Cultivating Compassion to Respond to Violence: The Way of Peace

by Thich Nhat Hanh


I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands,
to keep my loneliness warm
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing
my soul from leaving me in anger.

I wrote this poem during the Vietnam War after I heard about the bombing of Ben Tre city. The city of 300,000 was destroyed because seven guerrillas shot several rounds of unsuccessful anti-aircraft gunfire and then left. My pain was profound.

All violence is injustice.

Responding to violence with violence is injustice, not only to the other person but also to oneself. Responding to violence with violence resolves nothing; it only escalates violence, anger and hatred. It is only with compassion that we can embrace and disintegrate violence. This is true in relationships between individuals as well as in relationships between nations.

What needs to be done right now is to recognize the suffering, to embrace it and to understand it. We need calmness and lucidity so that we can listen deeply to and understand our own suffering, the suffering of the nation and the suffering of others. By understanding the nature and the causes of the suffering, we will then know the right path to follow.

The violence and hatred we presently face has been created by misunderstanding, injustice, discrimination and despair. We are all co-responsible for the making of violence and despair in the world by our way of living, of consuming and of handling the problems of the world.

Understanding why this violence has been created, we will then know what to do and what not to do in order to decrease the level of violence in ourselves and in the world, to create and foster understanding, reconciliation and forgiveness.

In this moment, we invite our spiritual teachers, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and so many others, to be with us, to support us, so that we can hold in our arms the suffering of America as a nation, the suffering of humanity as a family, the suffering of the earth as a home for all of us.

We need their energy so that we can become lucid and calm, so that we will know exactly what to do and what not to do, in order not to make the situation worse.

We know deep in our heart that responding to hatred and violence with hatred and violence, will only make hatred grow one thousand-fold. Only with compassion can we disintegrate hatred.

This insight, this understanding should be with us in this very important moment.

If we look and listen deeply we can see that when we pray for the victims, we must also pray for the attackers. They are also victims of confusion and violence. If as a nation, America wants to be safe and secure, it has to help other nations, other peoples, feel safe and secure.

I have the conviction that America possesses enough wisdom and courage to perform an act of forgiveness and compassion, and I know that such an act can bring great relief to America and to the world right away.

Such an act could be a statement of the willingness to embrace all suffering inside and outside the nation, to look deeply in order to understand better the cause of the suffering and to act according to that insight. The act could be a project to bring relief to those who actually suffer within and outside the country.

I offer my heartfelt condolences, care and love for all who are suffering tremendously at this moment. I am aware that most of us have not been able to overcome the shock. Day and night I am deeply concerned with how to heal and transform this national and global tragedy.

We know that there are those of us who are trying to help, to heal and to support. We are grateful to them. We know that there are many of us who are trying to see to it that violence will not happen again.

I and many others will fast from September 21st to the 30th in order to support all who have died and all who are suffering terribly in this moment and embrace them tenderly with compassion, understanding, and awareness. This is my prayer in action.

Thich Nhat Hanh
September 20, 2001

Thich Nhat Hanh

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