Arnold Kottler, the editor of Being Peace — a new book of talks by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh — tells this story:
“During the 1982 march at the United Nations for disarmament, twenty of us joined Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful and very slow pace. There were nearly one million people in that parade. The AFL-CIO marching band was ground to a halt, along with thousands of others, who happened to be behind us. At one point, 42nd Street from Grand Central Station to Fifth Avenue was open in front of us, and no one, not even the AFL-CIO band, tried to pass this soft-spoken, deeply concentrating man. Not present just to be acknowledged statistically, he walked demonstrating an awareness of the suffering a nuclear holocaust can bring.”
Thich Nhat Hanh’s remarkable presence comes across in the talks reprinted here. Described by Thomas Merton as “more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things in exactly the same way,” Thich Nhat Hanh is the author of Vietnam: Lotus In A Sea Of Fire, The Miracle Of Mindfulness, A Guide To Walking Meditation, and other works. Exiled from Vietnam, he lives in France, teaching, writing, and helping refugees worldwide.
We’re grateful for permission to reprint these excerpts from Being Peace, which is available from Parallax Press, Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707 for $8.50 plus $1.50 postage and handling.
In his introduction to the book, Kottler writes:
“Thich Nhat Hanh was born in central Vietnam in the mid-1920s, and in 1942, at the age of sixteen, he entered the monkhood. When war came to his country, Nhat Hanh and many of his fellow monks left their monastic isolation and became actively engaged in helping victims of the war and in publicly communicating their desire for peace. In 1966, he was invited by the Fellowship of Reconciliation to tour the United States ‘to describe to [us] the aspirations and the agony of the voiceless masses of the Vietnamese people.’ He met with hundreds of groups and individuals, including Secretary of Defense McNamara, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and, in Europe, Pope Paul VI. As a result of his outspoken frankness, he was unable to return to Vietnam, threatened with arrest.
“After the war ended, Nhat Hanh and his colleagues on the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation tried to work with the Hanoi government through their embassy in Paris, offering to raise funds in the West to help feed hungry children, but the government declined the offer. Several years later, he went to Malaysia and Singapore to try to help insure the safety of boat people on the turbulent Gulf of Siam, but various governments thwarted that effort as well. Uncertain how to proceed, Thich Nhat Hanh entered a period of retreat, and for more than five years he remained at his hermitage in France, meditating, writing, gardening, and occasionally seeing visitors. In 1982, he accepted an invitation to the Reverence for Life Conference in New York, and I was fortunate enough to attend that conference and meet him. Soft, slow-moving, and deeply penetrating, Nhat Hanh was described by fellow conference participant Richard Baker-roshi as ‘a cross between a cloud, a snail, and a piece of heavy machinery — a true religious presence.’
“During that trip, Nhat Hanh became aware of the tremendous interest in Buddhist meditation among Americans, and he agreed to return the following year to lead retreats on Buddhism and peace work. A monk for more than forty years, he taught two generations of novices in Vietnam, developing the skill of expressing the deepest teachings of Buddhism in straightforward, poetic language. Because of his experience with the war and his willingness to face the realities of our time, his teachings are also about suffering, reconciliation, and peace.
“Since those visits to North America, Nhat Hanh has returned annually. Being Peace is a collection of the talks he gave to peace workers and meditation students during his tour of Buddhist centers in the fall of 1985. Most of these lectures were delivered to groups of retreatants who were together for several days practicing sitting and walking meditation, eating meals silently, and discussing how to create a more peaceful world. Nhat Hanh always invited the children present to sit in front of the hall for the first twenty or thirty minutes of each lecture, and you may notice passages where he is speaking to children, although he is also addressing the adults through them.’’
According to Buddhism, human beings are composed of five aggregates: form, which means our body, including the five sense organs and the nervous system; feelings; perceptions; mental formations; and consciousness. I would like to explain about feelings and perceptions.
Every day we have many feelings. Sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are sorrowful, sometimes angry, irritated, or afraid; and these feelings fill our mind and heart. One feeling lasts for a while, and then another comes, and another, as if there is a stream of feelings for us to deal with. Practicing meditation is being aware of each feeling.
