Calmly Speaking the Truth

 By Lee Swenson

When Maxine Hong Kingston asked me to join the Vietnam War Veterans Writing Group, I hesitated for a few months. The group was a real mix—Vietnam combat vets, stateside draftees, nurses, widows, medics. All wanted to write out their stories. It was hard to imagine reliving those intense days and walking back into those battlefields, terrain laden with buried mines, ready to explode in heart and mind. I also feel tender about my old moralizing voice coming back, a voice with an edge I wanted to keep at rest. I was not sure I could keep calm while speaking my truth about nonviolent anarchism, and I was not sure I wanted to go back into the endless debate between those who went to war and those who chose not to. Yet, how could I resist?

As I went to the monthly meetings, I began to know individuals—a medic, a pilot, a widow, a river patrol point man, a vet coming in from 20 years of living on the streets. Each of us had a separate reality, and now we were all tied together. I saw how hard it was, and is, for the vets to see differences within the antiwar movement, to see individuals making a choice, willing to suffer, to do prison time, to be written out of their families for refusing to kill.

Every month for three years, the Veterans Writing Workshop met for a Day of Mindfulness facilitated by Maxine Hong Kingston and members of the Community of Mindful Living. We began with a bell, heard again and again throughout the day, to calm, to still, to breathe. When we read our day’s writing to the group, we found that by remembering to breathe we could do and say nearly anything. After the opening bell and meditation, we went around the circle and added a voice to the community. We were breaking the ice of twenty-five-year-old thoughts and feelings.

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At the center of the day, we wrote in community. Maxine suggested an idea, and after discussion, we went to different parts of the room or outside. We wrote for the next few hours, side by side, separate, yet together. Like meeting a grizzly bear on the trail, the electricity of producing together got our undivided attention. After lunch, we read aloud what we had written.

At moments, hardly anyone could breathe as the stories spilled out: buddies killed, body bags zipped up, sheer fear in battle still deep in the bone, coming Stateside, survivor’s guilt, rehab drudgery, going to the Wall and finding the name of a platoon mate or husband, leaving a widow’s letter and a daughter’s baptism gown, never to see her father. There have been few stories from draft resisters and nonviolent activists, and we had many to tell. I wrote about the virtues of nonviolence and why “we” resisted the war. I wrote about a small boy milking the family cow in an Indian village, who meets Gandhi on his way to the sea to commit civil disobedience by gathering his own salt during the Great Salt March. The boy dreams of joining the Freedom Movement. I wrote and read aloud about being in Santa Rita Jail over Christmas 1967, and how Martin Luther King, Jr. came to visit Joan Baez and the rest of us the day after we “offenders” were released. King was assassinated just three months later. In January 1968, we heard on the jail radio that Dr. Spock and six others were arrested for aiding and abetting draft resistance. It was a conspiracy not to kill.

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Great veteran writers and National Book Award winners Tim O’Brien and Larry Heineman spent a day with us. One of America’s truly great short story writers and peace activist Grace Paley came for an afternoon. We also had a day with Vietnamese soldiers (the “enemy”). Le Minh Khue had spent her youth on the Ho Chi Minh (Song My) Trail. Her greatest fear on the Trail was of American pilots just hundreds of feet overhead, releasing napalm or fragmentational percussion bombs. She could almost see their faces and look into their eyes. Now they were face-to-face, pilot and foot soldier. They met, touched, and hugged.

We edited together. We brought copies of stories, lay them on a table, and gave and received criticism. It was scary and very moving. Grace Paley said, “Editing is taking out the lies!” This group was a great lie detector.

We did bookstore readings and a public radio show on Veteran’s Day. Some of us were men who had lived on the streets for years. At Black Oak Bookstore, Tom, blinking, twitching, and agitated bellowed out, “I useta get kicked outa Black Oak, now I’m reading here!” Maxine held steady through all this, month after month—encouraging, criticizing, and firmly prodding us. Now Maxine is taking a rest from group organizing to finish her own peace novel.

