Chapter 1 Love in Action
The essence of nonviolence is love. Out of love and the willingness to act selflessly, strategies, tactics, and techniques for a nonviolent struggle arise naturally. Nonviolence is not a dogma; it is a process. Other struggles may be fueled by greed, hatred, fear, or ignorance, but a nonviolent one cannot use such blind sources of energy, for they will destroy those involved and also the struggle itself. Nonviolent action, born of the awareness of suffering and nurtured by love is the most effective way to confront adversity.
The Buddhist struggle for peace in Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s arose from the great suffering inflicted on our nation by international forces. Blood and fire ravaged the countryside, and people everywhere were uprooted. The Vietnam War was, first and foremost, an ideological struggle. To ensure our people’s survival, we had to overcome both Communist and anticommunist fanaticism and maintain the strictest neutrality. Buddhists tried their best to speak for all the people and not take sides, but we were condemned as “pro-Communist neutralists.” Both warring parties claimed to speak for what the people really wanted, but the North Vietnamese spoke for the Communist bloc and the South Vietnamese spoke for the Capitalist bloc. The Buddhists only wanted to create a vehicle for the people to be heard—and the people only wanted peace, not a “victory” by either side.
During our struggle, many scenes of love arose spontaneously—a monk sitting calmly before an advancing tank, women and children raising their bare hands against barbed wire, students confronting military police who looked like monsters wearing huge masks and holding bayonets, young women running through clouds of tear gas with babies in their arms, hunger strikes held silently and patiently, monks and nuns burning themselves to death to try to be heard above the raging noise of the war. And all of these efforts bore some fruit.
Any nonviolent action requires a thorough understanding of the situation and of the psychology of the people. In Vietnam, we inherited many ideas from the Buddhist tradition, and we learned from our mistakes as we went along. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Buddhist monks joined the struggle for independence from the French, and they won the support of their countrymen. When the Vietnam War broke out, they still had that support, as well as the knowledge gained earlier to go beyond passive resistance and undertake positive efforts to overcome the war and the oppression. In 1966, when the people of Hue and Danang learned that Field Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky was about to bring tanks and troops from Saigon to suppress the movement for peace, the people of those cities brought their family altars—the most sacred objects in their homes—onto the streets, relying on their culture and tradition to oppose the forces of destruction. Some people were critical, saying they used religion for political purposes, but I do not agree. They were using their most potent spiritual force to directly confront the violence. This was not a political act; it was an act of love.
Fasting, the method used most by Mahatma Gandhi to help India in its struggle for independence, was also used in Vietnam. Sometimes, thousands of people fasted, and other times, a single person fasted. We fasted as prayer to purify our hearts, consolidate our will, and arouse awareness and compassion in others. When Thich Tri Quang fasted for one hundred days, those who passed the Duy Tan Clinic were jarred into awareness, and compassion was born in them. As a result, they felt compelled to meet, talk, and plan, thereby escalating the struggle. Thich Tri Quang had not planned
to fast. He had
We also used literature and the arts as “weapons” to challenge the oppression. Works by antiwar writers, composers, poets, and artists, although illegal, were widely circulated. Antiwar songs were sung in streets and classrooms, and antiwar literature became the largest category of books sold in Vietnam, even infiltrating army units. Look Back at Your Homeland, Only Death Allows You to Speak Out,
and Lotus in a Sea of Fire
sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Our literature was considered dangerous by both sides. One book of poems, Let Us Pray so the White Dove Will Be with Us,
was submitted to the Ministry of Information, and only two of the sixty poems in it were approved. A group of students published it anyway, and within a week, all copies were sold. In Hue, a policeman saw
a copy in a bookstore and warned the owner, “Hide this and only bring it out when someone asks for it.” Sister Cao Ngoc Phuong was arrested in Hue for transporting antiwar books, and before I left the country, I was also arrested and imprisoned for a few days in Bao Loc for “antiwar” activities although I was charged only with the crime of listening to Hanoi Radio.
Folk poetry was used as means of education. This lullaby was sung throughout the country:My hand is holding a bowl of ginger and salt.Ginger is hot, salt is strong.They embrace each other.North and South share the same sorrow.We love each other,why have we abandoned our love?
This “Prayer for Peace” was printed by the tens of thousands and chanted during religious services throughout Vietnam, and its effects were widely felt:Homage to all Buddhas in the ten directions.Please have compassion for our suffering.Our land has been at war for twenty years,divided in two and covered with tears.Blood and bones of young and old are everywhere.Mothers weep until their tears run dry,while sons’ bodies decompose on distant fields.Our beautiful country is being ripped apart.Blood and tears are flowing everywhere.Brothers kill each otherjust because we listen too much to those from the outside.
During the superpower confrontation in Vietnam, while thousands and thousands of peasants and children lost their lives, our land was unmercifully ravaged. Yet we were unable to stop the fighting; we were not able to make ourselves heard or understood. We had little access to the international news media. People thought we Buddhists were trying to seize power, but we had no interest in power. We only wanted
to stop the slaughter. The voice of the Vietnamese people—80 percent Buddhist—was lost in the melee of shooting and bombs. But we realized that the means and the end are one, and we never employed any kind of action that betrayed our commitment to nonviolence.
