By Dr. John Campbell
Thich Nhat Hanh, global spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist died at age 95 on Jan. 22 in Hue, Vietnam.
He knew war firsthand. When political groups in Vietnam were engaged in ideological and physical warfare, he was part of the School of Youth for Social Services. Both warring factions hated the value of non-violence espoused by the youth movement.
Due to his opposition to the war in Vietnam both North Vietnam and South Vietnam exiled him. Thirty-nine years elapsed before he was able to return to his native land.
Noting his experiences during the Vietnam War and his journey toward non-violence and peace might his life and writings inform us about violence and war?
I, also, need a reference point from someone like Hanh because of my initial reaction toward the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I grew up in the years after the Second World War. Both my father and stepfather served in the military, one in the Pacific Theater and the other in the European Theatre. Postwar patriotism was evident everywhere.
Noting those formative influences, to me Vladimir Putin is one of those autocratic nationalists who throughout history have wreaked havoc and caused untold suffering. Although, in his view there is justification to take up arms due to the encroachments of Western democracies, especially through NATO, nonetheless, autocrats, like Putin, are dangerous.
Our expansionist foreign policy contributes to Putin’s disease, and we can recognize that our hands are not always clean for we have invaded sovereign countries, too. and we are complicit in our attempts to westernize Ukraine while not preparing them for an assault from Russia; in essence, leaving them after embracing their westward leanings.
But the way the Russian military is killing women and children indiscriminately in Ukraine is criminal.
Also, I remember the Cold War when the threat of nuclear destruction hung over our heads. Once again, we hear the same drum roll when ordered his military to place their nuclear armaments on high alert Putin.
Yet, I am at a place of reckoning. Have I lost peace within myself because of what is happening in the world? Am I at war within myself?
I am not the only one. We have been at war with each other in this country, some have taken up arms. The causes of war are not confined to Russia, are they?
This is where I need the words and example of Thich Nhat Hanh when I take sides with such vehemence.
He wrote in “Zen and the Art of Saving Our Planet”: “During the Vietnam War there was a lot of fear, anger, and fanaticism. The communist wanted to destroy the anticommunists, and the anticommunists wanted to destroy the communists. We imported foreign ideologies and weapons, and soon brothers were killing brothers…
“Speaking out for peace we did not take sides. It was very difficult, very dangerous to take this stand. When you take a side, at least you’re protected by one side. But if you don’t take sides, you’re exposed to destruction by both, and so it’s very difficult.”
Then Hanh explains his view of violence: “We kill each other because we do not know who we really are. In order to kill someone, first of all you have to give them a label: the label of enemy…. But, as long as we still see they are a person, another human being we can never pull the trigger. And so behind violence and killing is the idea that the other person is evil, that there is no goodness left in them, …We believe the other side is the villain. Our view is clouded by hatred.”
Hanh is suggesting that if we objectify a person or group by labeling them, we have separated ourselves from the human community by taking sides. He says: “views can destroy human beings; they can destroy love.”
Thich Nhat Hanh was a realist, though. He suggested that non-violence should always be intelligent. He said about police in the previously mentioned book: “They may look as though they’re to use violence, but their heart and mind can be non-violent. It is possible to arrest, handcuff, and imprison a criminal with compassion.”
Non-violence can never be absolute. We can only say that we are being as non-violent as we can. “When we think of the military,” he wrote, “we think that what the military does is violent. But there are many ways of an army, protecting a town, and stopping an invasion. There are more violent ways and less violent ways. You can always choose…. Don’t ask for the absolute. You cannot be perfect. You do your best; that is what’s needed.”
Vladimir Putin has ignited what so many before him have done: a war of violence. The Russian Army does not meet Thich Nhat Hanh’s perspective on war. My no means do they wish to protect a town. They decimate it.
Because of what I see happening in Ukraine, I still judge from a place of conflict, but I am tempered.
Does not war ultimately begin within? Every day we take sides within ourselves. If I hate a part of me, will I not hate that in the other person?
May we find the seed of compassion beginning with ourselves. Compassion which allows us to move from a place of strife and war to a place of acceptance. This is not easy, and never complete but the world needs at least a movement in that direction. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Here are some closing words from Thich Nhat Hahn about his efforts to promote non-violence: “We have learned the truth—that the root of suffering and violence is intolerance, dogmatism, and attachment to views. In such a situation it is very important to not be attached to views, doctrines, or ideologies…This is very radical. It is the lion’s roar.”
Dr John Campbell is a Psychotherapist and Spiritual Seeker living in Brevard.