Looking for CALM

The Deccan Herald, Jan 4, 2009

Sunday Herald presents an exclusive extract from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's yet to be released book, 'Calming the Fearful Mind...A Zen Response to Terrorism'.

New Delhi, India -- On New Year’s Day, 2004, I arrived at the Los Angeles airport accompanied by 120 of my monastic students. I was asked to step into a small room to be searched. For over an hour, security guards searched me and my luggage, read my personal letters, and questioned a fellow monk to find out if I had ever made bombs. The security guards were not looking for my Buddha nature; they were looking for my terrorist nature.

When a nation has come to this level of fear, it is going in the wrong direction. We have looked for strength and security in military might. We have attempted to defend ourselves with weapons of war. We have brought great suffering and destruction upon ourselves and others. Our way of dealing with terrorism is taking us down a dangerous path of distrust and fear. It is time to stop. Let us pause. It is time to seek true strength and true security. We cannot escape our interdependence with other people, with other nations in the world. Let us take this moment to look deeply and find a path of liberation. It is possible to look at each other again with the eyes of trust, comraderie, and love.

Of course it is very difficult to not get angry when someone is killing your wife, your husband, or your children. It is very difficult to not get angry. That person is acting out of anger, and we are retaliating also out of anger. So there is not much difference between the two of us. That is the first element.

The second element is, why do we have to wait until the situation presents itself to us as an emergency before we act, dealing only with the immediate circumstance? Of course you have to act rapidly in such an emergency situation. But what if we are not in an emergency situation? We can wait for an emergency situation to arise or we can do something in order to prevent such a thing from happening. Our tendency is not to do anything until the worst happens. While we have the time, we do not know how to use that time to practice peace and prevent war. We just allow ourselves to indulge in forgetfulness and sense pleasures. We do not do the things that have the power to prevent such emergency situations from happening.

The third element is that when things like this happen, it is because there is a deep-seated cause, not only in the present moment but also in the past. This is because that is. Nothing happens without a cause. You kill me, I kill you. But the fact that you are killing me and I am killing you has its roots in the past and will have an effect on the future. Our children will say, “You killed my grandfather, now I have to kill you.” That can go on for a long time.

When you get angry, when you have so much hatred towards the person who has made you suffer, and when you are willing to use any means to destroy him, you are acting out of anger just like he is. And anger is not the only cause. There are also misunderstandings, wrong perceptions about each other, and there are people who urge us to kill the other side because otherwise we will not be safe. There are many causes.

We cannot expect to achieve one hundred percent peace right away — our degree of understanding and love is not yet deep enough. But in every situation, urgent or not, the elements of understanding and compassion can play a role. When a gangster is trying to beat and kill, of course you have to lock him up so he will not cause more harm. But you can lock him up angrily, with a lot of hate, or you can lock him up with compassion and with the idea that we should do something to help him. In that case, prison becomes a place where there is love and help. You have to teach the prison guards how to look at the prisoners with compassionate eyes. Teach them how to treat the prisoners with tenderness so they will suffer less in prison, so we can better help them. Do we train them to look at prisoners with eyes of compassion? Perhaps a prisoner has killed, has destroyed. Maybe he was raised in such a way that killing and destruction were natural for him, and so he is a victim of society, of his family, and his education. If, as a prison guard, you look and see him in that way, then you will have compassion and understanding, and treat your prisoner with more gentleness. When you help this person to become a better person, you help yourself to be happy.

There are people who argue that although they watched cowboy movies when they were young, they have not grown up to be violent. But the cowboy films of the past are not the same as the movies of today. Movies of a generation ago did have some violence, but a lot less than films have now, and they communicated some sense of morality; if someone committed an act of murder, he went to prison. At least the person who committed violence couldn’t get away with it. Films now often show violence without consequence or responsibility. In many video games, people are shot and killed, and then come alive again as fresh targets. When children play this kind of game every day, it is easy to understand how they end up bringing a gun to school and shooting others. This kind of game is infinitely dangerous. When children are young they cannot distinguish between the game and reality. Because children consume this kind of sensory food every day through television and video games, they are constantly feeding the violence in their consciousness.

Some people spend their whole life trying only to get revenge. This kind of desire or volition will bring great suffering not only to others but to oneself as well. Hatred is a fire that burns in every soul and can only be tempered by compassion. But where do we find compassion? It isn’t sold in the supermarket. If it was, we would only need to bring it home and we could solve all the hatred and violence in the world very easily. But compassion can only be produced in our own heart by our own practice.

