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Embracing Anger

A Public Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh at the Riverside Church, New York - September 25th, 2001

This transcript was made from the Audio broadcast on the Internet and consisted of three parts. All three parts are included in the  transcript. 


Part I

My Dear friends, I would like to tell you how I practice when I get angry. During the war in Vietnam, there was a lot of injustice, and many thousands, including friends of mine, many disciples of mine, were killed. I got very angry. One time I learned that the city of Ben Tre, a city of three hundred thousand people, was bombarded by American aviation just because some guerillas came to the city and tried to shoot down American aircrafts. The guerillas did not succeed, and after that they went away. And the city was destroyed. And the military man who was responsible for that declared later that he had to destroy the city of Ben Tre to save it. I was very angry.

But at that time, I was already a practitioner, a solid practitioner. I did not say anything, I did not act, because I knew that acting or saying things while you are angry is not wise. It may create a lot of destruction. I went back to myself, recognizing my anger, embracing it, and looked deeply into the nature of my suffering.

In the Buddhist tradition, we have the practice of mindful breathing, of mindful walking, to generate the energy of mindfulness. It is exactly with that energy of mindfulness that we can recognize, embrace, and transform our anger. Mindfulness is the kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is going on inside of us and around us, and anybody can be mindful. If you drink a cup of tea and you know that you are drinking a cup of tea, that is mindful drinking. When you breathe in and you know that you are breathing in, and you focus your attention on your in-breath, that is mindfulness of breathing. When you make a step and you are aware you are making a step, that is called mindfulness of walking. The basic practice in Zen centers, meditation centers, is the practice of generating mindfulness every moment of your daily life. When you are angry, you are aware that you are angry. Because you already have the energy of mindfulness in you created by the practice, that is why you have enough of it in order to recognize, embrace, look deeply, and understand the nature of your suffering.

I was able to understand the nature of the suffering in Vietnam. I saw that not only Vietnamese suffered, but Americans suffered as well during the war in Vietnam. The young American man who was sent to Vietnam in order to kill and be killed underwent a lot of suffering, and the suffering continues today. The family, the nation also suffers. I could see that the cause of our suffering in Vietnam is not American soldiers. It is a kind of policy that is not wise. It is a misunderstanding. It is fear that lies at the foundation of the policy.

Many in Vietnam had burned themselves in order to call for a cessation of the destruction. They did not want to inflict pain on other people, they wanted to take the pain on themselves in order to get the message across. But the sounds of planes and bombs was too loud. The people in the world, not many of them were capable of hearing us. So I decided to go to America and call for a cessation of the violence. That was in 1966, and because of that I was prevented from going home. And I have lived in exile since that time, 1966.

I was able to see that the real enemy of man is not man. The real enemy is our ignorance, discrimination, fear, craving, and violence. I did not have hate the American people, the American nation. I came to America in order to plead for a kind of looking deeply so that your government could revise that kind of policy. I remember I met with Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara. I told him the truth about the suffering. He kept me with him for a long time and he listened deeply to me, and I was very grateful for his quality of listening. Three months later, when the war intensified, I heard that he resigned from his post.

Hatred and anger was not in my heart. That is why I was listened to by many young people in my country, advocating them to follow the path of reconciliation, and together we helped to bring about the new organizations for peace in Paris. I hope my friends here in New York are able to practice the same. I understood, I understand suffering and injustice, and I feel that I understand deeply the suffering of New York, of America. I feel I am a New Yorker. I feel I am an American.

You want to be there for you, to be with you, not to act, not to say things when you are not calm. There are ways that we can go back to ourselves and practice so that we rediscover our calmness, our tranquility, our lucidity. There are ways that we can practice so that we understand the real causes of the suffering. And that understanding will help us to do what needs to be done, and not do what could be harmful to us and to other people. Let us practice mindful breathing for half a minute before we continue.

In Buddhist psychology, we speak of consciousness in terms of seeds. We have the seed of anger in our consciousness. We have the seed of despair, of fear. But we also have the seed of understanding, wisdom, compassion, and forgiveness. If we know how to water the seed of wisdom and compassion in us, that seed, these seeds will manifest themselves as powerful sorts of energy helping us to perform an act of forgiveness and compassion. It will be able to bring relief right away to our nation, to our world. That is my conviction.
I believe very strongly that the American people have a lot of wisdom and compassion within themselves. I want you to be your best when you begin to act, for the sake of America and for the sake of the world. With lucidity, with understanding and compassion, you will turn to the people who have caused a lot of damage and suffering to you and ask them a lot of questions.

"We do not understand enough of your suffering, could you tell us? We have not done anything to you, we have not tried to destroy you, to discriminate against you, and we do not understand why you have done this to us. There must be a lot of suffering within you. We want to listen to you. We may be able to help you. And together we can help build peace in the world." And if you are solid, if you are compassionate when you make this statement, they will tell you about their suffering.

