Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism, while written in 2005, offers a wisdom that, had we in the U.S. heeded back in the militaristic era of the Vietnam War, might have diverted the awful consequences of our collective negative karma that was the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh is the author of many beautifully simple books both lucid and approachable for Western Dharma practitioners. The term “engaged Buddhism” may have originated with his human rights work in his own war-torn country of Vietnam in the 1960s. The Zen monk’s efforts towards peace and non-violence were attempts to actively apply Buddhist tenets of compassion and mindfulness to impact social change. He was recognized in the west in 1967 when Dr. Martin Luther King, himself a student of Mahatma Gandhi Lama, nominated the monk for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Chapter One, “Uprooting Terrorism,” the monk describes how he was searched by security guards at the Los Angeles International Airport as he arrived with 120 of his monastic students on their way to a retreat for transformation and healing. The extremely personal intrusion led him to realize the guards “ . . . were not looking for my Buddha nature, they were looking for my terrorist nature. . . . When a civilization comes to this level of fear, it is going in the wrong direction.” Yet how did we, the American people, evolve to this extreme of delusion and paranoia in this most prosperous country in the world?
The angered call to America’s youth for retaliation proclaimed a “War on Terror.” An entire generation responded to fill the ranks of the military. Truly now, “we terrorize others so that they will have no chance to terrorize us. We want to kill before we are killed.” This monk claims that what the military training soldiers going to Iraq receive “makes them lose their humanity” and so “the torture and abuse these soldiers engaged in is the direct result . . . [Y]oung men [and women] going to Iraq arrive there already full of fear, wanting to protect themselves at all costs, pressured by their superiors to be aggressive . . . and be ready to kill at any moment.” This statement is affirmed in the deadly cry of marching Marine Corps soldiers as they bellow out the Turkish word for “Kill!”
Thich Naht Hanh offers hands-on solutions for receding from this collective afflictive state, and continually reminds the reader that the only possibility for social change rests in one’s personal commitment to inner transformation. Deep listening, mindfulness through watching the breath, open the individual to awareness of our complicity in the current epidemic of worldwide suffering. Through these meditative techniques, we begin to understand how our negative over-consumption--via all our senses--has prompted hatred from severely deprived people in other countries. With this understanding we begin to cultivate compassionate generosity, mindful healthy consumption of nourishment and renunciation of our habits of greed.
Listening to those we are attacking, listening to the poor and voiceless, listening to the sages . . . with quiet hearts and open minds: this is Thich Naht Hanh’s precious teaching. O that every soldier chose this little book for protective armor!