Thich Nhat Hanh placed a haunting stock photo of a shocked, dissociated, teary eyed Vietnamese soldier in an article of his about compassion. Every fibre of the soldier’s being emanated an unspeakably tragic pain and worse off—one that was not allowed be expressed. He spoke to me: I didn’t want to fight.
My heart dropped and my gut wrenched. He must have been no older than 20 years old. The following thought was: He could have been dad. But he wasn’t. My dad evaded enlistment during the Vietnam war by hiding inside a wall in his home for a long time. Later, him and my mother fled the country on a small boat by bribing the police with gold. We’re now grounded in Eastern Canada.
During the war, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam for his immense efforts in peace activism. Even after the battle played out through to its brutally long end, the victorious Vietnamese communist government was still threatened by his influence. For these reasons, they banned Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, exercising forceful control over his mindfulness practice communities.
You may be asking why? How could such an innocent practice like attending to the present moment pose such a risk?
I learned the answer after undertaking vigorous mindfulness training myself. It’s because when you practice mindfulness, you develop a greater capacity to question all conditioned beliefs (e.g. political ideologies), and explore in your Heart what truly feels right. When you practice mindfulness, you learn to release hatred for “the other” and replace it instead with compassionate understanding for all sides. When you practice mindfulness, peacebuilding skills grow naturally from the inside-out.
Of course, the Vietnamese communist government did not favour a population of freethinkers and nonviolent resisters.
The image of the soldier is still menacingly burned into my head. Though I can’t help but believe that Thich Nhat Hanh strategically placed that photograph there for me (and of course, others like myself), because it had triggered a deep grief in my ancestral history that cannot be forgotten.
This is not acceptable. This cannot happen again. This should still not be happening now. What do I do? The answer arose spontaneously from the very core of Thich Nhat Hanh’s mission itself: Spread the practice of mindfulness.