Right now America is burning with fear, suffering, and hatred. If only to ease our suffering, we have to return to ourselves and seek to understand why we are caught up in so much violence. What has caused terrorists to hate so much that they are willing to sacrifice their own lives and create so much suffering for other people? We see their great hatred, but what lies underneath it? Injustice. Of course we have to find a way to stop their violence, we may even need to keep people locked in prison while their hatred burns. But the important thing is to look deeply and ask, “What responsibility do we have for the injustice in the world?”

Sometimes someone we love — our child, our spouse, or our parent — says or does something cruel and we suffer and get angry. We think it is only we who suffer. But the other person is suffering as well. If he wasn’t suffering, he wouldn’t have spoken or acted out of anger. The person we love doesn’t know a way out of his suffering. This is why our beloved pours out all his hatred and violence on to us. Our responsibility is to produce the energy of compassion that calms down our own heart and allows us to help the other person. If we punish the other person, he will just suffer more.

Responding to violence with violence can only bring more violence, more injustice, and more suffering, not only to others but also to ourselves. This wisdom is in every one of us. When we breathe deeply, we can touch this seed of wisdom in us. I know that if the energy of wisdom and of compassion in the American people could be nourished for even one week, it would reduce the level of anger and hatred in the country. I urge all of us to practice calming and concentrating our minds, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion that are already in us, and learning the art of mindful consumption. If we can do this, we will create a true peaceful revolution, the only kind of revolution that can help us get out of this difficult situation.

Fifty-one kinds of seeds, both wholesome and unwholesome, live in the store consciousness. Wholesome seeds are seeds of love, forgiveness, generosity, happiness, joy. Unwholesome seeds include hatred, discrimination, and craving. According to Buddhist psychology, when these seeds manifest they are called mental formations. For example, our anger is a mental formation. When it is not manifesting, we do not feel angry. But this doesn’t mean that the seed of anger is not in us. All of us have the seed of anger lying in our basement, our store consciousness. We can play and have fun and we don’t feel angry at all, but if someone comes along and waters the seed of anger in our store consciousness, it will begin to sprout and come up into our living room. In the beginning it was just a seed but once it has been watered, it arises and becomes the mental formation of anger, taking away all our happiness.

We can help each other water the wholesome seeds in our store consciousness. We can say to those close to us, “Dear one, let’s be careful not to water the unwholesome seeds in each other. Let’s water only the wholesome seeds in each other and then we can have nourishing food for our consciousness.” When we water seeds of forgiveness, acceptance, and happiness in the person we love, we are giving them very healthy food for their consciousness, as if we were cooking them a delicious healthy meal. But if we constantly water the seed of hatred, craving, and anger in our loved one, we are poisoning them.

We could sit down with our family and even write out an agreement that everyone can sign together, committing to watering the wholesome seeds in each other. If we can practice in this way, then our children can practice, too. An agreement like this could be the foundation of our happiness. If you nourish yourself with the four nutriments, consuming a healthy diet of edible food, sensations, desires, and mental formations, then you and your loved ones will benefit in concrete ways. Buddhism becomes not just abstract teachings, but something that changes your daily life.

The Buddha said, “Nothing can survive without food.” This is a very simple and very deep truth. Love and hate are both living things. If you do not nourish your love, it will die. If you cut the source of nutriment for your violence, your violence will die. If you want your love to last, you have to give it food every day. Love cannot live without food. If you neglect your love, after a while it will die and hatred may take its place. Do you know how to nourish your love?

If we don’t give hatred food, it too will die. Hatred and suffering grow greater every day because every day we nourish them, giving them more food. With what kind of food have you nourished your despair and your hatred?

If you are depressed, you may have no strength and no energy left. You may feel that you want to die. Why do you feel like that? Our depression doesn’t just come out of nowhere. If we can recognise the food that has nourished our depression, we can stop consuming it. Within a few weeks our depression will die of starvation. If you don’t know that you are watering your depression, you will continue to do it every day.

The Buddha said that if we know how to look deeply into our suffering and recognise what feeds it, we are already on the path of emancipation. The way out of our suffering is mindfulness of consumption, not only for ourselves but for the whole world. If we know how to water the seeds of wisdom and compassion in us, these seeds become powerful sources of energy helping us to forgive those who have hurt us. This will bring relief to our nation and to our world.

The Buddha said that mindfulness is the capacity to return to what is happening in the present moment. We can be aware of what we are consuming. The way we produce and consume is destroying us, our young people, and our whole nation. Every one of us can practice mindfulness in order to change this. As parents, schoolteachers, filmmakers, and journalists we have to observe to see whether we are contributing to the growth of violence by the way we live our daily lives. All of us must share our insight, for only our collective awakening can help us stop this course of destruction.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist.