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Read more of Bob Abernethy’s interview with Thich Naht Hanh:
Q: What is it that you teach, and that Buddhism teaches, that Christians and Jews and Muslims should listen to?
A: I realize that many elements of the Buddhist teaching can be found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam. I think if Buddhism can help, it is the concrete methods of practice. We have the same kind of teaching, but in Buddhism there are more concrete tools [to] help you to realize what you want to realize, namely more understanding, more compassion, and absence of discrimination.
Q: Can a person be both a Buddhist and a Christian?
A: Sure. There are many, many Christians who practice Buddhism, and they become better and better Christians all the time. In my retreats over in Europe and America, there have been Catholic priests [and] Protestant ministers receiving the teaching and practice formally. They even receive the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts, and they don’t see any conflict between the teaching of the Buddha and the teaching of Jesus.
Q: But Christians believe in a personal God and in the divinity of Jesus. How do those beliefs fit with Buddhism?
A: There are many levels of Christianity. There are many notions about God. To believe that God is a person is just one of the notions of God that you can find in Christianity. So, we should not say that there is one Christianity. There are many Christianities.
Q: Do other religions have teachings that are helpful to Buddhists?
A: Sure. When you learn about the teaching and the practice of another tradition, you always have a chance to understand your own teaching and practice.
Q: Are all religions true? Is one religion truer than the others?
A: Well, if we are to speak about cooking traditions, we can see that there are good things in every tradition of cooking, but there are a lot of differences. A tradition may become corrupt, and we should try to heal the corruption. We should try to dig in order to restore the best values of that tradition. And this must be done in every tradition, including Buddhism. Buddhism can get corrupted, and the true values of Buddhism could be corrupted by the wrong practice, the wrong teaching. And that is why there should be always effort to free Buddhism from these wrong teaching and practices in order to develop, to unearth, to restore the true values. And this should be true in other traditions, as well.
Q: Is it possible for you to sum up the essence of the true values of Buddhism?
A: Buddhism teaches us not to try to run away from suffering. You have to confront suffering. You have to look deeply into the nature of suffering in order to recognize its cause, the making of the suffering. Suffering is the First Noble Truth, and the making of the suffering — namely, the roots of suffering — is the Second Noble Truth. Once you understand the roots of suffering, the Fourth Noble Truth — the path leading to the transformation of suffering — is revealed. And if you go on that path — namely, the path of right thinking, right speech, and right action — then you can transform your suffering.
If you practice in a community, you help the community to transform suffering. And if you practice as a nation, you help the whole nation to transform suffering.
The Buddha spoke about suffering in terms of food. Nothing can survive without food, even your love. If you don’t feed your love properly, your love will die. Your suffering is there because you have been feeding it. If violence, hate, despair, and fear are there, it is because you have been feeding them by your unmindful consumption. Therefore, if you know how to recognize the source of the nutrients of your suffering, and if you know how to cut off that source of nutrition, then the suffering will have to vanish.
This is a very important teaching for our time, because the amount of violence and craving in us and in our children comes from our practice of unmindful consumption — watching television, reading magazines, having poisonous conversation. We bring a lot of poisons and toxins into our body and into our consciousness. If you don’t stop producing these toxic items, and if we don’t know how to protect ourselves by mindful consumption of these items, there’s no way out.
Q: For everybody and particularly for Americans you would recommend what? Less consumption? Less television?
A: Not less, but right consumption. There are very wonderful television programs that can water the seed of understanding, compassion, joy, and happiness in us. We don’t have to consume them less, but we have to refrain from consuming the kind of television programs that can mean to our body and mind a lot of craving, a lot of violence, and despair. It’s not a problem of less or more, but right or wrong — right consumption, mindful consumption.
Q: How do you define “engaged Buddhism”?
A: Engaged Buddhism is just globalism. When you have enough understanding and compassion in you, then that amount of understanding and compassion will try to express itself in action. And your practice should help you to cultivate more understanding and compassion. If not, it’s not true practice. When you have these two kinds of energies, they always seek to express [themselves] in social action. And that is called “Engaged Buddhism” — Buddhism applied in your family life, in the life of your society.
Suppose you sit in meditation, and you hear the bombs falling around, because meditation is to be aware of what is going on in yourself and around you. If you hear the bomb falling, you know that you have to go out and help. But you try to help in such a way that you can be keen, be calm, and at peace, with the concentration in you, and not lose yourself in the act of service. That is what we call “Engaged Buddhism” — active, but still maintaining the spiritual element within yourself.
Q: We have violence all around us. As you observe what is going on in the world and in this country, does it seem to you we are becoming more violent?
