard to responding to terrorist attacks? Should we seek
justice through military action? Through judicial processes? Is military action and/or
retaliation justified if it can prevent future innocents from being killed?
All violence is injustice. The fire of hatred and violence cannot be extinguished by
adding more hatred and violence to the fire. The only antidote to violence is compassion.
And what is compassion made of? It is made of understanding. When there is no
understanding, how can we feel compassion, how can we begin to relieve the great suffering
that is there? So understanding is the very real foundation upon which we build our
How do we gain the understanding and
insight to guide us through such incredibly challenging moments that we are now face in
America? To understand, we must find paths of communication so that we can listen to those
who desperately are calling out for our understanding--because such an act of violence is
a desperate call for attention and for help.
How can we listen in a calm and clear way
so that we dont immediately kill the chance for understanding to develop? As a
nation we need to look into this: how to create the situations for deep listening to occur
so that our response to the situation may arise out of our calm and clear mind. Clarity is
a great offering that we can make at this time.
There are people who want one thing only:
revenge. In the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha said that by using hatred to answer
hatred, there will only be an escalation of hatred. But if we use compassion to embrace
those who have harmed us, it will greatly diffuse the bomb in our hearts and in theirs. So
how can we bring about a drop of compassion that can put out the fire of hatred? You know,
they do not sell compassion in the supermarket. If they sold compassion, we would only
need to bring it home and we could solve the problem of hatred and violence in the world
very easily. But compassion can only be produced in our own heart by our own practice.
America is burning with hatred. That is
why we have to tell our Christian friends, "You are children of Christ." You
have to return to yourselves and look deeply and find out why this violence happened. Why
is there so much hatred? What lies under all this violence? Why do they hate so much that
they would sacrifice their own lives and bring about so much suffering to other people?
Why would these young people, full of vitality and strength, have chosen to lose their
lives, to commit such violence? That is what we have to understand.
We have to find a way to stop violence, of
course. If need be, we have to put the men responsible in prison. But the important thing
is to look deeply and ask, "Why did that happen? What responsibility do we have in
that happening? " Maybe they misunderstood us. But what has made them misunderstand
us so much to make them hate so much?
The method of the Buddha is to look deeply
to see the source of suffering; the source of the violence. If we have violence within
ourselves, any action can make that violence explode. This energy of hatred and violence
can be very great and when we see that in the other person then we feel sorry for them.
When we feel sorry for them, the drop of compassion is born in our hearts and we feel so
much happier and so much more at peace in ourselves. That [empathy] produces the nectar of
compassion within ourselves.
If you come to the monastery, it is in
order to learn to do that, so that whenever you suffer and feel angry, you know how to
look deeply, so that the drop of compassion in your heart can come out of your heart and
can put out the fever of anger. Only the drop of compassion that can put out the flames of
We must look deeply and honestly at our
present situation. If we are able to see the sources for the suffering within ourselves
and within the other person, we can begin to unravel the cycle of hatred and violence.
When our house is on fire, we must first put out the fire before investigating its cause.
Likewise, if we first extinguish the anger and hatred in our own heart, we will have a
chance to deeply investigate the situation with clarity and insight in order to determine
all the causes and conditions that have contributed to the hatred and violence we are
experiencing within ourselves and within our world.
The "right action" is the action
that results in the fires of hatred and violence being extinguished.
Do you believe that evil
exists? And, if so, would you consider terrorists as evil persons?
Evil exists. God exists also. Evil and God
are two sides of ourselves. God is that great understanding, that great love within us.
That is what we call Buddha also, the enlightened mind that is able to see through all
What is evil? It is when the face of God,
the face of the Buddha within us has become hidden. It is up to us to choose whether the
evil side becomes more important, or whether the side of God and the Buddha shines out.
Although the side of great ignorance, of evil, may be manifesting so strongly at one time
that does not mean that God is not there.
