What I Would Say to Osama bin Laden
Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how listening is the
first step towards peace.
Interview by Anne A. Simpkinson
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk in the Zen tradition, who worked tirelessly
for peace during the Vietnam War, rebuilding villages destroyed by the hostilities.
Following an anti-war lecture tour in the United States, he was not allowed back
in his country and settled in France. In 1967, he was nominated by the Reverend
Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is now internationally
known for his teaching and writing on mindfulness, and for his work related to
"socially engaged Buddhism," a call to social action based on Buddhist
principles. Thay, as he is affectionately called by his followers, shared his
thoughts on how America should respond to the terrorist attacks. This interview
will appear in a forthcoming book entitled "Out of the Ashes: A Spiritual
Response to America's Tragedy," to be published jointly by Beliefnet and
If you could speak to Osama bin Laden, what would you say to him? Likewise, if
you were to speak to the American people, what would you suggest we do at this
point, individually and as a nation?
If I were given the opportunity to be face to face with Osama bin Laden, the first
thing I would do is listen. I would try to understand why he had acted in that
cruel way. I would try to understand all of the suffering that had led him to
violence. It might not be easy to listen in that way, so I would have to remain
calm and lucid. I would need several friends with me, who are strong in the practice
of deep listening, listening without reacting, without judging and blaming. In
this way, an atmosphere of support would be created for this person and those
connected so that they could share completely, trust that they are really being
After listening for some time, we might need to take a break to allow what has
been said to enter into our consciousness. Only when we felt calm and lucid would
we respond. We would respond point by point to what had been said. We would respond
gently but firmly in such a way to help them to discover their own misunderstandings
so that they will stop violent acts from their own will.
For the American people, I would suggest that we do everything we can to restore
our calm and our lucidity before responding to the situation. To respond too quickly
before we have much understanding of the situation may be very dangerous. The
first thing we can do is to cool the flames of anger and hatred that are so strong
in us. As mentioned before, it is crucial to look at the way we feed the hatred
and violence within us and to take immediate steps to cut off the nourishment
for our hatred and violence.
When we react out of fear and hatred, we do not yet have a deep understanding
of the situation. Our action will only be a very quick and superficial way of
responding to the situation and not much true benefit and healing will occur.
Yet if we wait and follow the process of calming our anger, looking deeply into
the situation, and listening with great will to understand the roots of suffering
that are the cause of the violent actions, only then will we have sufficient insight
to respond in such a way that healing and reconciliation can be realized for everyone
In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made attempts to
realize this. All the parties involved in violence and injustice agreed to listen
to each other in a calm and supportive environment, to look together deeply at
the roots of violent acts and to find agreeable arrangements to respond to the
situations. The presence of strong spiritual leaders is very helpful to support
and maintain such an environment. We can look at this model for resolving conflicts
that are arising right in the present moment; we do not have to wait many years
to realize this.
You personally experienced the devastation caused by the war fought in Vietnam
and worked to end the hostilities there. What do you say to people who are grief-stricken
and enraged because they have lost loved ones in the terrorist attack?
I did lose my spiritual sons and daughters during the war when they were entering
the fighting zone trying to save those under the bombs. Some were killed by war
and some by murder due to the misunderstanding that they were supporting the other
side. When I looked at the four slain corpses of my spiritual sons murdered in
such a violent way, I suffered deeply.
I understand the suffering of those who have lost beloved ones in this tragedy.
In situations of great loss and grief, I had to find my calm in order to restore
my lucidity and my heart of understanding and compassion. With the practice of
deep looking, I realized that if we respond to cruelty with cruelty, injustice
and suffering will only increase.
When we learned of the bombing of the Bentra village in Vietnam, where 300,000
homes were destroyed, and the pilots told journalists that they had destroyed
the village in order to save it, I was shocked, and [racked] with anger and grief.
We practiced walking calmly and gently on the earth to bring back our calm mind
and peaceful heart.