A: Yes, the level of violence in society is very high — violence in families, violence in schools, violence on the streets. We do not seem to focus our efforts in order to transform that violence; we are trying to seek violence outside and to invest all our time and energies and money in order to fight violence outside. But we don’t know that violence is there within ourselves, within our society.
There are ways to transform and to reduce the amount of suffering in our families, in our schools; but people have not done much in order to do that. We, as practitioners of transformation and healing — we know how to do it, how to help reduce the level of violence in our families, in our schools. And we don’t need money to do it. We need only people who know how to do it in order to make the plans, and to do it on a national level. I hope that people in this country will begin to think about that seriously and will move quickly in order to help in that direction.
Q: Are there times when it is necessary to use violence in order to protect yourself, or protect your family, or your country?
A: If you see someone who is trying to shoot, to destroy, you have to do your best in order to prevent him or her from doing so. You must. But you must do it out of your compassion, your willingness to protect, and not out of anger. That is the key point. If you need to use force, you have to use it, but you have to make sure that you act out of compassion and a willingness to protect, not out of anger.
Q: After 9-11 two years ago, Americans generally wanted to respond right away with force. Were we right, or not, to attack Afghanistan?
A: Well, if you look deeply, you see that you have not been able to remove terrorism, especially in the mind of the people. You might have created more violence, hate, and fear in the mind of people. You have not succeeded in removing terrorism, both in [its] appearance, its expression, and in the mind of the people. That is why you have to reflect deeply on the situation and see whether there are different ways of doing it more effectively.
Q: Were we wrong to attack Iraq?
A: I think America is now caught in Iraq, like in Vietnam not very long ago. You believed that search-and-destroy is the right path. In Vietnam, the United States tried to search-and-destroy the communists in the North and in Cambodia. But the more you continue that kind of operation, the more communists you have created; and, finally, you had to withdraw.
I am afraid that you are doing exactly the same thing in Iraq. You are investing a lot of money, human lives, time, and resources in Iraq. You may think that there are states, there are countries, that sponsor terrorism around Iraq. There are six or seven countries listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism. If you continue to think in terms of search-and-destroy, you will have to bring troops into these countries also. That is a very dangerous way of thinking. Using violence to suppress violence is not the correct way.
America has to wake up to that reality. America has to see other means. America is powerful enough to help with peace and reconciliation, not with violence.
Q: So, what should we do in Iraq now?
A: I think America should invest in making the United Nations into a real peace organization with enough authority. America should allow other nations in the world to participate actively in building the United Nations as a community of all nations. And America should transfer problems like the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan to that international body of peacekeeping. That is the only way to get out easily and with honor; and that will be applauded, appreciated by all of us in the world.
Q: You mentioned the Middle East generally — Israel and the Palestinians. It seems that one act of violence there produces another. What would you recommend?
A: We have been inviting Israelis and Palestinians to come to our practice centers, and we always succeed in helping them in becoming brothers and sisters; removing wrong perceptions; cultivating brotherhood and mutual understanding. If that can be done on the international level, we can succeed. But our political leaders are not trained to do these kinds of things. They are trained in political science. They are not trained in mindfulness, deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving speech.
That is why it’s very important to bring a spiritual dimension to our political life. In a family, if two brothers are fighting each other and trying to kill each other, other members of the family have to come in order to prevent that kind of mutual killing.
The United Nations, representing the human family, has not done that. America seems to be doing the job alone. I think that is because we have not invested enough in the United Nations as a peace organization, and we only want to manipulate the United Nations for our national interest.
Q: You led a retreat for some members of Congress. What did you tell them about responding to violence or the threat of it?
A: I did not tell them anything, except offering them concrete tools in order to have more time for themselves, more time for their families; so that they can release the tension in their daily life, bringing some joy and happiness into their daily life so that they can serve better their nation and the world. I am not a politician. I am not going to prescribe a political solution for them. I am only a monk, and the best thing I can do is to help them to be more of themselves — more peaceful, more compassionate. That is enough for me and for them, well, as a purpose in the retreat.
Q: It seems to me that there’s a real problem in what can be expected of one individual. Your teachings can be wonderful for an individual and that person’s relations with the people in his family. But then when you begin to consider the policies of a large organization, like a government or a large corporation, the personal element seems to be more difficult to bring into it. How can you apply the teachings for personal behavior to the policies of a large organization like the United States government?