It is said clearly in the Bible,
"Forgive them for they know not what they do." This means that an act of evil is
an act of great ignorance and misunderstanding. Perhaps many wrong perceptions are behind
an act of evil; we have to see that ignorance and misunderstanding is the root of the
evil. Every human being contains within him or herself all the elements of great
understanding, great compassion, and also ignorance, hatred, and violence.
In your new book
"Anger," you give an example of "compassionate listening" as a tool to
heal families. Can that tool be used at a national level, and if so, how would that work?
This past summer a group of Palestinians and Israelis came to Plum Village, the practice
center where I live in southern France, to learn and practice the arts of deep listening
and loving speech. (Around 1,600 people come to Plum Village each summer from over a dozen
countries to listen and to learn how to bring peace and understanding to their daily
lives.) The group of Palestinians and Israelis participated in the daily schedule of
walking meditation, sitting meditation, and silent meals, and they also received training
on how to listen and speak to each other in such a way that more understanding and peace
could be possible between them as individuals and as nations.
With the guidance and support of the monks and nuns, they sat down and listened to each
other. When one person spoke no one interrupted him or her. Everyone practiced mindfulness
of their breathing and listening in such a way that the other person felt heard and
When a person spoke, they refrained from
using words of blame, hatred, and condemnation. They spoke in an atmosphere of trust and
respect. Out of these dialogues the participating Palestinians and Israelis were very
moved to realize that both sides suffer from fear. They appreciated the practice of deep
listening and made arrangements to share what they had learned with others upon returning
to their home countries.
We recommended that the Palestinians and
Israeli talk about their suffering, fears, and despair in a public forum that all the
world could hear. We could all listen without judging, without condemning in order to
understand the experience of both sides. This would prepare the ground of understanding
for peace talks to occur.
The same situation now exists between the
American people and people of Islamic and Arabic nations. There is much misunderstanding
and lack of the kind of communication that hinders our ability to resolve our difficulties
Compassion is a very large
part of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. But at this point in time, compassion towards
terrorists seems impossible to muster. Is it realistic to think people can feel true
Without understanding, compassion is
impossible. When you understand the suffering of others, you do not have to force yourself
to feel compassion, the door of your heart will just naturally open. All of the hijackers
were so young and yet they sacrificed their lives for what? Why did they do that? What
kind of deep suffering is there? It will require deep listening and deep looking to
To have compassion in this situation is to
perform a great act of forgiveness. We can first embrace the suffering, both outside of
America and within America. We need to look after the victims here within our country and
also to have compassion for the hijackers and their families because they are also victims
of ignorance and hatred. In this way we can truly practice non-discrimination. We do not
need to wait many years or decades to realize reconciliation and forgiveness. We need a
wake up call now in order not to allow hatred to overwhelm our hearts.
Do you believe things happen for a reason? If so, what was
the reason for the attacks on the U.S.A.?
The deep reason for our current situation
is our patterns of consumption. U.S.A. citizens consume 60% of the worlds energy
resources yet they account for only 6% of the total worlds population. Children in
America have witnessed 100,000 acts of violence on television by the time they finish
elementary school. Another reason for our current situation is our foreign policy and the
lack of deep listening within our relationships. We do not use deep listening to
understand the suffering and the real needs of people in other nations.
What do you think would be
the most effective spiritual response to this tragedy?
can begin right now to practice calming our anger, looking deeply at the roots of the
hatred and violence in our society and in our world, and listening with compassion in
order to hear and understand what we have not yet had the capacity to hear and to
understand. When the drop of compassion begins to form in our hearts and minds, we begin
to develop concrete responses to our situation. When we have listened and looked deeply,
we may begin to develop the energy of brotherhood and sisterhood between all nations,
which is the deepest spiritual heritage of all religious and cultural traditions. In this
way the peace and understanding within the whole world is increased day by day.
develop the drop of compassion in our own heart is the only effective spiritual response
to hatred and violence. That drop of compassion will be the result of calming our anger,
looking deeply at the roots of our violence, deep listening, and understanding the
suffering of everyone involved in the acts of hatred and violence.