A Zen Master Reveals How to Cope as a Social Activist by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh
What can Zen Buddhism teach us about how to emotionally cope with social activism? Quite a lot if you speak to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.
Nhat Hanh has been a social and environmental activist for over 40 years. He says the most important thing for those feeling a sense of despair is to remember that directing anger towards more anger only makes things worse.
Instead, Nhat Hanh says that mindfulness is essential when preparing to engage in social activism. This helps people to find peace within themselves so that their actions come from a place of compassion.
“Mindfulness must be engaged,” Nhat Hanh writes in his new book At Home in the World. “Once we see that something needs to be done, we must take action. Seeing and action go together. Otherwise, what is the point in seeing?”
“Nonviolence is not a set of techniques that you can learn with your intellect,” he goes on to say. “Nonviolent action arises from the compassion, lucidity and understanding you have within.”
Nhat Hanh was an activist seeking an end to the Vietnam War, for which he ended up being exiled from the country. Reflecting on his experience as an activist during this time, Nhat Hanh says that activists must treat themselves well if they are to be effective:
“[I]f we don’t maintain a balance between our work and the nourishment we need, we won’t be very successful. The practice of walking meditation, mindful breathing, allowing our body and mind to rest, and getting in touch with the refreshing and healing elements inside and around us is crucial for our survival.”
Sister Peace says that action must be inspired by a deep-rooted sense of love:
“If we can be strong in ourselves, then we could offer a resistance that is nonviolent,” she said. “But that means that we ourselves are at a place where we can have that recognition and we can offer that to another. And that is a great, great source of love and having the other feel they’re being recognized and listened to and embraced.”
She says that those who are passionate about taking action should learn from the nonviolent approach of the civil rights movement.
One key example is the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery during which marchers remained passive despite being chased and beaten. As Sister Peace said:
“They were taught how to be quiet, how to be still, how not to resist and fight back no matter what happened.”
Brother Phap Dung is a monk at Plum Village who was previously an architect based in Los Angeles. He suggests that when confronted with aggression or discrimination, it’s important to first find your center rather than immediately react to events.
“Non-action sometimes is very powerful,” he said. ”Sometimes we underestimate someone sitting very calm, very solid and not reacting and that they can touch a place of peace, a place of love, a place of nondiscrimination. That is not inaction.”
One key idea drawn upon by Sister Peace and Borther Phap Dung is the Buddhist teaching of interdependence. By this they mean that people we perceive as our greatest enemies can be our greatest teachers because they help us to see parts of ourselves that we otherwise find terrible, which gives us a chance to heal.
As Brother Phap Dung says,
“We have the wrong perception that we are separate from the other. So in a way Trump is a product of a certain way of being in this world so it is very easy to have him as a scapegoat. But if we look closely, we have elements of Trump in us and it is helpful to have time to reflect on that.”
The nonviolent approach of Thich Nhat Hanh recognized by Martin Luther King.
The nonviolent approach of Nhat Hanh was honed during the Vietnam War, when he formed a friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nhat Hanh was instrumental in encouraging King to speak out against the Vietnam war.
In 1967, King nominated Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“It would remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction,” King wrote of recommending Nhat Hanh for the award, which Nhat Hanh ultimately did not receive. “It would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace. It would help to revive hopes for a new order of justice and harmony.”
“I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems,” King said. “I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. … I have decided to love.”
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