In Plum Village in France, we receive many letters from the refugee camps in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, hundreds each week. It is very painful to read them, but we have to do it, we have to be in contact. We try our best to help, but the suffering is enormous, and sometimes we are discouraged. It is said that half the boat people die in the ocean; only half arrive at the shores in Southeast Asia.
There are many young girls, boat people, who are raped by sea pirates. Even though the United Nations and many countries try to help the government of Thailand prevent that kind of piracy, sea pirates continue to inflict much suffering on the refugees. One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate.
She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, I am now the pirate. There is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I cannot condemn myself so easily. In my meditation, I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we might become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.
After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The title of the poem is “Please Call Me By My True Names,” because I have so many names. When I hear one of these names, I have to say, “Yes.”
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second to be a bud on a spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,in order to fear and to hope, the rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river, and I am the bird which, when spring comes,arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond, and I am also the grass-snake who,approaching in silence, feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate, and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life. My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills up the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,so I can hear all my cries and my laughs at once,so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.
* * *
There is a Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse yells back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” I think that is our situation. We are riding many horses that we cannot control. The proliferation of armaments, for instance, is a horse. We have tried our best, but we cannot control these horses. Our lives are so busy.
In Buddhism, the most important precept of all is to live in awareness, to know what is going on. To know what is going on, not only here, but there. For instance, when you eat a piece of bread, you may choose to be aware that our farmers, in growing the wheat, use chemical poisons a little too much. Eating the bread, we are somehow co-responsible for the destruction of our ecology. When we eat a piece of meat or drink alcohol, we can produce awareness that 40,000 children die each day in the Third World from hunger and that in order to produce a piece of meat or a bottle of liquor, we have to use a lot of grain. Eating a bowl of cereal may be more reconciling with the suffering of the world than eating a piece of meat. An authority on economics who lives in France told me that if only the people in Western countries would reduce the eating of meat and the drinking of alcohol by 50 percent, that would be enough to change the situation of the world. Only 50 percent less.
Every day we do things, we are things, that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our lifestyle, our way of consuming, of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment we are alive, the present moment. When we pick up the Sunday newspaper, for instance, we may be aware that it is a very heavy edition, maybe three or four pounds. To print such a paper, a whole forest may be needed. When we pick up the paper, we should be aware. If we are very aware, we can do something to change the course of things.
* * *
In my temple, I was the first monk to ride a bicycle. At that time, there were no gathas to recite while riding on a bicycle. We have to practice intelligently, to keep the practice up to date, so recently I wrote a gatha you can use before you start your car. I hope you will find it helpful:
Before starting the car,
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.
Sometimes we don’t really need to use the car, but because we want to get away from ourselves, we go down and start the car. If we recite the gatha, “Before starting the car, I know where I am going,” it can be like a flashlight-we may see that we don’t need to go anywhere. Anywhere we go, we will have our self with us; we cannot escape ourselves. Sometimes it is better to turn the engine off and go out for a walking meditation. It may be more pleasant to do that.
It is said that in the last few years, two million square miles of forest land have been destroyed by acid rain, and that is partly because of our cars. “Before starting the car, I know where I am going,” is a very deep question. “Where shall I go? To my own destruction?” If the trees die, humans are going to die also. If trees and animals are not alive, how can we be alive?
“The car and I are one.” We have the impression that we are the boss, and the car is only an instrument, but that is not true. With the car, we become something different. With a gun, we become very dangerous. With a flute, we become pleasant. With 50,000 atomic bombs, humankind has become the most dangerous species on earth. We were never so dangerous as we are now. We should be aware. The most basic precept of all is to be aware of what we do, what we are, each minute. Every other precept will follow from that.
* * *
We have to look deeply at things in order to see. When a swimmer enjoys the clear water of the river, he or she should also be able to be the river. One day I was having lunch at Boston University with some friends, and I looked down at the Charles River. I had been away from home for quite a long time, and seeing the river, I found it very beautiful. So I left my friends and went down to wash my face and dip my feet in the water, as we used to do in our country. When I returned, a professor said, “That’s a very dangerous thing to do. Did you rinse your mouth in the river?” When I told him, “Yes,” he said, “You should see a doctor and get a shot.”
