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Peace Walk with Thich Nhat Hanh - Part 3

by Open Mind Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2005 at 6:11 PM

Part 3 of a series. See part 1 at, and part 2 at

video: RealVideo metafile

This part contains a n eight minute video in RealVideo format. of Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn speaking to the assembled crowd last Saturday, October 8th, 2005, on the subject of attaining peace by being peace. The audio quality of this clip is better than that of the last one, which was interrupted by a helicopter passing overhead.

Below is a summary of this speech, interspersed with my own comments:

TNH: I believe that every one of us aspires to peace, in our family, community, nation and the world.

COMMENT: Certainly human beings, being moral agents, have the ability to choose a peaceful path. But surely it is not the case that every human being is actively pursuing a state of peace.

I think that what TNH is saying is that once a person experiences true peacefulness, they will not want to move from that place to a place of conflict. Because a peaceful state is an integrated state, both internally and externally, a person will not willingly move away from that state once they have experienced it. A state of unpeacefulness is inherently unstable, while a state of peacefulness is inherently stable. And so, I think the importance of this statement is that he sees hope of creating lasting change by helping people to experience a peaceful state, because once they have experienced it, they will not want to move away from it.

TNH: If we come together and sit down calmly, we realize that to attain peace we must be peace. The way we walk, talk, eat, present ourselves, resolve difficulties, should be peace.

There is no way to peace; peace should be a way (of being).

And that is why walking together, sitting together, eating together, generates the energy needed to promote peace.

If we have that peace within our bodies, we will find a way to promote peace.

COMMENT: Coming together to engage in mind-altering rituals is one way to create and experience collective identity. However, the process of living involves many distinct and specific processes, such as growing food, raising children, manufacturing tools and consumable items, and making decisions regarding social and economic policies. TNH glosses over all of this by saying that our state of mind is what is fundamental, and all of these specific structures will somehow materialize once we attain the proper mental state.

However, I believe that our mental state is highly dependent upon the specific larger processes and entities of which we are a part. Social institutions play a role in creating individual identity, and individuals then also play a role in shaping those institutions. This is a self-referencing, holistic, dialectical interplay. You can no more say that one's state of mind is primary than you can say that an egg is more primary than a chicken, or vice-versa. This is where I think that TNH's thinking is unrealistic.

TNH: I don't think that angry shouting , protesting, can end this war. I think that if we are capable of looking deeply and recognizing the true nature of war, and then use loving speech and deep listening to help others to see symptoms, and the true nature, of war, then that kind of true understanding and change in our way of thinking will bring about the end of war. Because war is the product of our collective thinking, and peace is the product of our collective thinking.

To accomplish this, we should use compassionate listening and loving speech. That is why embodying peace is very important.

COMMENT: This is the most direct criticism that TNH makes of the anti-war movement, and I think that we should take all criticisms very seriously to see if there is some truth to be found in them, even if we disagree with some parts of the criticism.

I believe that demonstrating does serve some useful purposes, and those purposes are:

1. To allow us to know that we are not alone in our opposition to this war

2. To allow others to know that their fellow citizens do not support this war

3. To preserve our right to peaceful protest by using that right

4. To find other people who oppose the war and to work with them to form organizations to build peace

However, in the light of this criticism, I would ask the following questions regarding our traditional left anti-war demonstrations:

1. Are our demonstrations oriented too much toward opposition to war, and too little toward shaping peace in a positive manner? That is, are we failing to promote a positive vision of a peaceful state for our nation and for our world?

2. Is our form of protest itself a product of the alienated society in which we live? Do we get into cars and arrive at demonstrations in the same manner as people attend a concert or in the same manner as people go to the store to buy things or in the same manner as people commute to work, only to return home again without having formed any lasting connection to other members of our communities?

I think that TNH's more general comments about being peace rather than just opposing war are correct; however, I think that he is too focused upon our attaining peace as individuals as opposed to attaining peace as communities of people who are organized to cooperate with one another based upon a collective identity and purpose.

TNH: Early this year I was able to return to my country after 40 years of exile. The Vietnamese government allowed this to show that there was freedom in Vietnam. But there was a lot of fear and suspicion. They thought that we were going to organize demonstrations against them. Through a practice of mindful loving speech and deep listening, these fears and suspicions were overcome. We spent 90 days meeting with Communist Party officials, scholars, and young people.

COMMENT: TNH does not say what the problems of the present Vietnamese government's policies might be, or whether those policies were changed as a result of his group's visit. All that he says is that they were put at ease regarding their fears that his group was going to actively oppose them. We cannot know if this approach was effective unless we know whether the policies of the government were at odds with the needs of peace, and became less so as a result of this visit.

Also, this presentation implies that part of the path to peace is convincing people who are at the top levels of control systems to support peaceful policies. However, from my perspective, if a government is run by a dictator (and I am not referring to the Vietnamese government here, but any government), then even if that dictator becomes move benevolent, the government is still a dictatorship, and the concept of benevolence will be one that comes from, and is therefore imposed by, that single dictator, rather than one that emerges in a bottom-up manner from the population at large. And I do not believe that peace is the same thing as regimentation, because peace must respect the distinct identities of all beings.

So, this anecdote does not seems to provide a strong argument regarding the virtues of TNH's approach.

TNH: This practice has helped groups of people like Israelis and Palestinians to meet and understand one another better. We have sponsored many groups of Palestinians and Israelis to come together to speak.

COMMENT: Fine, that is probably helpful, but what have been the actual effects of such meetings upon the policies of institutions such as the Israeli government?

TNH: And I believe that these same approaches can be applied to bringing together African-Americans and Latin Americans in the U.S.

COMMENT: These are two oppressed communities, and that is a very different thing from an oppressor community and an oppressed community, which is the present relationship of Israel to Palestine. The anger between the African American and Latin American populations is a fabrication that can only help those who wish to control them both; it is not based upon any actual history of mutual conflict or oppression, the actual injustice of which must be resolved before a true peace can exist.

Therefore, I see great potential in applying the approach of TNH to heal rifts between these two communities, and hope that he and others in the Buddhist community will undertake to hold such meetings.

TNH: Only the transformation of our collective way of thinking can help to bring peace.

We have to prove that brotherhood, sisterhood, non-discrimination is possible by our way of being.

COMMENT: I agree, but the focus seem to be on the individual way of thinking, not the collective way of thinking. Collective thinking is not merely the sum of each individual person's thinking. Instead, collective thinking is expressed most concretely by institutions, such as news media and government, and their policies as expressed in their internal laws, treaties with other nations, use of military force, and so on. TNH needs to address these kinds of collectivities, rather than simply assuming that changing individuals will somehow result in specific changes to the institutions of which those individuals are a part.

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