Living History in Belfast

By Peter Doran

In April 2012, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke in the Senate Chamber at Parliament Buildings on the outskirts of Belfast, Ireland, where former combatants and political opponents now serve together in the government.. Thay addressed an audience of ministers, legislators, and a cross-section of representatives of civil society who have played their own quiet roles in supporting the peace through their actions in the therapeutic community, spirituality, social activism, regeneration, and investment. Mindfulness practitioners from the Buddhist and other traditions were present, including members of a local ecumenical society dedicated to the work and memory of Thomas Merton.

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Addressing the theme of “building peace,” Thay began to describe how mindful breathing and mindful walking put us in touch with the wonders of life and support us in recognising the pain, sorrow, fears, and anger within us. His words took on an immediacy in the context of the journey out of conflict. “There is suffering inside every one of us. And that suffering inside of us may reflect the suffering of our own parents, our ancestors who may have suffered a lot. But because many of them did not know how to handle, to transform their suffering, that is why they have transmitted their own suffering to us,” he explained. “That is why it is very important to get in touch with our suffering, to embrace it, to listen to it, to take a deep look into the nature of suffering, and to find out the roots of our own suffering. And our own suffering also somehow reflects the suffering of the world. That is why to understand our own suffering helps us to understand the suffering of other people more easily.”

He went on to describe the other capacities generated by compassion, including the art of gentle, loving speech and compassionate listening, the tools for a new kind of liberation, a liberation of hearts and minds. Recalling his proposal after 9/11 for organized sessions of deep listening and workshops with Palestinians and Israelis in Plum Village, Thay issued a similar invitation in Belfast. He called for wise and compassionate people to lead sessions of deep listening and loving speech, and for such sessions to be televised. He offered this suggestion not as a political solution but as a spiritual practice with the power to heal and transform and prepare the ground for political solutions to come more easily. 

Peace Is Personal and Political 

Martina Anderson, then a Junior Minister who has now taken up a seat in the European Parliament, affirmed the need for legislators working to build a better society to draw on the practice of mindfulness. She recounted her time as an Irish Republican Army prisoner in Durham Prison, when she was visited by Buddhist monks. “I became very interested in what they were saying. I began to practice Buddhism with them and Buddhist meditation.” Holding a well-read and marked copy aloft, Anderson continued, “Little did I know then, when I was given the book The Miracle of Mindfulness, that I would not only meet the author of that book, but that I would meet him here in Parliament Buildings in Stormont, and that I would do so serving as a Junior Minister in the Executive.”

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Anderson remembered how the book stayed with her throughout the years. “I have read many sections because there is one thing about life, nothing ever stays the same. The perspective I have learned about engaged Buddhism is something that I have also carried down the years. It is something that has assisted me as I have made my journey from jail to being a minister in our Executive,” recalled Anderson. “The peace process has at least two important elements for all of us. It has the personal invitation to examine our respective contributions and to mindfully embark on a journey of transformation informed by compassion; and it has a political dimension that takes our compassion and energy and enables a different kind of future.”

“Today you [Thay] are visiting a very transformed society, one that is still transforming,” she continued. “It was not long ago that political opponents who now sit around tables in this Chamber could not enter into one room together. And yet, all of the major political parties are now involved in a power-sharing Executive. It has been a difficult journey for some, but for many of us it is a journey that has involved mindfulness, and that has been part of the transformation. Your message of nonviolent social change is as relevant today as when you wrote to and later met with Martin Luther King Jr. regarding the war in Vietnam. There are, perhaps, phases of struggle where different approaches are felt to be more appropriate, but I have no doubt that we are living in a society where the challenge of nonviolent social change is one that we have embarked upon, and we are building a society that will be at peace with itself. In building that peace we know we will have to respect each other and understand each other in order to meaningfully engage with one another; and most importantly, we need to remember our interconnectedness, our compassion, and common humanity.”

As lead sponsor of Thay’s visit to Parliament Buildings, Conall McDevitt, also a Member of the Legislative Assembly, said it was wonderful “to be in the presence of living history.” As a member of John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, which grew out of the civil rights struggles of the late 1960s, McDevitt represents a generation who took to the streets in the north of Ireland with the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. ringing in their ears. The debates on the merits of nonviolent social change also crossed the Atlantic in that period. When Thay spoke in the Senate Chamber in 2012, his voice was a familiar one; it carried words that had formed part of a backdrop to the struggle and pursuit of transformation in the late 1960s. It was a voice that found a ready echo in the lives of those in our community for whom mindfulness formed part of a new story of personal liberation that helped to unlock history for all of us.

The visit by Thich Nhat Hanh to Parliament Buildings was sponsored by Members of the Legislative Assembly who represent the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Alliance Party. He was initially received by the Democratic Unionist Party Speaker, William Hay. Sinn Fein was represented at the event by two Ministers, its Chairman, and other party members and staff.

mb62-Living3Dr. Peter Doran is a lecturer in environmental law and sustainable development at Queens University, Belfast. His research interests include mindfulness and sustainable consumption. He practices at the Black Mountain Zen Centre and worked on the Mindfulness Ireland organising team on the Belfast leg of Thay’s visit to Ireland.

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