Daniel Berrigan [U.S. Catholic priest]: “We’re ridden by consumerism, fear, violence, racism – all these terrible mythologies which forever put off any real vision. I find it interesting in the light of scripture that, while the dream of the good life is forever delayed, death is always magnified: omnipresent, omnivorous, the shadowy other, the enemy. So we never pay tribute to life at all, and never arrive at life. What we’re really doing all the time is paying tribute to death. The eventuality of life is put off and put off, because the obstacles and enemies multiply like piranhas, forever.
In the pursuit of life, we are always dealing out death. War becomes the continual occupation and preoccupation in the minds of people who are purportedly trying to get to a better life […] Our real shrines are nuclear installations and the Pentagon and the war research laboratories. This is where we worship, allowing ourselves to hear the obscene command that we kill and be killed.
I speak only of an impression, but it seems to me that in some cases a genuine religious understanding gets lost, you know? After a while, under these extreme crises, living so long in an atmosphere of crisis, the religious person may think he retains a religious attitude. But, in reality, he has the same attitude as the state. Still, he speaks in a religious language. It’s very difficult to get beyond that language and to help probe his real thinking, the real strata, the drives that lie beyond religious metaphors, religious symbols, religious ceremonies. I deeply believe that at heart, when religious people accede to violence, they become worldly, violence-oriented persons who now can invoke a religious excuse for being that way. But the fact is that, in one way or another, the state has come to embody the religious hope. The state is the expression of the religious community; the army is the natural protector of the religious community. The need for retaliation is, after a while, a religious need. The situation might change if such people can sense the distance they have moved from a religious vision, acting and living and teaching this way.
Thich Nhat Hanh [Vietnamese Buddhist monk]: In that case, religion plays only the role of an ideology to preserve the identity of a race, of a nation, of a group of people. But I think that any genuine religious life must express reverence towards life, nonviolence, communion between man and man, man and the absolute. You met in Tel Aviv a rabbi, a professor of scripture, whom I met in Ceylon?
Nhat Hanh: In Colombo, we talked for a long time. Then he asked me this question: “What would you do if you were in my position?” I told him that was a very hard question because the most I could do was imagine that I was in his position, but imagination is not the real thing. So I said, “What I can tell you is how Buddhists in similar conditions behaved in the past.”
For instance, in India, in the ninth century, Hindus and Muslims undertook a great persecution of Buddhism. They burned down Buddhist temples and killed monks and destroyed scriptures. What the Buddhist monks did in those days was to flee to Nepal, where they preserved their manuscripts. They couldn’t carry the Buddha statues, which were magnificent, with them. But they did carry the scriptures. After that, Buddhism flourished in Asia – in Tibet and China and Japan. Theirs was a kind of negative resistance.
But I think if they had organised violent resistance and killed Muslims, I don’t think that would have been real Buddhist behaviour. By organising violent resistance, they might have preserved something that is called Buddhism, but might not be Buddhist at all in substance. By acting in the way they did, they preserved the identity of Buddhism.
I also asked him whether he thought Israel as a nation is the most important condition for the existence of the Jewish people, even when in order to protect that nation it is necessary to bomb people, to destroy life in order to protect life. A contradiction in itself. I suggested that there may be ways other than the killing of people to protect life.
Berrigan: I had a sense of a kind of strange ecumenism in listening to such talk. Because I think this attitude, “kill now and pay later” or “kill now and save later”, is by no means confined to any one group. I had been in Northern Ireland and seen Christians killing one another with great enthusiasm. And I had a sense of being at home, in the United States, where in the last decade the official church has played this same game.
I think there’s a wave passing over the world—a wave of blood, of utter moral irresponsibility towards others. In such circumstances, one recognises two things. First, that there’s a diabolical ecumenism at work. The mainline religions have joined this effort to make killing acceptable and normal—at least through silence. Usually, there is some kind of an obsession with their own well-being. And then more to the point, for ourselves, is an understanding of the importance of everyone—Buddhists and Christians and Jews and Hindus and secular people—so living that the lines are no longer drawn around churches or nationalities or religious traditions, but around the protection of the innocent, the victims. This will be a very difficult and long-term struggle. […] And the religions are going the way of the state; obsession with survival at any price. There is a terrible casuistry that trades off human bodies and looks on an abstract, future good as an excuse for present evil.
Nhat Hanh: “Kill now and save later.” That has been very true in the case of Vietnam too. Remember the time a certain village was destroyed. Someone said “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Nhat Hanh: Returning to the Israeli professor—well, he also asked me about my loyalty to Vietnam as a nation and to Buddhism as a religion, because in our discussions I always put peace and human life above everything. So he asked “What if Buddhism cannot survive in Vietnam? Will you accept that in order to have peace in Vietnam?” I said “Yes, I think if Vietnam has real peace—cooperation between North and South—and if it can ban war for a long time, I would be ready to sacrifice Buddhism. He was very shocked. But I thought it was quite plain that if you have to choose between Buddhism and peace, then you must choose peace. Because if [in those circumstances] you choose Buddhism you sacrifice peace, and Buddhism does not accept that. Furthermore, Buddhism is not a number of temples and organisations. Buddhism is in your heart. Even if you don’t have any temple or any monks, you can still be a Buddhist in your heart and life.
The rabbi asked also “How about your loyalty to Vietnam as a nation?” I think that question touched the very core of the problem of the Middle East. I said that if I had to choose between the survival of the Vietnamese people and the survival of Vietnam as nation, I would choose the survival of the people. He said “Well, we cannot agree on that. That is why we cannot agree on other things.” So that was the end of the dialogue”
Nhat Hanh: “If those who seek power and those who are in power are not much different from each other, we may ask ourselves what conditions the behaviours of the leadership? What part is played by free will, by strength? Why does everyone in power do very much the same thing?