In Buddhism we speak of the practice of deep listening, compassionate listening, a wonderful method by which we can restore communication -- communication between partners, communication between father and son, communication between mother and daughter, communication between nations. The practice of deep listening should be taken up by parents, by partners, so that they can understand the suffering of the other person. That person might beour wife, our husband, our son, or our daughter. We may have enough good will to listen, but many of us have lost our capacity to listen because we have a lot of anger and violence in us. The other people do not know how to use kind speech; they always blame and judge. And language is very often sour, bitter. That kind of speech will always touch off the irritation and the anger in us and prevent us from listening deeply and with compassion. That is why good will to
listen is not enough. We need some training in order to listen deeply with compassion. I think, I believe, I have the conviction, that a father, if he knows how to listen to his son deeply and with compassion, he will be able to open the door of his son’s heart and restore communication.

People in our Congress and our Senate should also train themselves in the art of deep listening, of compassionate listening. There is a lot of suffering within the country, and many people feel their suffering is not understood. That is why politicians, members of the Parliament, members of the Congress have to train themselves in the art of deep listening -- listening to their own people, listening to the suffering in the country, because there is injustice in the country, there is discrimination in the country. There is a lot of anger in the country. If we can listen to each other, we can also listen to the people outside of the country. Many of them are in a situation of despair, many suffer because of injustice and discrimination. The amount of violence and despair in them is very huge. And if we know how to listen as a nation to their suffering, we can already bring a lot of relief. They will feel that they are being understood. That can diffuse the bomb already.

I always advise a couple that when they are angry with each other, they should go back to their breathing, their mindful walking, embrace their anger, and look deeply into the nature of their anger. And they may be able to transform that anger in just fifteen minutes or a few hours. If they cannot do that, then they will have to tell the other person that they suffer, that they are angry, and that they want the other person to know it. They will try to say it in a calm way. "Darling, I suffer, and I want you to know it." And in Plum Village, where I live and practice, we advise our friends not to keep their anger for more than twenty-four hours without telling the other person. "Darling, I suffer, and I want you to know it. I do not know why you have done such a thing to me. I do not know why you have said such a thing to me." That is the first thing they should tell the other person. And if they are not calm enough to say it, they can write it down on a piece of paper.

The second thing they can say or write down is, "I am doing my best." It means "I am practicing not to say anything, not to do anything with anger, because I know that in doing so I will create more suffering. So I am embracing my anger, I am looking deeply into the nature of my anger." You tell the other person that you are practicing holding your anger, understanding your anger, in order to find out whether that anger has come from your own misunderstanding, wrong perception, your lack of mindfulness and your lack of skillfulness.

And the third thing you might like to say to him or her is, "I need your help." Usually when we get angry with someone, we want to do the opposite. We want to say, "I don't need you. I can survive by myself alone." "I need your help" means "I need your practice, I need your deep looking, I need you to help me to overcome this anger because I suffer." And if I suffer, there is no way that you can be happy, because happiness is not an individual matter. If the other person suffers, there is no way that you can be truly happy alone. So helping the other person to suffer less, to smile, will make you happy also.

The Buddha said, "This is like this, because that is like that. This is because that is." The three sentences I propose are the language of true love. It will inspire the other person to practice, to look deeply, and together you will bring about understanding and reconciliation. I propose to my friends to write down these sentences on a piece of paper and slip it into their wallet. Every time they get angry at their partner or their son or daughter, they can practice mindful breathing, take it out, and read. It will be a bell of mindfulness telling them what to do and what not to do. These are the three sentences: "I suffer and I want you to know it." "I am doing my best." "Please help."

I believe that in an international conflict, the same kind of practice is possible also. That is why I propose to America as a nation to do the same. You tell the people you believe to be the cause of your suffering that you suffer, that you want them to know it, that you want to know why they have done such a thing to you, and you practice listening deeply and with compassion.

The quality of our being is very important, because that question, that statement is not a condemnation, but a willingness to create true communication. "We are ready to listen to you. We know that you must have suffered a lot in order to have done such a thing to us. You may have thought that we are the cause of your suffering. So please tell us whether we have tried to destroy you, whether we have tried to discriminate against you, so that we can understand. And we know that when we understand your suffering, we may be able to help you." That is what we call in Buddhism "loving speech" or "kind language," and it has the purpose of creating communication, restoring communication. And with communication restored, peace will be possible.