In 1963, Venerable Thich Quang Duc went to the crossroads of Phan Dinh Phung, sat in the lotus position, poured gasoline on himself, and transformed himself into a torch. His disciple read his last words to the press. Madame Nhu described it as a “barbecue.” By burning himself, Thich Quang Duc awakened the world to the suffering of the war and the persecution of the Buddhists. When someone stands up to violence in such a courageous way, a force for change is released. Every action for peace requires someone to exhibit the courage to challenge the violence and inspire love. Love and sacrifice always set up a chain reaction of love and sacrifice. Like the crucifixion of Jesus, Thich Quang Duc’s act expressed the unconditional willingness to suffer for the awakening of others. Accepting the most extreme kind of pain, he lit a fire in the hearts of people around the world. Self-burning was not a technique or program of action. When anyone wished to burn himself or herself, the Buddhist leaders always tried to prevent it. But many monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen did sacrifice themselves for peace in this way, including my disciple Nhat Chi Mai, who declared that she wanted to be “a torch in the dark night."
Nhat Chi Mai was one of the first six people ordained into the Tiep Hien Order. In 1966, she placed a statue of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of her, and burned herself alive at the Tu Nghiem temple, a nunnery. She left behind letters to the presidents of North and South Vietnam, imploring them to stop the fighting. She wrote one letter to me: “Thây, don’t worry too much. We will have peace soon.” Evoking the force of love, Nhat Chi Mai moved the hearts of millions of her countrymen.
I know that the self-immolation of monks and nuns was difficult for Westerners to understand. The Western press called it suicide, but it was not really suicide. It was not even a protest. What the monks wrote in the letters they left behind was intended only to move the hearts of the oppressors and call the world’s attention to the suffering of our people. To make a statement while enduring such unspeakable pain is to communicate with tremendous determination, courage, and sincerity. During the ordination ceremony in some Buddhist traditions, the ordinee burns one or more very small spots on his body with moxa incense as he takes the twenty-five hundred vows of a monk, promising to live a life devoted to helping living beings. If he were to say this while sitting comfortably in an armchair, it would not be the same. When uttered while kneeling before the community of elders and experiencing this kind of pain, his words express the full seriousness of his heart and mind.
The Vietnamese monks, nuns, and lay people who burned themselves were saying with all their strength and determination that they were willing to endure the greatest of suffering to protect their people. But why did they have to burn themselves to death? The difference between burning oneself with incense and burning oneself to death is only a matter of degree. The importance was not to die, but to express courage, determination, and sincerity—not to destroy, but to create. Suicide is an act of self-destruction based on the inability to cope with life’s difficulties. In Buddhism, self-destruction is one of the most serious transgressions of the precepts. Those who burned themselves had lost neither courage nor hope, nor did they desire nonexistence. They were extremely courageous and aspired for something good in the future. They sacrificed themselves to seek help from the people of the world. I believe with all my heart that those who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies were not human beings, but the intolerance, fanaticism, oppression, greed, hatred, and discrimination that lay within the hearts of their fellow men and women.
We did not plan self-immolation or any of the other methods that were used. But confronting the situation and having compassion in our hearts, ways of acting came by themselves. You cannot prefabricate techniques of nonviolent action and put them into a book for people to use. That would be naive. If you are alert and creative, you will know what to do and what not to do. The basic requisite is that you have the essence, the substance of nonviolence and compassion in yourself. Then everything you do will be in the direction of nonviolence. Besides self-immolation, fasting, and the use of art, literature, and culture, many other tactics were employed in Vietnam. Foreign Minister Vu Van Mau, for example, resigned in 1963 and shaved his head to protest the violent policies of the Diêm regime, and many professors and students followed suit. There were labor strikes at the harbors and markets, and business owners turned in their licenses. University deans, presidents, and professors resigned, and high school and university students boycotted classes and examinations. Draftees refused to fight. All of these acts were met with atrocious reprisals. The government used unbridled brutality—tear gas, suffocation gas, grenades, prisons, and torture—
to obstruct and suppress these nonviolent efforts.
Police agents posed as monks and nuns and infiltrated our movement, damaging our prestige and sowing seeds of fear. They excited extremists and fanatics to overturn and destroy the leadership and members of the movement. No one knows exactly how many Buddhist and non-Buddhist leaders of the nonviolent movement were imprisoned or killed, including professors, students, intellectuals, politicians, workers, and farmers. Even social workers trying to help the peasants were terrorized and murdered. From the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS), eight people were kidnapped, six killed, and eleven seriously wounded—all because they refused to take sides in the war. In a memorial service organized for those who were killed, the SYSS students openly affirmed their commitment to nonviolence and neutrality: “Now, in the presence of our dear friends whose bodies are lying here, we solemnly proclaim that we cannot consider you who killed them to be our enemies. Our arms are open wide; we are ready to embrace your ideas and advice to help us continue our nonviolent ways of working for the people of Vietnam.”
Despite the results—many years of war followed by years of oppression and human rights abuse—I cannot say that our struggle was a failure. The conditions for success in terms of a political victory were not present. But the success of a nonviolent struggle can be measured only in terms of the love and nonviolence attained, not whether a political victory was achieved. In our struggle in Vietnam, we did our best to remain true to our principles. We never lost sight of the essence of our struggle—love itself—and that was a real contribution to humanity.
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