When medical students and nurses are about to graduate, they think very much of helping the poor—those who have not enough money to go to fully equipped hospitals, facilities like that. But after graduation, after a few years in their careers, many of them begin to act like machines and pay no more attention to the poor and oppressed. The nurses become irritated at poor patients. The doctors become insensitive to the sufferings of the poor. It’s very sad. To love is a difficult thing when the people try to cheat and trick you, to get the most out of you if you show compassion, goodwill; when they try to get the better of you, because you show concern. So, at one point you cannot love any more, and you begin to treat them as you treat objects.
I think such things happen frequently. Our goodwill, our intentions play one role; social conditions play another. And there are the political and economical systems. If we try to do things faithfully, in accord with our best instincts, we have to go against all of those forces.
If you are in power, they will try to bring you down. So, you make a compromise in order to be able to continue. You compromise to the point that you become like those whom you opposed before you came to power.
Berrigan: […] “it seems to me that those who step out of the quicksand of bad history, by some heroic act of antigravity, still believe murder is legitimate. They call the killing of the “bad guys” a revolution. They ignore the fact that this is the most profound and bloody stereotype of history; everybody has always killed the bad guys. Nobody kills the good guys.
The church is tainted with this as well. The church plays the same cards; it likes the taste of imperial power too. This is the most profound kind of betrayal I can think of. Terrible! […] We must make the old stereotypes uncomfortable by asking distressing questions.
Nhat Hanh: There are those who do not want to go to college, get a degree, buy a car for the use of the family. If people don’t want the things that all the other people have, they will be looked upon as outsiders. ‘Why don’t you want what everyone else wants? Why don’t you do what everyone else does?’. But if you are determined to go your own way, to do just what you like or what you think is right, they think you are crazy. In such a case, you are a little bit in exile just because you don’t act like the others.”
Berrigan: I was wondering, could we discuss, even briefly, a question which is so vexing and mysterious for people—the question ofself-immolation?
Nhat Hanh: Nhat Chi Mai, for instance, prepared everything for the immolation by herself—absolutely by herself. Her most intimate friends did not know a thing about it. She spent a whole month with her parent s in order to be a source of joy and pleasure. She was, as we say, honey and sweet rice for her parents. And after that, she came to visit our community. She wore a beautiful dress. We had never seen her in that dress before, and many thought she was going to marry and that was why she had deserted the community for one month. She brought a banana cake that she had made at home. She divided it up and gave it to every one of us. And how she laughed. Many suspected that she was going to get married. She was so joyful. And then two days later they heard the news.
One remarkable thing is that when she knelt to die, she put in front of her a statue of the Virgin Mary and a statue of the woman Bodhisattva Quan Am. And she put a poem there: “Joining my hands, I kneel before Mother Mary and Bodhisattva Quan Am. Please help me to realise fully my vow.” In the situation of Vietnam, that meant very much, because unless the people of the two major religions in Vietnam—Buddhists and Catholics—cooperate, it will be very hard to alter the course of the war. She saw that.
She wrote “Tomorrow I will sacrifice myself for peace” And then she said “I wish to contribute my part, and I ask you to not worry because very soon peace will come.” Dying and yet trying to encourage others.
When Thich Quang Duc and Nhat Chi Mai immolated themselves, they were in perfect control of themselves. They sat in the lotus position in full control of their bodies and, I believe, of their spirits. According to the people who were there, Thich Quang Duc sat very straight, very stable like a mountain, until he passed away. And May passed away very beautifully; she leaned forward in a position of worship in front of her two statues.
Berrigan: No cry, no sound?
Nhat Hanh: No.
Berrigan: Silence? A great silence.
Berrigan: Were the Catholics calling these deahts suicide too? As in the States?
Nhat Hanh: Yes.
Berrigan: Therefore, beneath consideration.
Nhat Hanh: I have the impression that in order to be ourselves we should oppose any government in power, we should be a kind of permanent opposition. But there may be other aspects. If, for example, the government does a few things that we think are going in the direction of justice, we can show our appreciation of that. We can show that we are not anti-government but that we just want the government to do better.”
“The real Buddhist cannot be rich […] Poverty applies not only to monks and nuns but also to laymen. There is the doctrine of self-sufficiency, the limit of your needs, and if you have more than what you really need, you are not exercising temperance. The purpose of this virtue is to have more time to work for your spiritual growth and for the sake of others. If you only think and work to accumulate riches for yourself, that is not temperance. As far as the Buddhist community goes, it is a Communist way of life. The base are the six principles of communal life: to observe the same discipline, to share the same roof, to share one’s understanding and knowledge, to reconcile different viewpoints, and to avoid disputes by kind words. The last is the vow to hold all property in common. You take only what you need; the rest is for the community.
Nhat Hanh: Our karma now has come together, has become collective karma. Now the action of one group affects the other group. We must choose to suffer together or be happy together, to be alive together or be destroyed together.
Nhat Hanh: […] resistance, at root, I think, must mean more than resistance against war. It is a resistance to all kinds of things that are like war. Because in modern society, one feels that he cannot easily retain integrity, wholeness. One is robbed permanently of humanness, the capacity of being oneself. When I drive through Paris, the noises and the traffic jams make me nervous. Once I have gone through Paris I become less than myself. And there are so many things like that in modern life that make you lose yourself. So perhaps, first of all, resistance means opposition to being invaded, occupied, assaulted, and destroyed by the system. The purpose of resistance, here, is to seek the healing of yourself in order to be able to see clearly. This may sound as it falls short of a positive act of resistance. Nevertheless, it’s very basic.”