The Abhidharma writings on Buddhist psychology say that feelings are of three kinds: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. When we step on a thorn, we have an unpleasant feeling. When someone says something nice to us — “You are very smart,” or “You are very beautiful” — we have a pleasant feeling. And there are neutral feelings, such as when you sit there and don’t feel either pleasant or unpleasant. But I have read the Abhidharma and have practiced Buddhism, and I find this analysis not correct. A so-called neutral feeling can become very pleasant. If you sit down, very beautifully, and practice breathing and smiling, you can be very happy. When you sit in this way, aware that you have a feeling of well-being, that you don’t have a toothache, that your eyes are capable of seeing forms and colors, isn’t it wonderful?
For some people, working is unpleasant, and they suffer when they have to work. For other people, if they are forbidden from working, it is unpleasant. I do many kinds of work, and if you forbid me from binding books, from gardening, from writing poetry, from practicing walking meditation, from teaching children, I will be very unhappy. To me, work is pleasant. Pleasant or unpleasant depends on our way of looking.
We call seeing a neutral feeling. Yet someone who has lost her sight would give anything to be able to see, and if suddenly she could, she would consider it a miraculous gift. We who have eyes capable of seeing many forms and colors are often unhappy. If we want to practice, we can go out and look at leaves, flowers, children, and clouds, and be happy. Whether or not we are happy depends on our awareness. When you have a toothache, you think that not having a toothache will make you very happy. But when you don’t have a toothache, often you are still not happy. If you practice awareness, you suddenly become very rich — very, very happy. Practicing Buddhism is a clever way to enjoy life. Happiness is available. Please help yourself to it. All of us have the capacity of transforming neutral feelings into pleasant feelings, very pleasant feelings that can last a long time. This is what we practice during sitting and walking meditation. If you are happy, all of us will profit from it. Society will profit from it. All living beings will profit from it.
On the wooden board outside of the meditation hall in Zen monasteries, there is a four-line inscription. The last line is, “Don’t waste your life.” Our lives are made of days and hours, and each hour is precious. Have we wasted our hours and our days? Are we wasting our lives? These are important questions. Practicing Buddhism is being alive in each moment. When we practice sitting or walking, we have the means to do it perfectly. During the rest of the day, we also practice. It is more difficult, but it is possible. The sitting and the walking must be extended to the non-walking, non-sitting moments of our day. That is the basic principle of meditation.
Perceiving includes our ideas or concepts about reality. When you look at a pencil, you perceive it, but the pencil itself may be different from the pencil in your mind. If you look at me, the me in myself may be different from the me you perceive. In order to have a correct perception, we need to have a direct encounter.
When you look at the night sky, you might see a very beautiful star, and smile at it. But a scientist may tell you that the star is no longer there, that it was extinct ten million years ago. So your perception is not correct. When we see a beautiful sunset, we are happy, perceiving that the sun is there with us. In fact it was already behind the mountain eight minutes ago. It takes eight minutes for the sunshine to reach our planet. The hard fact is that we never see the sun in the present, we see only the sun of the past. Suppose while walking in the twilight, you see a snake, and you scream, but when you shine your flashlight on it, it turns out to be a rope. This is an error of perception. During our daily lives we have many misperceptions. If I don’t understand you, I may be angry at you all the time. We are not capable of understanding each other, and that is the main source of human suffering.
A man was rowing his boat upstream on a very misty morning. Suddenly, he saw another boat coming downstream, not trying to avoid him. It was coming straight at him. He shouted, “Be careful! Be careful!” but the boat came right into him, and his boat was almost sunk. The man became very angry, and began to shout at the other person, to give him a piece of his mind. But when he looked closely, he saw that there was no one in the other boat. It turned out that the boat just got loose and went downstream. All his anger vanished, and he laughed and laughed. If our perceptions are not correct, they may give us a lot of bad feelings. Buddhism teaches us how to look at things deeply in order to understand their own true nature, so that we will not be misled into suffering and bad feelings.
If a grain of salt would like to measure the degree of saltiness of the ocean, to have a perception of the saltiness of the ocean, it drops itself into the ocean and becomes one with it, and the perception is perfect.
The Buddha taught that this is like this, because that is like that. You see? Because you smile, I am happy. This is like this, therefore that is like that. And that is like that because this is like this. This is called dependent co-arising.
Suppose you and I are friends. My well-being, my happiness depend very much on you, and your well-being, your happiness depend upon me. I am responsible for you, and you are responsible for me. Anything I do wrong, you will suffer, and anything you do wrong, I have to suffer. Therefore, in order to take care of you, I have to take care of myself.
