Transforming our suffering
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Vol. 28 No. 1 Spring.1993
Copyright by Parabola

Over the last few years, Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has led retreats in the U.S. for veterans of the Vietnam War. One of the themes on which he focuses is the transformation of suffering as an essential part of healing for those who have been active participants in and victims of war. As a result of this work, at least one Vietnam veteran is now leading workshops and speaking to other veterans on healing the wounds of war.

Our society is full of violence, hatred and fear, and we are influenced by that. Young people growing up today receive many seeds of unhappiness. Why are we so violent? Why is there so much fear and hatred in us? It is because there is so much violence, hatred, and fear in society, in our collective consciousness. A society like ours will always produce police like the ones who beat up Rodney King. If we fire policemen or lock them in prison, we will not solve the problem, because the roots of the problem are in society. A policeman knows he has to take care of himself, because he can be killed by anyone on the street.
Police must cultivate fear every day. They know that if they are not quicker than the other, they may be killed. Motivated by this fear, they may shoot someone by mistake. One week before the beating of Rodney King, a policewoman was shot in the face by another driver when she asked to see his driver's license. Other police in the area went to her funeral filled with hatred and fear.
When 500,000 American soldiers went to the Persian Gulf, they too were forced to cultivate violence and fear. Their mothers, wives, husbands, and children wanted them to return home alive. They, too, wanted to come home alive, so they had to practice killing. A regular human being cannot kill another human being. To be able to kill, you have to become a beast. I happened to see five seconds of a newscast on French television showing the training of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia. They were jumping and shouting in order to become something less than themselves, so they would be in the state of mind to plunge bayonets into other human beings. The soldiers had to practice this every day. They had to visualize Saddam Hussein to generate enough hatred in themselves to be able to kill Iraqi soldiers. They practiced violence, fear and hatred for six or seven months, every day and at night in their dreams.
A doctor who went with them told me that when a soldier begins to pull the trigger on his automatic weapon, he is too afraid to stop. He thinks if he stops firing he will be fired upon and killed. He listens only to his fear and continues to shoot until he runs out of bullets. A soldier in that situation cannot listen to anything but his fear, not even to the orders of his superior. When you are in that situation every day, you water the seeds of fear, hatred, and violence in yourself. What will become of your consciousness after six months of practicing like that?
The Buddha said, "This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This is like this, because that is like that." Society is like this, that is why the way you handle a conflict must be like this. Society is only a manifestation of our collective consciousness, and our collective consciousness has a lot of fear, violence and hatred in it. If we were to photograph the consciousness of the soldier and compare it with a photograph of the collective consciousness of the nation, we would see that they are both the same.
The healing of ourselves is the healing of the whole nation. The practice of mindfulness is crucial. We need to be mindful of the true nature of war and we need to share the fruits of our insight with our whole society. War is a reflection of our collective consciousness. The war was not just in Iraq, or Vietnam. The war is present every day in our society. We have so much violence, hatred and fear, and it is expressed in our magazines, television, films, and advertisements. There is so much deep suffering, deep malaise in people. Look at the way people consume drugs as a way to forget. These are the seeds of war that we have to acknowledge if we want to transform them. We have to do it together, looking deeply into the nature of war in our collective consciousness. War is in our souls.
In the teaching of Buddhism, shame, guilt, or regret can be beneficial. When you realize that what you do causes damage, and if you make the vow not to do it again, that feeling of regret can be a wholesome and beneficial mental attribute. But if that guilt, shame, or regret persists too long and becomes a guilt complex, it becomes unwholesome and blocks the way of joy and peace. The only way to liberate yourself from that blockage is to look deeply into the nature of that guilt and self-hatred. When we look into the nature of the seeds of our suffering, we can see our ancestors, our parents, and the violence and lack of understanding in our society and in ourselves.
When the sun rises in the sky, it projects its light on the vegetation. That is all the sun needs to do to help. The green color that is seen in the vegetation is the work of the sun. The sun does the work of transformation. Imagine a flower in the early morning--a tulip or a lotus. The sun shines on the flower. It is not satisfied with going around the flower. It makes every effort to penetrate it. The sunshine penetrates the flower, either in the form of particles or in the form of waves. The flower may still resist and stay closed for a while. But if the sun persists in shining for two or three hours, a transformation will occur. The flower will have to open itself to show its heart to the sun.
Our anger is a kind of flower, and our mindfulness is the sun continuing to shine upon it. Do not be impatient. The very first moment you shine your awareness on it, there is already some transformation within your anger.
When we boil potatoes, we put the potatoes into a pot of cold water on the fire, and we put a cover on it. The fire is the presence of mindfulness. The potatoes will not be cooked in a few seconds. We have to keep the fire going. We have to nourish the fire. We do this with the power of our concentration.
When we practice mindfulness, we breathe consciously. We do not watch television or disperse our energies in a conversation, because these things disperse the heat. Concentration is needed to make mindfulness strong. We put the cover on the pot and the water will begin to warm up right away. If we continue to practice, the potatoes will get cooked and will become quite delicious. Anger is like that; when it is raw, it's awful, but when you cook it, it becomes transformed into understanding and acceptance.
Transformation is the word. We can do the work of transformation only in the present moment. The Buddha said that the ocean of suffering is immense, but when you concentrate on transforming it, you will see the shore and the land right away. It is possible to transform our heart, to transform our compost and offer the world a rose, in the present moment. Not much time is needed. The rose can be born right away, the moment you vow to go in the direction of peace and service.
Therefore, we should not dwell only in our suffering. If we look deeply into it, we will know what to do and what not to do to transform our heart and change our present situation. My brothers and sisters and their babies who died during the war in Vietnam have now been reborn into flowers. We have to harvest these flowers. When we learn from our own suffering, then all the flowers will be smiling at us.