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Of War and Peace

What I Would Say to Osama bin Laden


Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk in the Zen tradition, who worked tirelessly for peace during the Vietnam War, rebuilding villages destroyed by the hostilities. Following an anti-war lecture tour in the United States, he was not allowed back in his country and so he settled in France. In 1967, he was nominated by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is internationally known for his teaching and writing on mindfulness, and for his work related to "socially engaged Buddhism," a call to social action based on Buddhist principles
ANNE A. SIMPKINSON FOR BELIEFNET | Issue Dated: October 10, 2010
Tags : Osama bin Laden | terrorist | military |



If you could speak to Osama bin Laden, what would you say to him?

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 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.

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 angry because they have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks?

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 deeply.

I understand the suffering of those who have lost their loved ones. 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 realised that if we respond to cruelty with cruelty, injustice and suffering will only increase.

When we learned of the bombing of Ben Tre village in Vietnam, where the pilots told the 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 do 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.

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 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 compassion.

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 (9/11) is a desperate call for attention and for help.

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.

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, we feel sorry for them so that drop of compassion is born in our hearts and we feel so much happier and so much more at peace with ourselves.

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. What is evil? It is when the face of God, the face of the Buddha within us gets hidden. It is up to us to choose whether the evil side becomes more prominent, or whether the side of God, and the Buddha shines out. Although the side of great ignorance, of evil, may manifest strongly at one time, it 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 her all the elements of great understanding, great compassion, and also ignorance, hatred, and violence.

Compassion is a very large part of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. But it seems impossible to muster compassion for terrorists. Is it realistic to think people can feel true compassion in the wake of an event like 9/11?

Without understanding, compassion is impossible. When you understand the suffering of others, you do not have to force yourself to feel the compassion... the door of your heart will just naturally open.

All of the hijackers involved in the 9/11 incident 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 understand that.

To have compassion in this situation is to perform a great act of forgiveness. We can first embrace the suffering; 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.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017