Miracles of Understanding
Peace and reconciliation are possible if Thai citizens and politicians renew and apply engaged Buddhism in their lives and political activities
The interview with Zen master and Buddhist icon Thich Nhat Hanh was unique. He did not impart his message through words, but principally through his being and interaction with the interviewer.
"We can conduct this interview as a meditation session. From time to time, we will listen to the bell, breathe and relax. We are in a Buddhist country, we have the right to do so," the dhamma teacher chuckled. The interview took place at the Thai Plum Village Meditation Centre in Pak Chong, Nakhon Rachasima. We sat together in a small bamboo shack, surrounded by trees, a lotus pond and a backdrop of a mountain range.
"In Buddhist teaching, we practice breathing as a way to relax our body. We can calm our feelings and emotions. That way, we can do whatever we are doing in a peaceful and happy way. This is the practice of the dhamma," he smiled, then added: "That's how we serve our country, in depth."
During the almost two-hour interview, the 87-year-old master did not show any signs of fatigue. He remained poised, relaxed. His voice was soft but clear.
"We need to renew Buddhist tradition so that the teachings, the practice, fit modern times and continue to serve the country. And it is not only the work of the monastics, but of every citizen.
"Society is sick. Everyone is sick, including politicians. Journalists also suffer. The collective energy of the country is stifled by fear, anger, suspicion, and despair," he observed.
During his visit to Thailand last month under the theme "Together We Are One", the noted peace activist monk seemed to pay particular attention to the political landscape. A day after his arrival, he delivered a talk on leadership and politics which was designed specifically for political and social leaders (even though only a few of those invited showed up).
He delivered a dhamma talk to a 6,000-strong crowd at Paragon Hall and during our interview, he remained on the concerned topic: individuals, especially politicians, should practice mindful living and deep listening, produce loving speech and most of all, look deeply into the nature of suffering, individually and collectively.
That is what he meant by renewing Buddhism, or in other words "applied Buddhism", which he believes to be key to helping Thai society reinstate peace and reconciliation; and to improve our political life and the way politics is conducted in the country.
"Buddhism is our heritage. To renew Buddhism is a way we can preserve peace and remove divisions. We can make people communicate to each other more easily. They can reconcile."
Peace is always possible and Buddhism has a substantial role to play through the simple practice of mindfulness, he said.
For decades, Thich Nhat Hanh and his international sangha of Plum Village in France have been providing retreats for mindful practice to many groups of people; police officers, politicians, war veterans from Vietnam and the Middle East, prison administrators, school teachers, scientists, families and couples as well as people in conflicts, such as the Palestinians and Israelis.
Through these many retreats, Thich Nhat Hanh said there have been "miracles of understanding and reconciliation" among couples, family members and friends, even those who see one another as arch enemies. Thich Nhat Hanh arranged for Palestinians and Israelis to practice together. Initially, they practiced mindful breathing and walking and looking deeply into their own sufferings. Over the next few days, they practiced deep listening and giving "loving speech" to one another. All of these basic principles brought the conflicting sides to shrug off their hatred and embrace each other in a spirit of understanding.
"Our enemies are not human beings. They are cravings, anger, hatred, suspicion, despair," he said. "The energy of mindfulness is healing and helps us recognise that," the monk explained. "When you suffer less, you are lighter. You are more compassionate."
Our society suffers from discrimination, "you" and "me", he said. But suffering as well as joy is always collective, it is not individual. When each individual cultivates the energy of joy, peace and compassion, we will have an effect on those around us; family, friends and colleagues in an organisation or community. From a happy person, comes a happy family, a happy organisation and a happy society.
Therefore, the road to peace needs to begin from within, as the Zen master communicates through his famous calligraphic piece, Peace in oneself, peace in the world.
"Next time, we may organise a retreat for politicians and maybe for journalist too," the monk smiled. To better serve the country, Thich Nhat Hanh advised politicians and political parties as well as citizens to embrace the spiritual dimension in their political activities.
To begin with, politicians have to learn how to heal themselves.
"Politicians suffer a lot. In them, there are fear, anger, stress, suspicion, cravings. They make themselves suffer, their families suffer, their parties also suffer.
"They need to come out of those negative energies in order to better serve the country."
These are not just words. Thich Nhat Hanh actually did offer a retreat to politicians and congressmen in Washington, DC. And it yielded satisfying results, he said.
"They've learned how to calm their emotions, to stop thinking and talking. Some of them practiced walking meditation. Some said they can survive the hectic and stressful environment; otherwise they would be burnt out."
The basic principle of the retreat for politicians was similar to that which the master gives to any other groups. It begins with going back to oneself, to look and listen deeply to one's own sufferings.
"The energy of mindfulness is healing. It helps us recognise sufferings, identify our roots of sufferings. And when you understand your own sufferings, compassion arises and freedom [from suffering] comes right away."
In the Buddhist perspective, understanding (wisdom) is a great power, said Thich Nhat Hanh.
From understanding, our approaches and actions will not generate negative energies or outcomes that have already created suffering.
The Buddhist Zen master referred to the Sept 11 terrorist attacks when he gave dhamma talks in Berkeley, San Francisco, and New York.
"After the attack, there was a lot of anger and fear and the collective energy was very dangerous. So I proposed to the whole country to sit down and listen to sufferings in the country. There were people who felt they were subject to discrimination and brutality."
The monk explained that we need to understand our own sufferings and roots of sufferings, for it leads us to understand the other party's sufferings too. From such understanding, we are open to listen to the other party and the healing process, or peace process, can begin. Without such a process, and with a lot of fear, suspicion and anger, no peace talks or negotiation can be initiated.
"But America did not listen to me. A few days later, they started war," he looked down, followed by a pause of silence.
One of the obstacles towards reconciliation is our justified anger, he said.
"We feel we have the right to be angry. The other party feels the same. And there can't be any reconciliation. We have to be able to say, 'I am sorry'. Each party has to say that for, in fact, each of us is responsible and has done things that hurt others."
Thai society can learn from the lesson of the US and do better, he said, to solve our political conflicts and violence. Thich Nhat Hanh suggested we Thais organise sessions to listen deeply and compassionately to the sufferings in the country and urged the whole country to meditate on the sufferings inside the conflicts, divisions and hatred, which is the foundation of violence and fear in the country.
This applied Buddhism is the power that can help reinstate peace in society; not political power, economic power, money or fame. Those conventionally perceived as power only bring struggle, division, separation and suffering.
"We belong to the same nation. It's possible that we can work hand in hand. While we are serving the country as the government, we are at the same time serving the country as the opposition. We don't need to fight and destroy the country."
As for voters, we can help reduce politicians' sufferings and thus collective afflictions in society. Thich Nhat Hanh suggested: "Politicians have to tell us about their life, not their diploma and so on. If you run for parliament, you have to tell us whether you are happy in the family or not," he chuckled. "If you are not happy in the family or in the party, if there is division and separation in your party, how can you make us happy and united as a country?"