I was shocked. I didn’t know that the rivers here are so polluted. You may call them dead rivers. In our country the rivers get very muddy sometimes, but not that kind of dirt. Someone told me that there are so many chemicals in the Rhine River in Germany that it is possible to develop photographs in it. We can be good swimmers, but can we be a river and experience the fears and hopes of a river? If we cannot, then we do not have the chance for peace. If all the rivers are dead, then the joy of swimming in the river will no longer exist.
If you are a mountain climber or someone who enjoys the countryside, or the green forest, you know that the forests are our lungs outside of our bodies. Yet we have been acting in a way that has allowed two million square miles of forest land to be destroyed by acid rain. We are imprisoned in our small selves, thinking only of the comfortable conditions for this small self, while we destroy our large self. One day I suddenly saw that the sun is my heart, my heart outside of this body. If my body’s heart ceases to function I cannot survive; but if the sun, my other heart, ceases to function, I will also die immediately. We should be able to be our true self. That means we should be able to be the river, we should be able to be the forest, we should be able to be a Soviet citizen. We must do this to understand, and to have hope for the future. That is the non-dualistic way of seeing.
* * *
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 this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
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,
man is not our enemy.
The only thing worthy of you is compassion-invincible, limitless, unconditional.Hatred will never let you facethe 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 smilewill bloom a flower.And those who love youwill behold youacross 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 moonwill continue to shine.
To practice meditation is to be aware of the existence of suffering. The first Dharma talk that the Buddha gave was about suffering, and the way out of suffering. In South Africa, the black people suffer enormously, but the white people also suffer. If we take one side, we cannot fulfill our task of reconciliation in order to bring about peace.
Are there people who can be in touch with both the black community and the white community in South Africa? If there are not many of them, the situation is bad. There must be people who can get in touch with both sides, understanding the suffering of each, and telling each side about the other. Are there people doing that kind of understanding and mediation and reconciliation between the two major political blocs on the earth? Can you be more than Americans? Can you be people who understand deeply the suffering of both sides? Can you bring the message of reconciliation?
* * *
You may not be aware that your country has been manufacturing a lot of conventional weapons to sell to Third World countries for their people to kill each other. You know very well that children and adults in these countries need food more than these deadly weapons. Yet no one has the time to organize a national debate to look at the problem of manufacturing and selling these deadly things. Everyone is too busy. Conventional weapons have been killing in the last thirty, forty, fifty years, very much. If we only think of the nuclear bombs that may explode in the future and do not pay attention to the bombs that are exploding in the present moment, we commit some kind of error. I believe President Reagan said that the U.S. has to continue to make conventional weapons to sell because if you don’t, someone else will and the U.S. will lose its interest. This is not a good thing to say. It is off course. This statement is just an excuse, but there are real factors that push him and push the whole nation to continue to manufacture conventional weapons to sell. For instance, many people will lose their jobs if they stop. Have we thought about the kind of work that will help these people if the weapons industry stops?
Not many Americans are aware that these weapons are killing people in the Third World every day. The Congress has not debated this issue seriously. We have not taken the time to see this situation clearly, so we have not been able to change our government’s policy. We are not strong enough to pressure the government. The foreign policy of a government is largely dictated by its people and their way of life. We have a large responsibility as citizens. We think that the government is free to make policy, but that freedom depends on our daily life. If we make it possible for them to change policies, they will do it. Now it is not yet possible. Maybe you think that if you get into government and obtain power, you can do anything you want, but that is not true. If you become president, you will be confronted by this hard fact. You will probably do just the same thing, a little better or a little worse.
Therefore we have to see the real truth, the real situation. Our daily lives, the way we drink, what we eat, has to do with the world’s political situation. Meditation is to see deeply into things, to see how we can change, how we can transform our situation. To transform our situation is also to transform our minds. To transform our minds is also to transform our situation, because the situation is mind, and mind is situation. Awakening is important. The nature of the bombs, the nature of injustice, the nature of the weapons, and the nature of our own beings are the same. This is the real meaning of engaged Buddhism.
Being Peace (1987) by Thich Nhat Hanh