This summer, a group of Palestinians came to Plum Village and practiced together with a group of Israelis, a few dozen of them. We sponsored their coming and practicing together. In two weeks, they learned to sit together, walk mindfully together, enjoy silent meals together, and sit quietly in order to listen to each other. The practice taken up was very successful. At the end of the two weeks practice, they gave us a wonderful, wonderful report. One lady said, "Thay, this is the first time in my life that I see that peace in the Middle East is possible." Another young person said, "Thay, when I first arrived in Plum Village, I did not believe that Plum Village was something real because in the situation of my country, you live in constant fear and anger. When your children get onto the bus, you are not sure that they will be coming home. When you go to the market, you are not sure that you will survive to go home to your family. When you come to Plum Village, you see people looking at each other with loving kindness, talking with other kindly, walking peacefully, and doing everything mindfully. We did not believe that it was possible. It did not look real to me."

But in the peaceful setting of Plum Village, they were able to be together, to live together, and to listen to each other, and finally understanding came. They promised that when they returned to the Middle East, they would continue the practice. They will organize a day of practice every week at the local level and a day of mindfulness at the national level. And they plan to come to Plum Village as a bigger group to continue the practice.

I think that if nations like America can organize that kind of setting where people can come together and spend their time practicing peace, then they will be able to calm down their feelings, their fears, and peaceful negotiation will be much easier.


Part II

All things need food to be alive and to grow, including our love or our hate. Love is a living thing, hate is a living thing. If you do not nourish your love, it will die. If you cut the source of nutriment for your violence, your violence will also die. That is why the path shown by the Buddha is the path of mindful consumption.

The Buddha told the following story. There was a couple who wanted to cross the desert to go to another country in order to seek freedom. They brought with them their little boy and a quantity of food and water. But they did not calculate well, and that is why halfway through the desert they ran out of food, and they knew that they were going to die. So after a lot of anguish, they decided to eat the little boy so that they could survive and go to the other country, and that's what they did. And every time they ate a piece of flesh from their son, they cried.

The Buddha asked his monks, "My dear friends: Do you think that the couple enjoyed eating the flesh of their son?" The Buddha said, "It is impossible to enjoy eating the flesh of our son. If you do not eat mindfully, you are eating the flesh of your son and daughter, you are
eating the flesh of your parent."

If we look deeply, we will see that eating can be extremely violent. UNESCO tells us that every day, forty thousand children in the world die because of a lack of nutrition, of food. Every day, forty thousand children. And the amount of grain that we grow in the West is mostly used to feed our cattle. Eighty percent of the corn grown in this country is to feed the cattle to make meat. Ninety-five percent of the oats produced in this country is not for us to eat, but for the animals raised for food. According to this recent report that we received of all the agricultural land in the US, eighty-seven percent is used to raise animals for food. That is forty-five percent of the total land mass in the US.


More than half of all the water consumed in the US whole purpose is to raise animals for food. It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, but only 25 gallons to produce a pound of wheat. A totally vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day, while a
meat-eating diet requires more than 4000 gallons of water per day.


Raising animals for food causes more water pollution than any other industry in the US because animals raised for food produce one hundred thirty times the excrement of the entire human population. It means 87,000 pounds per second. Much of the waste from factory farms and slaughter houses flows into streams and rivers, contaminating water sources.


Each vegetarian can save one acre of trees per year. More than 260 million acres of US forests have been cleared to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat. And another acre of trees disappears every eight seconds. The tropical rain forests are also being destroyed to create grazing land for cattle.


In the US, animals raised for food are fed more than eighty percent of the corn we grow and more than ninety-five percent of the oats. We are eating our country, we are eating our earth, we are eating our children. And I have learned that more than half the people in this country overeat.

Mindful eating can help maintain compassion within our heart. A person without compassion cannot be happy, cannot relate to other human beings and to other living beings. And eating the flesh of our own son is what is going on in the world, because we do not practice mindful eating.

The Buddha spoke about the second kind of food that we consume every day -- sense impressions -- the kind of food that we take in by the way of the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the body, and the mind. When we read a magazine, we consume. When you watch television, you consume. When you listen to a conversation, you consume. And these items can be highly toxic. There may be a lot of poisons, like craving, like violence, like anger, and despair. We allow ourselves to be intoxicated by what we consume in terms of sense impressions. We allow our children to intoxicate themselves because of these products. That is why it is very important to look deeply into our ill-being, into the nature of our ill-being, in order to recognize the sources of nutriment we have used to bring it into us and into our society.

The Buddha had this to say: "What has come to be - if you know how to look deeply into its nature and identify its source of nutriment, you are already on the path of emancipation." What has come to be is our illness, our ill-being, our suffering, our violence, our despair. And if you practice looking deeply, meditation, you'll be able to identify the sources of nutriments, of food, that has brought it into us.

