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Ahimsa: The Path of Harmlessness


Thich Nhat Hanh


The Sanskrit word ahimsa, usually translated "nonviolence," literally means "non-harming" or "harmlessness." To practice ahimsa, first of all we have to practice it within ourselves. In -each of us, there is a certain amount of violence and a certain amount of nonviolence. Depending on our state of being, our response to things will be more or less nonviolent. Even if we take pride in being vegetarian, for example, we have to acknowledge that the water in which we boil our vegetables contains many tiny microorganisms. We cannot be completely nonviolent, but by being vegetarian, we are going in the direction of nonviolence. If we want to head north, we can use the North Star to guide us, but it is impossible to arrive at the North Star. Our effort is only to proceed in that direction. Anyone can practice some nonviolence, even soldiers. Some army generals, for example, conduct their operations in ways that avoid killing innocent people; this is a kind of nonviolence. To help soldiers move in the nonviolent direction, we have to be in touch with them. If we divide reality into two camps-the violent and the nonviolent-and stand in one camp while attacking the other, the world will never have peace. We will always blame and condemn those we feel are responsible for wars and social injustice, without recognizing the degree of violence in ourselves.

We must work on ourselves and also work with those we condemn if we want to have a real impact.

It never helps to draw a line and dismiss some people as enemies, even those who act violently. We have to approach them with love in our hearts and do our best to help them move in a direction of nonviolence. If we work for peace out of anger, we will never succeed. Peace is not an end. It can never come about through non-peaceful means.

When we protest against a war, we may assume that we are a peaceful person, a representative of peace, but this might not be the case. If we look deeply, we will observe that the roots of war are in the unmindful ways we have been living. We have not sown enough seeds of peace and understanding in ourselves and others, therefore we are co-responsible: "Because I have been like this, they are like that." A more holistic approach is the way of "interbeing":

"This is like this, because that is like that." This is the way of understanding and love. With this insight, we can see clearly and help our government see clearly. Then we can go to a demonstration and say, "This war is unjust, destructive, and not worthy of our great nation." This is far more effective than angrily condemning others. Anger always accelerates the damage.

We know how to write strong letters of protest, but we must also learn to write love letters to our President and Representatives, demonstrating the kind of understanding and using the kind of language they will appreciate. If we don't, our letters may end up in the trash and help no one. To love is to understand. We cannot express love to someone unless we understand him or her. If we do not understand our President or Congressperson, we cannot write him or her a love letter.

People are happy to read a good letter in which we share our insights and our understanding. When they receive that kind of letter, they feel understood and they will pay attention to your recommendations. You may think that the way to change the world is to elect a new President, but a government is only a reflection of society, which is a reflection of our own consciousness. To create fundamental change, we, the members of society, have to transform ourselves. If we want real peace, we have to demonstrate our love and understanding so that those responsible for making decisions can learn from us.

All of us, even pacifists, have pain inside. We feel angry and frustrated, and we need to find someone willing to listen to us who is capable of understanding our suffering. In Buddhist iconography, there is a bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara who has 1,000 arms and 1,000 hands, and has an eye in the palm of each hand. One thousand hands represent action, and the eye in each hand represents understanding. ~en you understand a situation or a person, any action you do will help and will not cause more suffering. ~en you have an eye in your hand, you will know how to practice true nonviolence.

Imagine if each of our words also had an eye in it. It is easy to depict a hand with an eye, but how might an artist also put an eye into our words? Before we say something, we have to understand what we are saying and the person to whom our words are directed. With the eye of understanding, we will not say things to make the other person suffer. Blaming and arguing are forms of violence.When we speak, if we suffer greatly, our words may be bitter, and that will not help anyone. We have to learn to calm ourselves and become a flower before we speak. This is "the art of loving speech."

Listening is also a deep practice. The bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has a deep talent for listening. In Chinese, his name means "listening to the cries of the world." We have to listen in a way that we understand the suffering of others. We have to empty ourselves and leave space so we can listen well. If we breathe in and out to refresh and empty ourselves, we will be able to sit still and listen to the person who is suffering. When she is suffering, she needs someone to listen attentively without judging or reacting. If she cannot find someone in her family, she may go to a psychotherapist. Just by listening deeply, we already alleviate a great deal of her pain. This is an important practice of peace. We have to listen in our families and in our communities. We have to listen to everyone, especially those we consider our enemies. When we show our capacity of listening and understanding, the other person will also listen to us, and we will have a chance to tell him of our pain. This is the beginning of healing.

