Thich Nhat Hanh was a guest of Jerry Brown, former California governor and presidential candidate, on his radio program We The People, broadcast on the Pacifica Radio Network, September 28, 1995.
Thich Nhat Hanh: The war in Vietnam might have been started out of goodwill. Perhaps some people had the goodwill to want to help, to save, or to protect Vietnam. But we are all subject to wrong perceptions, and even if we act out of goodwill we can create a lot of suffering for the people we are trying to protect. That is why it is very important to be still and to look deeply at what is there in the heart of reality.
During the war in Vietnam, all of us suffered so much. But as a monk, I continued to practice meditation in order not to lose track of reality. In the situation of war, it is easy to be carried away by despair or anger. But if you are caught by despair and anger, you lose the insight that you need in order to stand firm and bring your people out of danger.
Because of my practice, I was capable of seeing that the war also created great suffering for the American people. The young Americans who went to Vietnam in order to kill or be killed were also victims of the war. They suffered just as much as the Vietnamese. Because I was able to see them as victims, I was not carried away by rage or anger; I had compassion to offer to them. If we do not have enough peace inside of of us, enough practice of looking deeply, then we will not see the reality of a situation and will not know how to avoid more suffering.
These insights are not for monks and nuns only, but are for everyone, including politicians. I firmly believe that politicians and activists have to practice peace to regain their strength, their calm, their capacity to look deeply, their capacity to resist despair and anger. If they can do that, many people will benefit. If they are carried along only by the will to act, by action itself, their presence and their action will not be as effective.
I think each activist has to be like a monk or nun. I believe that everyone has a baby monk or a baby nun within his or her heart. We have to allow that baby monk or baby nun to have a chance to get stronger. When the monk is solid inside, you have enough peace in you to serve as the foundation of your action. Otherwise, even if you have a lot of goodwill, you may cause suffering to the people you want to protect or to help. This is very important. If we want to be true servants of humanity, the monk in us has to be as strong as the activist. That is why not only monks have to practice as monks, but non-monks have to practice as monks in their own way, in their daily lives That is called engaged Buddhism, or engaged Christianity.
Jerry Brown: So we are going to have to have monks in the place of politicians or else politicians are going to have to find their hidden monk essence. Practically speaking, how do we do that?
TNH: Everyone, including businessmen, need time to pause, to stop. Perhaps businessmen could practice telephone meditation. Every time the telephone rings, they breathe in and out in order to establish peace within, using the telephone ring like a signal to come back to themselves.
If the person who called has something very important to tell you, she will not hang up after the first two rings. When it rings for the third time, you can pick up the telephone. And now you are much more calm, and that is not only good for you but also good for the person who is calling. That is just one way to practice peace.
Driving a car you can do the same. Practice breathing and smiling. Walking from your office to the bus stop, you might like to practice what we call walking meditation, not thinking of anything at all, just enjoying walking on this beautiful planet. If you walk like that for three or five minutes, you will recover yourself, and bring serenity back into yourself. That is what we call the practice of meditation in daily life.
Thanks to Jerry Brown and We the People for the material used in this interview.