Therefore the whole nation has to practice looking deeply into the nature of what we consume every day. And consuming mindfully is the only way to protect our nation, ourselves, and our society. We have to learn how to consume mindfully as a family, as a city, as a nation. We have to learn what to produce and what not to produce in order to provide our people with only the items that are nourishing and healing. We have to refrain from producing the kinds of items that bring war and despair into our body, into our consciousness, and into the collective body and consciousness of our nation, our society. And Congress has to practice that. We have elected members of the Congress. We expect them to practice deeply, listening to the suffering of the people, to the real causes of that suffering, and to make the kind of laws that can protect us from self-destruction. And America is great. I have the conviction that you can do it and help the world. You can offer the world wisdom, mindfulness, and compassion.

Nowadays I enjoy places where people do not smoke. There are nonsmoking flights that you can enjoy. Ten years ago they did not exist, nonsmoking flights. And in America on every box of cigarettes there is the message: "Beware: Smoking can be hazardous to your health." That is a bell of mindfulness. That is the practice of mindful consumption. You do not say that you are practicing mindfulness, but you are really practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness of smoking is what allowed you to see that smoking is not healthy.

In America, people are very aware of the food they eat. They want every package of food to be labeled so that they can know what is in it. They don't want to eat the kind of food that will bring toxins and poisons into their bodies. This is the practice of mindful eating.

But we can go further. We can do better, as parents, as teachers, as artists and as politicians. If you are a teacher, you can contribute a lot in awakening people of the need for mindful consumption, because that is the way to real emancipation. If you are a journalist, you have the means to educate people, to wake people up to the nature of our situation. Every one of us can transform himself or herself into a bodhisattva doing the work of awakening. Because only awakening can help us to stop the course we are taking, the course of destruction. Then we will know in which direction we should go to make the earth a safe place for us, for our children, and for their children.

Part III

The third nutriment that the Buddha spoke of is volition. Volition is what you want to do the most, your deepest desire. Every one of us has a deepest desire. We have to identify it, we have to call it by its true name. The Buddha had a desire; he wanted to transform all his sufferin. He wanted to get enlightened in order to be able to help other people. He did not believe that by being a politician he could help many people, that is why he chose the way of a monk. There are those of us who believe that happiness is only possible when we get a lot of money, a lot of fame, a lot of power, and a lot of sex. That kind of desire belongs to the third category of food spoken of by the Buddha.

The Buddha offered this image to illustrate his teaching: There is a young man who loves to be alive, he doesn’t want to die. And yet two very strong men are dragging him to a place where there is a pit of burning charcoal and want to throw him into the glowing embers so he will die.

He resisted but he had to die because the two men were too strong. The Buddha said, "Your deepest desire will bring you either to a place where there is happiness or to hell." That is why it is very important to look into the nature of your deepest desire, namely volition. The Buddha said that craving will lead you to a lot of suffering, whether there is craving for wealth, sex, power, or fame. But if you have a healthy desire; like the desire to protect life, to protect the environment or to help people to live a simple life with time to take care of yourself, to love and to take care of your beloved ones, that is the kind of desire that will bring you to happiness. But if you are pushed by the craving for fame, for wealth, for power, you will have to suffer a lot. And that desire will drag you into hell, into the pit of glowing embers, and you will have to die.

There are people everywhere in the world that consider vengeance as their deepest desire. They become terrorists. When we have hatred and vengeance as our deepest desire, we will suffer terribly also, like the young person who has been dragged by the two strong men to be thrown into the pit of glowing embers. Our deepest desire should be to love, to help and not to revenge, not to punish, not to kill. And I am confident that New Yorkers have that wisdom. Hatred can never answer hatred; all violence is injustice. Responding to violence with violence can only bring more violence and injustice, more suffering, not only to other people but suffering to ourselves. This is wisdom that is in every one of us. We need to breathe deeply, to get calm in order to touch the seed of wisdom. I know that if the seed of wisdom and of compassion of the American people could be watered regularly during one week or so, it will bring a lot of relief, it will reduce the anger and the hatred. And America will be able to perform an act of forgiveness that will bring about a great relief to America and to the world. That is why my suggestion is the practice of being calm, being concentrated, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion that are already in us, and learning the art of mindful consumption. This is a true revolution, the only kind of revolution that can help us get out from this difficult situation where violence and hatred prevail.

When I first heard that the city of Ben Tre, the city of 300,000 people was destroyed by American bombardiers, I got very angry. I did not say anything, I did not do anything. As a practitioner, I went back to my breathing and I looked deeply. And compassion in me arose. I wrote this poem,

"I hold my face in my two hands.

No, I am not crying.

I hold my face in my two hands.

To keep my loneliness warm

Two hands, protecting,

Two hands, nourishing,

Two hands preventing

My soul from leaving me in anger.


November 2001

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