Small Seeds of Hope: Face of a Monster?
When I was twelve years old I met an extraordinary man. He didn't look very extraordinary. He was, in fact, tiny, probably weighing less than I did at the time. Dressed in monks' robes, he had a shy smile and a boyish face. In some ways he seemed fragile, but I might have been mistaking fragility for simplicity. Simplicity based not in naivete, but because he had already let go of everything extraneous. Or the fragility I sensed may have been the fragility of fire.
It was sometime in late 1966 or early 1967. My parents, deeply concerned about the war in Vietnam, had come to hear this man speak about it from his personal experience, and about his work for peace. And they had brought me--as a twelve year old I too was worried about all those people dying over there, both American and Vietnamese. Knowing he was grounded in compassion, they trusted he would be honest but not brutal.
If you read my June 3 blog, This Is Really, Really Hard, you've probably already figured out that the small shy, Vietnamese monk I just described was Thich Nhat Hanh, often called Thây, affectionately, by his students. (It means "teacher" and is pronounced "tay" or "tie").
I don't, in fact, remember anything he said at that meeting, nor did I have words back then to describe my impressions. But I remember his concern for his people who were suffering so much, and his passion for telling their story. And his extraordinary inner silence and light.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago. I was sitting in my living room, sorting through a big stack of old papers, when I came across a thin booklet I had noticed--and shied away from--for years. I had thought it was the description of a series of highly symbolic woodcuts of Vietnam and Vietnamese people, done during the war by artist Vo Dinh, a colleague of Thây's. They included very beautiful but disturbing images of fire, barbed wire and tanks. I had kept the pamphlet because I owned one of the woodcuts, a gift from a close friend of our family who knew the artist. And someday I wanted to read about the symbolism. Someday.
I am very visual and have a very vivid imagination. Images I see stay with me--and then get embellished. So I tend to screen those images, which is one of the reasons I haven't owned a TV for years. Some people might call me a snowflake. I prefer to use the terms "empathetic" and "highly sensitive." Or you might say I practice portion control when it comes to distressing news or images.
In any case for some reason that night I was drawn to open that booklet. And I discovered that although it included a couple of Vo Dihn's images, most of it was the text of a short play, The Path of Return Continues the Journey, written by Thich Nhat Hanh less than a year after I had met him.
A little background before I go on. If you read my June 3 blog, you know that a few years prior Thich Nhat Hanh and friends had founded the non-partisan School of Youth for Social Service in South Vietnam, in order to try to repair some of the damage done by the war. The curriculum was steeped in the concepts of compassion and non-violence. When students completed schooling there, they were encouraged to go out and help rebuild homes, sow or harvest crops, resettle refugees--in short to try "to heal the wounds of war" without taking sides or resorting to anger and hatred.
As I read the introduction, I learned that a few months after Thây had spoken to our gathering in Connecticut, five students from the school had been kidnapped, brought to the banks of the Saigon River at night and shot in cold blood. Four died immediately; the fifth, shot several times and left for dead, was somehow found by friends and nursed back to life.
Normally I would have stopped reading as soon as I realized what the introduction was describing. But something drew me in and I continued. I was saddened and horrified, but not immobilized. Perhaps the peaceful, hopeful spirit of the author came through as I read.
Those young men, by the report of the fifth man who did not die, were shot not by the "official" enemy, the Viet Cong of North Vietnam, but rather by agents of the government of South Vietnam, who, evidently, felt very threatened by peaceful, non-partisan, compassionate service. They did not seem able to understand that some people, called by Love, can offer service without trying to gain power or influence, without choosing sides. They lived--and killed--in fear.
The remainder of the booklet consisted of the play, the imagined journey of the four students just after they died, rowing down the Saigon River, using their hands instead of paddles, guided by a woman who had died several years earlier.
I have to say that for a non-Buddhist Westerner the play is a bit strange in places. In some ways, however, it reminds me of Our Town--that is, if Thornton Wilder had been a Vietnamese monk, steeped in compassion, who had recently been grieving the assassination of four of his students.
At the beginning of the play the four friends banter and tease each other, as young men often do. You sense their teacher's affection for them, and their individual personalities. They go on to have deep philosophic discussions about life and death, and why they were killed. The line I quoted in my June 3 blog is from this play: "Using hatred to fight hatred is the surest way to create more hatred."
Here is the other section of the play that resonated most deeply in my heart--and the reason I am writing this post:
"'Youth for Social Service' is only a label, a label that has been pasted on the object of hatred and fear....What they shot at was this object of their fear and hatred and because they had already pasted the label on you, they ended up shooting you and you died by mistake. They killed you because they truly did not know who you were....Hatred and fear blind us. We no longer see each other. Or rather we only see the faces of monsters and that gives us the courage to destroy one another."
We only see the faces of monsters and that gives us the courage to destroy one another.
Do I ever let the face of a monster replace a human face in my thoughts? Do I de-humanize someone I consider to be an enemy? Do I label people I am afraid of? Do I allow any compassion at all to surface towards those whose behavior or beliefs I dislike or even abhor? Or do I cling to my anger and fear, refusing to admit there could be any seeds of redemption in that enemy? There have certainly been many opportunities to react in these ways recently.
And I am afraid I must answer "yes" to all those questions. Certainly some of the time. Most of us would, with the possible exception of a few saints. I am guessing that Thây, even Thây, could write about such things because he knew them from within.
We might also see parts of ourselves as monstrous--or shameful. But these concepts apply inwardly as well. One of Thich Nhat Hanh's messages of hope is that inner and outer transformation can move down the path together.
Letting go of the fear is difficult. The work of compassion and non-violence is difficult. And does it really make any difference?
Near the end of the play, one of the young men says: "If I worked hard it was not because I had any illusion about my ability to change the situation. It would be very much like trying to extinguish a forest fire with cups of water. But I did have faith then, and still do have faith now, that our work was of some value because it began to sow some seeds of tolerance and love in men's [sic] hearts."
So don't give up.
Until next time,
Markus Spiske, unSplash (cover photo)
Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound
Filip Sochor, unSplash