There is a story in the Pali Canon about a father and daughter who performed in the circus. The father would place a very long bamboo stick on his forehead, and his daughter would climb to the top of the stick. When they did this, people gave them some money to buy rice and curry to eat. One day the father told the daughter, “My dear daughter, we have to take care of each other. You have to take care of your father, and I have to take care of you, so that we will be safe. Our performance is very dangerous.” Because if she fell, both would not be able to earn their living. If she fell, then broke her leg, they wouldn’t have anything to eat. “My daughter, we have to take care of each other so we can continue to earn our living.”
The daughter was wise. She said, “Father, you should say it this way: ‘Each one of us has to take care of himself or herself, so that we can continue to earn our living.’ Because during the performance, you take care of yourself only. You stay very stable, very alert. That will help me. And if, when I climb, I take care of myself, I climb very carefully, I do not let anything happen to me. That is the way you should say it, Father. You take good care of yourself, and I take good care of myself. In that way we can continue to earn our living.” The Buddha agreed that the daughter was right.
So we are friends, and our happiness depends on each other. According to that teaching I have to take care of myself, and you take care of yourself. That way we help each other. And that is the most correct perception. If I say only, “Don’t do this, you have to do that,” and I don’t take care of myself, I can do many wrong things, and that does not help. I have to take care of myself, knowing that I am responsible for your happiness, and if you do the same, everything will be all right. This is the Buddha’s teaching about perception, based on the principle of dependent co-arising.
The Buddha had a special way to help us understand the object of our perception. He said that in order to understand, you have to be one with what you want to understand. This is a way that is practiceable. About fifteen years ago, I used to help a committee for orphans, victims of the war in Vietnam. From Vietnam, they sent out applications, one sheet of paper with a small picture of a child in the corner, telling the name, the age, and the conditions of the orphan. We were supposed to translate it from Vietnamese into French, English, Dutch, or German, in order to seek a sponsor, so that the child would have food to eat and books for school, and be put into the family of an aunt or an uncle or a grandparent. Then the committee could send the money to the family member to help take care of the child.
Each day I helped translate about thirty applications into French. The way I did it was to look at the picture of the child. I did not read the application, I just took time to look at the picture of the child. Usually after only thirty or forty seconds, I became one with the child. I don’t know how or why, but it’s always like that. Then I would pick up the pen and translate the words from the application onto another sheet. Afterward I realized that it was not me who had translated the application; it was the child and me, who had become one. Looking at his face or her face, I got motivated and I became him or her and he or she became me, and together we did the translation. It is very natural. You don’t have to practice a lot of meditation to be able to do that. You just look, you allow yourself to be, and then you lose yourself in the child, and the child in you. This is one example which illustrates the way of perception recommended by Buddha. In order to understand something, you have to be one with that something.
The French language has the word comprendre, which means to understand, to know, to comprehend. Com means to be one, to be together, and prendre means to take or to grasp. To understand something is to take that thing up and to be one with it. The Indians have a wonderful example. If a grain of salt would like to measure the degree of saltiness of the ocean, to have a perception of the saltiness of the ocean, it drops itself into the ocean and becomes one with it, and the perception is perfect.
Nowadays, nuclear physicists have begun to feel the same way. When they get deeply into the world of subatomic particles, they see their mind in it. An electron is first of all your concept of the electron. The object of your study is no longer separated from your mind. Your mind is very much in it. Modern physicists think that the word observer is no longer valid, because an observer is distinct from the object he observes. They have discovered that if you retain that kind of distinction, you cannot go very far in subatomic nuclear science. So they have proposed the word participant. You are not an observer, you are a participant. That is the way I always feel when I give a lecture. I don’t want the audience to be outside, to observe, to listen only. I want them to be one with me, to practice, to breathe. The speaker and the people who listen must become one in order for right perception to take place. Non-duality means “not two,” but “not two” also means “not one.” That is why we say “non-dual” instead of “one.” Because if there is one, there are two. If you want to avoid two, you have to avoid one also.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, the basic manual on meditation from the time of the Buddha, it is recorded, “The practitioner will have to contemplate body in the body, feelings in the feelings, mind in the mind, objects of mind in the objects of mind.” The words are clear. The repetition, “body in the body,” is not just to underline the importance of it. Contemplating body in the body means that you do not stand outside of something to contemplate it. You must be one with it, with no distinction between the contemplator and the contemplated. Contemplating body in the body means that you should not look on your body as the object of your contemplation. You have to be one with it. The message as clear. Non-duality is the key word for Buddhist meditation.
