Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Not-Han) has been a spokesperson for peace and human rights since the 1960s, when his activism to end the Vietnam War inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been living in exile from his native Vietnam since 1966, and calls Plum Village, a meditation retreat center he founded in the south of France, his home. He conducts retreats throughout the world on "engaged Buddhism," nonviolence, and mindfulness, and has written more than 100 books. In an email interview with Beliefnet.com, he offered his thoughts on the prison abuse scandal.
What is the Buddhist perspective on the abuse
of prisoners of war in Iraq?
Recent news about the abuse of prisoners of war provides
us with the opportunity to look deeply into the nature of war. This
is an opportunity for us to be more aware. This is not new; everywhere
there is war, these kinds of things happen.
Every one of us should know the way soldiers are trained
in order to see the truth about war. Soldiers are trained to kill
as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. Soldiers
are told that if they don’t kill, they will be killed by the
so-called “enemy.” They are taught that killing is good
because the people they are trying to kill are dangerous to society.
Soldiers are trained to believe they must kill the
other group because they are not human beings. If soldiers see their
“enemies” as fellow human beings just like them, they
would have no courage to kill them.
It is important not to blame and single out the U.S.
in this kind of situation because any country would do the same
thing under the same conditions. During the Vietnam War atrocities
were committed by both sides.
The statement President Bush made that the U.S. just
sent dedicated, devoted young men, not abusers to Iraq, shocked
me. Because committing acts of torture is just the result of the
training that the soldiers have already undergone. The training
already makes them lose all their humanity. The young men going
to Iraq were already full of fear, wanting to protect themselves
at all cost, being ready to kill at any moment.
In this state you can become extremely cruel. You
may pour all of your hate and anger on prisoners of war by torturing
and abusing them. The purpose of your violence is not only to extract
information from them, but also to express your hate and fear. The
prisoners of war are the victims, but the abusers, the torturers,
are also the victims. Their actions will continue to disturb them
long after the abuse has ended.
Preparing for war and fighting a war means allowing
our human nature to die and the animal nature in us to take over.
We should never be tempted to resort to violence and war to solve
conflict. Violence always leads to more violence.
There have been examples of individuals who
were kind to prisoners. Assuming they have the same training and
are operating in the same difficult conditions, what makes some
people compassionate and others abusive?
Some people are able to remain compassionate because
they are lucky to have received a spiritual heritage, kindness and
goodness that stayed at least partially intact despite their training.
This heritage is transmitted by parents, teachers and community.
Their humanity is preserved to some extent even if they have been
damaged during their training. So they are still able to be shocked
by their fellow soldiers' acts of torture. But those with a poorer
spiritual heritage, who come from a family or community without
much understanding and compassion, lose all their humanity in the
process of military training.
Is it ever possible to torture someone for
a good cause? If a prisoner in custody did have information that
could potentially prevent a terrorist attack, would coercion be
appropriate? If no, what interrogation tactics would be appropriate
There is no ‘good cause’ for torture.
As a torturer, you are the first to be a victim because you lose
all your humanity. You do harm to yourself in the act of harming
another. If you had a good cause to begin with, it is lost when
you torture another human being. When we imagine situations when
torture could be justified, we jump to conclusions too quickly and
too easily. Torturing someone will not always give us the result
we wish for. If the prisoner in custody does not tell us the information
we want it is because they don’t want their people, their
fellow soldiers to be killed. They withhold information out of compassion,
out of faithfulness to their cause. Sometimes they give out wrong
information. And there are those who prefer to die rather than give
in to the torture.
I am absolutely against torture. It is very easy to
create a pretext for why it is necessary to torture a prisoner when
we have fear and anger in us. When we have compassion, we can always
find another way. When you torture a living being, you die as a
human being because the other person’s suffering is your own
suffering. When you perform surgery on someone, you know the surgery
will help him and that is why you can cut into his body. But when
you cut into someone’s body and mind to get information from
them, you cut into your own life, you kill yourself as a person.
If military action is incompatible with mindfulness
and compassion, how should people/nations defend themselves? (You
have said that when we are mindful, “compassion becomes possible.”
Is a lack of mindfulness what our moral failings boil down to?)
There are many ways to defend ourselves: through diplomatic
foreign policy, forming alliances with other countries, humanitarian
assistance. These are all approaches motivated by the wisdom of
inter-being, not just by political gain. In these kinds of approaches
to resolving conflict, the army doesn’t have to do much. They
can serve the people, build bridges, roads, etc. This is not idealistic
thinking, armies have worked this way in the past. With good foreign
policy, the army will not have to fight.
The only really necessary and appropriate circumstance
under which an army should resort to violence is to defend itself
or an ally from invasion. And even in this case, much suffering
What is upsetting to me is that former generations
have committed the same mistakes and we don’t learn from them.