Although it is very challenging to maintain our openness in that moment, it is
crucial that we not respond in any way until we have calmness and clarity with
which to see the reality of the situation. We knew that to respond with violence
and hatred would only damage ourselves and those around us. We practiced [so that
we might] look deeply into the suffering of the people inflicting violence on
us, to understand them more deeply and to understand ourselves more deeply. With
this understanding we were able to produce compassion and to relieve our own suffering
and that of the other side.
What is the "right action" to take with regard to responding to terrorist
attacks? Should we seek justice through military action? Through judicial processes?
Is military action and/or retaliation justified if it can prevent future innocents
from being killed?
All violence is injustice. The fire of hatred and violence cannot be extinguished
by adding more hatred and violence to the fire. The only antidote to violence
is compassion. And what is compassion made of? It is made of understanding. When
there is no understanding, how can we feel compassion, how can we begin to relieve
the great suffering that is there? So understanding is the very real foundation
upon which we build our compassion.
How do we gain the understanding and insight to guide us through such incredibly
challenging moments that we are now face in America? To understand, we must find
paths of communication so that we can listen to those who desperately are calling
out for our understanding--because such an act of violence is a desperate call
for attention and for help.
How can we listen in a calm and clear way so that we don't immediately kill the
chance for understanding to develop? As a nation we need to look into this: how
to create the situations for deep listening to occur so that our response to the
situation may arise out of our calm and clear mind. Clarity is a great offering
that we can make at this time.
There are people who want one thing only: revenge. In the Buddhist scriptures,
the Buddha said that by using hatred to answer hatred, there will only be an escalation
of hatred. But if we use compassion to embrace those who have harmed us, it will
greatly diffuse the bomb in our hearts and in theirs.
So how can we bring about a drop of compassion that can put out the fire of hatred?
You know, they do not sell compassion in the supermarket. If they sold compassion,
we would only need to bring it home and we could solve the problem of hatred and
violence in the world very easily. But compassion can only be produced in our
own heart by our own practice.
America is burning with hatred. That is why we have to tell our Christian friends,
"You are children of Christ." You have to return to yourselves and look
deeply and find out why this violence happened. Why is there so much hatred? What
lies under all this violence? Why do they hate so much that they would sacrifice
their own lives and bring about so much suffering to other people? Why would these
young people, full of vitality and strength, have chosen to lose their lives,
to commit such violence? That is what we have to understand.
We have to find a way to stop violence, of course. If need be, we have to put
the men responsible in prison. But the important thing is to look deeply and ask,
"Why did that happen? What responsibility do we have in that happening? "
Maybe they misunderstood us. But what has made them misunderstand us so much to
make them hate so much?
The method of the Buddha is to look deeply to see the source of suffering; the
source of the violence. If we have violence within ourselves, any action can make
that violence explode. This energy of hatred and violence can be very great and
when we see that in the other person then we feel sorry for them. When we feel
sorry for them, the drop of compassion is born in our hearts and we feel so much
happier and so much more at peace in ourselves. That [empathy] produces the nectar
of compassion within ourselves.
If you come to the monastery, it is in order to learn to do that, so that whenever
you suffer and feel angry, you know how to look deeply, so that the drop of compassion
in your heart can come out of your heart and can put out the fever of anger. Only
the drop of compassion that can put out the flames of hatred.
We must look deeply and honestly at our present situation. If we are able to see
the sources for the suffering within ourselves and within the other person, we
can begin to unravel the cycle of hatred and violence. When our house is on fire,
we must first put out the fire before investigating its cause. Likewise, if we
first extinguish the anger and hatred in our own heart, we will have a chance
to deeply investigate the situation with clarity and insight in order to determine
all the causes and conditions that have contributed to the hatred and violence
we are experiencing within ourselves and within our world.
The "right action" is the action that results in the fires of hatred
and violence being extinguished.
Do you believe that evil exists? And, if so, would you consider terrorists as
Evil exists. God exists also. Evil and God are two sides of ourselves. God is
that great understanding, that great love within us. That is what we call Buddha
also, the enlightened mind that is able to see through all ignorance.