Knowledge is regarded as an obstacle to understanding, like a block of ice that obstructs water from flowing. . . . For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.
To sit is not enough. We have to be at the same time. To be what? To be is to be a something, you cannot be a nothing. To eat, you have to eat something, you cannot just eat nothing. To be aware is to be aware of something. To be angry is to be angry at something. So to be is to be something, and that something is what is going on: in your body, in your mind, in your feelings, and in the world.
While sitting, you sit and you are. You are what? You are the breathing. Not only the one who breathes — you are the breathing and the smiling. It is like a television set of one million channels. When you turn the breathing on, you are the breathing. When you turn the irritation on, you are the irritation. You are one with it. Irritation and breathing are not things outside of you. You contemplate them in them, because you are one with them.
If I have a feeling of anger, how would I meditate on that? How would I deal with it, as a Buddhist, or as an intelligent person? I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight, to have surgery in order to remove. I know that anger is me, and I am anger. Non-duality, not two. I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence. Because anger is me, I have to tend my anger as I would tend a younger brother or sister, with love, with care, because I myself am anger, I am in it, I am it. In Buddhism we do not consider anger, hatred, greed as enemies we have to fight, to destroy, to annihilate. If we annihilate anger, we annihilate ourselves. Dealing with anger in that way would be like transforming yourself into a battlefield, tearing yourself into two warring armies. If you struggle in that way, you do violence to yourself. If you cannot be compassionate to yourself, you will not be able to be compassionate to others. When we get angry, we have to produce awareness: “I am angry. Anger is in me. I am anger.” That is the first thing to do.
In the case of a minor irritation, the recognition of the presence of the irritation, along with a smile and a few breaths, will usually be enough to transform the irritation into something more positive, like forgiveness, understanding, and love. Irritation is a destructive energy. We cannot destroy the energy; we can only convert it into a more constructive energy. Forgiveness is a constructive energy. Understanding is a constructive energy. Suppose you are in the desert, and you have only one glass of muddy water. You have to transform the muddy water into clear water to drink, you cannot just throw it away. So you let it settle for a while, and clear water will appear. In the same way, we have to convert anger into some kind of energy that is more constructive, because anger is you. Without anger you have nothing left. That is the work of meditation.
The destructive energy of anger, because of understanding, is transformed into the energy of love. Meditation on your anger is first of all to produce awareness of anger — “I am the anger” — and then to look deeply into the nature of anger. Anger is born from ignorance, and is a strong ally of ignorance.
Perceptions are perceptions of our body, feelings, mind, nature, and society. We should have a good perception of the oak tree in order to see its Buddha nature, its function as a dharma teacher. We have to perceive our political and economic systems correctly in order to see what is going wrong. Perception is very important for our well-being, for our peace. Perception should be free from emotions and ignorance, free from illusions.
In Buddhism, knowledge is regarded as an obstacle to understanding, like a block of ice that obstructs water from flowing. It is said that if we take one thing to be the truth and cling to it, even if truth itself comes in person and knocks at our door, we won’t open it. For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.
The Buddha told a story about this. A young widower, who loved his five-year-old son very much, was away on business, and bandits came, burned down his whole village, and took his son away. When the man returned, he saw the ruins, and panicked. He took the charred corpse of an infant to be his own child, and he began to pull his hair and beat his chest, crying uncontrollably. He organized a cremation ceremony, collected the ashes and put them in a very beautiful velvet bag. Working, sleeping, eating, he always carried the bag of ashes with him.
One day his real son escaped from the robbers and found his way home. He arrived at his father’s new cottage at midnight; and knocked at the door. You can imagine at that time, the young father was still carrying the bag of ashes, and crying. He asked, “Who is there?” And the child answered, “It’s me, Papa. Open the door, it’s your son.” In his agitated state of mind the father thought that some mischievous boy was making fun of him, and he shouted at the child to go away, and he continued to cry. The boy knocked again and again, but the father refused to let him in. Some time passed, and finally the child left. From that time on, father and son never saw one another. After telling this story, the Buddha said, “Sometime, somewhere you take something to be the truth. If you cling to it so much, when the truth comes in person and knocks at your door, you will not open it.”
