Thich Nhat Hanh-Can We Understand the Suffering of our Enemy?

Few people in the world have worked as tirelessly for the cause of peace, individual and collective, as Thich Nhat Hanh. His effort to bring peace—to be peace—began during his days as a young Buddhist monk during the Vietnam War and led Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

During the more than 40 years since his exile from his beloved country, Thich Nhat Hahn (Thây, as his students affectionately call him) has walked the walk of a bodhisattva of peace in this world. He has given thousands of meditation retreats and written dozens of books on the Buddhism, the Buddhist way of peace, and peace-making.

One of my favorites is Being Peace. It’s one of the most challenging books of his I’ve ever read, because Thây, speaking from his own deep experiences in Vietnam, stresses how important (and skillful!) it is to break down our mind’s “us vs. them” dualism and empathetically become one with our enemies.

When someone has done us, our loved ones, or our people, a great wrong, this is the very last thing in the world we want to do. We hate and loathe our enemies, and may well have very good reason for this antipathy. Look at Ireland. Look at India and Pakistan. Look at Israel and Palestine. There are enough grievances and hatred in these areas to perpetuate violence and mayhem endlessly, every act of retribution leading to retaliation, ad infinitum.

It takes tremendous courage and insight to break this self-perpetuating cycle, but it is possible. And Buddhism offers unique insights into how we can break down the barriers that separate us and find a path to peace. And one skillful way to do this is through meditation in which we empathetically become one with our enemy and his suffering.

Again, this is not easy to do, but in understanding another’s suffering, however much we may think they deserve it or have brought it upon themselves, we find common ground. We all suffer. Being human, we all know what suffering is. We know what it is to lose a love one, to be abused, to be victimized. In our common suffering, and our compassionate response to suffering, we have a basis for finding and seeing our common humanity.

In Being Peace, Thây talks about this process and how we can be transformed by empathy, compassion, and wisdom. If what is said here intrigues you—or makes you very angry—then you might want to find Being Peace and look more deeply into the suffering and the cause of suffering—look more deeply into peace and what brings peace.

At the end of this excerpt, you will find a beautiful peace of music you can listen to based on the Buddhist mantra “Om Mane Padme Hum.” May this peaceful music and this book excerpt open a door to greater peace in your life.

From Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh:

During the war in Vietnam we young Buddhists organized ourselves to help victims of the war rebuild villages that had been destroyed by the bombs.

Many of us died during service, not only because of the bombs and the bullets, but because of the people who suspected us of being on the other side. We were able to understand the suffering of both sides, the communists and the anti-communists. We tried to be open to both, to understand this side and to understand that side, to be one with them. That is why we did not take a side, even though the whole world took sides.

We tried to tell people our perception of the situation: that we wanted to stop the fighting, but the bombs were so loud. Sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to get the message across, but even then the world could not hear us. They thought we were supporting a kind of political act. They didn’t know that it was a purely human action to be heard, to be understood. We wanted reconciliation, we did not want a victory.

Working to help people in a circumstance like that is very dangerous, and many of us got killed. The communists killed us because they suspected that we were working with the Americans, and the anti-communists killed us because they thought that we were with the communists. But we did not want to give up and take one side.

The situation of the world is still like this. People completely identify with one side, one ideology. To understand the suffering and the fear of a citizen of the Soviet Union, we have to become one with him or her. To do so is dangerous-we will be suspected by both sides. But if we don’t do it, if we align ourselves with one side or the other, we will lose our chance to work for peace. Reconciliation is to understand both sides, to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then to go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side. Doing only that will be a great help for peace.

During a retreat at the Providence Zen Center, I asked someone to express himself as a swimmer in a river, and then after fifteen minutes of breathing, to express himself as the river. He had to become the river to be able to express himself in the language and feelings of the river. After that a woman who had been in the Soviet Union was asked to express herself as an American, and after some breathing and meditation, as a Soviet citizen, with all her fears and her hope for peace. She did it wonderfully. These are exercises of meditation related to non-duality.

