Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village, his retreat center in France
 
INTERVIEW: THIS IS WHAT WAR LOOKS LIKE

By Lisa Schneider
 
 
 
 

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Not-Han) has been a spokesperson for peace and human rights since the 1960s, when his activism to end the Vietnam War inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been living in exile from his native Vietnam since 1966, and calls Plum Village, a meditation retreat center he founded in the south of France, his home. He conducts retreats throughout the world on "engaged Buddhism," nonviolence, and mindfulness, and has written more than 100 books. In an email interview with Beliefnet.com, he offered his thoughts on the prison abuse scandal.

What is the Buddhist perspective on the abuse of prisoners of war in Iraq?

Recent news about the abuse of prisoners of war provides us with the opportunity to look deeply into the nature of war. This is an opportunity for us to be more aware. This is not new; everywhere there is war, these kinds of things happen.

Every one of us should know the way soldiers are trained in order to see the truth about war. Soldiers are trained to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. Soldiers are told that if they don’t kill, they will be killed by the so-called “enemy.” They are taught that killing is good because the people they are trying to kill are dangerous to society.

Soldiers are trained to believe they must kill the other group because they are not human beings. If soldiers see their “enemies” as fellow human beings just like them, they would have no courage to kill them.

It is important not to blame and single out the U.S. in this kind of situation because any country would do the same thing under the same conditions. During the Vietnam War atrocities were committed by both sides.

The statement President Bush made that the U.S. just sent dedicated, devoted young men, not abusers to Iraq, shocked me. Because committing acts of torture is just the result of the training that the soldiers have already undergone. The training already makes them lose all their humanity. The young men going to Iraq were already full of fear, wanting to protect themselves at all cost, being ready to kill at any moment.

In this state you can become extremely cruel. You may pour all of your hate and anger on prisoners of war by torturing and abusing them. The purpose of your violence is not only to extract information from them, but also to express your hate and fear. The prisoners of war are the victims, but the abusers, the torturers, are also the victims. Their actions will continue to disturb them long after the abuse has ended.

Preparing for war and fighting a war means allowing our human nature to die and the animal nature in us to take over. We should never be tempted to resort to violence and war to solve conflict. Violence always leads to more violence.

There have been examples of individuals who were kind to prisoners. Assuming they have the same training and are operating in the same difficult conditions, what makes some people compassionate and others abusive?

Some people are able to remain compassionate because they are lucky to have received a spiritual heritage, kindness and goodness that stayed at least partially intact despite their training. This heritage is transmitted by parents, teachers and community. Their humanity is preserved to some extent even if they have been damaged during their training. So they are still able to be shocked by their fellow soldiers' acts of torture. But those with a poorer spiritual heritage, who come from a family or community without much understanding and compassion, lose all their humanity in the process of military training.

Is it ever possible to torture someone for a good cause? If a prisoner in custody did have information that could potentially prevent a terrorist attack, would coercion be appropriate? If no, what interrogation tactics would be appropriate and effective?

There is no ‘good cause’ for torture. As a torturer, you are the first to be a victim because you lose all your humanity. You do harm to yourself in the act of harming another. If you had a good cause to begin with, it is lost when you torture another human being. When we imagine situations when torture could be justified, we jump to conclusions too quickly and too easily. Torturing someone will not always give us the result we wish for. If the prisoner in custody does not tell us the information we want it is because they don’t want their people, their fellow soldiers to be killed. They withhold information out of compassion, out of faithfulness to their cause. Sometimes they give out wrong information. And there are those who prefer to die rather than give in to the torture.

I am absolutely against torture. It is very easy to create a pretext for why it is necessary to torture a prisoner when we have fear and anger in us. When we have compassion, we can always find another way. When you torture a living being, you die as a human being because the other person’s suffering is your own suffering. When you perform surgery on someone, you know the surgery will help him and that is why you can cut into his body. But when you cut into someone’s body and mind to get information from them, you cut into your own life, you kill yourself as a person.

If military action is incompatible with mindfulness and compassion, how should people/nations defend themselves? (You have said that when we are mindful, “compassion becomes possible.” Is a lack of mindfulness what our moral failings boil down to?)

There are many ways to defend ourselves: through diplomatic foreign policy, forming alliances with other countries, humanitarian assistance. These are all approaches motivated by the wisdom of inter-being, not just by political gain. In these kinds of approaches to resolving conflict, the army doesn’t have to do much. They can serve the people, build bridges, roads, etc. This is not idealistic thinking, armies have worked this way in the past. With good foreign policy, the army will not have to fight.