Guarding knowledge is not a good way to understand. Understanding means throwing away your knowledge. You have to be able to transcend your knowledge the way people climb a ladder. If you are on the fifth step of a ladder and think that you are very high, there is no hope for you to climb to the sixth. The technique is to release. The Buddhist way of understanding is always letting go of our views and knowledge in order to transcend. This is the most important teaching. That is why I use the image of water to talk about understanding. Knowledge is solid; it blocks the way of understanding. Water can flow, can penetrate.
We are imprisoned in our small selves, thinking only of the comfortable conditions for this small self, while we destroy our large self. One day I suddenly saw that the sun is my heart, my heart outside of this body.
We have to look deeply at things in order to see. When a swimmer enjoys the clear water of the river, he or she should also be able to be the river. One day I was having lunch at Boston University with some friends, and I looked down at the Charles River. I had been away from home for quite a long time, and seeing the river, I found it very beautiful. So I left my friends and went down to wash my face and dip my feet in the water, as we used to do in our country. When I returned, a professor said, “That’s a very dangerous thing to do. Did you rinse your mouth in the river?” When I told him, “Yes,” he said, “You should see a doctor and get a shot.”
I was shocked. I didn’t know that the rivers here are so polluted. You may call them dead rivers. In our country the rivers get very muddy sometimes, but not that kind of dirt. Someone told me that there are so many chemicals in the Rhine River in Germany that it is possible to develop photographs in it. We can be good swimmers, but can we be a river and experience the fears and hopes of a river? If we cannot, then we do not have the chance for peace. If all the rivers are dead, then the joy of swimming in the river will no longer exist.
If you are a mountain climber or someone who enjoys the countryside, or the green forest, you know that the forests are our lungs outside of our bodies. Yet we have been acting in a way that has allowed two million square miles of forest land to be destroyed by acid rain. We are imprisoned in our small selves, thinking only of the comfortable conditions for this small self, while we destroy our large self. One day I suddenly saw that the sun is my heart, my heart outside of this body. If my body’s heart ceases to function I cannot survive; but if the sun, my other heart, ceases to function, I will also die immediately. We should be able to be our true selves. That means we should be able to be the river, we should be able to be the forest, we should be able to be a Soviet citizen. We must do this to understand, and to have hope for the future. That is the non-dualistic way of seeing.
The Communists killed us because they suspected that we were working with the Americans, and the anti-Communists killed us because they thought that we were with the Communists. But we did not want to give up and take one side.
During the war in Vietnam we young Buddhists organized ourselves to help victims of the war rebuild villages that had been destroyed by the bombs. Many of us died during service, not only because of the bombs and the bullets, but because of the people who suspected us of being on the other side. We were able to understand the suffering of both sides, the Communists and the anti-Communists. We tried to be open to both, to understand this side and to understand that side, to be one with them. That is why we did not take a side, even though the whole world took sides. We tried to tell people our perception of the situation: that we wanted to stop the fighting, but the bombs were so loud. Sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to get the message across, but even then the world could not hear us. They thought we were supporting a kind of political act. They didn’t know that it was a purely human action to be heard, to be understood. We wanted reconciliation, we did not want a victory. Working to help people in a circumstance like that is very dangerous, and many of us got killed. The Communists killed us because they suspected that we were working with the Americans, and the anti-Communists killed us because they thought that we were with the Communists. But we did not want to give up and take one side.
The situation of the world is still like this. People completely identify with one side, one ideology. To understand the suffering and the fear of a citizen of the Soviet Union, we have to become one with him or her. To do so is dangerous — we will be suspected by both sides. But if we don’t do it, if we align ourselves with one side or the other, we will lose our chance to work for peace. Reconciliation is to understand both sides, to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then to go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side. Doing only that will be a great help for peace.
During a retreat at the Providence Zen Center, I asked someone to express himself as a swimmer in a river, and then after fifteen minutes of breathing, to express himself as the river. He had to become the river to be able to express himself in the language and feelings of the river. After that, a woman who had been in the Soviet Union was asked to express herself as an American, and after some breathing and meditation, as a Soviet citizen, with all her fears and her hope for peace. She did it wonderfully. These are exercises of meditation related to non-duality.