Thinking is at the base of everything. It is important for us to put an eye of awareness into each of our thoughts. Without a correct understanding of a situation or a person, our thoughts can be misleading and create confusion, despair, anger, or hatred. Our most important task is to develop correct insight. If we see deeply into the nature of interbeing, that all things "inter-are," we will stop blaming, arguing, and killing, and we will become friends with everyone.

These are the three domains of action-body, speech, and mind. In addition, there is non-action, which is often more important than action. Without our doing anything, things can sometimes go more smoothly just because of our peaceful presence. In a small boat when a storm comes, if one person remains solid and calm, others will not panic, and the boat is more likely to stay afloat. In many circumstances, non-action can help a lot. A tree merely breathes, waves its leaves and branches, and tries to stay fresh. But if the tree were not there, we could not be here. The tree's non-action is fundamental to our well-being. If we can learn to live the way a tree does-staying fresh and solid, peaceful and calm-even if we do not do many things, others will benefit from our non-action, our presence. We can also practice non-action in the domain of speech. Words can create understanding and mutual acceptance, or they can cause others to suffer. Sometimes it is best not to say anything. This is a book on nonviolent social action, but we must also discuss nonviolent non-action. If we really want to help the world, the practice of non-action is essential.

Of course, sometimes non-action can be harmful. When someone needs our help and we refuse, she may die. If a monk, for example, sees a woman drowning and does not want to touch her because of his precepts, he will violate the most fundamental principle oflife. When we see social injustice, if we practice non-action, we may cause harm. When people need us to say or do something, if we don't, we can kill by our inaction or our silence.

To practice ahimsa, we must first of all learn ways to deal peacefully with ourselves. If we create true harmony within ourselves, we will know how to deal with family, friends, and associates. Techniques are always secondary. Most important is to become ahimsa, so that when a situation presents itself, we will not create more suffering. To practice ahimsa, we need gentleness, loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity directed to our bodies, our feelings, and other people.

Real peace must be based on insight and understanding, and for this we must practice deep reflection-looking deeply into each act and each thought of our daily lives.

With mindfulness-the practice of peace-we can begin by working to transform the wars in ourselves. There are techniques for doing this. Conscious breathing is one. Every time we feel upset, we can stop what we are doing, refrain from saying anything, and breathe in and out several times, aware of each in-breath and each out-breath. If we are still upset, we can go for walking meditation, mindful of each slow step and each breath we take. By cultivating peace within, we bring about peace in society. It depends on us. To practice peace in ourselves is to minimize the numbers of wars between this and that feeling, or this and that perception, and we can then have real peace with others as well, including the members of our own family.

I am often asked, "What if you are practicing love and patience and someone breaks into your house and tries to kidnap your daughter or kill your husband? What should you do? Should you shoot that person or act in a nonviolent way?" The answer depends on your state of being. If you are prepared, you may react calmly and intelligently, in the most nonviolent way possible. But to be ready to react with intelligence and nonviolence, you have to train yourself in advance. It may take ten years, or longer. If you wait until the time of crisis to ask the question, it will be too late. A this-or-that kind of answer would be superficial. At that crucial moment, even if you know that nonviolence is better than violence, if your understanding is only intellectual and not in your whole being, you will not act nonviolently. The fear and anger in you will prevent you from acting in the most nonviolent way.

To prevent war, to prevent the next crisis, we must begin right now. When a war or a crisis has begun, it is already too late. If we and our children practice ahimsa in our daily lives, if we learn how to plant seeds of peace and reconciliation in our own hearts and minds, we will begin to establish real peace and, in that way, we may be able to prevent the next war. If another war does come, we will know that we have done our best. Is ten years enough time to prepare ourselves and our nation to avoid another war? How much time does it take to breathe consciously, to smile, and to be fully present in each moment? Our real enemy is forgetfulness. If we nourish mindfulness every day and water the seeds of peace in ourselves and those around us, we have a good chance to prevent the next war and to defuse the next crisis.

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