An anthology is in the works. Our task is to keep writing, to find the stories in this great flow of memory, and to bring them to the surface. There are many more stories to come.

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Lee Swenson, a longtime peace activist and community organizer, lives in Berkeley, California.

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Toward Greater Inclusiveness

By Scott Plous

Last fall, I attended a wonderful mindfulness retreat at the Omega Institute. For four glorious days, 800 people practiced sitting, walking, and smiling together. Thay gave a series of eloquent Dharma talks on how to love one another, and several hundred retreat participants ended up taking the precepts.

Halfway through the retreat, it occurred to me that something important was missing. If the 800 participants at Omega had been a random sample of Americans, we would have expected to see more than 100 African Americans. Instead, the retreat included only two or three African-American participants.

To me, this suggests that the American Dharma tree is not as strong as it could be. Without African-American practitioners and Dharma teachers, how can peace be reached in the United States? The issue of race is too important to neglect.

Just as a garden is most beautiful when it has many different types of flowers, a Sangha is most beautiful when its members reflect the full richness of society.

Consequently, I would like to ask all American sanghas to make a special effort to welcome the participation of African Americans. As the following quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., shows, African Americans have much to contribute to the practice of mindful living.

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All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you ‘ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren ‘t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Trumpet of Conscience, 1967

If we are to touch peace in these days of racial tension, the involvement of African Americans is imperative. Please strengthen the American Dharma tree by helping it to grow new roots. If each of us makes this issue a priority, I am sure we will succeed.

Scott Pious teaches psychology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

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Support President Obama’s Sangha

An Invitation from Thay

On April 15, 2009, during the Francophone Retreat in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh made this request of the Sangha.

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President Barack Obama is surrounded by his Sangha — his family, his advisors, his community of faith, his supporters — and I want to help that Sangha. If Barack Obama succeeds it will be thanks to that Sangha. His job is very difficult and he needs a strong Sangha to nourish and protect him because he’s vulnerable. There are attacks coming from every direction.

In 1965, I wrote a letter to Martin Luther King to tell him about the suffering in Vietnam and the struggle we were leading for human rights and peace. Exactly one year later I met the Rev. King in Chicago, and we talked a lot about the future of the world, of America, Europe, Asia. We were hosted by an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation. We spoke of community and Sangha; Rev. King spoke of Sangha in terms of a Beloved Community. We discussed how we could spread the ideas of truth and right thinking, how we could practice right speech to educate people about peace, human rights, and social justice.

Practicing right speech, right action, and right thinking we worked hard to change the way the world is thinking. About forty years have gone by since we planted seeds that are starting to sprout a little bit everywhere. All over America, Europe, Africa, and Asia we have worked to sow the seeds of brotherhood and sisterhood and peace, and I feel that Barack Obama is the blossoming of our work. And Obama is not the only flower to blossom; if there is Obama, then there are others like him who also have manifested to realize the Beloved Community. This is a consciousness that has been growing for many years, a consciousness and a community that can support Obama’s Sangha and Beloved Communities all over the world.

It is a great joy to see President Obama have a chance to represent us at this time in the history of the planet. We wish him to succeed and we have to support him; we have to help his Sangha be stronger.

All of us can do something. We can write a letter to tell President Obama and his Sangha that they have our support.

I think our practice here in France should have some connection with the American Sangha. We can support this Sangha that Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community. The French Sangha is growing very quickly — you are that community. This French retreat represents the French Beloved Community. And we need to do something to support President Obama and his Beloved Community.

Thank you.

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Please join our French Sangha and embrace Thay’s inspiring invitation to support President Obama and the Sangha that surrounds him. Please send your letters to the following addresses: pvbelovedcommunity@gmail.com
or
Sr. An Nghiem
Plum Village New Hamlet 13 Martineau
33580 Dieulivol France

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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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