The young Buddhist workers in Vietnam tried to do this kind of meditation. Many of them died during service. I wrote a poem for my young brothers and sisters on how to die nonviolently, without hatred. It is called Recommendation:
Promise me, promise me this day while the sun is just overhead even as they strike you down with a mountain of hate and violence, remember, brother, man is not our enemy. Just your pity, just your hate invincible, limitless, hatred will never let you face the beast in man. And one day, when you face this beast alone, your courage intact, your eyes kind, out of your smile will bloom a flower and those who love you will behold you across 10,000 worlds of birth and dying. Alone again I’ll go on with bent head but knowing the immortality of love. And on the long, rough road both sun and moon will shine, lighting my way.
To practice meditation is to be aware of the existence of suffering. The first dharma talk that the Buddha gave was about suffering, and the way out of suffering. In South Africa, the black people suffer enormously, but the white people also suffer. If we take one side, we cannot fulfill our task of reconciliation in order to bring about peace.
Are there people who can be in touch with both the black community and the white community in South Africa? If there are not many of them, the situation is bad. There must be people who can get in touch with both sides, understanding the suffering of each, and telling each side about the other. Are there people doing that kind of understanding and mediation and reconciliation between the two major political blocs on the earth? Can you be more than Americans? Can you be people who understand deeply the suffering of both sides? Can you bring the message of reconciliation?
You may not be aware that your country has been manufacturing a lot of conventional weapons to sell to Third World countries for their people to kill each other. You know very well that children and adults in these countries need food more than deadly weapons. Yet no one has the time to organize a national debate to look at the problem of manufacturing and selling these deadly things. Everyone is too busy. Conventional weapons have been killing many people in the last thirty, forty, fifty years. If we only think of nuclear bombs that may explode in the future and do not pay attention to the bombs that are exploding in the present moment, we commit some kind of error. I believe President Reagan said that the U.S. has to continue to make conventional weapons to sell because if you don’t, someone else will, and the U.S. will lose its interest. This is not a good thing to say. It is off-course. This statement is just an excuse, but there are real factors that push him and push the whole nation to continue to manufacture conventional weapons to sell. For instance, many people will lose their jobs if they stop. Have we thought about the kind of work that will help these people if the weapons industry stops?
Not many Americans are aware that these weapons are killing people in the Third World every day. Congress has not debated this issue seriously. We have not taken the time to see this situation clearly, so we have not been able to change our government’s policy. We are not strong enough to pressure the government. The foreign policy of a government is largely dictated by its people and their way of life. We have a large responsibility as citizens. We think that the government is free to make policy, but that freedom depends on our daily life. If we make it possible for them to change policies, they will do it. Now it is not possible yet. Maybe you think that if you get into government and obtain power, you can do anything you want, but that is not true. If you become President, you will be confronted by this hard fact. You will probably do just the same thing, a little better or a little worse.
Therefore we have to see the real truth, the real situation. Our daily lives, the way we drink, what we eat — all have to do with the world’s political situation. Meditation is to see deeply into things, to see how we can change, how we can transform our situation. To transform our situation is also to transform our minds. To transform our minds is also to transform our situation, because the situation is mind, and mind is situation. Awakening is important. The nature of the bombs, the nature of injustice, the nature of the weapons, and the nature of our own beings are the same. This is the real meaning of engaged Buddhism.
During the last 2,500 years in Buddhist monasteries, a system of seven practices of reconciliation has evolved. Although these techniques were formulated to settle disputes within the circle of monks, I think they might also be of use in our households and in our society.
The first practice is Face-to-Face Sitting. In a convocation of the whole sangha [religious community], everyone sits together, mindfully, breathing and smiling, with the willingness to help, and not with the willingness to fight. This is basic. The two conflicting monks are present, and they know that everyone in the community expects them to make peace. Even before anything is said, the atmosphere of peace is already present. People refrain from listening to stories outside of the assembly, spreading news about this monk or other monks, commenting on the behavior of this monk or the other monks. That would not help. Everything must be said in public, in the community. So the two monks are sitting facing each other, breathing, and — how hard — smiling.
The second practice is Remembrance. Both monks try to remember the whole history of the conflict, every detail of life having to do with the conflict, while the whole assembly just sits patiently and listens: “I remember that day was rainy, and I went to the kitchen, and you were there,” telling as much as he can recall. This is quite important, because the monks are trying to mend the things of the past. The principle of sangha life is to be aware of what is going on every day. If you are not aware of what is going on, one day things will explode, and it will be too late. If the community is sitting in assembly and there are two monks confronting each other, already the conflict has exploded into the open. To sit and try to recall details from the past is the only thing to do now, as far as the past is concerned.
