HONG KONG: Over 40 years ago, at the height of the Vietnam war, Thich Nhat Hanh learnt cruelly that peacemaking can be fraught with many perils. Vietnamese Buddhist monks were burning themselves to death to draw the world's attention to the suffering of the Vietnamese people. And Nhat Hanh, who travelled to the US with a message of reconciliation and a call for the cessation of hostilities, wasn't allowed by the Vietnamese Communist rulers to re-enter his homeland for the next 40 years!
But it was the exiled Zen Master, who subsequently set up a monastery in Plum Village in southern France, who inspired American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr to come out in opposition against the Vietnam war, and marshalled a moral force for peace.It is in that same spirit of reconciliation and compassion that Nhat Hanh today sees the compulsion for an early end to the Iraq war, which, given the serious military setbacks for the US, has been dubbed "the other Vietnam".
The 81-year-old Nhat Hanh dwelt at length on Iraq. The war, he says, was based on a "wrong perception", which in turn triggered fear and anger. Those two emotions - fear and anger - are never any good when you're beginning any enterprise, and increasingly, Americans have begun to realise the folly of those ways, he observes. "Mr Bush," he points out, "isn't very popular because of the war in Iraq."
Did he think it was time for spiritual and moral leaders like him to speak out forcefully against the war, just as they did 40 year ago? "Both America and Iraq have suffered deeply," he notes, and recalls that right after the 9/11 attacks, he gave a public talk in the US counselling against hasty reprise action. "I hope that there will be an attempt at introspection, and that the war can end soon."
Nhat Hanh and his sangha of monks and nuns were in Hong Kong after travelling in Vietnam, where they organised, with the permission of the Communist leadership, a 'healing ceremony' - of chanting and meditation sessions - as a requiem for the 7 million people who died in the war. It was only the Zen Master's second visit to his homeland: he was allowed in for the first time in 2005.
What was it like to be back home? Nhat Hanh says that there is a need for greater "religious freedom" and "democracy" in Vietnam, but says that the bigger blessing is to realise that "Vietnam is at peace". And the people's response to his visit, he adds, was overwhelming."Not just Buddhists, but also Catholics, Protestants and even Communists" — came for the ceremonies, which served as a process for reconciliation.
During his first homecoming, he noticed that virtually everyone of his generation had died, and his audiences were mostly the young - many of whom, growing up in a Communist state, had never been to a temple before. It led him to the belief that "Buddhism needs to be renewed: it should provide a new kind of language to help young people to overcome the suffering within them."
So, would he urge youngsters to stand up for democracy and social justice in politically repressed societies like Vietnam and Hong Kong? "In defence of freedom and justice, you should do what is right, even if it is considered political," he says. But in a larger sense, everything is political, philosophises the Zen Master.
"Even the rice you eat is not free of politics, and the coffee you drink has a political flavour to it…. As for the goods you consume, perhaps they were made by child labourers, who should have been at school. And perhaps the products you use were manufactured at great environmental cost, which doesn't make for good politics." Each of us, says Nhat Hanh, should be aware of these factors. Therein, he adds, lies the path to Buddhahood.