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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 sons 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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
offered this image to illustrate his teaching: There is a young man who loves to be alive,
he doesnt 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
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.
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,
my face in my two hands.
No, I am not
I hold my
face in my two hands.
To keep my
My soul from
leaving me in anger.