Suppose a woman and a man get married and then live a neglectful life, not knowing what is really going on subconsciously. Their feelings and their perceptions are creating a dangerous situation. Sometimes things occur beneath the surface which will eventually explode, and by then it is too late to deal with them, so the only recourse is divorce, or fighting, or even killing each other. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on in yourself, your feelings, your body, your perceptions, your family. This is very important for any kind of life. The second technique is to recall, and the more details the community has, the easier it is to help.
The third principle is Non-stubbornness. Everyone in the community expects the two monks not to be stubborn, to try their best for reconciliation. The outcome is not important. The fact that each monk is doing his best to show his willingness for reconciliation and understanding is most important. When you do your best, trying to be your best in understanding and accepting, you don’t have to worry about the outcome. You do your best, and that is enough. The other person will do his or her best. The atmosphere of the assembly is crucial. Because everyone has high expectations for the two monks, they know they must act well or they will not be recognized as brothers.
The fourth practice is Covering Mud with Straw. You know when you walk in the countryside after a rain, it is very muddy. If you have straw to spread over the mud, you can walk safely. One respected senior monk is appointed to represent each side of the conflict. These two monks then address the assembly, trying to say something to de-escalate the feeling in the concerned people. In a Buddhist sangha, people respect the high monks. We call them ancestral teachers. They don’t have to say very much; whatever they say is taken very seriously by the rest of the community. One says something concerning this monk, and what he says will cause the other monk to understand better and de-escalate his feeling, his anger, or his resistance. Then the second high monk says something to protect the first monk, saying it in a way that the first monk feels better. By doing so, they dissipate the hard feelings in the hearts of both monks and help them to accept the verdict proposed by the community. Putting straw on mud — the mud is the dispute, and the straw is the loving-kindness of the dharma.
Can you be more than Americans? Can you be people who understand deeply the suffering of both sides?
The next stage is Voluntary Confession. Each monk reveals his own shortcomings, without waiting for others to say them. If the others say them, you feel differently. If you yourself say them, it is wonderful. First you reveal a minor weakness. You may have a big weakness, but you tell only of some minor transgression. (There is an art in all that.) As you make a confession, you might say, “On that day, I was not very mindful. I said such-and-such a thing. That is horrible. I am sorry.” Even though it is a very minor confession, it helps the other person feel better. It encourages him to confess something of the same magnitude. (Imagine the Soviet Union and the United States trying to de-escalate little by little.)
This atmosphere is encouraging. Everyone is supportive, expecting that de-escalation will be realized. The Buddha nature in each monk has the opportunity to come out, and the pressure on each monk from his anger or resentment will lighten. In this kind of atmosphere, the capacity for mutual understanding and acceptance will be born. Then the senior monks remind the feuding monks, “First of all you are part of the community. The well-being of the community is most important. Don’t think only of your own feeling. Think of the well-being of the community.” And then each monk will be ready to make a sacrifice, and get ready to accept the verdict or decision made by the community.
The sixth and seventh practices are Decision by Consensus and Accepting the Verdict. It is agreed in advance that the two monks will accept whatever verdict is pronounced by the whole assembly, or they will have to leave the community. So, after exploring every detail of the conflict, after realizing the maximum of reconciliation, a committee presents a verdict. It is announced three times. The head of the community reads the decision in this way: “After meditation, after exploration, after discussion, after all efforts have been made, it is suggested that this monk will do so-and-so, that monk will do so-and-so, this should be repaired in this way, that should be repaired in that way. Does the assembly of monks accept this verdict?” If the community remains silent, that means, “OK.” Then he repeats exactly the same words, “Does the noble assembly accept this verdict?” And then, silence. And a third time, “Does the community accept this verdict?” After a third silence, he pronounces, “The noble community of monks and nuns has accepted the verdict. Please, both sides carry out the decision.” This is the end of the session. There may be many sessions to solve one case. If one of the monks rebels against the verdict, his voice is of no weight, because he has already agreed to obey any verdict made by the assembly.
These seven methods of settling disputes have been adopted by Buddhist monks and nuns in India, China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and many other countries for more than 2,500 years. I think we can learn something from them to apply in our own households and society.
© Copyright 1987 by Thich Nhat Hanh.