Calming the Fearful Mind

By David Swanson

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who in 1964 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, Jr., has published a new book of advice to Americans and to U.S. Congress members called “Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism.”

Hanh’s words of wisdom strike me as potentially of great value for a variety of types of conflict resolution, but of somewhat limited — if still significant — value for Congress or for U.S. foreign policy.

“If Congress doesn’t engage in Right Action,” claims Hanh, “it is because it doesn’t have Right Understanding about the suffering within our own country and in the world.”

To interpret this in a way that makes any sense at all, I think, requires finding it to be at best misleading. I’ve seen countless Congress members express deep and personal understanding of the suffering they are inflicting, even bringing themselves to tears, while proceeding to inflict more of it, justifying the contradiction in their minds by the supposedly greater good of staying in office by pleasing party, donors, and media, or the greater good of trying to advance their party by obeying its leadership’s plan. Congress members could always be made more aware of the death and devastation they authorize, but they are not completely unaware of it or incorrectly informed about it. Primarily what they lack is a willingness to risk their careers in order to briefly do the right thing. If that’s what Hanh means by “Right Understanding” he should probably have said so.

Hanh claims that the reasons the U.S. government cannot make peace with its enemies abroad are fear, anger, and despair. No doubt there are plenty of those emotions involved. Bush did express a desire to attack Saddam Hussein as retaliation for an attempted assassination of Bush’s father. But nowhere does Hanh mention greed, wealth, power, or political calculation in this equation. Does Hanh imagine that the oil companies funding U.S. political campaigns would be appeased or the war-mad voters would put down their flags and yellow ribbons if Bush listened deeply and talked lovingly with Maliki? I don’t mean that to sound absurd just because it’s so hard to imagine such behavior from Bush. Such a thing IS possible. What I do think is absurd is the idea that U.S. presidents and Congress members are acting on their own beliefs and emotions as opposed to having their strings pulled. Maybe Hanh believes that proper breathing, mindful walking, and open communication can cut all the strings, but he does not describe such a process in his book.

That being said, I would indeed like to see Congress members meet with and communicate with each other in the ways that Hanh proposes, and I would love to see more liberals and conservatives learn these communications skills. Even those of us who don’t think we are very often afraid or angry could learn much better ways to listen to and communicate with others who are. Our goal with a book like this should not just be to try to get right-wingers and racists to read it, but to really read and think about it ourselves. It may sound absurd to ask Congress members to sit in a circle and take turns picking up a flower in the middle in order to have a turn to speak, but deep and compassionate listening is no joke, and engaging in it in our communities is no small step toward influencing those in power in Washington to attempt it as well.

Hanh proposes a national conversation of a sort that would require a completely different communications system in place of the corporate media, but which would do a great deal of good if it could be created. I think Hanh is mistaken, however, to promote religion as a useful part of the process. One week after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Hanh published these words in the New York Times:

“Many people in America consider Jesus Christ as their Lord, their spiritual ancestor, and their teacher. We should heed his teachings … “

Hanh wrote these words in order to try to manipulate people into exactly the wisest behavior: restraint, nonviolence, and understanding. But he played on Americans’ desire to obey a “lord,” and the lords Americans eagerly chose to obey at that time were George Bush and Rudolph Giuliani.

It was by refusing to obey any authority that Hanh arrived at the wisdom he is trying to share, albeit in Buddhist and universal-spiritualist packaging.

“I lived in Vietnam during the war there,” Hanh writes, “and I saw a lot of injustice. Many thousands of people were killed, including many of my friends and students. It made me very angry. One time I learned that the city of Ben Tre, a city of 30,000 people*, was bombarded by American aircraft because some guerrillas had come to the city and tried to shoot down American planes. The guerrillas did not succeed and afterward they left. In retaliation the U.S. bombed the entire city. The military officer responsible for this attack later declared that he had to destroy the city of Ben Tre in order to save it. I was very angry, but at the time I was already practicing Buddhism. I didn’t say or do anything, because I knew that saying or doing things while I was angry would create a lot of destruction. I paid attention to just breathing in and out. I sat down by myself, closed my eyes, and I recognized my anger, embraced it, and looked deeply into the nature of my suffering. Then compassion arose in me.

“Because I practiced looking deeply, I was able to understand the nature of the suffering in Vietnam. I saw that both Vietnamese and Americans suffered during the war. The young American men sent to Vietnam to kill and be killed suffered deeply, and their suffering continues today. Their families and both nations continue to suffer. I could see that the cause of our suffering in Vietnam was not the American soldiers. The cause was an unwise American policy based on misunderstanding and fear.

“Hatred and anger left my heart. I was able to see that our real enemy is not man, is not another human being. Our real enemy is our ignorance, discrimination, fear, craving, and violence.”

If a Vietnamese can see Americans that way, surely Americans can see the 9-11 attackers with equal calm and courage.

*Elsewhere in the book, Hanh says 300,000 [sic] houses, but I suspect 30,000 people is the more accurate description.

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