The path IS peace

Thich Nhat Hanh addresses U.S. Congress about changing our society's foundation of violence. See more on this: livestream of Creating a Mindful Society. 

Distinguished members of Congress, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, it is my pleasure to have this opportunity to talk with you about how we can share our insight, our compassion and our understanding in order to better serve those we want to serve and help heal the wounds that have divided our nation and the world.

When you sit in your car on the way to work, you might like to use that time to come home to yourself and touch the wonders of life. Instead of allowing yourself to think of the future, you might like to pay attention to your breath and come home to the present moment. We breathe in and out all day, but we are not aware that we are breathing in and breathing out. The practice of bringing our attention to our breath is called mindful breathing: Breathing in, I know I am alive. Breathing out, I smile to life. This is a very simple practice. If we go home to our in-breath and out-breath and breathe mindfully, we become fully alive in the here and now.

In our daily lives, our bodies are present, but our minds might be elsewhere, caught in our projects, our worries and our anxieties. Life is only available in the present moment. The past is already gone; the future is not yet here. When we establish ourselves in the present moment we are able to live our moments deeply and to get in touch with the healing, refreshing and nourishing elements that are always within us and around us.

With this energy of mindfulness, we can recognize our pain and embrace it tenderly like a mother whose baby is crying. When a baby cries, the mother stops everything she is doing and holds the baby tenderly in her arms. The energy of the mother will penetrate into the baby and the baby will feel relief. The same thing happens when we recognize and embrace our own pain and sorrow. If we can hold our anger, our sorrow and our fear with the energy of mindfulness, we will be able to recognize the roots of our suffering. We will be able to recognize the suffering in the people we love as well.

Mindfulness helps us to not be angry at our loved ones, because when we are mindful, we understand that our loved ones are suffering as well. The person you love has a lot suffering and has not had a chance to be listened to. It is very important to take the time to sit down and listen with compassion. We call this practice “deep listening.” Deep listening can be used with the practice of loving speech to help restore communication with the people you care about. To listen like this is to give the other person a chance to empty his or her heart. If you can keep your compassion alive during that time—even if what the other person says is full of accusations and bitterness—it will not touch off irritation and anger in you. Listen in order to help the other person to suffer less.

When you communicate with compassion, you are using language that does not have the elements of anger and irritation in it. In this way we can help each other remove wrong perceptions. All the energies of anger, hatred, fear and violence come from wrong perceptions. Wrong perceptions result in a lot of anger, mistrust, suspicion, hate and terrorism. You cannot remove wrong perceptions through punishment. You have to do it with the tools of deep and compassionate listening and loving speech. With deep, compassionate listening and loving speech, we can bring harmony to our families, and our communities can become communities of understanding, peace and happiness.

When I was in India a number of years ago, I spoke to Mr. R. K. Narayan, a member of the Indian parliament, about the practice of deep listening and compassionate dialogue in legislative bodies. When you represent the people, you are expected to offer the people the best of your understanding and compassion. I said that a legislative assembly could become a community with a lot of mutual understanding and compassion. It could have strong collective insight to support the decision-making process and the people of the nation. Here in Washington, before a session of Congress, one person could read a short meditation: “Dear colleagues, we are elected by our people and our people expect us to listen to each other deeply and to use the kind of language that can convey our wisdom and insight. Let us bring together our individual experiences and wisdom so that we can offer our collective insight and make the best decisions for the country and the people.”

When a member of Congress is speaking from her insight with this kind of language, she is offering the best of herself. If we only act and speak the party line, then we are not offering the best compassion and understanding we have.

Members of Congress are very concerned about the levels of violence in our families, in our schools and in our society. Each concerned person may have his or her own ideas and insights about how to bring down that level of violence. If we can combine all our insights and experiences we will have the collective insight that will help to decrease the amount of violence in our society. If we are not able to listen to our colleagues with a free heart, though—if we only consider and support ideas from our own party—we are harming the foundation of our democracy. That is why we need to transform our community—in this case the Congress—into a compassionate community. Everyone would be considered a brother or sister to everyone else. Congress would be a place where we learn to listen to everyone with equal interest and concern. The practice of deep and compassionate listening and loving speech can help to build brotherhood, can remove discrimination and can bring about the kind of insight that will be liberating to our country and to our people.

Two days after the events of September 11th, I spoke to 4,000 people in Berkeley, California. I said that our emotions are very strong right now, and we should calm ourselves down. With lucidity and calm we would know what to do and what not to do in order not to make the situation worse. I said that the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center must have been very angry. They must have hated America a lot. They must have thought of America as having tried to destroy them as individual people, as a religion, as a nation, and as a culture. I said that we had to find out why they did such a thing to America.

America’s political leaders can ask the question, calmly and with clarity: “What have we done that has made you suffer so much?” America’s political leaders can say, “We want to know about your suffering and why you hate us. We may have said something or done something that gave you the impression that we wanted to destroy you. But that is not the case. We are confused, and that is why we want you to help us understand why you have done such a thing to us.”

We call this loving or gentle speech. If we are honest and sincere, they will tell us how they feel. Then we will recognize the wrong perceptions they have about themselves and about us. We can try to help them to remove their wrong perceptions. All these acts of terrorism and violence come from wrong perceptions. Wrong perceptions are the ground for anger, violence and hate. You cannot remove wrong perceptions with a gun.

When we listen deeply to another person, we not only recognize their wrong perceptions, but we also identify our own wrong perceptions about ourselves and about the other person. That is why mindful dialogue and mindful communication is crucial to removing anger and violence.

It is my deepest hope that our political leaders can make use of such instruments to bring peace to the world. I believe that using force and violence can only make the situation worse. Since September 11th, America has not been able to decrease the level of hate and violence on the part of the terrorists. In fact, the level of hate and violence has increased. It is time for us to go back to the situation, to look deeply and to find another less costly way to bring peace to us and to them. Violence cannot remove violence—everyone knows that. Only with the practice of deep listening and gentle communication can we help remove wrong perceptions that are at the foundation of violence.

America has a lot of difficulty in Iraq. I think that America is caught in Iraq in the same way that America was caught in Vietnam. We have the idea that we have to go and destroy the enemy. That idea will never give us a chance to do the right thing to end violence. During the Vietnam War, America thought that it had to go to North Vietnam to bomb. The more America bombed, the more communists they created. I am afraid that the same thing is happening in Iraq. I think that it is very difficult for America to withdraw now from Iraq. Even if they want to leave, it is very difficult.

The only way for America to free itself from this situation is to help build the United Nations into a real body of peace so that the United Nations will take over the problem of Iraq and of the Middle East. America is powerful enough to make this happen. America should allow other nations to contribute positively to building the United Nations into a true organization for peace with enough authority to do its job. To me, that is the only way out of our current situation.

We have to wake up to the fact that everything is connected to everything else. Our safety and wellbeing cannot be individual matters anymore. If they are not safe, there is no way that we can be safe. Taking care of other people’s safety is taking care of our own safety. To take care of their well-being is to take ca