We haven’t learned enough from the war in Vietnam. There were
so many atrocities committed there. So many innocent people were
tortured and killed by both sides because they were perceived to
be ‘communist’, or ‘anti-communist.’
Mindfulness has so many layers. When we kill because
we think that the other person is evil, that we are killing for
the sake of peace, that we are doing a good thing, this is not right
mindfulness. If we are mindful, we will see not only the present
situation, but also the root and the consequence of our act in that
moment. Other insights should arise if we are truly mindful: “This
person I want to kill is a living being. Is there any chance for
him to behave better and change his present, harmful state of mind?
Maybe I have a wrong perception and one day I will see that he is
just a victim of misunderstanding, and not really the evil person
I think he is.” Mindfulness also helps a soldier to see that
he or she may just be an instrument for killing used by his or her
A general who is mindful of his actions is capable
of looking deeply. He may not need to use weapons. He will see that
there are many ways to deter the opposite side and he will exhaust
all other means before resorting to violence. And when nothing else
works, he may use violence, but out of compassion, not out of anger.
There is a collective sense of shame among
many Americans about the activities depicted in these photos. Buddhists
believe individuals are responsible for their actions through karma,
but is there any such thing as collective karma? At a national level?
An act of cruelty is born of many conditions coming
together, without any separate, individual actor. When we hold retreats
for war veterans I tell them they are the flame at the tip of the
candle, they are the ones who feel the heat, but the whole candle
is burning, not only the flame. All of us are responsible.
The very ideas of terrorism and imagined weapons of
mass destruction are already collective karma in terms of thinking
and speaking. The media helped the war happen by supporting these
ideas through speech and writing. Thought, speech and action are
all collective karma.
No one can say they are not responsible for this current
situation even if we oppose our country’s actions. We are
still a member of our community, a citizen of our country. Maybe
we have not done enough. We must ally ourselves with bodhisattvas,
great, awakened beings, around us to transform our way of thinking
and that of our society. Because wrong thinking is at the base of
our present situation, thinking that has no wisdom or compassion.
And we can do things every day, in every moment of our daily life
to nourish the seeds of peace, compassion and understanding in us
and in those around us. We can live in such a way that can heal
our collective karma and ensure that these atrocities will not happen
again in the future.
What is the chief lesson for us to learn from
these terrible events?
Don’t be tempted to use the army to solve conflicts.
The only situation in which we use the army is to defend our country
during an invasion. In the past, the U.S. was loved by many of us
in the world because the U.S. represented freedom, democracy, peace,
and care for other countries. The U.S. has lost this image and must
In the past, when I would go to the U.S. embassy for
a visa, it was not heavily guarded. But now, all over the world,
U.S. embassies are surrounded by heavily armed guards. Fear has
overtaken the U.S. It is the primary motivation for many of the
U.S. government’s actions because we do not know how to protect
ourselves with compassion. Students of political science must learn
this in university so that they can bring real wisdom into politics.
Compassion can go together with intelligence. Compassion is not
stupid. Love is the same, real love is born from understanding.
||Zen Master, poet,
peace and human rights activist, Thich Nhat Hanh (tick-not-hahn)
was born in central Vietnam in 1926 and joined the monkhood
at the age of 16. In Saigon in the early 1960s, he founded the
School of Youth for Social Services (SYSS), a grassroots relief
organization that rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and
medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized
agricultural cooperatives. Rallying some 10,000 student volunteers,
the SYSS based its work on the Buddhist principles of non-violence
and compassionate action. Despite government denunciation of
his activity, Nhat Hanh also founded a Buddhist University,
| house, and an influential peace
activist magazine in Vietnam.
Exiled from Vietnam, he traveled to the U.S. where he made the
case for peace to federal and Pentagon officials including Robert
McNamara. He may have changed the course of U.S. history when
he persuaded Martin Luther King, Jr. to oppose the Vietnam War
publicly, and so helped galvanize the peace movement. The following
year, King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Subsequently
Nhat Hanh led the Buddhist delegation to the Paris Peace Talks.
Often referred to as the most beloved Buddhist teacher in
the West, Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings and practices appeal
to people from various religious, spiritual, and political
backgrounds. Nhat Hanh offers a practice of "mindfulness"
that is beneficial for people of all faiths, by helping us
resist and transform the speed and violence of our modern
society. His life and teachings have deeply influenced millions
of people, including scores of luminaries in different fields:
politician Jerry Brown, civil rights champion Martin Luther
King, Jr., eco-activist Joanna Macy, and Catholic mystic Thomas
Merton - to name a few.
He has published more than 100 titles, including more than 40 in English: Peace is Every Step, Being Peace, Touching Peace and many more. His books are published by Parallax Press.