What is evil? It is when the face of God, the face of the Buddha within us has
become hidden. It is up to us to choose whether the evil side becomes more important,
or whether the side of God and the Buddha shines out. Although the side of great
ignorance, of evil, may be manifesting so strongly at one time that does not mean
that God is not there.
It is said clearly in the Bible, "Forgive them for they know not what they
do." This means that an act of evil is an act of great ignorance and misunderstanding.
Perhaps many wrong perceptions are behind an act of evil; we have to see that
ignorance and misunderstanding is the root of the evil. Every human being contains
within him or herself all the elements of great understanding, great compassion,
and also ignorance, hatred, and violence.
In your new book "Anger," you give an example of "compassionate
listening" as a tool to heal families. Can that tool be used at a national
level, and if so, how would that work?
This past summer a group of Palestinians and Israelis came to Plum Village, the
practice center where I live in southern France, to learn and practice the arts
of deep listening and loving speech. (Around 1,600 people come to Plum Village
each summer from over a dozen countries to listen and to learn how to bring peace
and understanding to their daily lives.) The group of Palestinians and Israelis
participated in the daily schedule of walking meditation, sitting meditation,
and silent meals, and they also received training on how to listen and speak to
each other in such a way that more understanding and peace could be possible between
them as individuals and as nations.
With the guidance and support of the monks and nuns, they sat down and listened
to each other. When one person spoke no one interrupted him or her. Everyone practiced
mindfulness of their breathing and listening in such a way that the other person
felt heard and understood.
When a person spoke, they refrained from using words of blame, hatred, and condemnation.
They spoke in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Out of these dialogues the participating
Palestinians and Israelis were very moved to realize that both sides suffer from
fear. They appreciated the practice of deep listening and made arrangements to
share what they had learned with others upon returning to their home countries.
We recommended that the Palestinians and Israeli talk about their suffering, fears,
and despair in a public forum that all the world could hear. We could all listen
without judging, without condemning in order to understand the experience of both
sides. This would prepare the ground of understanding for peace talks to occur.
The same situation now exists between the American people and people of Islamic
and Arabic nations. There is much misunderstanding and lack of the kind of communication
that hinders our ability to resolve our difficulties peacefully.
Compassion is a very large part of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. But at this
point in time, compassion towards terrorists seems impossible to muster. Is it
realistic to think people can feel true compassion now?
Without understanding, compassion is impossible. When you understand the suffering
of others, you do not have to force yourself to feel compassion, the door of your
heart will just naturally open. All of the hijackers were so young and yet they
sacrificed their lives for what? Why did they do that? What kind of deep suffering
is there? It will require deep listening and deep looking to understand that.
To have compassion in this situation is to perform a great act of forgiveness.
We can first embrace the suffering, both outside of America and within America.
We need to look after the victims here within our country and also to have compassion
for the hijackers and their families because they are also victims of ignorance
and hatred. In this way we can truly practice non-discrimination. We do not need
to wait many years or decades to realize reconciliation and forgiveness. We need
a wake up call now in order not to allow hatred to overwhelm our hearts.
Do you believe things happen for a reason? If so, what was the reason for the
attacks on the U.S.A.?
The deep reason for our current situation is our patterns of consumption. U.S.A.
citizens consume 60% of the world's energy resources yet they account for only
6% of the total world's population. Children in America have witnessed 100,000
acts of violence on television by the time they finish elementary school. Another
reason for our current situation is our foreign policy and the lack of deep listening
within our relationships. We do not use deep listening to understand the suffering
and the real needs of people in other nations.
What do you think would be the most effective spiritual response to this tragedy?
We can begin right now to practice calming our anger, looking deeply at the roots
of the hatred and violence in our society and in our world, and listening with
compassion in order to hear and understand what we have not yet had the capacity
to hear and to understand. When the drop of compassion begins to form in our hearts
and minds, we begin to develop concrete responses to our situation. When we have
listened and looked deeply, we may begin to develop the energy of brotherhood
and sisterhood between all nations, which is the deepest spiritual heritage of
all religious and cultural traditions. In this way the peace and understanding
within the whole world is increased day by day.