Peace Is Every Step
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Publisher: New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
In Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh offers practical instructions for attaining peace within oneself and explains how others also will benefit from that inner peace. The peace within one person, he tells us, can affect those around him or her, indeed the whole world. As the Dalai Lama says in the Foreword, “Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.” He aptly describes this book as a “guidebook for a journey in exactly this direction.”
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the best-known and most beloved Zen masters alive today. Born in 1926 in Vietnam, he became a Buddhist monk at the age of 16. During the war in Vietnam, he led one of the great nonviolent peace movements of the twentieth century based on the principles espoused by Gandhi. He and his fellow monks came out of the meditation hall to practice what he calls “engaged Buddhism”. He writes, “During the war, we could not just sit in the meditation hall. We had to practice mindfulness everywhere, especially where the worst suffering was going on.” Alleviating suffering – rebuilding bombed villages, setting up medical centres and schools – became an integral part of this “engaged Buddhism”. He also travelled to the United States to urge an end to the war. However, when he pleaded for reconciliation between the governments of North and South Vietnam to end the suffering of its people, he was banned by both governments from returning to his homeland. Living in exile in France, he has taught Buddhist meditation and the principles of mindfulness, nonduality and compassion to people of many different cultural and religious backgrounds.
Peace Is Every Step is both practical and profound. Nhat Hanh’s explanations are lucid, and his language is so simple that much of the book could easily be understood by a child. He expresses the central message of the book in the opening chapter: “Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it.” He describes his book as “an invitation to come back to the present moment and find peace and joy, offering some of my experiences and a number of techniques that may be of help.”
Nhat Hanh describes several techniques for practicing mindfulness, which might be defined as being aware in the present moment. His techniques are simple, such as breathing deeply, relaxing and being conscious of the in-breath and the out-breath. He often calls this kind of mindfulness practice “coming back to yourself”. Too often we are divided, our bodies doing one thing and our minds somewhere else, thinking of the past, future, or of something else. As he puts it, “Our appointment with life is in the present moment.” And he suggests that whenever we are mindful in the present moment, automatically peace is there. Joy comes naturally, and with it a profound appreciation of all that is beautiful in that moment. “The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy.… There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them.”
When we rush through an activity, thinking of getting to what’s next, we miss life itself. Even when doing a mundane activity like washing dishes, he says, “If I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!” Moreover, he says that even the dessert will not be fully enjoyed because the mind will be in the habit of racing ahead to what’s next. Most of us walk along from one thing to the next, our minds full of thoughts, plans, worries and regrets. “When we walk like that, we print anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the Earth. We can all do this, provided that we want it very much. Any child can do it.”
Although Nhat Hanh says that peace and joy are always available to us, he recognizes that we are assailed sometimes by negative emotions that, if allowed to take over, can block us from perceiving reality accurately. He spells out a process for transforming these negative emotions. The most fundamental aspect of this process is the practice of mindfulness: “Our mindfulness will take care of everything, as the sunshine takes care of the vegetation. The sunshine does not seem to do much, it just shines on the vegetation, but it transforms everything.”
Sitting meditation is a practice that can help us see deeply into the true nature of ourselves and of all things. For this we need to adopt a stable position, be still and remain in our own centre. The deep peace we seek is within us, within the present moment. “Enlightenment, peace, and joy will not be granted by someone else. The well is within us, and if we dig deeply in the present moment, the water will spring forth. We must go back to the present moment in order to be really alive.”
Nhat Hanh also speaks of meditation as a practice to be lived throughout the day. He says, “We need to practice meditation gently, but steadily, throughout daily life, not wasting a single opportunity or event to see deeply into the true nature of life, including our everyday problems. Practising in this way, we dwell in profound communion with life.” In looking deeply into the true nature of things, he says, we will discover the truth of what he calls “inter-being”. That is, we come to understand that we are a part of every other being, and every other being is a part of us. As he puts it, we “inter-are”. When we realize that every other being is, in fact, our own self, the “mind of compassion” is born in us:
When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being lovable. Then we can know that our mind of compassion is firm and authentic.
According to Nhat Hanh, we should not close our eyes to the suffering that is all around us in this world. Those who are suffering from hunger, disease, war and every cruelty humans can inflict on each other are a part of us. But so are the perpetrators who kill, maim and starve others. It is easy to blame the perpetrators, to take sides. When we can realize the suffering of both the victims and the perpetrators, recognizing both as our own self, Nhat Hanh says, “Then we will have realized non-discrimination, real love. Then we can look at all beings with the eyes of compassion, and we can do the real work to help alleviate suffering.” When this real love is born in us, it also radiates from us:
Sound and light have the ability to penetrate everywhere, and love and compassion can do the same. But if our love is only a kind of imagination, then it is not likely to have any real effect. It is in the midst of our daily life and in our actual contact with others that we can know whether our mind of love is really present and how stable it is. If love is real, it will be evident in our daily life, in the way we related with people and the world.
He succinctly says, “The roots of war are in the way we live our daily lives.… Practicing nonviolence is first of all to become nonviolence.”
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