A: Our practice as a monk is not only to improve the quality of a person, but also to improve the quality of the life of a community. Community building, sangha building, is our true practice. And without a community, your practice cannot be strong enough. That is why it’s not true that Buddhism only offers a practice for individuals. Everything you can achieve as an individual can profit our community and our nation. And that is why, if a community, if an organization like the Congress applies the same kind of techniques, the same kind of principles, there will be improvement in the life of that community. It will bring much better result in their work, whether they are in business or in politics.
We have offered retreats for businesspeople. We have offered retreats for law enforcement people — not only to help individual businessmen, individual police officers, but to help them as a community, because if a community does not have mutual understanding, communication, then they cannot realize what they try to realize.
Q: Would you go beyond that to some kind of direct action? For instance, during the Vietnam War, there was a great deal of direct, organized protest — marches, demonstrations.
A: Yes. Individual insights help bring about collective insight. And with collective insight, there will be group action. But there should be harmony.
Q: What came out of your recent session with law enforcement officials in Madison, Wisconsin? What was the result of police officers learning more about how to be nonviolent?
A: Police officers learned to go home to themselves and release the tension in their body; release the fear, the despair in the mind; learn how to get in touch with the positive elements of life that are in them and around them for their nourishment and healing, so that they can better relate to their families, their colleagues, and so that they can serve better the people. They are called “peace officers,” and they should be — they should have enough peace in themselves in order to do so.
During the retreat, we all practiced the basic Buddhist practice, like mindful breathing; mindful walking; embracing our pain, our sorrow — the negative things — in order to transform. And transformation is healing, is possible. I think in that retreat, the police officers had the first chance to really listen — by such a great number of participants. And they had the first chance to release, to make known the suffering and difficulties. They have learned many things in order to protect themselves and their families, and to have more peace in order to serve in a better way.
Q: Some see a conflict between what is necessary for a police officer to do, which is violent sometimes — to enforce the law, on the one hand, — and your teachings on the other.
A: Well, you carry a gun, but it’s perfectly possible to carry a gun with a lot of compassion inside. You carry a gun to say, “You should not do that. If you do that, you may get into trouble.” But that is a message that can go together with compassion.
We know that violence cannot replace violence. The work of the police officer, as it is now, is only to deal with the symptoms. That is why we have to look deeply and to find the practice that can deal with the roots of violence. If you rely on police officers to keep the peace, well, you are truly too naïve. They can do only the things on the surface, but the violence is always there, trying to explode. That is why you have to use other means, to look deeply and to eradicate, to remove violence from a street.
That is why I have spoken about the kind of retreats, the kind of workshops that help parents, teachers to transform and to bring peace and reconciliation into these institutions of society. If the government and the Congress are aware of that, they will support the kind of practice of peace and reconciliation that is characterized by compassion and nonviolence. This is possible. Our spiritual leaders, our religious leaders have to be capable of helping in that direction.
We expect very much from church leaders, temple leaders, to do this job, because that is their job, to bring a spiritual dimension to our social-political life.
Q: When you travel around this country, there are a lot of things that are different, I think, than at Plum Village in France. How does it make you feel to be here? Is it stressful?
A: Yes, it is much less pleasant to travel in America now. In 1962, ’63, it was very pleasant to travel in America. Now it’s much, much less pleasant. We have allowed violence to grow and to overwhelm us, and there’s a lot of fear and anger. I don’t think that with money you can deal with that problem. It is with spiritual practice.
Q: Would it be possible to show me about mindfulness and breathing? Is that something that you can demonstrate?
A: You’re breathing always, but you are not aware of that. While you breathe in, you become aware that you are breathing in. And you may enjoy breathing in, because breathing in shows that you are still alive. That is called mindful breathing in. When you breathe out, you focus your attention entirely on your out-breath. That is called mindful breathing out, and that practice alone can bring you home to the present moment and help you to be fully present, fully alive. It can be very healing and nourishing. It’s a pity if you don’t know how to do it … Everyone can practice mindfulness without becoming Buddhist.
Q: What is so tantalizing about talking to you is the wonderful promise of your teachings at the personal level, and the frustration of not seeing how it can change the policies of big institutions, such as government.
A: It is the individual who can effectuate change. When I change, I can help produce change in you. As a journalist, you can help change many people. That’s the way things go. There’s no other way. Because you have the seed of understanding, compassion, and insight in you. What I say can water that seed, and the understanding and compassion are yours and not mine. You see? My compassion, my understanding can help your compassion and understanding to manifest. It’s not something that you can transfer.
If you want Mr. Bush to have that, you have to touch the seed of compassion and understanding in him. You cannot transfer yours to him. It is like a father — the wisdom of a father you cannot just deliver to the son. It is very frustrating. You have to help him to develop his own wisdom. It is always like that.