"When understood, the Buddha’s universe..is anything but alien and inhibiting. It is a world full of hope, where everything we need to do can be done and everything that matters is within human reach. It is a world where kindness, unselfishness, non-violence, and compassion achieve what self-interest and arrogance cannot. It is a world where any human can be happy in goodness and the fullness of giving." ❦ Eknath Easwara

November 11, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh and the Soldier Who Poisoned Five Children

Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh
Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 10, 1998  in Plum Village, France.

Beginning Anew

"During the Vietnam War there was an American soldier who got very angry because most of the soldiers in his unit got killed in an ambush by Vietnamese guerrillas; that happened in a village in the countryside, so out of his rage he wanted to retaliate. He wanted to kill a number of people who belonged to that village. So he took out a bag of sandwiches, and he mixed explosives into the sandwiches and left them at the entrance to the village. He saw children coming out and happily taking the sandwiches, thinking that someone had left these delicious sandwiches, and they ate together, enjoying a lot.

And just half an hour later he saw them begin to show signs of suffering. Their father and their mother and sister came, and tried to help, to give them massage and medicine, but the American soldier who had hidden himself not far from there, knew very well there was no way to save these children, and that they would die. He knew that even if they had a car to transport these children to the hospital it would be too late. Out of anger he had done things like that. If anger is strong in us, we are capable of doing anything, even the cruelest things.

When he went back to America he suffered because of that: that scene appeared to him in his dreams, and he could never forget it. Any time during the day if he found himself alone in a room with children, he could not stay, and had to run out of the room right away. He could not talk about that to anyone except to his mother, who said, 'Well, that was the war, and in a war you cannot prevent these things happening.' But that did not help him, until he came to a retreat organized by Plum Village in North America.

During many days he was not able to tell people of his story. It was a very difficult retreat. We sat in circles of five or six people, and invited people to speak out about their suffering, but there were those who sat there unable to open their mouths. There were war veterans who were deeply wounded inside, and fear and despair were still there.

When we did walking meditation I saw one or two walking far behind, at least twenty meters behind us. I did not understand why they did not join us, but walked far away like that. When someone inquired, they learned that these ex-soldiers were afraid of being ambushed. So they walked far behind so that if something happened they would have enough space to run away. And one war veteran set up a tent in the jungle, and in order to appease his fear, he set up booby traps around his tent. That happened in the retreat in North America…he always had the guerrillas around him, and in him, ready to kill him at any time.

Finally that American Vietnam War veteran was able to tell us the story of the explosives put into the sandwiches. It was very good for him to be able to tell it, especially in front of the Vietnamese people, his former enemies. I gave him a prescription. I had a private consultation with him, and I said:

'Now look, you killed five children, yes. And that is not a good thing to do, yes. But don’t you know that many children are dying in this very moment, everywhere, even in America, because of lack of medicine, of food? Do you know that 40,000 children die every day in the world, just because of the lack of medicine and food? And you are alive, you are solid physically. Why don’t you use your life to help the children who are dying in this moment? Why get caught in the five children who have died in the past? There are many ways…if you want, I will tell you how to save five children today. There are children who need only one table of medicine to be saved, and you can be the one who brings that tablet of medicine to him or to her. If you practice like that every day, the children who died because of the explosives will smile in you, because these five children have participated in your work of saving many children who are dying in this very moment.'

So, the door was opened, so that the man was longer trapped in the feeling of culpability. That is the amrita, the ambrosia of compassion, of wisdom, offered by the Buddha: there is always a way out.

So that war veteran has practiced and has been able to help many other children in the world. He has gone back to Vietnam, has done the work of reconciliation, and the five children who died have begun to smile in him and to become one with him.

In the beginning it was a distressing image, but now the five children have become alive, have become the energy helping him to live with compassion, with understanding. The garbage can be transformed into flowers if we know how to do it."

Related links:

How Loving-kindness Practice and Meditation Can Help with Military Suicides

Skillful Ways to Deal with Your Demons

Veterans Day Book-At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace by Claude Anshin Thomas
For more in-depth dharma articles and instruction, visit:  METTA REFUGE

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  1. Such a beautiful story...thanks so much for sharing, Steven! THIS is living the Dharma! <3

  2. A remarkable story. (It seems to me it can be useful to anyone who has done something hurtful or desires to live their life to be more of a benefit to others.) Thank you for posting.

  3. Most welcome, MLT, and visitor...it is a privilege to be able to share the deep insights of my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.

    With warm metta,

  4. Thanks, MLT, and visitor. It's a joy and privilege to share such wonderful dharma teachings with others.

    With warm metta,