The only really necessary and appropriate circumstance under which an army should resort to violence is to defend itself or an ally from invasion. And even in this case, much suffering will result.

What is upsetting to me is that former generations have committed the same mistakes and we don’t learn from them. We haven’t learned enough from the war in Vietnam. There were so many atrocities committed there. So many innocent people were tortured and killed by both sides because they were perceived to be ‘communist’, or ‘anti-communist.’

Mindfulness has so many layers. When we kill because we think that the other person is evil, that we are killing for the sake of peace, that we are doing a good thing, this is not right mindfulness. If we are mindful, we will see not only the present situation, but also the root and the consequence of our act in that moment. Other insights should arise if we are truly mindful: “This person I want to kill is a living being. Is there any chance for him to behave better and change his present, harmful state of mind? Maybe I have a wrong perception and one day I will see that he is just a victim of misunderstanding, and not really the evil person I think he is.” Mindfulness also helps a soldier to see that he or she may just be an instrument for killing used by his or her government.

A general who is mindful of his actions is capable of looking deeply. He may not need to use weapons. He will see that there are many ways to deter the opposite side and he will exhaust all other means before resorting to violence. And when nothing else works, he may use violence, but out of compassion, not out of anger.

There is a collective sense of shame among many Americans about the activities depicted in these photos. Buddhists believe individuals are responsible for their actions through karma, but is there any such thing as collective karma? At a national level?

An act of cruelty is born of many conditions coming together, without any separate, individual actor. When we hold retreats for war veterans I tell them they are the flame at the tip of the candle, they are the ones who feel the heat, but the whole candle is burning, not only the flame. All of us are responsible.

The very ideas of terrorism and imagined weapons of mass destruction are already collective karma in terms of thinking and speaking. The media helped the war happen by supporting these ideas through speech and writing. Thought, speech and action are all collective karma.

No one can say they are not responsible for this current situation even if we oppose our country’s actions. We are still a member of our community, a citizen of our country. Maybe we have not done enough. We must ally ourselves with bodhisattvas, great, awakened beings, around us to transform our way of thinking and that of our society. Because wrong thinking is at the base of our present situation, thinking that has no wisdom or compassion. And we can do things every day, in every moment of our daily life to nourish the seeds of peace, compassion and understanding in us and in those around us. We can live in such a way that can heal our collective karma and ensure that these atrocities will not happen again in the future.

What is the chief lesson for us to learn from these terrible events?

Don’t be tempted to use the army to solve conflicts. The only situation in which we use the army is to defend our country during an invasion. In the past, the U.S. was loved by many of us in the world because the U.S. represented freedom, democracy, peace, and care for other countries. The U.S. has lost this image and must rebuild it.

In the past, when I would go to the U.S. embassy for a visa, it was not heavily guarded. But now, all over the world, U.S. embassies are surrounded by heavily armed guards. Fear has overtaken the U.S. It is the primary motivation for many of the U.S. government’s actions because we do not know how to protect ourselves with compassion. Students of political science must learn this in university so that they can bring real wisdom into politics. Compassion can go together with intelligence. Compassion is not stupid. Love is the same, real love is born from understanding.


   
Zen Master, poet, peace and human rights activist, Thich Nhat Hanh (tick-not-hahn) was born in central Vietnam in 1926 and joined the monkhood at the age of 16. In Saigon in the early 1960s, he founded the School of Youth for Social Services (SYSS), a grassroots relief organization that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives. Rallying some 10,000 student volunteers, the SYSS based its work on the Buddhist principles of non-violence and compassionate action. Despite government denunciation of his activity, Nhat Hanh also founded a Buddhist University, a publishing
house, and an influential peace activist magazine in Vietnam.

Exiled from Vietnam, he traveled to the U.S. where he made the case for peace to federal and Pentagon officials including Robert McNamara. He may have changed the course of U.S. history when he persuaded Martin Luther King, Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War publicly, and so helped galvanize the peace movement. The following year, King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Subsequently Nhat Hanh led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks.

Often referred to as the most beloved Buddhist teacher in the West, Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings and practices appeal to people from various religious, spiritual, and political backgrounds. Nhat Hanh offers a practice of "mindfulness" that is beneficial for people of all faiths, by helping us resist and transform the speed and violence of our modern society. His life and teachings have deeply influenced millions of people, including scores of luminaries in different fields: politician Jerry Brown, civil rights champion Martin Luther King, Jr., eco-activist Joanna Macy, and Catholic mystic Thomas Merton - to name a few.

He has published more than 100 titles, including more than 40 in English: Peace is Every Step, Being Peace, Touching Peace and many more. His books are published by Parallax Press.