The young Buddhist workers in Vietnam tried to do this kind of meditation. Many of them died during service. I wrote a poem for my young brothers and sisters on how to die nonviolently, without hatred. It is called “Recommendation”:

“Promise me,
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
promise me:

Even as they strike you down
with a mountain of hatred and violence; even as they
step on you and
crush you like a worm, even as they dismember and
disembowel you,
remember, brother, remember: man is not your enemy.

The only thing worthy of you is compassion —
invincible, limitless,
Hatred will never let you face the
beast in man.

One day, when you face this beast alone, with your
courage intact, your
eyes kind, untroubled (even as no one sees them),
out of your smile will
bloom a flower.

And those who love you
will behold you
across ten thousand worlds of
birth and dying.

Alone again,
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.

On the long, rough road,
the sun and the moon
will continue to shine.”

~Thich Nhat Hanh

“Om Mani Padme Hum” by The Luminous World Orchestra from the album Threading the Ether


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

6 Responses to “Thich Nhat Hanh-Can We Understand the Suffering of our Enemy?”

  1. Bhante is coming to Thailand during Oct 2010. Unfortunately, I am not be able to join the retreat with him as the limited of the number of people. I really like his book, everytime when I read, I am back to my breathing.


  2. You once lived in the Boston area? Oh tell me where. I’m guessing the Berkshires, just randomly throwing it out there. I used to live in Cambridge. Went to school at the little Kremlin on the Charles … ha ha if you know what I mean. And yea, dharma brothers indeed. We family, man! Thanks to this blog I’ve come in contact with the writings of Thanissaro Bhikku and aspire to visit Wat Metta soon. We are so going to cross paths, either at Deer Park or just out exploring this wonderful world. It’s so bound to happen. And I sure hope it does. Thanks man, it really has to be said. It’s good to know we have roots in the same lay sangha. That our hearts and minds run in similar circles. Birds of a feather and all that.

    • Hey Rob — good to get a first name from my new friend!

      Actually, I lived in Boston most of the 30-plus years — 1975 to to 2009. Lived in different neighborhoods in Boston, Back Bay and South End, and then had a long stretch in Malden, MA. I loved Bean Town, but I’m at home, finally, here in Berkeley.

      Feelings are mutual bro’ and I wouldn’t be surprised if we did cross paths. Our heart connections run deep; I think they are rooted in the Deathless.

      Thanks for your warmth and sharing, brother bird! Gotta get to work now on that freelance stuff. Over and out.


  3. Just went to my first retreat at Deer Park. I understood Thay’s teachings for the first time. Sure they made sense on an analytical level when I read them months and months ago. But spending five days with the brothers and sisters I really internalized the idea that peace is every step. Not an idea anymore, but an experience available every moment. That I have arrived. That I am home. That there is no coming, and no going. When I still the turbulence of my mind I free my heart from servitude.

    • Wow, and yaaaaaaaaaaay!! I’m so very, very happy for you! There’s really nothing quite like a retreat, and Thay’s brothers and sisters are always amazing examples of the living dharma. I know exactly what you mean about internalizing that peace in every step. I had the privilege of more than a week with Thay, and later, I had some short retreats at his Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont (when I lived in the Boston area.) If still feel the presence and effects of those very special days. Now that I’m on the West Coast, I have to remember that Deer Park is south of me and available, as is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s Metta Forest Monestary.

      Of course, this makes us dharma brothers in Thay’s lay sangha, you know! (Not that I don’t have dharma brothers from other teachers and traditions — you know what I mean.)

      I’m so very happy for you and that your life brought about causes and conditions for this wonderful event.

      With warm metta,


  1. A Most Excellent Book by Thich Naht Hanh | octopusdance - 2013/04/15

    […] of Thich Naht Hanh’s view on understanding our enemy, and working towards love and peace.… Peace out. […]

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