By Dr. John Campbell
Thich Nhat Hanh, world spiritual leader, poet and peace activist died at age 95 on January 22 in Hue, Vietnam.
He knew the war firsthand. When political groups in Vietnam were engaged in ideological and physical warfare, he was part of the Youth School for Social Services. Both warring factions hated the value of nonviolence championed by the youth movement.
Due to his opposition to the Vietnam War, both North Vietnam and South Vietnam exiled him. Thirty-nine years passed before he could return to his native land.
By noting his experiences during the Vietnam War and his journey towards nonviolence and peace, could his life and writings inform us about violence and war?
I too need a point of reference from someone like Hanh because of my initial reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I grew up in the years following World War II. My father and stepfather served in the military, one in the Pacific Theater and the other in the European Theater. Post-war patriotism was evident everywhere.
Given these formative influences, for me Vladimir Putin is one of those autocratic nationalists who throughout history have wreaked havoc and caused untold suffering. Although, in his view, taking up arms is justified because of the encroachments of Western democracies, especially through NATO, nevertheless, 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 because we have also invaded sovereign countries. and we are complicit in our attempts to westernize Ukraine without preparing it for an assault from Russia; in essence, leaving them after embracing their western leanings.
But the way the Russian army indiscriminately kills women and children 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 drumbeat when Putin ordered his military to place their nuclear weapons on high alert.
Yet I am at a place of judgment. Have I lost peace within me because of what is happening in the world? Am I at war with myself?
I’m not the only one. We have been at war with each other in this country, some have taken up arms. The causes of the war are not limited 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 bigotry. The communist wanted to destroy the anti-communists and the anti-communists wanted to destroy the communists. We imported foreign ideologies and weapons, and soon brothers killed brothers…
“In speaking for peace, we did not take sides. It was very difficult, very dangerous to take this position. When you take sides, you are at least protected by a camp. But if you don’t take sides, you are exposed to destruction by both, and so it is very difficult.
Then Hanh explains his vision of violence: “We kill ourselves because we don’t know who we really are. To kill someone, you must first give him a label: the enemy label…. But, as long as we see that they are a person, another human being, we can never pull the trigger. and so behind the violence and killing is the idea that the other person is bad, that there is no more goodness in them, … We think the other side is the bad guy. Our vision is clouded with hatred.
Hanh suggests 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.
However, Thich Nhat Hanh was a realist. He suggested that nonviolence should always be smart. He said of the police in the previously mentioned book: “They may look like they are going to use violence, but their hearts and minds may be nonviolent. 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 as non-violent as possible. “When you think of the army,” he wrote, “you think what the army does is violent. But there are many ways to lead an army, protect a city, and stop an invasion. There are more violent ways and less violent ways. You can always choose…. Don’t ask for the absolute. You can’t be perfect. You do your best; that’s what it takes.
Vladimir Putin has unleashed what so many before him have done: a war of violence. The Russian army does not correspond to Thich Nhat Hanh’s view of war. I don’t want them wanting to protect a city. They decimate it.
Because of what I see happening in Ukraine, I always judge from a place of conflict, but I am soaked.
Doesn’t the war finally start inside? Every day we take sides within ourselves. If I hate a part of me, won’t I hate it in the other person?
May we find the seed of compassion starting with ourselves. The compassion that allows us to move from a place of conflict and war to a place of acceptance. It is not easy and never complete, but the world needs at least some movement in this direction. May there be peace on earth, and may it begin with me.
Here are some concluding words from Thich Nhat Hahn on his efforts to promote non-violence: “We have learned the truth — that the root of suffering and violence is intolerance, dogmatism and attachment to opinions. In such a situation, it is very important not to be attached to opinions, doctrines or ideologies… It is very radical. It is the roar of the lion.
Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and spiritual seeker living in Brevard.